2001 ASSLH conference – Chinese seamen and Australian labour: The mass desertion from the SS Silksworth at Newcastle, October 1937

Paul Jones
ARC Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The Australian Centre, University of Melbourne


In July 1937 Japan embarked on a full-scale invasion of China and by October the war zone extended to the eastern seaboard and to Canton. Reports by William Donald, the Australian journalist and adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, provided Australian readers with sober insight into Japanese technological supremacy and the advance of the warfront. When the Sydney Morning Herald reversed its support for Japan in September 1937, all the principal metropolitan dailies highlighted Japanese aggression. Among the reportage are to be found efforts of Chinese Australians and Chinese diplomats in Australia to put the case against the Japanese invasion and its results. By late 1937, the evident tensions between Chinese and Japanese leaders in Australia, too, added to Australians’ perspective on the war.

Three months after Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, the Chinese crew of the SS Silksworth deserted ship at Newcastle. The seamen won the support of the local branch of the Communist Party and of trade unions and the dispute over the treatment of the crew and the carriage of materials to the war zone delayed the departure of the ship for ten days. Under the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act, port officers gave close attention to “coloureds”. Chinese crews were regularly mustered and a ship’s master was required to lodge a 100 pound bond for any absconder, pending their return to their ship. Chinese seamen could disembark but deportation was routine for an absence from a ship without permission, or if they overstayed the ship’s visit. The Silksworth crew remained in Australia for some five weeks.

Throughout the 1930s, some relaxation to the administration of Australia’s racially restrictive migration policy was evident. Thus Chinese merchants were allowed freer use of immigrant assistants; in the late 1930s, the long-term trend in departures of Chinese for China was somewhat reversed as former residents returned to Australia to escape China’s internal turmoil. Their re-entry to Australia was rarely impeded by the Australian authorities.1 The visit of the Silksworth crew can be set apart from such incremental changes: it was the first major protest at the Australian Government’s policy towards the Sino-Japanese war, preceding the Dalfram dispute by twelve months. It emanated from the ports at the height of public calls for action against the perpetuation of war on China. Drawing on media and official accounts of the episode, and the recollections of the Secretary of the local branch of the CPA, this paper considers the circumstances and aftermath of the desertion of the Silksworth, and its place in an historiography that commonly assumes that Australian unionists were uncritical supporters of absolute racial exclusiveness.

In July 1937 Japan embarked on a full-scale invasion of China and by October the war zone extended to the eastern seaboard and to Canton. Accounts of the bombing of Chinese cities, comparable in extent to the bombing raids of the Spanish Civil War, pervaded Australian press reports. Reports by William Donald, the Australian journalist and adviser to Chiang Kai-sheck, provided Australian readers with sober insight into Japanese technological supremacy and the advance of the war front. When the Sydney Morning Herald reversed its support for Japan in September 1937, all the principal metropolitan dailies highlighted Japanese aggression. If analyses of the origins and the progress of the war often were clouded, the media at large condemned the devastation of the cities, the deaths of women and children, and horror at the technological might on display.2 Among the reportage are to be found efforts of Chinese Australians and Chinese diplomats in Australia to put the case against the Japanese invasion and its results. Consul-General Dr Chun Jien Pao urged Australians to verify the facts for themselves by listening to English or Chinese-language radio broadcasts from China. By late 1937, the evident tensions between Chinese and Japanese leaders in Australia, too, added to Australians’ perspective on the war.3

During these last months of 1937, the agitation for a firm response grew. The Labor Council of New South Wales and its counterpart in South Australia resolved to promote a “Hands Off China” campaign and to support a boycott of Japanese goods.4 The Trades Hall at Melbourne petitioned the Governor-General and the Japanese Consul-General about the “unprecedented massacre”. Throughout October trade union organisations were joined by Housewives Associations, the YMCA and other community groups.5 The Council of the Movement Against War and Fascism, supported by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), directed its criticism at the Government for ignoring calls for a goods boycott.6 The question of a boycott proved a difficult one for others. The Labor Daily, for example, opposed it. The ACTU appealed to Australians to stop buying Japanese goods in protest at the horrors perpetuated in China, while cautioning members not to provoke serious industrial disputes.7 The League of Nations Union actively supported a scheme put forward by the Chinese Consul-General and Dame Edith Lyons to establish a relief fund for Chinese war victims, “the innocent victims of a terrible outrage”. The Union remained divided at the local level on its support for a boycott, however.8

