Port Chicago 1944 – A Black and White Situation: The Naval Disaster

Military history, Racial politics, Regional History, Society & Culture

Progressive advocates and activists for a more just and equal society in the US view the Port Chicago❈ naval disaster and mutiny in July 1944 as a crucible for the cause of civil rights. African-American seamen, the majority still in their teens, revolted against the entrenched discriminatory practices they encountered in the Navy during WWII, and although vilified and punished by White authority at the time, their stand was to be a key factor in the eventual decision to abolish segregation in the US armed forces[1].

Devastation on the PC pier after the explosion
The catalyst for the subsequent ‘mutiny’ (as the Navy and White society generally characterised it – see also the follow up blog) was a catastrophic series of explosions whilst two naval carrier vessels were being loaded at the naval dock with ammunition for transportation to the Pacific theatre of war. The mega-blast killed 320 sailors and civilians (the bulk of the sailors were African-Americans), plus a further 390 personnel were injured❧. It was the worst home front disaster of WWII (the cost included nearly $9.9m worth of damage to dock, ships and buildings). The fireball engulfing the Port could be viewed from miles away, triggering a quake felt as far away as Boulder City, Nevada. Such was the force of the explosion that one 300lb chunk of steel was ‘cannonballed’ a distance of 1.5 miles, landing in the main street of the Port township[2].

The disproportionate toll of African-American enlisted men in the disaster was the result of the Navy assigning them to the most menial, labouring jobs as stevedores, basically “pack mules” loading the munitions. The Navy made casual racist assumptions about their ‘limited’ vocational capacity, despite the fact that at the Navy boot camp the black sailors had each completed specific training for one or other of the naval rating occupations[3].

Navy double standards
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Navy treated of the two groups of seamen involved markedly differently – the White officers and sailors were given a 30-day “survivor’s leave”, whereas all the Black sailors (despite being severely shaken and traumatised by the incident) were denied the leave – despite it being standard procedure in such instances. This proved a very sore point for the African-Americans at Port Chicago. African-American seamen enlisted in the US Navy, aside from motives of patriotism, for the promise of recognition as full American citizens – a chance to escape the South’s Jim Crow segregation policies or the North’s institutionalised “second citizenship”[4]. Unfortunately what they found, and Port Chicago was no exception to elsewhere in the military, was that they were still segregated and marginalised, despite the fact they were serving in the defence of their country.

Adding insult to injury: Compensation for African-American victims watered down
That the loss of Black lives in the Port Chicago catastrophe was of diminished importance in American society at the time was even more starkly underlined in the subject of restitution. The Navy asked for $5,000 to be paid to each of the families of the 203 dead African-American sailors. Extraordinarily, after a vigorous and forthright protest from Mississippi Democrat representative, John Rankin (a White Supremacist sympathiser) that the sum be reduced to $2,000, Congress caved in to his pressure and awarded the families $3,000 each[5] … a brazenly unequivocal acknowledgement from the authorities that Black lives in America at the time were not worth as much as White ones!

The Naval Board of Inquiry
The Inquiry into the explosion would give the surviving Black seamen (and the victims’ families) more cause for grievance. The report never established the cause of the disaster❖, but implied that an error by the enlisted men may have led to the explosions. As for the white officers and the base commander, they were all absolved of any blame for what happened[6]. The Naval Board effectively ‘white-washed’ the whole episode, choosing not to cast a critical eye over the glaring pre-conditions that contributed to the disaster. Both training and safety was lax at Port Chicago Naval Magazine. Deeply significantly, the Black assigned stevedores were not given instruction in ammunition loading. Training deficiencies were in fact common at Port Chicago – the White loading officers themselves had only minimal training in supervising enlisted personnel and in handling munitions. As well, the Port’s commander Captain Merrill Kinne himself had no training in the loading of munitions and very little experience in handling them[7].

Diagram of pier & the two cargo carriers prior to the explosion
Sowing the seeds of catastrophe
Safety requirements were not observed and unsafe practices abounded: there was a complacency about the maintenance of key operational equipment; safety regulations were not widely distributed for the staff to familiarise themselves with. The practice at Port Chicago was to force the stevedores, working around-the-clock, to load the explosive cargos[8] at a pace that would imperil safety – the rate was set at 10 short tons per hatch every hour (higher than commercial stevedores✾). Facility commander Kinne encouraged a climate of competitiveness between the different crews (which they called ‘divisions’) by keeping a tally of each crew’s hourly tonnage on a chalkboard … leading to the junior officers surreptitiously laying bets on which crew would win the “speed loading contests”[9].

PostScript: Was the explosion a nuclear detonation?
In the early 1980s investigative journalist Peter Vogel postulated the hypothesis that the explosion at Port Chicago was likely to have been a nuclear one. Vogel noted the continued secrecy surrounding the naval base site and pointed to the specific characteristics of the fireball (as described by eyewitness accounts) – a “brilliant flash of white” and the mushrooming effect of the explosion’s dispersion (ie, a Wilson condensation cloud). Vogel also asserted that the force of the actual blast was greater than the reported 1,780 tons of high explosives on board the two Liberty carriers (E.A. Bryan and Quinault)[10].

