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Adding pimento: a flavour of Caribbean migration to Australia

The Trinidad-born Australian novelist Ralph de Boissière migrated to Melbourne in 1948 to escape Trinidad’s colour/class hierarchy. Breakdown Press

Growing up with a Jamaican grandmother in 1970s small-town Australia was unusual. There weren’t any other Caribbean (or West Indian) people living nearby and a Caribbean community did not exist in Newcastle, New South Wales.

When I interviewed members of the Caribbean community who migrated to Victoria from the 1960s to the 2000s for the book Adding Pimento: Caribbean Migration to Victoria, Australia (2014), co-edited by Lisa Montague and Pat Thomas, it put my grandmother’s migration into the socio-political context of the time.

Adding Pimento (2014). Breakdown Press

Remarkably, my grandmother had come to Australia on an assisted passage – for many years, only offered to people of European background – which she was able to successfully apply for in 1971 because she’d lived in London prior to migrating to Australia.

By the 1970s she was a British citizen. She was also a fair Jamaican who emigrated to Australia because her daughter met and married an Australian.

Caribbean people did come to live in Australia in the 19th century, mainly through the circuits of empire established by the British or because of the attraction of the Gold Rushes in NSW and Victoria. But their attempts to migrate were severely curtailed after the White Australia Policy was implemented in 1901.

My grandmother was one of the very small group of Caribbean people who had been able to migrate to Australia before the official end of the White Australia Policy in 1973, either because of the colour of their skin or due to their citizenship and/or marital status. Assisted passage which was yet another way of trying to keep Australia “white”.

The Trinidad-born Australian novelist Ralph de Boissière migrated to Melbourne in 1948 to escape Trinidad’s colour/class hierarchy, which exists as a legacy of slavery.

In his autobiography, Life on the Edge (2010), de Boissière describes the “crippling sense of inferiority” experienced by Trinidadians and, by extension, all West Indians as a result of the colonial system.

While de Boissière himself had no problem entering Australia in 1948, his wife Ivy and daughters Marcelle and Jacqueline were detained on board the ship while immigration officials decided if they would “fit in”. De Boissière reports that the family left the ship “feeling that we were tolerated migrants”.

Charlie McKenzie migrated to Australia in 1974. Breakdown Press

In the 1960s and 70s, the granting of Independence, and the rise of the Black Power movement prompted Caribbean migration to Australia.

The influence of communism and socialism on Caribbean political leaders such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Jamaica’s Michael Manley, Guyana’s Forbes Burnham and Grenada’s Maurice Bishop also played a part in migration.

Historian Barry Higman claimed in 1976 that Australia was seen as a “haven”, particularly by white and fair West Indians who were fleeing these socio-political changes.

Charlie McKenzie, a former sugar plantation owner from Barbados, decided to migrate to Australia in 1974 after Independence because:

there was an undercurrent that I didn’t know anything about and I didn’t want any part of.

McKenzie left an affluent lifestyle to resettle in Melbourne. Prior to arriving, Charlie thought he would work as a taxi driver because “the only thing I could do was drive a car”, but he ended up working in the public service.

Tony and Schavana Phillips left Guyana in 1978 because of the increasing socialist orientation of the Burnham government. They felt that the changes that were taking place, such as compulsory military service for all young people, including women, and the restrictions on imports were making Guyana an uncomfortable place for themselves and their family members.

Tony and Schvana Phillips on their wedding day. Breakdown Press

In their story, Schavana says:

The country was very dangerous to live in; also the economy of the country started to deteriorate … It was really a desperate situation. We made a decision to get out and we got out.

The Phillips already had family living in Melbourne, which was the main draw-card for re-settling here.

It is important to note that not all Caribbean people who came to Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, were fleeing the region because of these shifts in power and political ideology; nor do they necessarily share the same political views as those who did. Some saw Victoria as providing greater job opportunities, or they had family or marital ties here.

But Australia was not the destination of choice for the majority of Caribbean people, because it was initially against their attempt to migrate. Instead they emigrated to the United States, Canada and the UK where there were and still are large Caribbean diasporic communities.

After the White Australia Policy was abolished in 1973 more Caribbean people migrated to Australia but mainly because they had met and married Australians, or because they had chosen Australia for work and/or educational purposes.

The Caribbean community in Victoria mainly comprises people (of many races and ethnicities) from the English-speaking or Commonwealth Caribbean, including some who identify as Black British of Caribbean descent.

Like adding pimento to Caribbean food, the Caribbean community has added yet another layer to multicultural Victoria.

Adding Pimento: Caribbean Migration to Victoria, Australia (2014) is released today, Monday December 8.

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