Women on the March: Radical Hispanic Migrants in Northern Australia

Article excerpt

Positioned at the intersection of studies in gender, labour history and migration, this article is anchored in both Australian and Hispanic scholarship. 1t analyses the Hispanic communities of rural northern Australia during the first half of the twentieth century, and integrates local responses with those of the broader Hispanic world. 1n particular, it demonstrates that Hispanic women used their political experiences from Spain and Argentina to assume public positions of community leadership in an Australian region frequently characterised as highly masculinise. As migrants, they applied Hispanic culture and precedent to the Australian industrial context. 1n doing so, the women defied characterisations of passivity and, instead, exemplified female participation in political activism based on transnational experience.

In 1915, the diminutive Spaniard, Trinidad Garcia, led a sit-down protest on the quayside of the Melbourne docks. Garcia was one of a group of Spanish-speaking women who refused to reboard their vessel, S.S. Kwantu Maru, until food and living conditions onboard were significantly improved. The women were part of a sizeable group of migrants on their way from Argentina to the Northern Territory. Tensions had existed between the captain and the Spanish-speakers during the voyage, with the women repeatedly taking the initiative and challenging the captain. In Melbourne, Garcia spurned her husband and the other male migrants who had remained on the vessel in order to lead the group of angry Argentine women ashore to purchase much-needed groceries. It was not the first time the women had defied the captain by going ashore; they had taken similar action when the ship had stopped in Chile and New Zealand. When the ship docked in Australia, the women successfully goaded their husbands to action, shaming them to restrain the captain and crew physically in order to achieve their demands.

Despite the significant resistance by these migrant women, the extant police records marginalise the women's role and position the Argentine men as protagonists. Knowledge of women's roles in radical Hispanic culture can frame the disparate and fragmented evidence to recover a coherent narrative of female action. This article derives from Spanish settlers' memoirs and interviews with male and female community members. More problematically, it also uses Anglophone newspapers and Australian government records: government documents, such as police files and immigration records, frequently imposed male-dominated Anglo-Celtic frameworks on migrants and often misinterpreted Spaniards' intentions. Yet, cross-referencing Anglophone sources with Spaniards' memoirs, personal correspondence and Spanish-language newspapers reveals the presence of a rich and vibrant radical community. Whilst Australian historians have probed multiple aspects of this country's immigration the interaction of gender, ethnicity and political action remains largely unexplored. Historians have rarely focused on Australia's Hispanic population, (1) and Spaniards are most frequently considered as an interesting aside to the more numerous Italian migrants. (2) This focus on Italians is particularly pronounced in analyses of migrant politics as scholars often discuss allegations of fascism and transnational sentiment. (3) There has been broader research regarding the radical politics of northern Australia, but this has rarely viewed migrants as part of the Anglo-Celtic mainstream. (4) Scholarly discussion of the role of migrant women in politics is very limited, and analyses have generally viewed female migrants through Anglo-Celtic frameworks rather than those operating in the women's countries of origin. (5) This piece seeks to correct this lack of research through investigation of migrant women's activities using frames of analysis from both Australia and the Spanish-speaking world.

This article analyses the Spanish-speaking communities of rural northern Australia during the first half of the twentieth century. …