Whilst Vogel’s theory would hold obvious appeal for conspiracy theorists, it has been not gained traction among historians. Its detractors, especially nuclear historians Badash and Hewlett, point to Vogel’s lack of hard evidence to support his claim, and his inability to explain why the US Government would want to detonate a nuclear device on populated home soil. Badash and Hewlett have noted in particular the absence of any residual radioactivity and resultant harm to the local community – which suggests that only conventional weaponry was involved[11].

❈ the town of Port Chicago, now called Concord, is located about 30 miles north of San Francisco on the Sacramento River
❧ toll for Black Navy servicemen: 203 dead, 233 injured – representing 15% of all African-American casualties for the entire war
❖ it was a bad time for the Navy, PR wise. Just two months prior to the Port Chicago disaster, another calamitous explosion at West Loch (Pearl Harbour) resulted in the death of 163 seamen and hundreds injured … and like Port Chicago the disaster remained unexplained
✾ the quota set on the main base at Mare Island for instance was only 8.7

[1] President Truman’s 1948 Executive order officially desegregating the American armed forced, United States of America Congressional Record (106th Congress), Vol 146-Part 4 (April 3, 2000 to April 25, 2000)
[2] 430 miles to the south, ‘Port Chicago Mutiny (1944)’, www.blackpast.org; ‘Port Chicago disaster’, Wikipedia, http://Wikipedia.en.m.wikipedia.org; ‘A Chronology of African American Military Service. From WWI through WWII.’ (U.S. Army, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. History), www.redstone.army.mil/history/integrate/chron36.htm
[3] RL Allen, The Port Chicago Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval History, (1989)
[4] ibid.
[5] M Moorehead, ‘The Port a Chicago Mutiny’, (Workers World), Feb 1995, www.hartford-hwp.com
[6] Allen, op.cit.
[7] ibid.
[8] The White officers used wilful deception to gain acquiescence, lying to the Black loaders as to the inherent dangers of the work – telling them the ammunition was not live which was catastrophically wrong, I Thompson, ‘Mare Island mutiny court-martial changed Navy racial policies, Daily Republic (Solano County), 23-Feb-2014, www.dailyrepublic.com
[9] Allen, loc.cit.
[10] Vogel, P (1982). THE LAST WAVE FROM PORT CHICAGO. The Black Scholar, 13(2/3), 30-47. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41066881
[11] L Badash & RG Hewlett, cited in ‘Port Chicago disaster’, Wikipedia, op.cit.

Port Chicago 1944 – A Black and White Situation: The Naval Mutiny and its Ramifications

Military history, Racial politics, Retailing history, Society & Culture

San Francisco Bay
On 17th July 1944 a catastrophically massive explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in California resulted in the loss of 320 lives, the majority African-American sailors. Less than four weeks after the worst wartime disaster on American home soil, the Navy, without regard for the sensitivity of the situation, instructed the surviving Black sailors to resume loading munitions onto the USS Sangay standing at the dock. 258 of them refused, contending that the conditions at the dock being still unsafe, and commenced a work stoppage. Threatened with court-martial (and a possible death penalty) 208 of the sailors eventually backed down. The navy authorities subsequently took punitive measures against these seamen (forfeiture of pay, pension entitlements curtailed) and they were eventually returned to service elsewhere[1].

The remaining 50 were charged by the Navy with mutiny. The defence counsel and the African-American men themselves denied this charge all through the proceedings, arguing that at no time were they attempting to seize control from the frontline commanders or overthrow the authority of the Navy (as argued by the prosecution team), but were refusing to work in what was clearly an unsafe environment, a protest against their being used as “guinea pigs”[2]. As Robert Allen explained, the mutiny charge was levelled against the defendants because the rightful description of what they were doing, striking against deleterious working conditions, only applied to the civilian sphere[3].

The trial of the “Port Chicago 50”
A court-martial was arraigned to be held on the Navy’s administrative facility at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The conduct of the trial was a travesty of equality before the law for the African-American servicemen involved … the accused black sailors were ridiculed as ‘primitive’ in their intellectual abilities, and “unreliable, emotional, lack(ing) capacity to understand or remember orders or instructions” (as the official ‘Finding of Facts’ stated[4]. The court hearings disintegrated into a shambles at times, eg, the judge fell asleep during the testimonies. After a six-week trial and a deliberation of only 60 minutes, a verdict was reached with unseemly haste – all 50 of the accused were found guilty of mutiny. The 50 convicted seamen were sentenced to between eight and 15 years imprisonment with hard labour as well as being on the receiving end of dishonourable discharges from the Navy[5].

Treasure Island court-martial site
One keen observer who attended the day-to-day court proceedings was NAACP❈’s Thurgood Marshall (later to become the first African-American judge of the US Supreme Court). Marshall was publicly critical of the trial, announcing: “This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy towards Negros. Negroes in the Navy don’t mind loading ammunition. They just want to know why they are the only ones doing the loading!”[6]. In 1945 the NAACP produced a pamphlet entitled ‘Mutiny? The Real Story of How the Navy Branded 50 Fear-shocked Sailors as Mutineers’. Marshall and the NAACP focussed the issue very squarely on the racial dimension … the treatment of the convicted men was symptomatic of a broader pattern of discrimination by the Navy against African-Americans – by mid-1943 there were 100,000 Black men serving in the Navy, but not a single Black officer among them[7]. Marshall organised an appeal on behalf of the 50 prisoners, however in June 1945 the original verdict was reaffirmed by the naval authorities.

