2001 ASSLH conference: Internationalism and the Indian Seamen’s Union

Julia Martínez
Honorary Research Fellow, University of Wollongong


The Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) was one of the first Australian unions to embrace the practice of internationalism. The formation of the Indian Seamen’s Union in Sydney, 1945 under the umbrella of the SUA appears as part of the heroic history of the SUA. An earlier episode in 1923 again shows the SUA encouraging solidarity with Indian seamen. What was lacking from SUA internationalism, however, was an understanding of the progress of Indian unionism in India. Without a sense of Indians as unionists it was too easy to portray them as “coolies” perpetuating colonial stereotypes which went against the very principles of left-wing internationalism


The theme for this conference, “Work, Organisation, Struggle”, has the ring of a trade union rallying cry. The creed of every trade union is to organise its workers, to gain strength from unity, and to struggle for better conditions. This was the message pronounced by EV Elliott as secretary of the Seamen’s Union (SUA) in 1945 when helped to form the Indian Seamen’s Union. The story of the internationalist co-operation between seamen during the Second World War is rightly marked as one of the highlights of Australian labour history. It appears to vindicate left-wing belief in the grander scheme of international organisation. But is it sufficient to celebrate such stories? New Left historians taught us to be wary of celebrating Australian unionism, particularly when that organisation often entailed the deliberate exclusion of non-white workers. But the Seamen’s Union was one of the first to abandon White Australian isolationism. Might we not celebrate their internationalist vision? This paper considers this question by examining the internationalism of the Seamen’s Union, focusing on the union’s connections with Indian seamen. It highlights the unsteady progress of internationalism from the 1920s to 1945 and the lingering influence of white paternalism.

The story of the Seamen’s Union of Australia in the 1940s is well known, having been told by Rupert Lockwood in Black Armada which detailed Australian support for Indonesian anti-colonial protest. Lockwood was somewhat sceptical over the Australian display of international solidarity, arguing that the mentality of White Australia remained an important motivating factor. He believed that rather than demonstrating a genuine sympathy for the plight of Asian workers, Australian unionists were primarily concerned to protect themselves from competition from “cheap coloured” labour.1

In contrast, Rowan Cahill’s history of the SUA presents a far rosier picture of the internationalist co-operation of the war years. Cahill states that his material “illustrates the non-racist nature of the modern SUA”. He describes how SUA secretary, EV Elliott, encouraged the Chinese, Indonesian, Greek and Indian seamen stranded in Australia to form unions under the umbrella of the SUA.2

Cahill’s history is largely based on Elliott’s interpretation of the events and is thus a reflection of the racial attitudes of the period. It is not surprising therefore, that the representation of Indian seamen has overtones of paternalism. Cahill writes that the SUA was primarily responsible for setting up the Indian Seamen’s Union in 1945.3 He explains that the Indians initially rejected the idea of having Indian leaders, preferring Australians instead, but were convinced to choose a President from “among their fellow countrymen”. This explanation implies that Indian workers were unused to the idea of Indian leadership, no doubt because of their status as colonial subjects. This idea is further suggested when we are told that an Australian was elected as treasurer and designated as the “Friend of the Oppressed”, a title which presented the Indian seamen as victims in need of white benevolence.

Cahill concludes by quoting Indian Sibety Hassan who wrote of his Australian experience:

…we won our battle in Australia. We must apply that lesson here, too. If all seamen stand together and build a strong Union, we can improve our conditions.…that lesson we shall not forget.4

Clearly this incident is recalled as a positive experience for all involved. The problem lies in the assumption that the Indians were inexperienced in matters of unionism and that they were introduced to the concept of union organisation by the Australians. The setting up of Australians as teachers of Asian workers is problematic.

The Indonesians were similarly described by Elliott as being illiterate and politically naïve. He did not advocate white paternalism, believing that it was “more important for the Indonesians to have trade union experience themselves than for their struggles to be fought for them by outsiders”.5 Despite this, he still assumed that Indonesians had no experience of trade unionism in their own country. Are we to assume, therefore that the members of the SUA in the 1940s were unaware of the history of both Indonesian and Indian communist and unionist activity? Was it assumed that their colonial status meant that they had been unable to engage in activism?

