Syrian/Lebanese Traders and the Customs Prosecutions of 1897

"White Labour" keeps out cheap Asian labour. The Worker, 1897
“White Labour” keeps out cheap Asian labour. The Worker, 1897

Customs officers seized goods from hotel rooms, shops, ports and railway stations.

Of all the factors that influenced the interaction between Syrian/Lebanese immigrants and Australian society, race was the defining factor. Although there is evidence of an ongoing ambiguity regarding their identity, as their visibility increased, the early Syrian/Lebanese were identified as non-white and non-European. While this was important, of more consequence was the fact that Syrian/Lebanese immigrants were officially classified as Asian and were consequently subject to a wide range of institutionalized discrimination. I begin with this because it is within this context that the experience of Syrian/Lebanese traders can be understood.

Firstly, it can be established that in the period 1880 to 1947 the majority of Syrian/Lebanese immigrants were self-employed in trading enterprises such as hawking and shop keeping. Using information from Queensland naturalization records between 1885 and 1947(Table 1), with the inclusion of hawking, approximately 80 per cent of the 207 immigrants in the sample of Syrian/Lebanese were self-employed in a trading enterprise. Just over half, 55 per cent were in business in the retail sector as storekeepers, drapers, mercers or general dealers. One quarter (25%) of the immigrants listed hawking as their sole occupation and another nine (4%) combined hawking with storekeeping or farming. In contrast, less than 10 per cent of the samples were employees and it is highly probable a number of these were actually in the employ of another family member. Eleven (5.5%) of the 207 were farmers, another occupation which allowed self-employment. These Queensland findings concur with Jim McKay’s finding that in the same period; the majority of Syrian/Lebanese immigrants in New South Wales were also self-employed in some form of private enterprise. Together, the Queensland and New South Wales findings give credence to the stereotypical image of Syrian/Lebanese as traders.

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