Aftermath and consequences of the mutiny trial
The Port Chicago mutiny had an immediate punitive outcome for the 50 Black sailors who were prosecuted, but in the long run it was a Pyrrhic victory for scientific (sic) racists and White supremacists (covert and overt) both inside and outside the military. The whole episode served to raise national consciousness about practices of racial discrimination within the US military forces. And it was to prove a catalyst and inspiration for the postwar Civil Rights movement[8]. For the Navy the ramifications of Port Chicago made itself felt in short time. By the end of the World War the Navy had, in piecemeal fashion, initiated its own reforms of discriminatory practices, anticipating President Truman’s official decreeing of desegregation of the American armed forces – which did not come into law until 1948. With the world war over the Navy found it untenable to justify the continuing incarceration of the Port Chicago 50 … in January 1946 all of the men were released and assigned to other details overseas. Significantly though, none received pardons for their ‘crimes’, the convictions remained on the books[9].

A dangerous job for White servicemen!
The Port Chicago episode – a closed book reopened?
As Erika Doss has noted, “for decades the full story of the Port Chicago disaster of July 1944 was declared “classified” information and rendered virtually absent from historical narratives of the “good war”[10]. The egregious treatment of African-American seamen remained an inconvenient chapter in America’s war history, one best forgotten (Port Chicago’s subsequent name change seems intended to support this objective of burying the thorny facts of the episode).

By the 1990s the whole shameful business had started to become more openly addressed … in 1994 a memorial to the Port Chicago 50 was created on the former base’s site. But in the same year these good intentions were turned on their head by a fresh Navy inquiry which found (unbelievably) that race was not a factor in the 1944 court case – a finding that would not be out-of-place in the annals of the “Flat Earth Society”!

A number of the convicted African-Americans then still alive agitated for a just resolution, a reversal of the wrongs perpetrated against them. One of “the 50”, Freddie Meeks was talked into requesting a pardon which was finally granted in 1999 by President Clinton[11]. However five others including Joe Small refused to request the same, steadfastly insisting that as they had committed no criminal act, they was no question of seeking a pardon.

PostScript: High hopes for justice with Obama
The continued denial of justice for the Port Chicago 50 led it to become a cause célèbre in the US. This remains the case in 2017 despite the fact that all of the convicted African-American sailors are now dead. Their relatives were among those calling on the Black president, Barack Obama, to exonerate “the 50” and overturn their verdicts. Disappointingly, Obama’s outgoing powers of presidential pardon, recently enacted, did not include any of the Port Chicago 50 in its number – though this was more to do with the Obama administration’s inability to find a legal mechanism to make this a reality, rather than any lack of will on the part of the president[12].

❈ National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

[1] ‘Port Chicago mutiny’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[2] Joe Small, one of the survivors of the disaster and labelled as a ‘ringleader’ by the Navy, summed up the position taken by the 50 defendants,
“(we) weren’t trying to shirk work. But to go back to work under the same conditions, with no improvements, no change, the same group of officers…we thought there was a better alternative”, E Doss, “Commemorating the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Disaster of 1944: Remembering the Racial Injustices of the ‘Good War’ in Contemporary America’, American Studies Journal, Number 59 (2015), www.asjournal.org
[3] B Bergman, “War, ‘mutiny’ and civil rights: Remembering Port Chicago”, Berkeley News, 10-Jul-2014, www.berkeley.edu
[4] A Gustafson, ‘The Port Chicago Disaster: Race and the Navy in World War II’, (Turnstile Tours), 29-Aug-2014, www.turnstiletours.com
[5] Bergman, loc.cit.
[6] Marshall, quoted in NA Hamilton, ‘Rebels and Renegades: A Chronology of Social and Political Dissent in the United States’, (2002)
[7] Doss, loc.cit.
[8] ibid.
[9] US Secretary of the Navy James V Forrestal and Admiral Ernest King, working together, were instrumental in getting the wheels of integration in the Navy going forward, S Sundin, ‘Port Chicago – Desegregation of the US Navy’, (Sarah’s Blog), 28-Jul-2014, www.sarahsundin.com
[10] Doss, op.cit.
[11] C Nolte, ‘Clinton Pardons Wartime ‘Mutineer’ / Port Chicago black sailor of 50 in infamous case’, (SFGate), 24-Dec-1999, wwwsfgate.com
[12] ‘Full list: Obama pardons these 78 people, shortens 153 prisoners’ sentences’, (Pix 11), 19-Dec-2016, www.pix11.com

Modern Genetic Science: A New Pathway to a Eugenic World?

Futurism, Racial politics, Science and society, Society & Culture

Today hardly anyone advocates the ideology and practice of eugenics, not openly anyway and certainly not using the prejudicial language of the past. Which is not to say that the notion of eugenics is a buried and long-forgotten relic❈. The vocabulary of human biology and biotechnology these days is about human gene editing, genetic engineering, genetic modification, genetic enhancement, germline gene experimentation, gene therapy, the human genome, sociobiology, reprogenetics, a Brave New World of molecular cloning, “saviour siblings”, “donor eggs” and “designer babies”.