The assumption that Indian workers were in some way less advanced than Australian workers is a reflection of the persistence of the “coolie” image. Frank Broeze, in his article on Indian seamen noted that in 1914, Indian wages were approximately one fifth of those of British seamen making them very popular with British ship-owners. As a result there were over fifty thousand Indians serving on British ships. Broeze comments that the Indians were “renowned for their docility”.6 With the introduction of steam ships, the arduous position of fireman was dominated by Indian seamen, as British workers were unwilling to endure the hot conditions of the engine-room. Broeze suggests that it was not until the First World War that negative stereotypes of Indian sailors began to erode.7

The post-war period saw the strengthening of Indian trade unionism, a process which was also encouraged by the establishment of the International Labour Office in 1919. The All India Trade-Union Congress was convened in 1920 and included in the affiliated unions were the Indian Seamen’s Union of Bombay with a membership of 12,000 and the Indian National Seamen’s Union of Calcutta.8 Mr. Lajpat Rai, in his presidential address stated:

The workers of Europe and America have now discovered that the cause of the workers is one and the same all the world over, and that there can be no salvation for them, unless and until the workers of Asia were organised, and internationally affiliated.…So long as there is cheap labour in China and India…the cause of the European proletariat is neither safe nor secure. The movement we are inaugurating today is thus of more than national importance. It is a matter of international significance. The workers of India are joining hands and brains not only to solidify the interests of Indian labour, but also to forge a link in the chain of international brotherhood.9

Here we have clear evidence not only of Indian trade union organisation but of their emphatic support for internationalism. When viewed in this context, Elliott’s depiction of Indian seamen in 1945 is scarcely adequate.

Elliott was clearly proud of his role in furthering international unionism. He wrote in 1956 that “the most spectacular gains have been made since 1937 when seamen began to elect Communists to lead them”. He lists the internationalist campaigns which earned the SUA “a world-wide reputation as champions of liberty”.10 But his suggestion that 1937 began a new era of internationalism underplays the role of previous communist leaders of the SUA.

The education of trade unionists on the subject of Asia had been a key left-wing policy since the 1920s. Bob Gollan, writing in Revolutionaries and Reformists described the ACTU decision to affiliate with the communist-backed Pan- Pacific Secretariat in 1927, stating:

Ideas of international working class co-operation were wide-spread amongst people on the left of the labour movement…The attitude…was one of sympathy with the oppressed people of Asia…11

Gollan refers specifically to communist support for Indian independence and notes that one of the main reasons for the publication of the Pan-Pacific Worker was to disseminate information on working conditions in Asia, advocating international trade union unity.12

Early internationalists

As early as 1912, Bernard O’Dowd who was a member of the Victorian Socialist Party argued that socialists should recruit Asians into the Party “to forge links with ‘advanced bodies’ in Asian countries”.13 O’Dowd at least was aware of the existence of “advanced bodies”.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is usually described as having solid internationalist credentials. According to Verity Burgmann the IWW “issued the first effective challenge ever to working-class racism in Australia”.14 The IWW policy on the inclusion of Asian workers within Australian unions set it in direct opposition to official AWU policy. Nevertheless there was a certain cold-hearted pragmatism to IWW internationalism.

Tom Barker, General Secretary of the IWW in Sydney wrote in 1915 that “Asiatic” countries would soon become dominant through cheap labor and modern machinery and that “scabbery” had become an international business. His solution was “to inculcate the ideas of solidarity, and industrial unionism into the ranks of the workers of the East as well as those of the West”. He wrote:

If we don’t teach the yellow worker how to raise his standard to ours, then unorganised, he will reduce our standard to his.…And we are more than convinced that the Asiatic, once he understands, will be just as solid as the white. Already we have innumerable instances of solidarity in their fights.15

Barker suggests that Asian have already joined in unionist activity and shown their solidarity with white workers. Nevertheless his emphasis is on Asian workers as an “unorganised” group, in need of guidance by Australia unionists who are presumed to be better acquainted with the principles of international unionism. The fact that the majority of Australian unionists rejected the notion of international solidarity in 1915 was apparently not considered relevant.

