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Subject: Cultural Studies »

John Fitzgerald analyses the development and effects of poll tax on Chinese imigration

John Fitzgerald and Mara Moustafine.

Historian John Fitzgerald analyses the development and effects of the poll tax on Chinese immigration



Date Added:

03 February 2009


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mov (Quicktime);

File size:

21.7 MB






... mid-19th Century at least, under Britain’s imperial treaties with China, and I should add with India, anybody in China or India who embarked from a British colonial port and you can imagine there were a lot of British colonial outposts throughout South-East Asia at that time – was entitled to travel to any other port within the British Empire and so initially at least, there was no restraint on freedom of movement.


Chinese could travel freely to Australia under the treaties which raised some concern among the white settler communities here in Victoria and elsewhere and the Victorians among the colonists in Australia were the first to introduce a tax called a “poll tax” which refers to a tax imposed or head tax – per head. So every head of a Chinese person so to speak, coming into the colony of Victoria would need to pay this tax over and above the cost of their journey and whatever debts they may have incurred in coming out. So the poll tax had the effect of limiting the number of miners who could come over, of immigrants from China effectively limiting it to those who could afford the additional tax.


Over time, the poll tax was combined with another restraint on freedom of movement which is called, “the person to tonnage ratio.” And only so many Chinese were allowed to come out on a vessel relative to the total volume or weight of cargo. So the combination of the person to tonnage ratios and the poll taxes had a severe effect on limiting the number of Chinese who could come to Australia. In particular it limited the number of women. As you might imagine there are very few trades open to women at this time so that they could earn sufficient to pay that tax. So given that a Chinese migration strategies are family strategies not individual strategies, families back in China would think it more efficient to send a young man abroad than a young man and a woman, or than a woman.


That said, many wealthy merchants in fact did invite their wives and bring out women and marry them here. Which is an indication that they had every intention to settle if the opportunity arose. And only those who could afford to bring out women did so.


End transcript