The scientists and technocrats who enthuse about scientific progress and future technology and in particular genetic engineering[1], tend to be “gung-ho” about the desirability of genetic intervention in human life which they see as an inevitable process◙. To them it equates with and even defines progress – the curative and preventative promise of medical genetics is for breakthroughs in a host of life-threatening diseases.

Designing a better baby?
For many geneticists and parents, the latent capabilities of human genetic engineering (HGE) is an enticing prospect, a chance for the realisation of new medical therapies to prevent and treat the multitude of diseases that plague contemporary society[2]. Put in these terms, something akin to a “motherhood statement”, few would at least in principle find grounds for objection. Naturally the vast majority of parents wish for a better future for their offspring and descendants, so leaving affordability aside for a moment, using biotechnology to eliminate the risks of genetic disease would appear to have broad community if not quite universal support. But as shown below, when you take a step beyond the fixing of genetic disorders and try to use that advanced science to augment your children’s physical or intellectual attributes it opens up a myriad of complex and perplexing dilemmas, both ethical and medical.

A world of environmental, manufacturing and agricultural panaceas
Aside from the controversial question of genetic manipulation there is already a range of successful genetic applications in society. There is the environmental role – genetically engineered bacterium can and is used to clean up oil spills (and for creating insulin to treat diabetics). Genetic science can reduce the human footprint on the environment. With the population of the globe predicted to rise by 2.4 billion in the next 34 yearsΔ, its advocates argue that biotechnology and genetic engineering can help address the inevitable and critical world food shortage … growing new crops and effecting pest control of existing food sources[3].

Pre-natal counselling and screening of foetal abnormalities
Pre-natal screening for embryo defects like Down syndrome, Trisomy 18 (Edward’s disease) and spina bifida, has a seductive lure for parental planners, these are already commonplace procedures for mothers in advanced societies. Human geneticists trumpet this as a boon to parental choice, allowing the family to produce a baby free of life-threatening and restricting conditions. Preimplantation genetic screening takes this a step further.

imageThe snowballing effect of genetic screening
IVF technology enables the screening of embryos for inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease or Tay-Sachs disease … many view this as the start of a continuum which could usher in an “era of designer babies”[4]. The market in this area has created a consumer-driven demand for “eugenic services”. IVF testing for mitochondrial DHA has been exponential … in 2011 there were 580,000 medical genetic tests in Australia, a 280% jump on the 2006 figure![5]. Currently we test for Down syndrome and similar defects, next might be Parkinson’s disease, beyond that? If given the green light there is potentially no end in sight … will they test with a view to eradicating autism? Down the track it might be dwarfism, even homosexuality?[6]. This may sound alarmist to some, but unchecked, it is plausible that gene tampering could ultimately infiltrate these areas.

This is the perspective of many detractors of genetic testing who question what the limits are and even if there are any limits to the relentless juggernaut of genetic research and experimentation. Some opponents of screening for genetic defects have described its ultimate purpose as “race cleansing”, echoing the fanatical purification goals of the discredited eugenics movements of the past. Human geneticists for their part proffer the reassurance that HGE has built-in safeguards that prevent excesses from occurring, that the entire process is highly regulated and intensely scrutinised to precisely stop it going too far[7]. Opponents refute this, highlighting the dangers and uncertainties of risky human experimentation … unpredictable effects of gene transfer, the effects of gene insertion on other genes, the chance of off-target mutations (unintentional edits to genomes such as occurred in recent Chinese CRISPR-Cas9 experiments on the genome), and other unknowns, all not properly understood at this time[8].

Genetic enhancement and the danger of a perfectibility fixation
Genetic engineering to detect embryonic abnormalities and erase them is widely accepted in the West, genetic enhancement (practiced as a matter of course in agriculture) for humans remains a much harder sell. Genetically modifying your future child to prevent, say, a detected autoimmune disease, is one thing, but screening with the purpose of altering your child’s appearance, eye colour, etc, making him or her taller, more intelligent, more athletic, etc. … the imperative of achieving a Stepford Wives world of perfectibility could take over. This would propel medical genetics into a whole different realm, a techno-eugenic future fraught with menace and worrying ethical implications[9].

The ethical or moral dimension
Ethical or moral objectors to HGE seem to divide along religious and non-religious lines. Many professing a religious faith argue that the practice runs counter to the “will of God”, whilst those of a secular disposition might view it as “tinkering with nature”. The genetic engineering detractors argue that humans are inviolable, endowed with individual rights, and that such interventions are unnatural and trample all over those rights[10]. Some academics with an interest in science ethics however dispute the merit of the ‘naturalness’ argument[11].

