It was early in 1907 when it started. The population of New Zealand was less than one million; Sir Joseph Ward was Prime Minister, Edward VII was King, and New Zealand was still months away from achieving Dominion status.
It didn’t start in a city, the growing metropolis of Auckland or the famed Empire City of Wellington. Instead, it started in the small town of Masterton in the Wairarapa Valley. The population of the borough had been counted as just over 5,000 in the census of the year before.
It was the New Zealand Anti-Asiatic League.
The first meeting was held on the 4th of March in Masterton, attended by eighty residents. It was decided that an Anti-Asiatic League needed to be formed, to put pressure on the government in order to bring about anti-Asiatic legislation.
Within weeks, there were more than four hundred members in Masterton, and independent branches in other Wairarapa towns like Carterton and Eketahuna. Less than two months after the group’s founding, the leader of the League was in Wellington, organising a national executive council.
His name was John Cameron. He was described as “a tall and active individual, with auburn whiskers and a twinkling blue eye.”
The object of the League was to prevent non-white immigration. At the time, the main focus of this migration were the Chinese, so it was them that the League focused on. They were not purely anti-Chinese however.
When asked to state the League’s main goals, after explaining the anti-Chinese policies, Mr. Cameron went on to add that “the League also wants the Government to introduce a separate Bill to deal with all other Asiatics, including the Japanese, and various other yellow and brown races.”
The way the League proposed to halt Chinese immigration was to increase the poll tax ten-fold to £1000, as well as devising an education test that would be but impossible for a Chinaman to complete. They also endeavoured to introduce Richard Seddon’s proposed Asiatic Restriction Act of 1896, which would have also applied to non-Chinese immigrants, but had been vetoed by the British authorities at the time.
Almost immediately after it had expanded to Wellington, League branches began popping up all around the country in various cities and towns. By the end of September, it was reported in the Observer that the League’s teachings were “rapidly taking root – especially in the juvenile mind.”
According to the report, a teacher in a city school had tried to explain China’s massive population to his class by saying that “for every two breaths that they took, a Chinaman died.” Apparently, one of the boys in the class misunderstood, and began blowing breaths out as fast as he could, saying “I’m killing Chinamen. You said that one died for every two breaths we took, and I’m breathing for all I’m worth.”
The full list of the League’s aims and objectives were published in a pamphlet titled “the Yellow Peril“. It explained the League’s desire to “combat evils arising out of the presence of Asiatics in our midst, and to approach the Government from time to time in reference to Asiatic immigration“, and to advocate the following policies:
(A) The necessity of a substantial increase in the present poll tax;
(B) The deportation of all undesirable Asiatics, recognising the principles of compensation, if necessary;
(C) The recognition of our constitutional rights affecting this question to the fullest extent;
(D) To prevent Chinese from competing unfairly with European business people in regard to working overtime in their laundries and other businesses;
(E) To prevent Chinese from employing Europeans or Maoris of either sex, or vice versa;
(G) To prevent any further naturalisation of Chinese;
(H) The clearing out of Chinese slums in cities and towns.
The Palmerston North branch “passed a rejoicing resolution at the action of a local hotelkeeper who had discharged his Chinese cook and replaced him with a European.” John Cameron demanded that sanitary inspectors take more action on the state of the Chinese quarters, describing them as “a positive disgrace to any civilised community.”
One Wellington meeting ended with a resolution by Mr. W. H. Westbrooke, Secretary of the Trades and Labour Council, that “this meeting declares itself emphatically in favour of a white New Zealand, and urges upon the Government the desirability of passing legislation prohibiting the immigration of Chinese and other Asiatics.”
It was not unusual at the time for “socialists“, trade unionists and labour representatives to actually represent the working men of their country, rather than simply acting as hound dogs for radical progressives.
On the West Coast, a hub of mining and unionism at the time, John Cameron found large audiences for his speeches. At an open air rally in Reefton, Cameron clarified that he was “strongly opposed to European traders employing Chinese. The industries of the Dominion should be reserved for the white race.”
Concluding, he said that “there were teeming millions of Asiatics knocking at our doors, and we should heed the repeated warnings, if not, then there was a good danger of the whole of the European races being wiped clean off the map.”
As well as preventing non-European immigration and crushing the threat to New Zealand’s racial purity, and securing the economy for white workers; the League also proposed customs tariffs against cheap Asiatic-produced goods, if they must be imported at all.
The members of the League had various reasons to object to Chinese and other non-European immigrants. They generally boil down to either economic protectionism, or the protection of racial purity. In a contemporary New Zealand Times article about the League, some of these reasons were explained:
“The grounds for objection to the influx of Chinese are many. It is urged that they compete unfairly with the white traders, that they are morally undesirable, that they are fostering low forms of gambling, that they are unsanitary, and, above all, that their presence is a standing menace to the purity of the race.”
Another prominent leader of the League was W. A. Lloyd, who was even more explicit than Cameron in expressing the racial policies of the League. At a Wellington meeting attended by hundreds of supporters, Mr. Lloyd said that “This is not a party question; it is purely a national matter… We are calm, cool citizens, who are going to settle this problem fairly. Is New Zealand to be a white country or a piebald one?”
For several years, the Anti-Asiatic League, and it’s leaders like John Cameron and W. A. Lloyd, were infamous. They were extremely influential, and even many high-level politicians were sympathetic. John Cameron had multiple meetings with Prime Minister Joseph Ward, and even the opposition leader, William Massey, expressed support for the group.
It was not just a flash in the pan, rather it was a large, powerful, grassroots political movement that reached the high and the low; from the Far North to the Deep South.
But after a few years, it had become stagnant, many of their policies had been implemented by the government; the country’s Chinese population was not growing in any real numbers, and the need for the movement lessened.
Though John Cameron was still popular enough to cause a near-riot in Masterton in 1911 (“We want Cameron!” the crowd of a thousand roared, shouting down speakers at a pro-prohibition event organised by an ex-Dunedin MP), their influence nation-wide dwindled, and the group eventually disbanded after Cameron’s 1913 resignation.
Today, they are almost completely forgotten.