When NT was officially 'a country for the White Man'


p2498 Ted Egan party 660

Above: Party at Government House, 1912, Administrator Gilruth the tall man with bowtie in the centre (p 173).

Four years without “a negative second”: this is how Ted Egan AO describes his term as 18th Administrator of the Northern Territory, 2003-07. It was, quoting his partner Nerys Evans, “a geriatric fairytale”.
Not so the turbulent seven-year term of the very first Administrator, Dr John Anderson Gilruth, appointed in 1912, the year after the Commonwealth took over the NT from South Australia, and whom Mr Egan has made the subject of his latest book, Gilruth: a complex man. It was the sharp contrast of their experience that pricked Mr Egan’s interest.
p2498 Ted Egan 350When he began researching Gilruth 10 years ago, Mr Egan intended the work to be the subject of a doctoral thesis but his story-telling instincts took over. He realised he preferred to write this book for the general reader, rather than for academia, because he wants Territorians to better understand what their present-day quality of life has been built on.
Left: Ted Egan AO at the launch of his book in the CDU library. 
Mr Egan is not an apologist for Gilruth but he argues that he has not been well understood or acknowledged.
“He was a difficult man, a complex man, but he was a huge achiever in the NT.”
His achievements were particularly in the development of the cattle industry: “He set up the stock-routes, the notion of things like windmills, tanks, water whips, he was the first man to talk about Bos Indicus hybrid cattle, probably the first one to say the word ‘Santa Gertrudis cattle’ 100 years ago,” says Mr Egan.
But this did not save Gilruth from a humiliating end to his role as Administrator and a dimmed reputation in Territory history.
In those days the Administrator’s position had real power, unlike the present-day figurehead and rubber-stamping role. He operated as something of a colonial Viceroy, making every major executive and administrative decision for the whole of the NT.
p2498 Ted Egan Gilruth 430He was answerable only to federal Cabinet, then based in Melbourne, not to the local ballot box as there was none. With the transfer to the Commonwealth, the NT lost political representation and that was part of the problem.
Right: Dr Gilruth at right, with  Sir Walter Barttelot, centre, and Minister Josiah Thomas (p 172).
Territorians, and particularly organised white labour, did not take kindly to the autocracy Gilruth represented.
Professor Rolf Gerritsen, who helped launch Mr Egan’s book last week, summed up the picture like this: “Darwin was a bit like Broken Hill in the heyday of the Barrier Industrial Council. The unions were quite strong and the ‘temper was distinctly democratic’, as Henry Lawson [or was it Joseph Furphy?] might say.
“A tall snob is bound to get into a lot of trouble. Give the tall snob a lot of power and there’s bound to be trouble from the other side. Essentially that’s what happened.”
In the end Gilruth  “was run out of town”, as Mr Egan puts it. This followed the appointment of a Royal Commission that examined practices and events under his leadership and eventually found that he and others in the administration had failed “to exercise their great powers with firmness, common sense, discretion and justice”.
p2498 Ted Egan staff 430However, it also pointed a finger at the Commonwealth for failing “to realise the position and grant to the people of the Territory citizenship rights” and its Ministers for not appreciating what was required.
Left: Government House staff, 1912. The employment of “coloured” staff was used to question Gilruth’s support of the White Australia Policy (p 62).
The back story, however, seems to have been less a struggle over democratic and labour rights and more a struggle to preserve privilege – the privilege of white men. The official national policy of the time was to develop and promote Australia as “a country for the White Man”.
This is the point that Mr Egan wants today’s readers to particularly appreciate.
He describes the Territory capital at the time as “sordid little Darwin”. Its population was no more than 5000: of these, Europeans were in the minority, numbering around 1000, mostly men – either “being paid handsome fees to come take up blocks of land, mining leases and so on just because they were white” or on wages that were the best in the world and loving their drink.
p2498 Ted Egan couple 300There were also about 1000 First Australians – “at all times being exploited by the ongoing influx of white men” (but denied access to drink, “fortunately for them”).
There were another 1000 of different ethnic backgrounds in the pearling industry, while the largest group were the Chinese, some 1500. The remainder were “the new phenomenon” of the NT, the mixed race people born as the result of “totally exploitative miscegenation”’, who were known at that time as half-castes.
Right: First Australian couple, Darwin 1912 (p 229).
It was the Chinese presence that led to the loss of political representation in the NT when the Commonwealth took over, says Mr Egan: “The Federal government could not tolerate the notion of a Chinese person who would have been elected in Darwin” –  they weren’t going to have that under the White Australia Policy.
This policy was the evil of the time, he argues, and remains relevant to this day: “Because the smug, safe, luxurious lifestyle that we all enjoy is – we have got to acknowledge – based on the ethnocentrism of our ancestors of 100 years ago, who instated all these wage levels and conditions for white men only.
“Nowadays everybody comes here from different races and backgrounds and enjoys the same sets of conditions but that’s where it all started and that’s why we’re conservative, particularly around things like immigration, to this day.”
Into this mix (and the imminent war) came Gilruth, tall, arrogant, autocratic:”He didn’t suffer fools gladly but he was an esteemed scientist, arguably the best veterinary scientist in the world,” says Mr Egan.
He had left his native Scotland with high credentials, gone to New Zealand first until he was head-hunted for Melbourne University in 1909, establishing a world class veterinary faculty there.
In 1911 he was part of a four-man commission sent to the Territory to report back to the Federal government on its future potential. He focussed on the pastoral industry, which was already strongly established, and reported favourably on it. He accepted his appointment as its first Administrator on a “monumental salary,” with additional generous entertainment and travel allowances.
p2498 Ted Egan march 430He immediately began to travel a lot and this incurred the wrath of the local newspaper. He was consistently reported badly in the NT Times and Gazette and this became the basis for the poor account given of him subsequently, argues Mr Egan.
Left: Local opposition to Gilruth reached a crescendo with the so-called Darwin Rebellion on 17 December 1918 (p 310). Mr Egan describes it more as a demonstration. At issue, following the nationalisation of hotels, the price of beer. 
“There were no resident historians, no diary keepers of consequence, no letter writers of rogue renown, no television, no radio.
“What we have as so called history is largely the testament of Fred Thompson of the NT Times and Gazette and people like Dr [Harold] Jensen who to this day is quoted favourably as one of the great heroes of the NT and he was an unmitigated liar.”
Mr Egan writes of Jensen as a “capable geologist” but his socialist beliefs “took him constantly into realm of conspiratorial speculation about capitalist exploration and imperialist controls”.
This wasn’t limited to opining: he levelled serious charges against Gilruth that led to a first commission of inquiry, which eventually dismissed those charges for want of evidence.
A socialist government was in power nationally at the time, and it was assumed that Gilruth was anti-socialist and suspect in White Australia Policy matters.
However, Mr Egan says he constantly voiced his support for the White Australia Policy: “He was a strong, fit, active white man, with a strong, fit, active white wife and three quite lovely, white, fit, active children.”
His attitude was “I and my family will demonstrate that we can live here as comfortably as people of any race. If that’s the policy of the nation, we’ll show you how to do it.”
But it didn’t wash with the majority of the rest of the ‘superior’ race.
It’s a complex story with a complex man at the heart of it and Mr Egan weaves it across 400 pages (including a generous selection of archival photographs, many of them of excellent quality and interest).
The story is intricately bound up with many of the enduring strands of Territory history – race and gender relations as well as the grog shaping its economic, social and political development.
Mr Egan believes passionately that it should be taught in the Territory’s secondary schools: today’s young people would be amazed at how different things were prior to World War II and he thinks they should be enlightened.
“This is your 100 year old history, it happened in your regions, your towns, your district, exactly 100 years ago.”
Note: The book is available in bookshops or directly from Mr Egan, here.