Geneticists and biotechnologists would characterise a call for a blanket ban on human genetic experimentation as a conservative, “knee-jerk” reaction which seeks to close off the door to scientific inquiry and medical advancement, but the obverse, an open slather, unchecked approach to genetic intervention seems an imprudent one, given the unknown consequences of gene editing and of venturing too deeply into a genetic minefield that is almost certainly irreversible.

imageConcerns with non-therapeutic abuse in genetics has a wide ambit: another peripheral issue pointing to likely future genetic manipulation lies in the realm of sport, an area already plagued by the increasingly widespread use of steroids for performance enhancement. The development of gene therapy has elevated the disturbing likelihood of gene doping – inserting or modifying DNA for the purpose of enhancing the performance of athletes. Gene doping is still in an experimental phase but is particularly concerning both to doctors and to Olympic administrators because it is hard to detect and it’s nature is unpredictable and potentially dangerous[12].

imageWhilst the possibility of misuse and harm of gene editing technology is a barrier for many, others opposing genetic manipulation from a humanist viewpoint and have called out the human genetics industry for discriminating against and undermining the dignity of the disabled and the mentally ill. Opponents say that there is a common element at the core of both eugenics and human genetic engineering – the devaluing of (some) human life. Contemporary geneticists, they say, start from the same philosophical standpoint as the old-style eugenicists: a view of the disabled and other “genetically challenged” people that is essentially negative and pessimistic, conveying the idea that they are extraneous and to be done away with. Many critics see these advocates of HGE as intolerant of those with genetic impairment, refusing to accept the disabled in particular for how they are (which is part of the diversity of the human condition)[13]. These detractors believe that the normalisation of human genetic modification would lead to an erosion of respect for the disabled.

A fundamental shift in the parent/child relationship?
Another objection to human gene policy revolves around its perceived adverse effect on the traditional bond between child and parent. Brendan Foht, from a conservative perspective, has hypothesised that in a situation where parents decide to dip into the gene pool to create the kind of offspring they want, the child becomes a product of his or her parents’ desires and wishes … their acceptance of and love for the child is provisional upon the child stacking up to that ‘wish-list’. This, Foht points out, upturns the optimal relationship in which the child is the beneficiary of his or her parents’ unconditional love[14].

Some opposed to the genetic engineering of humans have emphasised the absence of consent by future descendants, ie, the ethical issues raised by “altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent” (Francis Collins, US National Institute of Health). This objection has been dismissed as a nonsense by John Harris who contends that parents “have literally no choice but to make decisions for future people without considering their consent”, this happens every day, without it life would not function properly [15].

Proponents of HGE have made attempts to salvage the reputation of the new eugenics, eg, Nicholas Agar’s concept of Liberal eugenics which leaves the decision to the consumer (ie, the parents) rather than to public health authorities, thus avoiding (argues Agar) the repugnant consequences of past eugenics practices. But as Robert Sparrow has noted, any emphasis “on pre-determined genetics of future persons leads to assumptions about the relative worth of different life plans”[16].

The politics and economics of HME
Some opponents of HGE have focussed on the political and economic element: their argument runs, if genetic engineering was given free rein to intervene into the human sphere, the result would be free market eugenics, so that access to genetic modification or enhancement would come down to the ability to pay and inequalities within society would exacerbate. The fear is that in this scenario the elites of society would have a monopoly of both biological and financial control[17].

imageThe thorny issue of genetic engineering of humans, especially with its uncomfortable link with the pernicious effects of the eugenics movement of last century, remains a highly controversial one. Scientific advancements in biotechnology has created a receptive market for genetic screening for defective embryos, but the genetic enhancement of humans, with its Frankenstein-ish overtones, remains a bridge too far for most people in western democracies✥.

PostScript: Genetic Enhancement – Ask an expert
In December 2015 Washington DC hosted the ‘International Summit on Human Gene Editing’ in which scientists, bioethicists and other stakeholders from the US, the UK and China debated issues around the use of the human gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. The summit’s committee adopted a “precautionary principle” re the technology and resolved to avoid any unknown, unintended consequences. It acknowledged the value of CRISPR gene editing research as an aiding the knowledge of basic biology but advocated a cautious approach in its utilisation. It called for more research to be completed on the technology before any more ambitious applications were considered[18]. To date 40 countries have rejected human germline modification using gametes (genetically altered embryos)[19].

❈ which is not to say that there is no one today who advocates eugenics, eg, some elements of contemporary society couch their ideology in terms like ‘humanitarian’ eugenics, see ‘Future Generations’ (www.eugenics.net) which reproduces the work of pro-eugenics scientists such as Richard Lynn and Philippe Rushton. Similar sentiments are also apparent in the published work of Helmuth Nyborg
◙ this is at the core of the transhumanism philosophy, the belief that “the human species in its current form does not represent the end of (it’s) development”, and posits that continuous, radical change in science and technology will lead to that future (‘What is Transhumanism?’, www.whatistranshumanism.org)
Δ according to a 2015 United Nations DESA report
cloning in particular remains the greatest taboo in medical genetics. A recent Pew study in the US found that the overwhelming number of its respondents oppose brain chip implants; surveys and polls in various western countries over the last 25 to 30 years have echoed this rejection of human cloning, G O Schaefer, ‘The future of Genetic Engineering is not in the West’, The Conversation, 2-Aug-2016, www.theconversation.com