While Australian Government analysts waited on the progress of tortuous deliberations of the League of Nations, in particular British and American advice on the efficacy of sanctions against Japan, even the London Times noted the growing indignation and advocacy of a boycott of Japanese goods within Australia. Initially Prime Minister Lyons urged Australians to “keep their head”. In a rare public statement on the war, he criticised the boycott urged by the ACTU, while a departmental file of some forty petitions registered the public concern at the destruction in China. The petitions variously urged the cessation of exports of iron ore to Japan and a boycott of Japanese goods.9 Any action would be “ill-advised”, Lyons claimed, and would “prejudice any attempt at conciliation by agreement, and would not assist any side”. As in 1932, the official policy on Japan’s war on China was to refrain from comment. Throughout the Commonwealth election campaign of October and November 1937, Lyons, as well as Labor leader, John Curtin effectively “refused to discuss the matter”. By the end of the following year, waterside workers at Fremantle, Newcastle and Geelong had imposed bans on ships loading scrap iron for Japan. The Dalfram dispute developed over the loading of “pig-iron” at Port Kembla for export to Japan. It extended over three months from November 1938, and Robert Menzies earned the best-known sobriquet for an Australian Federal politician.10

Labour historiography concerned with this period variously emphasises missed opportunities for a more activist policy stance towards Japan, while registering the principal divisions in opinion on how this could be achieved. Derek McDougall, for example, has clarified the complexities of the internal politics of labour organisations Australia-wide on which rested the shifting support for radical action. Rupert Lockwood, journalist and long-time observer of war, damned the official Australian policy towards the Japanese war effort as one of appeasement, which he attributed to a conspiracy of entrenched Australian and Japanese capitalistic interests.11 A more personal account of the period was written by Vic Bird, Newcastle labour activist and Secretary of the local branch of the Communist Party of Australia, who helped the crew of Chinese seamen who deserted their ship at Newcastle in October 1937.12

The desertion of the SS Silksworth

Ten weeks after Japan’s attack on China 1,500 people rallied at Sydney Town Hall. Following addresses by the Chair of the Australian Kuomintang and representatives of the Methodist Conference, the gathering resolved to petition trade unions to refuse to support trade with Japan, and to help the crew of the SS Silksworth achieve their release and safe return to China.13 At the height of the debate on policy towards Japan’s invasion of China, the 36 Chinese crew members of the Silksworth had walked off their ship when it berthed at Newcastle for re-fuelling on 13 October. Sailing under a British flag and captained by an Englishman, the ship was chartered by Japanese to carry flour and gypsum to Dairen, the port city of the Japanese puppet state of “Manchukuo”.14 News of tensions on board preceded its arrival at Newcastle. The company’s agent in Adelaide had written to the Chinese Consul-General in Sydney of differences between the Captain and crew at Stenhouse Bay in South Australia, where the vessel had berthed to load gypsum. A Japanese officer, returning drunk one evening, had beaten a Chinese crew member. When the ship berthed at Geelong to load flour, the crew stopped work for a day as the Master broke his promise to replace the officer. The ship sailed only after the parties agreed to wait until they arrived at Sydney to seek a settlement. However, neither the Master nor the ship’s agent at Sydney attempted to contact the Chinese Consul-General and as the Silksworth steamed into Newcastle to load coal for the final leg of its journey to Dairen, the dispute lay unresolved.15