The SUA under Tom Walsh

As Rowan Cahill points out, the SUA first embraced internationalism at the end of the First World War. In particular, the union’s position on Asian workers altered under the leadership of Irish-born Tom Walsh, who was a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia.16 Under Walsh, the SUA was to take steps to educate its members, through its publication of the Seamen’s Journal. Brian Fitzpatrick, in his history of the SUA notes that after Walsh became editor of the Seamen’s Journal in 1920, the journal expanded to include well-informed editorial notes and frequent articles advocating Communist ideology.17

Tom Walsh was convinced of the need to include Asian workers within Australian unions. He took a firm stance against the AWU “colour bar” on membership in 1921 when he informed the AWU that the Seamen’s Union would not join the AWU as the latter’s constitution did not permit Japanese and Chinese to become members. Walsh’s objection to the AWU “colour bar” was nevertheless unpopular with many members of the SUA, in particular those in Queensland branches who appealed to him to support the White Australia policy.18

Working within the competitive international environment of shipping, seamen were well-placed to understand the futility of isolationism. In 1922, the International Seamen’s Union of America announced that it would “throw the door of their unions open to Asiatic seamen” and open branches in China and Japan, following the refusal of the American Shipping Board to grant preference to seamen on the basis of nationality. The union altered its previously exclusionary policy but only in order to survive. Vice-President, Fred Scharrenberg, stated:

The Chinese and Japanese seamen have demonstrated that they are well able and fully qualified to become ardent trades unionists and I believe they will be a valuable asset to the labour movement and to the seamen’s organisations in particular.19

The SUA decision to include Asian workers was similarly pragmatic in character. In 1924 John Observa wrote in the Seamen’s Journal:

There is no color bar in the Seamen’s Union, to adopt one would be fatal to the future of seamanship…for the shipowners would be able to find non-unionists enough amongst the colored seamen to man the ships.…After all, labor has an international message, and by framing the exclusion clause in the rules of the O.B.U. those responsible dealt a blow at the International Solidarity of Labor…How utterly ridiculous it is to suppose that by excluding Asiatics, either from the unions or from “OUR COUNTRY”, we can rid ourselves of their competition.…all colored men, whatever their nationality, who work in Australian industries, ought to be organised. To leave them unorganised constitutes a menace to us all; to organise them will make for co- operation and comradeship, so that if they leave here, to go back to their birth-place, they will carry with them the gospel of Industrial Solidarity to those who they meet in their own country.20

Again the notion that Australian seamen should educate Asian seamen in the ways of industrial solidarity assumed that Australian seamen were more advanced in their understanding of unionism. By 1924, however, the labour movements of Asia were well and truly established and well aware of the “gospel of Industrial Solidarity”.

Understanding Asian seamen

The “John Observa” article suggests that the SUA members had a working understanding of the principles of communist internationalism as a means of advancing the cause of the labour movement. What appears to be lacking is a sense of Asian workers as equal to themselves, or that the union organisations in Asian countries might provide useful allies. For the most part, “Asian” workers continued to be discussed in general terms as a “problem” for Australian workers, rather than as a source of strength. Nevertheless, the Seamen’s Journal and other labour newspapers in the early 1920s were attempting to promote a greater understanding of the organisational progress of Asian seamen.

Japanese and Chinese seamen

In 1923, the Seamen’s Journal ran John Brailford’s article on the working conditions of Japanese seamen which revealed that they had already achieved standards only slightly below those of Australian seamen. The Japanese Seamen’s Union had been formed in 1922 and by 1923 had approximately 13,000 members out of 60,000 certificated men.21 An editorial comment introducing the article stated: “all things considered, there is not much in the talk about ‘the Japanese lowering our standard of living’, as some people say”.