[1] the science of altering living things by changing the information encoded in their DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), ‘Genetic Engineering’, (A Guide to the Future by Christopher Barnett), www.explainigthefuture.com
[2] human germline editing will decrease and even eliminate many serious genetic diseases, reducing human suffering worldwide, (Emeritus Prof. Harris), J Harris, ‘Pro: Research on Gene Editing in Humans must continue’, in ‘Pro and Con: Should Gene Editing be Performed on Human Embryos?’, National Geographic, www.nationalgeographic.com
[3] D Koepsell, ‘The Ethics of Genetic Engineering’ (A position paper from the Center for Inquiry, Office of Public Policy, Washington D.C.) August 2007, www.centerforinquiry.net
[4] F Nelson, ‘The return of eugenics’, The Spectator, 02-Apr-2016, www.thespectator.com.au
[5] S Saulter, ‘Trusting the Future? Ethics of Human Genetic Modification’ (Op-Ed), 6-May-2014, Live Science, www.livescience.com; R Gebelhoff, ‘What’s the difference between genetic engineering and eugenics?’, Washington Post, 22-Feb-2016, www.washingtonpost.com
[6] it is a matter of trust, their argument runs, Saulter, loc.cit. Proponents place much faith in the new, cutting edge gene-editing technology, CRIPR-Cas9, which is reputed to have a lower error rate than other technologies
[7] ‘Q & A about Techno-eugenics’, (HG Alert), www.hgalert.org; B P Foht, ‘The Case against HG Editing’, Nation Review, 4-Dec-2015, www.nationreview.com
[8] M Darnovsky, ‘Con: Do Not Open the Door to Editing Genes in Future Humans’ in ‘Pro and Con’, op.cit.; HG Alert, loc.cit.
[9] Moreover opponents of HGE see such modifications as unnecessary, C J Epstein, ‘Is medical genetics the new eugenics?’, Genetics in Medicine, (2003) 5, www.nature.com. A 36-nation survey by D C Wertz in the 1990s found that both patients and health care professionals held a pessimistic view of the disabled, D C Wertz, ‘Eugenics is alive and well: a survey of genetic professionals around the world’, Sci Context, 1998 Aut-Wint. 11(3-4), www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
[10] HG Alert, loc.cit.
[11] Prof. Harris contends that what is ‘natural’ is not inherently good, diseases for example are natural with millions dying prematurely from them. Gene editing therapies, he says, could prevent these illnesses and deaths, Harris, op.cit.
[12] L A Pray, ‘Sport, Gene Doping, and WADA’, Scitable Mobile, (2008), www.nature.com; T Franks, ‘Gene doping: Sport’s biggest battle?’, BBC News, 12-Jan-2014, www.bbc.com
[13] HG Alert, loc.cit.
[14] Foht, op.cit.
[15] Harris, loc.cit.
[16] R Sparrow, ‘Liberalism and eugenics’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 89(3) 2011, www.philpapers.org
[17] David Koepsell has speculated that a monopolisation of power and wealth on the mechanisms of genetics could eventuate in a science fiction-esque future in which the human race is divided into two species, comprising ‘super-humans’ and ‘sub-humans’, Koepsell, op.cit.
[18] it concluded that editing the human germline would be ‘irresponsible’ without resolving the safety and efficacy issues, and without obtaining a “broad social consensus” on the technology’s use, T Lewis, ‘Hundreds of scientists just met in DC and had heated discussions about whether or not they should alter genes in human babies’, Business Insider Australia, 5-Dec-2015, www.businessinsider.com.au
[19] Darnovsky, loc.cit.

Nature Vs Nurture and the Unravelling of ‘Scientific Racism’

Racial politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture

By the mid 1930s the allure of “scientific racism” was on the wane in advanced western countries❈. Although scientists were in the thick of the movement both as eugenicists and as propagandists, significant numbers of scientists and politicians never bought the shonky scientific approach of the eugenics movement. Many in the science community never accepted the methodology for the eugenicists’ grand schemes[1]. Information on heredity was far from comprehensive in that era, the science was misguided and there was a vastly imperfect understanding of genetics, at best rudimentary, at the time. Eugenic hygiene organisations were unable to produce reliable statistics. As John Averell pointed out, “proof’ of research” in the field comprised “primarily statistical correlation within conveniently constructed ‘races’ rather than individual case studies to see if the desirable characteristics were actually inherited”[2].

Mendel's schema
Mendel’s schema
The scientific genesis of the 20th century eugenics movement was located in the rediscovered research of 19th century Austrian monk Gregor Mendel. Mendel experimented in plant hybridisation and his laws of inheritance based on the crossing of garden peas✥ were the foundation for the theories of eugenicists like American Charles Davenport. Davenport et al applied the Mendelian method to human traits such as eye colour which he argued was inherited (as the colour of Mendel’s pea plants were). The eugenicists employed an overly simplified dominant/recessive scheme to account for complex behaviours and mental illnesses, this was a fundamental flaw in their thinking (derived from ‘pedigrees’ based on Mendelian inheritance), a single-gene explanation of human characteristics and conditions. Contemporary science unequivocally accepts that these traits are in fact shaped by (many, many) multiple genes, ie, the existence of polygenic traits[3].

Although eugenics was portrayed by its adherents in the early 20th century as a “mathematical science”, a clinical method of predicting traits and behaviours and controlling human breeding, its drew criticism from scientific quarters on a number of levels. The ‘evidence’ was typically shoddy, such as the research into determining just who was to be classified as being ‘feeble’ and ‘unfit’ in society. The eugenicists relied often on subjectivity, second-hand accounts and hearsay to establish the lineages of the ‘undesirable’ gene pool (see PostScript 1), or on visible observable (physical) features (the resort to phrenology and the like). The theories of eugenics did not seem adequate to explain some traits, such as shyness – rather than being an immutable genetic condition, this could be subject to change over time (ie, some people grow out of shyness!). In addition eugenicists took no account of factors external to a person’s gene makeup in the categorisation of the ‘unfit’, such as his or her contracting a transmissible disease such as syphilis[4].