Upon berthing, the crew learnt from Chinese-language newspapers that Japan had invaded southern China, Shanghai and Nanjing. These places were home to many of the men and an initial concern with relationships on board escalated into a more complex protest at the supply of chemicals and provisions to Japanese forces. Within hours of the ship’s arrival, the crew had deserted and the coal trimmers at Newcastle, when informed of the crew’s protest, stopped the re- fuelling. The ensuing dispute delayed the ship’s departure for ten days and the plight of the Chinese crew and the support for their cause attracted media attention nation-wide.16

The crew proceeded to the Trades Hall where local Chinese were enlisted as interpreters and crew members were interviewed by the Secretary of the Newcastle Branch of the Seamen’s Union and by the Council Secretary, George Bass. Bass informed the Trades Hall Council meeting held that evening that he was astonished to see the men, but after passing a day with them, he had never “met better unionists”. Delegates voted unanimously to support the crew.17 The following morning, two of the Chinese seamen took the first train to Sydney to meet with the Chinese Consul-General, while the others stayed at a Chinese store in Newcastle and arrangements were set in place for visits to the work sites of striking miners.18

The union executive was well aware of the legal ramifications of desertion by merchant seamen. As “coloureds”, the men were liable for arrest, six months imprisonment and deportation as prohibited immigrants. However, under the Navigation Act, if a substantial part of a crew was not on board at the time of sailing, a vessel would effectively be stopped from leaving port.19 On the evening after the ship’s arrival, the Trades Hall Council arranged a special meeting in support of the Chinese. As Mon Ching, a leader of the local Chinese community addressed the packed hall, one half of the crew dispersed among the audience. At the meeting’s conclusion, six of their number were secreted away, and with the help of the CPA, driven to Sydney. In the belief that Australian Communists were under constant surveillance, the CPA members were most thorough. They avoided communications by telephone and the six absconders were billeted with non-Chinese. The CPA had successfully confused the press about details of their movement. The Sydney Morning Herald of Wednesday 20 October stated that the six were still in Newcastle when their 30 fellow crew members were arrested; they had travelled to Sydney on the previous Sunday. Chinese community organisations in Sydney, for their part, provided interpreters and food while denying all knowledge of the crew’s whereabouts.20

From the outset, political questions arose. Local Chinese from Newcastle briefed the Chinese Consul-General, Dr Chun Jien Pao on proceedings and Pao wrote to the Prime Minister to press the crew’s claims, particularly their unwillingness to carry cargo for the enemy. Immediately following the walk-off, Pao held lengthy discussions with the ship’s agent and its Master, and the Deputy-Director of Navigation for NSW, Captain Roskruge. The negotiations threw up an early resolution to the dispute; the Master gained from the ship owners’ permission to detour to Manila and there pay off the crew and repatriate them to China. Pao advised Lyons of his scepticism at this plan, as a journey to Manila would place the men at risk should the Master receive orders to revert to his original route to Dairen. However, this settlement collapsed when three of the seamen were forcibly restrained from joining the ship and the rest refused to board. Pao and Roskruge again met with the ship’s Master. An apology for rough handling of the men was offered, but the Master refused to pay off the crew. Pao also approached the NSW Premier for police protection for the men. The 30 seamen were arrested at Newcastle Trades Hall on a civil charge laid by the ship’s Master for absence from duty “without notice or sufficient cause”.21

The politics of desertion

In the face of the nation-wide interest in the case, the Magistrate, noting that “international matters” were involved and that “the effects of anything done may be far reaching”, adjourned the hearing. He proposed to the men that they could return to the ship, or go free on bail of 100 pounds, or go to gaol on fourteen days remand, on the understanding that this did not imply a punishment. The seamen chose gaol. Bass, a non-leftist, hailed the crew as “class brothers”. The Seamen’s Union declared the ship “black” and local branches of the Railways and Miners’ Unions, linking the crews’ walk-off to the campaign to boycott Japanese goods, pledged their support.22 Earle Page, then Minister for Commerce, publicly called for use of the Immigration Act against the Chinese seamen. But when Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons issued a full statement, it was to announce that he had personally arranged for the Deputy Director of Navigation to confer with the parties to seek a settlement. He distanced the Government from further involvement: the ship’s Master had taken civil proceedings “on his own initiative”, and, Lyons asserted, as the matter was sub-judice, there was no legal provision under the Immigration Act to take the men from custody and repatriate them to China.23