  1. Without reading Ted’s book and seeing the depth of his reasoning, it is hard to critique his passionate assertion that the “smug, safe, luxurious lifestyle that we all enjoy” derives from the pre-WW2 White Australia policy in “sordid little Darwin”, a pre-dominantly non-European town in the early 1900s.
    It could well be that “that’s where it all started” for Australia in early colonisation days, but I have serious doubts about Ted’s claim that “that’s why we’re conservative, particularly around things like immigration, to this day”.
    Presumably, Ted is referring to blokes and sheilas of his Anglo-Celtic origins, like many of ASNO’s online readers. However, the conservative view of things nationalistic such as sovereign borders and immigration was not patented, nor is it owned by, the White Man (White Woman). It is a trait of all ethnic tribal countries around the world. We have to look no further than Japan and China at the time of the Broome pearl divers and the Peking Boxer rebellion.
    Doubtless, many of the multi-ethnic inhabitants of “sordid little Darwin” in those early days were just as conservative as we were, perhaps even more so, and would have applied the same views if they had been in power in the Wide Brown Land. Japan of the Divine Wind millennia is the perfect example. And for the record, modern day Australia down here in Mexico (the Big Smoke south of the border) is fast replicating early Darwin’s non-European population domination in numerous dedicated suburbs eg Box Hill, Caulfield, Glen Waverley, Dandenong et al.
    Conservatism in those suburbs is entrenched in the ethnic community and is growing mighty strong and rapidly. When the Education Department puts Ted’s book into NT schools, it might be a good idea to toss in an accompanying module on the relative values and political views that are held by today’s comfortable-lifestyle ethnic citizens in the NT community whose forebears came to sordid little Darwin in those days.
    Regardless,the school authorities must make it mandatory that any teaching of Ted’s book to our school kids MUST be accompanied by a You Tube video of Ted singing “Nakamura, the boy from Okinawa”. The video with the camels walking across the beach. One of the greatest Aussie bush ballad hands-across-the-water tributes to multicultural friendship ever sung in all of Aussie Song Land!