The scrutiny on eugenics, its growing characterisation as a pseudoscience unable to stand up to academic scientific rigour, prompted some proselytisers of eugenics to claim that eugenics was more than merely science, that it was tantamount to a new religion or moral code[5]. One of the eugenics practitioners who typified this was Alexis Carrel, an American-based French surgeon and Nobel Laurette biologist. Carrel’s eugenics was a strange mix of science, religion, clairvoyance and ultra right-wing politics … his extreme ideas were infused with an anti-materialist, holistic spiritual mysticism. In his 1935 international best-seller, Man, the Unknown, Carrel warned against the degenerative effect of modernity and outlined his notion of an autocratic utopia in which the dysgenic elements were eradicated from society[6].

The eugenics scene in Australasia mirrored Europe and America in questioning the correctness of the ‘science’. The scientific community although entrenched in the vanguard of the eugenic movement threw up its share of dissenters from within its ranks. One such was geographer Griffith Taylor who championed “racial hybridity” and cast serious doubts on the goal of race purity and its assumptions that underpinned eugenics. Moreover there was a lack of cohesion and camaraderie among the individual eugenicists who are often rivals of each other … this of itself did not make for a strong, lasting movement in Australia[7].

J B Watson, Behaviourist
J B Watson, Behaviourist
The Behaviourist counterpoint:
The rise of behaviourism in the West as a valid analytical tool for explaining human nature was a counterweight to the biological determinism of eugenics whose advocates preached that biology was destiny. The behaviourist backlash against the persuasive eugenics ideology was led by pioneering American psychologist John B Watson▣ around the time of the Great War. Watson, rejecting Freudian concepts of the unconscious mind, or that mental states or ‘instincts’ were significant, arguing instead that observable behaviour was the key to explaining human traits and complex mental states. In doing so, Watson was also refuting the view that heredity played a role in this construct. For Watson, and for B F Skinner who later took up his mantle as a radical behaviourist, the environment, modelled behaviour, was the source of human change. The work of Watson and Skinner and other behaviourists undercut the eugenics movement’s singular reliance on nature by shifting the debate to the significance of nurture in the process[8].

PostScript 1: ‘Feeble’ family studies template
The belief of eugenicists that all social ills – poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, criminality, venereal disease, epilepsy – could be traced back to one genetic flaw, and that intelligence was determined by heredity, was shaped by seminal pioneering studies in the field. One of the most influential was by psychologist Henry Goddard (1912) who analysed the genetic pattern of one man’s lineage (known as “Martin Kallikak” – fabricated name derived from the conjunction of ‘kallos’ beauty and ‘kakos’ bad). ‘Kallikak’ produced two widely divergent types of families (one ‘good’, one ‘bad’), which despite being nurtured in two radically different environments, the patterns of which Goddard concluded was solely the result of heredity[9].

PostScript 2: Polygenism debunked
The polygenists accepted that the species had more than one origin (cf. monogenism – deriving from one, common ancestor). Morton (see FN 2 below) believed that races were arranged in order of intelligence … the fairer the skin the more intelligent. DNA evidence, tracing human markers, has disproved the theory by proving that all Eurasians, Americans, Austronesians, Oceanians and Africans, share the same, common ancestor[10].

❈ Scientific racism uses ostensibly scientific or pseudoscientific techniques and hypotheses to support or justify racial inferiority or superiority, Scientific racism’, Wikipedia, www.en.m.wikipedia.org
Scientific racism was denounced by UNESCO in a 1950 statement on race
✥ for what Mendel described as ‘factors’ (the “heredity unit”), the early eugenicists substituted the word ‘genes’
▣ Watson’s life reads like some kind of early 20th century Mad Men persona (influential ad man, marital infidelities, monumental falls from grace, self-exile, etc)

[1] for instance in the interwar period, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a Noble Prize winning evolutionary biologist, rejected the eugenicists’ inadequate methodology, ‘Eugenics in the United States’, Wikipedia, www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[2] this view prescribed a hierarchical order of races, an Anglo-Saxon ‘race’, a Nordic ‘race’, and so on down the line. Polygenists in the 19th century like Samuel G Morton contended that different races were in fact different species, each with separate origins, ‘Science: 1770s-1850s: One Race or Several Species’, RACE, www.understandingrace.org; J Averell, ‘The End of Eugenics … or is it?’, Melrose Mirror, www.melrosemirror.media.mit.edu
[3] ‘Mendelian genetics cannot fully explain human health and behaviour’, DNA from the beginning, www.dnaftb.org; ‘Rocky Road: Charles Davenport’, www.strangescience.net
[4] Eugenics and scientific racism had been described as “folk knowledge validated by scientific inference”, S A Farber, ‘U.S. Scientists’ Role in the Eugenics Movement (1907-39): A Contemporary Biologist’s Perspective’, Zebrafish, 2008: December; 5(4), www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
[5] A H Reggiani, ‘Drilling Eugenics into People’s Minds’, in S Currell [Ed.],
Popular Eugenics, National Efficiency and American Mass Culture in the 1930s
[6] ibid
[7] D H Wyndham, ‘Striving for National Fitness: Eugenics in Australia 1910s to 1930s’ (Unpub. PhD, Dept of History, University of Sydney, July 1996), www.kooriweb.org
[8] ‘Eugenics movement reaches its height 1923’, A Science Odyssey (PBS), www.pbs.org; ‘John B. Watson’, Wikipedia, www.em.n.wikipedia.org
[9] ‘Kallikak Family’, http://psychology.jrank.org/pages/356/Kallikak-Family.html
[10] ‘Scientific Justifications for Racism’ (Polygenism), www.sites.google.com