Within the week consular representatives arranged for the men’s release on a bond of 100 pounds each and the court reconvened. Wheeler, the barrister appointed by Pao to represent the crew, announced that a conference of all parties had reached a settlement whereby the men were to be given their belongings, back pay and a good “discharge”. The crew would be repatriated at the first opportunity while negotiations over their wages were completed. The Consulate- General pledged one half of the cost of repatriation and the Chinese Government the balance. Roskruge agreed to assist in the settlement of wages, and the Master, at first reluctant, had acquiesced. With the Master proffering no evidence, the magistrate discharged the 30 seamen, stating that “what happened to the Chinese after they left the court was a matter for the Federal Government”.24

Following release, the crew travelled to Sydney where they were met at Central Railway Station by a large crowd of sympathisers—Chinese, unionists and supporters of the “Hands off China” campaign. Through an interpreter, the men spoke of their fears for their personal safety as the dispute escalated, and of their willingness to sail under the British flag, other than in support for Japan’s war effort. Following three cheers from the crowd, police escorted the men to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce where they were reunited with the six crew-members who had avoided legal proceedings. Pao assured the Government that he would care for the crew and arrange repatriation.25

Pao had pronounced the outcome a victory for the crew. However, immediately a further difficulty arose when the crew rejected an offer of back pay to the date they left the ship, and sought wages up to the scheduled time of the Silksworth’s arrival at Hong Kong.26 The promise of a settlement of the dispute was further foreshortened when Earle Page publicly accused the crew of breaching arrangements struck with the Master, first when they refused the initial offer of travel to Manila, and also after the court hearing on 22 October, when they broke an agreement to take the SS Taiping from Brisbane to China. The latter agreement, Page claimed, was the condition on which the Master had agreed to drop all charges, and it was “regrettable”, that the seamen were influenced by Trade Hall officials to reject the favourable terms obtained for them. Thus their wages and repatriation were forfeited as they had broken their agreement. Page then declared the seamen deserters and prohibited immigrants liable to action under the law.27

Pao again approached the Prime Minister and pointed out the Department of Interior’s promise not to take action against the crew.28 Page had misrepresented the nature of the dispute and its settlement and, indeed, had misled the public about the instructions the Government had given to navigation officials at Newcastle. The Consul-General insisted that no final agreement had been stuck between the crew and Master. The only agreement was between Roskruge and him, as mediators, and the ship’s Master and agent, for Pao to put the offer before the crew. But this had not been finalised at 23 October, the date Page publicly accused the crew of non-cooperation. The crew had breached no formal agreement as none had been made. Following Page’s announcement, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior issued a statement that no forcible action would be taken against the men as prohibited immigrants unless there was “no sign of resolution”.29

On the morning of 24 October, the Silksworth departed for Dairen with a new crew—“Britons” and “middle-aged men”—signed on in Sydney and transported to Newcastle under police guard. Their arrival appears to have caught the Newcastle industrialists by surprise. The crew boarded without incident. However, sailing time was delayed a further 24 hours when the crew demanded Australian seamen’s rates, not British, and that their quarters be cleaned. Ten days after its scheduled departure, the Silksworth left Newcastle, part bunkered and with no tugs to guide it to open sea.30

Common ground?

