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The Longer History of the Christchurch Attacks

For over a century, the United States has played a role in inspiring and enabling white supremacy in Australia and New Zealand.

Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

On Friday, an Australian white supremacist committed a monstrous act of violence against Muslim worshippers in New Zealand. The attack, which he live streamed, was steeped in the kind of global iconography and discourse that characterizes modern white supremacy. The assailant played a song about convicted Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadžić as he approached the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, and his weapons bore further testament to the global resonances of contemporary white supremacy: One rifle apparently eulogized a Swedish girl who was murdered by an Uzbek immigrant in Stockholm, while another celebrated a Frankish nobleman who fought Muslim armies in Western France over a millennium ago. His manifesto cited U.S. white supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof as inspiration, and featured a diagram promoted by U.S. white supremacist David Duke on its cover.

In any attack like this, it is important to look at the particulars: the online hate speech the perpetrator absorbed, for example, which has proliferated in recent years. But it is equally important to remember that this latest outrage, and similar barbarities elsewhere, are not anomalies: White supremacy has a long, global history, and New Zealand and Australia have played central and interrelated roles in that history. This most recent horror is not just testament to a more recent uptick in far-right violence. It is also the latest episode in the ongoing story of antipodean white supremacism at the heart of both New Zealand’s and Australia’s national histories. And then, as now, American white supremacy has been intimately linked to that story.

The first victims of white supremacy in New Zealand and Australia, where the latest killer was born, were indigenous inhabitants. But by the late nineteenth century, white colonials had also turned that sentiment against the imagined influx of “undesirable” immigrants from Asia. The gold rushes of the 1850s brought the first Chinese migrants to both Australia and New Zealand. Curiosity turned to hostility as the mines were exhausted and Chinese miners moved off in search of other opportunities. By the 1880s, both New Zealand and the Australian self-governing colonies had enacted immigration regulations that made Chinese immigration prohibitively expensive and therefore nearly impossible.

Remoteness from Britain and proximity to Asia, white New Zealanders and Australians proclaimed toward the end of the nineteenth century, would bring racial degeneration and ruinous economic competition unless they maintained a total commitment to white territorial, political, and economic control. As one representative explained to the Victorian Parliament in 1899, “we have a territory with a suitable climate, but with a sparse population, while on the other hand, we have quite adjacent to our shores hundreds of millions of a very undesirable class of people.” The same sentiments were echoed in legislative bodies, newspapers, and trade union halls all over Australia and New Zealand, and the same solution was repeatedly volunteered. In the words of that same Victorian legislator: “It should be one of our ideals to maintain, if possible, a pure Australian blood, or a pure British blood, or a pure British and European blood, within the shores of Australia.”

What followed was the White Australia Policy and its lesser-known analog, the White New Zealand Policy. The former was enacted almost immediately upon the federation of the Australian Commonwealth in 1901. In the words of Australia’s first Attorney General (and future prime minister), Alfred Deakin, the new Immigration Restriction Act demonstrated that “at the very first instant of our national career we are as one for a white Australia.” The law empowered immigration officers to exclude non-white immigrants on the grounds of literacy rather than color. New Zealand had instituted a similar policy in 1899. These laws—encouraged by the British government, which opposed explicit racial exclusion for diplomatic reasons—derived from a similar policy adopted by the British colony of Natal, which in turn took its cue from so-called educational tests designed to prohibit African American voting in the American South.

In 1908, some white New Zealanders and Australians sensed an opportunity to connect with white supremacist allies in the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt had recently dispatched the newly constructed American battle fleet on a circumnavigation of the globe, and from August to September 1908, that so-called “Great White Fleet” visited Auckland in New Zealand and Sydney, Melbourne, and Albany in Australia. Some legislators embraced the racial implications of the American visit, especially in the context of deteriorating U.S. relations with Japan over the issue of immigration restriction: Liberal MP William Steward spoke for many when he declared that “the brown and yellow races will challenge the white race for the possession and occupancy of [the earth]” unless white colonists rallied around American naval strength in the Pacific. The New Zealand Times agreed, pronouncing the fleet’s visit a “bold, emphatic assertion of the dominance of the White Race.”  Some white Australians expressed similar hopes, with Prime Minister Andrew Fisher later enunciating a plan to “to join with [the Americans] as far as we may in keeping the Pacific for the Anglo-Saxons.” While these initiatives came to naught, their intent was unmistakable.

That effort reached a dangerous zenith following the end of the First World War a century ago. In Paris, the Japanese delegation hoped to write a statement of racial equality into the constitution of the new League of Nations. Determined to protect the White Australia Policy from Japanese claims to racial equality, Australian Prime Minister William Morris Hughes repeatedly and ostentatiously scuttled those attempts. “White Australia is yours. You may do with it what you please,” he declared to the assembled crowd upon his triumphant return to Melbourne in August 1919. While it would be an overstatement to draw a straight line between Hughes’s actions and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor some twenty years later, there is no doubt that this episode contributed to Japanese alienation and facilitated the rise of militarists and expansionists in that country.

White Australians and New Zealanders have long wrestled with the implications of white supremacy. Moreover, that history has always been inextricably intertwined, and it has often been connected to broader currents of white supremacist politics across the Pacific in North America. In that context, it is not so strange that a white Australian terrorist might choose to make his stand in New Zealand, citing American extremists as inspiration. How all three societies—as well as other majority-white societies across Europe—respond to this outrage will determine whether this history of trans-Tasman white supremacism can finally be brought to an end.