Connections between the CPA and the Chinese workers were also well-established. In 1922, the Nationalist government of Sun Yat-sen legalised trade unions for the first time in Chinese history.22 The Australasian Chinese Nationalist Party had been established in Australia in 1920 and from the beginning they encouraged internationalist solidarity, inviting Jock Garden, a communist member of the Sydney Trades Hall to address their annual convention.23

In 1925 a special bulletin from The Chinese Seamen titled “Workers of all Countries, Unite!” appeared in the Seamen’s Journal bringing the voice of Chinese internationalism directly to Australian workers. The article described the success of the Chinese Seamen’s Union in fighting the case of a Chinese steward, Tsen Wong against the Macao Steamship Company. The Chinese Seaman made a plea for international solidarity, writing:

Fellow-seamen of the world! You are likewise oppressed and exploited by the capitalists. Our enemy is one.

Brother seamen of the world! We know no distinction of nationality or race. We know only the distinction between the capitalist-class and the working-class. All workers—white, black, yellow, red and brown—are brothers and comrades.…

Brother workers of the world! Let us unite and form a world family of workers! Injury to one is injury to all! Three cheers for our unity!24

The portrayal of both Chinese and Japanese unionism in the Seamen’s Journal suggests that workers in these countries were viewed as potential allies in the internationalist struggle. The depiction of Indian seamen however, is quite different in tone.

Indian seamen

The development of Indian unionism was brought somewhat belatedly to the attention of the readers of the Seamen’s Journal in 1923 in a brief announcement:

The latest news from the East is that the coolies in Indian ports are organising. It is time that they did so. Too long have they been used by the master class in opposition to the European workers, but now that they have started to organise it is to be hoped that they will take an international view of matters and recognise that capital knows no country.25

This was not the first mention of Indian unionism in an Australian publication. Common Cause noted in 1921 that Indian workers in Fiji were demanding European wages and conditions, demonstrating that the “color line” was unnecessary.26 The fact that the Seamen’s Journal still referred to Indian workers as “coolies” indicates that the perception of Indian workers remained steeped in colonial imagery.

In late 1923, a report by John O’Neill of the Melbourne Branch of the SUA described the plight of ten Indian seamen who had signed onto the SS City of Batavia in Philadelphia on the condition that they be paid off in India. On arrival in Australia, the seamen had been informed that a change in itinerary meant that they would not be sailing to India. They ceased work, arguing that the ship’s master was in breach of agreement and were sentenced to seven days imprisonment. O’Neill wrote:

The coolies were not frightened by the seven days in the “cooler”, and when placed on board the vessel after serving their sentence again refused to work. They alleged they had been despicably mislead, and proved to Messrs. Crosby & Co. that the poor ignorant servile coolie seamen is a relic of past days when the Shipowner at his will could exploit the colored seamen without the risk of him adopting any retaliatory measures. The coolies on the “City of Batavia” were adamant in their refusal to work, with the result that they were prosecuted a second time and sentenced to six weeks imprisonment, with they were still serving at the time of writing. To enable the ship to sail the Master was successful in engaging five white men to replace the coolies. The men engaged were white in color only, otherwise they were the “riff raff” of the waterfront, not members of the Federated Seamen’s Union, but, as is found in every country in the world, men, ready and willing to lend themselves to any act of scabbery the Boss requires to be done.27

The language used in this article demonstrates that already there was a questioning of the terms “white” and “coolie”. In the language of White Australia, there was an implied correlation between being “white” and being a good unionist. Here that assumption is overturned as the so-called “coolies” demonstrate their militancy. Impressed by their conduct, the SUA took action on behalf of the Indians and helped them to find passage home.

Once in Calcutta, the Indians wrote to the President of the SUA.28 The letter appeared in the Seamen’s Journal under the title of “Our Indian Comrades”. The use of the term “comrades” is a noted contrast to the language of the first article which had been titled “Coolies Organising”. The Indian seamen wrote:

Sir,—The uncommon, unusual, and unexpected sympathy and love that was showered upon us—the dejected, disheartened, helpless, shamed, benighted sailors of the S.S. City of Batavia…from the generous, genial benevolent breast of your Organisation, like the soothing shower of rain dropped down from the sky upon the dry barren land, is not only ever to be remembered…but has bound us so much with the tie of brotherly love and gratitude that we cannot really express it in words…29

 The editorial commentary suggested that the readers would be “gratified” by this response. The emotive language of the Indian seamen plays on the notion that they were indeed grateful for the benevolence of the Australian unionists. There is no mention, however, of the Seamen’s Union of Calcutta nor anything to indicate that the Indians belonged to a union. We are left with the impression that Indian workers were courageous but lacking in organisational support. Perhaps there was a lack of support for ordinary seamen from within the Indian union system. Nevertheless, this does not explain why the Seamen’s Journal had so little information on Indian unionism and yet had clear links with Chinese and Japanese unions.