The desertion of the crew of the SS Silksworth posed difficult questions for labour organisations, diplomats, immigration authorities and for the Australian Government in the fraught diplomatic, regional circumstances of late 1937. Hitherto, capture of “coloured” deserters was followed routinely by imprisonment and deportation. The Silksworth crew remained in Australia for five weeks. Throughout the dispute, the six seamen in hiding had emphasised in clandestine meetings with the press their resolve to do “everything to assist our people and save our country from the Japanese who are attacking us”. That such reports came from fugitives added to the interest in the crew’s fate, but it was the protest at the ship’s mission and the courage of the men in defying a ship’s captain who resorted to violence that attracted the firm support they needed to remain in the country.31

Consul-General Pao advised Lyons that the crew would leave Sydney via the Changte on 19 November. The wages owed—six pounds per month, less food costs—and one half of their fares would be provided with the help of the Sydney Chinese community. The Master of the Changte had reduced the fare to five pounds per head and the Silksworth’s agent in Sydney agreed to pay for the remainder of the cost of repatriation to Hong Kong. The Chinese Government offered to provide rail fares from Hong Kong to Shanghai. For Pao, other pressures presented. He approached Lyons for an acknowledgment that the Government was alive to the difficult role he had performed, as Sydney Chinese had complained about him to China. Lyons duly wrote of the Government’s appreciation for the “dignity and restraint with which you have handled the matter throughout the life of the dispute”.32 In a rare comment on the relevance to Australians of the war in China, Pao extolled the humanitarian concern of Australian Chinese. Chinese Australians were never so united, he claimed. Within weeks of the Japanese invasion, communities from small towns had contributed over 700 pounds to relief operations while Melbourne Chinese had sent over 3,000 pounds to support the war effort.33

For the Government, the episode interrupted complex negotiations with Japan on two fronts: first, the quest for a diplomatic resolution to the invasion of China in which Australia was implicated through its reliance on British diplomacy and the League of Nations; second, the more immediate and pressing negotiations over trade. Throughout 1937, the Australian Government was still seeking a settlement of its disastrous trade policy of the previous year. In mid-1936 it had instituted a raft of measures to divert Australian trade away from Japan—then a major trade partner— only to reverse policy amid protests Australia-wide at the damage to the Australian economy and to relationships in the Pacific region. Trade negotiations were not going well. For the first time since federation, trade was in deficit with Japan and the Japanese Government would not guarantee a minimal annual purchase of wool. As Japanese negotiators pressed for a trade settlement, Japanese community leaders linked the dispute at Newcastle to wider diplomatic issues. Yamashita, an Executive member of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Sydney claimed that public support of the Silksworth crew had caused “ill-feeling” and the Japanese Government could “easily restrict the import of Australian goods if the movement to boycott Japanese goods continued”. He added, “the resumption of wool buying would depend on the view taken by the Australian public”.34

Lyon’s rejection of Page’s design for a quick resolution to the dispute may also be taken as a departure from the conciliatory policy of the Australian Government towards Japan. Notwithstanding the difficult diplomacy of trade relations with Japan, Lyons openly permitted the crew to remain until the dispute appeared settled, a marked departure from the practice of exercising full legislative power to exclude and deport “coloured” absconders. At the least, Australian governments had made it clear to the shipping interests that dominated Australian trade that they would be fined 100 pounds for each illicit entrant. This had been the case since Alfred Deakin was Attorney-General.35

For those who actively supported a boycott of Japanese goods, the fate of the Silksworth crew took on a broad historical and political significance. Many years after Australian unions were closely involved with the Pan-Pacific union movement, Vic Bird, who had arranged the smuggling of the six Chinese crew members to Sydney, recalled that he and other activists

had Chinese and Australian unionists united in a struggle against a common foe…by 1937 we found common ground with rank and file ALP members and supporters and many of their union officials were actively promoting the “Boycott Japanese Goods” slogan coined five years before when Japan attacked Manchuria.36