  2. Ted is a marvellous ambassador for the NT, and a compelling author, and in the context of this article, it is explained well how the White Australia Policy influenced the selection and appointment of the ruling class, elected leaders or members of the establishment.
    At first glance however, it is easy to see how people are confusing the White Australia Policy with policy applying to Aboriginal people.
    There was never an actual white Australia Policy, rather it was an ideal, and a way of thinking that was common in that era, however it was primarily directed towards immigration, in that we should only accept immigration from Anglo-Saxon countries, not Asians, or other non-white backgrounds.
    This is easy to see in the article above, however looking at posts in facebook and general conversation, it seems many, particularly the younger generation seem to believe in some myths in the history of our country are built on misinformation, or partial truths.
    An example of this is the ongoing myth that Aborigines were treated as flora or fauna up until 1967, or that was the first time they were given the vote at that time.
    In an era when we should be looking at accepting a few home truths on our way to reconciliation, we need to ensure that these untruths are corrected as well. Looking forward to Ted’s book.

  3. A modern wealthy leftist interpretation of the past. Nice touch to leave out everyone else’s tribalism in the Territory, then as much as now. I despise modern historians, willing slaves of politics.

  4. The story of John Anderson Gilruth demonstrates an extraordinary example of the phenomenon of “six degrees of separation” in the Northern Territory.
    After Gilruth left the NT he worked as a consultant until, in 1929, he was appointed as the foundation chief of the Division of Animal Health in the newly constituted Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which later became the CSIRO. It was the CSIR’s most important division in which Gilruth led research into livestock diseases of national importance.
    Gilruth’s strong personality and leadership skills enabled productive co-operation with state research institutions and universities, and with pastoralists whose enterprises were the intended beneficiaries of the research effort.
    In 1935 Gilruth retired, having created a highly successful research team across Australia and doing much to reduce mistrust and misunderstanding between scientists and graziers.
    Gilruth was elected as the president of the Australian Veterinary Association in 1933, which later named its top award, the Gilruth Prize, in his honour.
    This was mirrored to a remarkable degree when in 1946 the Federal Government appointed Colonel Lionel Rose as Chief Veterinary Officer of the Northern Territory and the foundation director of the Animal Industry Branch, headquartered in Alice Springs.
    Rose proceeded to build up the AIB as an efficient and highly regarded research organisation throughout the NT; one of its first major projects was to initiate in Alice Springs the pleuropneumonia campaign which became the world’s first successful national animal disease eradication scheme (the original stockyards for disease testing still exist at AZRI).
    Just like Gilruth, Colonel Rose also was possessed of a dominant personality and leadership skills, and with these abilities facilitated strong relationships with other research bodies – and one such body was the CSIRO for which he provided resources and assistance to enable its permanent establishment in Alice Springs in 1953 (I reside at the original CSIRO property in Alice Springs, the former home address of Dr Robert Winkworth who was the first CSIRO scientist permanently appointed to the Centre).
    Also like Gilruth, Colonel Rose built up a highly successful and well regarded team of staff and researchers, of whom many came to be known throughout the NT as “Rosey’s men” – I believe my father is now the last surviving member of that exclusive group.
    To top it off, it was in 1961 that Colonel Lionel Rose was honoured with the top award of the Australian Veterinary Association – the Gilruth Prize.
    I was sorry to miss the official launch of Ted Egan’s book about Gilruth but am very much looking forward to obtaining a copy and reading it with interest.

  5. @Nimby. Perhaps you are a bit harsh and sweeping in your criticism of Ted. All historians are story tellers, but there are at least three different types of historian storytellers. The first is the Edward Gibbon school of hard facts, gathered with meticulous academic discipline. Gibbon’s 13 year opus “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” set the gold standard in this category. Ted admits he is not in that school. The second type is a modern day phenomenon, the historian who interprets gathered facts through the prism of gender and racial stereotypes to try to explain the facts. Again, I don’t think Ted falls into this category. The third type is the natural born storyteller who blends facts with a bit of poetic licence and weaves them with passion to spin a great yarn. Usually, those who fall into this category, while consciously trying to get their views across in the spinning of the yarn, don’t take themselves too seriously. They tend to hit the spot that the common man understands and enjoys. I think Ted is this type of historian. Anyone who can pen a ballad such as Nukamora the Boy from Okinawa and put together such a magnificent video clip that makes us all reflect individually on our historical past without prejudgment deserves a tick of approval. Looking forward to reading the book.

  6. Isn’t it fascinating that the “Nimby”s of the world never supply their identity.
    “Modern wealthy leftist historians” indeed. Very wrong on all counts.
    I was reminded of a similar Letter to the Editor from an unknown critic of mine who wrote, at the time of my appointment as Administrator: “Must we have a left-wing demagogue as Administrator?” I had to look up “demagogue” in the dictionary and had a good laugh when I did so.
    Please, Nimby, enlighten us: what exactly do you mean by “everyone else’s tribalism”?

  7. Oh, Dear John, please do read Ted’s book, and not fall into the TLDR syndrome [too long, did not read].
    What you read in there may prove to be very different to to what you may think is in there.
    I was invited to sit, today, with young Ted, alas, all too briefly. Nevertheless, an insight or two were gained, a bit about the book, which I feel I too need to obtain and read, along with future issues.
    And poor old Nimby: Wealthy Leftist? Nooooooo…
    That then begs the question: What is so bad about Lefties that makes them at all inferior to Righties?
    Ones political leanings do not necessarily make one good or bad in any way, shape, or form


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