The Seamen’s Union of Australia was one of the first Australian unions to promote international relations with Asian workers. The support shown by Australian seamen towards Indian seamen in both 1923 and 1945 indicates their genuine desire to act upon the principles of solidarity and to offer help to those in need. The apparent lack of contact at an organisational level between the SUA and the Indian labour movement is a subject which requires further investigation. There was clearly a distinction between the perceptions of Indian workers as opposed to those of Chinese and Japanese workers. The British colonial stereotype of Indians as “coolies” apparently still held sway. By 1920, the Indian labour movement was strongly engaged in breaking down that image but it was not sufficient that they chose to organise. The failure of communication between the Indian and Australian unions contributed to the lingering sense that Indian workers were helpless victims in need of Australian help.

1 Rupert Lockwood, Black Armada, Australasian Book Society, Sydney, 1975, pp. 10-11.
2 Rowan Cahill, “Part II, 1935-1972” in Brian Fitzpatrick and Rowan Cahill, The Seamen’s Union of Australia, 1872-1972, Seamen’s Union of Australia, Sydney, 1981, pp. 168-185.
3 Ibid., p. 182.
4 Ibid., p. 183.
5 Ibid., p. 170.6 Frank Broeze, “Indian Seafarers in Modern Times”, Westerly, no. 4, Dec., 1984, p. 19.
7 Ibid., p. 20.
8 A. R. Desai, Labour Movement in India: Documents: 1918-1920, Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi, 1988, pp. 349-50.
9 Ibid., p. 364.
10 Preface to Cahill and Fitzpatrick, op.cit, p. xvi.
11 Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists, Communism and the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1950, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1975, p. 15.
12 Ibid., p. 16.
13 Graeme Osborne, “A Socialist Dilemma”, in A. Curthoys and A. Markus (eds.), Who Are Our Enemies? Racism and the Australian Working Class, Hale & Iremonger, ASSLH, Sydney, 1978, p. 119.
14 Verity Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia , Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1995, p. 91.
15 Northern Territory Times, 11 November 1915.
16 Stuart Macintyre, The Reds, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1998, p. 18.
17 Brian Fitzpatrick and Rowan Cahill, The Seamen’s Union of Australia, 1872-1972, pp. 50-52.
18 “Internationalism”, Northern Standard, 28 April 1921.
19 “The Strike of the Asiatic Seamen’s Union Members. Startling Change in American Union’s Attitude”, The Australasian Seamen’s Journal, 1 June 1922, p. 11.
20 John Observa, “The White Australia Policy and the OBU” Seamen’s Journal, 1 March 1924, pp. 6-7.
21 John Brailford, “The Seamen in Japan”, Seamen’s Journal, 2 April 1923, p. 4.
22 London Sunday Worker, cited in Northern Standard, 20 May 1927.
23 Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors, The Story of Sydney’s Chinese, State Library of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1997, pp. 113-14.
24 “Workers of all Countries, Unite!”, Seamen’s Journal, 20 July 1925, p. 8.
25 “Coolies Organising”, Seamen’s Journal, 2 April 1923, p. 3.
26 “The Color Line”, Common Cause, 12 August 1921, p. 1.
27 John O’Neill, “Melbourne Branch Report”, Seamen’s Journal, 1 September 1923, p. 6.
28 “Our Indian Comrades”, Seamen’s Journal, 1 December 1923, p. 15.
29 The letter was signed by Bhupendra Nath Roy., Ahammad Adda., Abdul Said., Buz Ruk Al., Bin Mahammad., Abdul Hassim, and John Ali