 Throughout the dispute, trade unions and left-wing journals celebrated a common purpose with the crew’s boycott of Japanese trade. McDougall and Lockwood’s analyses of the period have overlooked the importance to the labour movement of the trans-racial unity it promoted, some twelve months before the more immediate concern with Australian national self-defence took hold during the Dalfram episode. The Worker’s Weekly hailed the “international solidarity of the working class” when Australian seamen at Newcastle refused to provide a new crew. The Labor Call suggested that “industrial solidarity and patriotism” guided all concerned. Such associations gained further expression in the weeks before the crew left for China. The Master had conclusively washed his hands of the crew and withheld the two months of wages accrued at the time they walked off the ship.37 Nor had he withdrawn the desertion charge, which remained on the books of the British Board of Trade, to effectively prevent the men from seeking employment on other British ships. The Labor Council of New South Wales and the Newcastle Trade and Labor Council took up these matters in the press over the following month to seek, unsuccessfully, a governmental investigation.38

For the media’s part, support for the Silksworth’s crew developed on humanitarian and nationalistic concerns that also put the conventions of exclusion under the Immigration Act to one side. The Sydney Sun, for example, argued that the crew

have certain human rights which must not be brushed aside by any technicality of the Customs Act [sic]. One of these is security of their lives and liberty, the other is to refuse any duty to the detriment of their country. In no circumstances must they be forced to leave Australia under conditions in which these rights are denied. The Commonwealth cannot afford to have it said that it refused the rights of Aliens… These Chinese are in the same position as war refugees.39

Rather than a differentiated racial hierarchy of development between Japanese and Chinese, the media’s view of the “yellow races” in 1937 concerned the scale and effects of technological destruction modelled on European-styled methods and hitherto not seen outside of Europe. By the time of the Silksworth’s arrival at Newcastle, the labour press and the media at large emphasised humanitarian calls on the public’s conscience and the patriotic efforts of Chinese Australians to help their fellows. The adoption of the Chinese seamen’s cause alongside of growing xenophobia towards Japan had displaced the dichotomous descriptions of racial weakness and strength and the racial threats said to justify racial exclusiveness. Page’s remonstrance appears to have made little impression; his calls for the crew to leave the country won no support. In the 1930s, the tense regional, political climate quietened discussions of racial difference. By late 1937 the line between humanitarian tolerance and the acceptable prejudice that migration exclusion implied was no longer clear.


In 1942, the SS Silksworth, with a new captain and crew, sank under Japanese fire. All hands survived. The Master’s report of the aftermath singled out Chinese crew members for special praise. The Chinese quartermaster swam more than two miles to retrieve an empty life-boat, which was used to rescue another 50 survivors from the convoy. Upon reaching land, the Chinese crewmen handled stretchers over extremely rough terrain to take the injured to safety.40


1 Further hints at changes to fundamental premises of Australia’s exclusionary project again arose during the Pacific war. In 1941 John Latham, then special Minister to Japan, petitioned the Government to allow the Japanese wives of Australians in Japan to come to Australia. NAA, A433/1, 46/2/4658, miscellaneous correspondence, 1943. On the port front, in 1942 a Chinese Seamen’s Union was instituted on the initiative of the Chinese Government, with its local form established at Sydney. War-time Prime Minister John Curtin declined to pressure Chinese seamen to work on lower rates of pay.
2 See for example, Sydney Morning Herald (hereafter, SMH), 11 September 1937; Argus, 24 September 1937; 16 October 1937. Following a journalistic career in Sydney, Melbourne and China, including a period as editor of the Far Eastern Review, Donald had worked for Sun Yat-sen in 1911 and as an adviser to Chang Hsueh-liang and, later, Chiang Kai-sheck throughout the 1930s. Winston Lewis, “William Henry Donald”, ADB, vol. 8, pp. 317-8. Worker’s Weekly, 12 October 1937.
3 See, for example, SMH, 6 June, 7 July, 2 November, 3 December, 1938. Jones discusses the extensive campaigning by Chinese and Japanese within Australia during the late 1930s, and the tensions that arose between them. See Paul Jones, ‘“Racial Character’ and Australia and Japan in the 1930s”, in Jones, Paul. and Oliver, Pam (eds), Changing Histories: Australia and Japan, Monash Asia Institute, Clayton, 2001.
4 The Times, 4 October 1937.
5 SMH, 1 November 1937, 8 October 1937.
6 L. P. Fox, Stop War on China, Movement Against War and Fascism, Victorian Council, Melbourne, 1937, pp. 29, 10, 4-5 [Pamphlet]. The Council argued that inactivity would undermine the legitimacy of the League of Nations’ collective security system and favour the advance of fascism.
7 Labor Call, 4 November 1937, 11 November 1937. Labor Daily, 7 October 1937.
8 Argus, 25 September 1937, 5 October 1937; Newcastle Morning Herald, 16 November 1937 (Cited in Vic Bird, S. S. Silksworth Dispute of 1937, A Memoir, Melbourne May Day Committee, Melbourne, 1991, p. 9.). Derek McDougall discusses at length the divisions of opinion between those who supported “isolation” and “conciliation”—“The Australian Labour Movement and the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1939”, Labour History, no 33, 1977, pp. 39-52.
9 Carol Rasmussen, The Lesser Evil? Opposition to War and Fascism in Australia, 1920-1941, History Department, University of Melbourne, Parkville, 1992, pp. 22-3, notes the British and American “retreat into pacifist isolation” and preoccupation with domestic concerns during the 1930s. Facing similar protests, New Zealand Prime Minister Savage declared “there is only one body in a position of authority in New Zealand, and that is the Government. We are not going to have five or six different organisations telling us with which countries we are going to trade”. The Times, 4 October 1937. On the next day Dunedin waterside workers banned the shipping of scrap iron. Worker, 5 October 1937. See also, Adelaide Advertiser, 3 October 1937. Petitions and letters located at NAA (Hereafter NAA), A1606, C 41/1, 1937, were received from Communist Party branches; labour organisations; public meetings at Sydney and Melbourne Methodists’ and women’s groups, Slavonic and Croatian ethnic organisations, pacifist bodies and the Chinese League of Nations Union, Nanking, inter alia.
10 SMH, 1 November 1937. The London Times, 4 October 1937. R. G. Neale (ed.), Documents on Foreign Policy 1937-1949, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1975, various parts, chronicles the principal diplomatic exchanges on the League of Nations’ deliberations.
11 McDougall, “The Australian Labour Movement and the Sino-Japanese War…”; “The Australian Government and the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1939, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 62, part 4, March 1977, pp. 251-59. Rupert Lockwood, War on the Waterfront. Menzies, Japan and the Pig Iron Dispute, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, c. 1987.
12 Bird, S. S. Silksworth Dispute…
13 SMH, 20 October 1937. The meeting also called for cancellation of the Yampi Sound concessions, which allowed for Japanese interests to mine iron ore. The agreement was annulled in July 1938 when the Government withdrew permission on geological advice that the Australian reserves were limited in extent and ought to be preserved for Australian uses. Australian Department of External Affairs, Current Notes, 1936 issue, p. 250. See R. G. Neale (ed.), Documents on Foreign Policy, various parts.
14 NAA, Sydney, C14, Box O, vol. 2. The ships complement included an English Captain and three other Englishmen; one British Indian; four Japanese officers (a 3rd mate; and number 2, 3 and 4 Engineers) and the Chinese crew of 36. Newcastle Herald, 15 October. Cited in Bird, S. S. Silksworth Dispute…, p. 3. Bird was Secretary to the Newcastle Section Committee of the Communist Party of Australia from early 1937.
15 NAA, A1606/1, D41/1, Consul-General to Minister for Commerce, 23 October 1937.
16 A report in the Melbourne Age suggested that its cargo was wheat. However, Bird clarifies that it carried gypsum and flour. Gypsum could be used in the manufacture of explosives. Age, 28 October 1937; Sydney Sun, 24 October 1937; Worker’s Weekly, 26 October 1937; Bird, S. S. Silksworth Dispute…, p. 3.
17 SMH, 15 October 1937. The crew passed the night at a Chinese store.
18 Bird recounts that the Captain approached the Secretary of the Trades Hall in a belligerent fashion. Bird, S. S. Silksworth Dispute…, pp. 6-7. The two crew were arrested “by an influence in some quarter” and brought to Pao’s office by a customs officer and left in his charge. NAA, A1606/1, D41/1, Consul-General to Minister for Commerce, 23 October 1937.
19 Navigation Act, 1912, Sections 43, 44. Ship owners were also required to lodge bonds and pay for the costs of apprehension and return of absconders.
20 Bird travelled to Sydney to make arrangements with Sydney Party members. Bird, S. S. Silksworth Dispute…, pp. 8-10, 12. Canberra Times, 21 October 1937.
21 NAA, A1606/1, D41/1, Consul-General to Prime Minister, 19 October 1937; Consul-General to Minister for Commerce, 23 October 1937. SMH19 October 1937. Union officials and the police carefully explained to the crew the reasons for their arrest.
22 Sun, 19 October 1937, Age, 21 October 1937; Bird, S. S. Silksworth Dispute…, pp. 6-7. For a photographic record of protests at Newcastle on behalf of the crew, see Stuart Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegality, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1998, p. 404.
23 SMH, 20 October. Age, 21 October 1937; Canberra Times, 21 October 1937.
24 Age, 23 October 1937.
25 SMH, 23 October 1937. Sun, 24 October 1937; NAA, A1606/1, D41/1, file note, 28 October 1937.
26 SMH, 23 October 1937. NAA, A1606/1, D41/1, Consul-General to Minister for Commerce, 23 October 1937. See also, for example, Brisbane Courier Mail, 15 to 23 October 1937.
27 SMH, 23 October 1937.
28 NAA, A1606/1, D41/1, Consul-General to Minister for Commerce, 23 October 1937. Pao also noted that the crew’s travel to Sydney put them close to China-bound shipping traffic and the ship’s Agent.
29 Sun, 24 October 1937; NAA, A1606/1, D41/1, file note, 28 October 1937.
30 SMH, 23 October 1937; Age, 23 October 1937. The replacement crew signed on under Board of Trade Articles.
31 SMH, 20 October 1937. Canberra Times, 21 October 1937.
32 NAA, A1606/1, D41/1, Consul-General to Prime Minister, 12 November 1937. J. F. Murphy, Secretary, Department of Commerce to Secretary, Prime Minister’s Department, 23 November 1937; Prime Minister to Chinese Consul-General, 24 November 1937.
33 Canberra Times, 21 October 1937; Sun, 20 October 1937; SMH, 31 August 1937, 21 October 1937.
34 See Argus, 20 January 1938. Limitations on Japanese merchant shipping was one point of discussion. SMH, 1 October 1937 and also 5 October 1937,and Japan Chronicle, 19 October 1937. Age, 28 October 1937. See also 9 November 1937.
35 It is possible that a bond was provided for each man, perhaps by the Consul-General, to the Customs office at Newcastle. By the 1930s, the standard procedure in cases of “coloured” desertion was for a 100 pound bond to be charged against the ship’s Master or ship’s agent, and only refunded upon capture of the absconder.
36 Bird, S. S. Silksworth Dispute…, pp. 4, 3.
37 Daily Telegraph, 26 October 1937.
38 Worker’s Weekly, 19 October 1937; Labor Call, 4 November 1937. NAA, A1606/1, D41/1, Consul-General to Prime Minister, 12 November 1937.
39 Sun, 19 October 1937.
40 PRO [Kew, UK], ADM 199/2140, 6 April 1942. Tony Lane, The Merchant Seamen’s War, The Bluecoat Press, Liverpool, 1990, considers the bravery of the crew in the context of British attitudes towards Chinese seamen. The Captain’s praise for the men was a rare acknowledgement of Chinese seamen’s contribution to the war effort.