The Eugenics Movement in Australasia V: The Fate of the Social Movement after World War II

National politics, Racial politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture

BMA building, Sydney
BMA building, Sydney
Decline of eugenics in Australasia
Unlike the US the eugenics movements in Australasia failed to even make legislative inroads, let alone implement their theories with any measure of success. Mandatory sterilisation did have genuine community support – from eugenicists, the medical profession, the health bureaucracy, racial hygiene and feminist organisations – but its extreme agenda did not secure the acquiescence of the general public behind it. Moreover, Claudia Thame concluded in her 1974 paper that only a “small minority of zealots” in Australia (some members of the BMA – British Medical Association) held an extreme position on sterilisation[1]. Most practitioners of eugenics in the country tended towards the segregation approach.

Eugenics ideas continued to have some credence after World War II – although not legislated by state authorities, sterilisations continued to be performed on the disabled, especially those with an intellectual disability. Commonly in rural Australia this was done without proper consent (or only with the consent of a third party). Girls from impoverished backgrounds unfortunate enough to be chosen for sterilisation often were told they were having appendectomies. In an era of deinstitutionalisation the eugenic motive for sterilisation tended to be overridden by that of contraception. It was an easier alternative for medical authorities to resort to hysterectomies and tubal ligations than to spend money on educating disadvantaged parents on how to handle their children’s sexuality[2]. There remains a continuity with present practices❃.

1928 Mental Defectives Bill: New Zealand
1928 Mental Defectives Bill: New Zealand
In New Zealand the 1928 Mental Defectives Amendment Bill was the eugenicists’ best legislative hope for Aeotearoa. It provided for the establishment of a national eugenics board and its sterilisation clauses came close to being law but failed to pass due to a combination of government doubts about the public support for sterilisation and the concerted political opposition to it from Peter Fraser and the Labour Party and intellectuals like university professors Thomas Hunter and Arthur Fitt[3]. Subsequently, the Act’s provision for the registration of mental ‘defectives’ was pursued by the state “without enthusiasm or notable result”[4].

As with Australia and other western countries the lack of legislative support for sterilisation did not prevent its continued ad hoc practice in NZ. Data on involuntary sterilisations of the disabled in postwar New Zealand is sketchy but the numbers of women involved are thought to be significant … like elsewhere, the eugenic motives of the prewar period have a diminished importance, in their place the demand for sterilisation is driven by the priority of managing the sexuality and reproductive capacity of disabled girls and women (also as “an adjunct to the management of bodily hygiene”)[5].

Many churches went along with the eugenics orthodoxy and some Protestant clergymen actually advocated eugenics✥. The Catholic Church however, with its large Irish-Catholic working class following in Australia as well as New Zealand, staunchly opposed eugenics on theological (moral) grounds (the Vatican condemned artificial methods of birth control which interfered with “natural reproduction”)✦. Another formidable institution with class-based objections to the goals of eugenics was the trade union movement. Although not operating as a unified opposition against the spread of eugenics, there were significant sections of organised labour who were concerned that laws affecting mental defectives would heavily target working class children and withheld their support for it[6]. There was considerable skepticism within the Australian and New Zealand working classes about eugenics, many on the left saw it as espousing “elitist definitions of unfitness”[7].

IQ tests continued to be fashionable in the 1950s & beyond: giving ‘scientific’ credence to the stigmatising of those in society labelled as “less intelligent”
By the 1950s in Australasia eugenics had become unfashionable and had fallen out of favour with the public at large … biologists and other scientists, distancing themselves from the discredited eugenics tag, were shifting their focus and energies to working in the dynamic and burgeoning field of human genetics.

❃ incapacity for parenthood is still used as a valid justification by the Australian judiciary to authorise sterilisations – eg, the ‘burden’ of parents having to deal with the menstrual management of their disabled daughters, even in some cases where the girl was pre-menstrual!, ‘Fact Sheet: Forced Sterilisation – People With Disabilities Australia’, (C Frohmader, Women With Disabilities Australia, submission, 53rd Session of the Committee Against Torture, Geneva, Nov 2014)
✥ non-Catholic church support for eugenic aims in Australia and New Zealand was not as powerfully concentrated as it was in the United States
✦ practicing Catholics as a block tended to oppose eugenics, including writers of the faith such as G K Chesterton, Graham Greene and James Joyce

[1] C Thame, ‘Health and the State: the Development of Collective Responsibility for Health Care in Australia in the first half of the Twentieth Century’, (PhD dissertation, ANU, 1974)
[2] J Goldhar, ‘The Sterilisation of Women with an intellectual disability’, ‘Law and Society Conference’ (Brisbane, December 1990), www.austlit.edu.au
[3] T Taylor, ‘Thomas Hunter and the Campaign Against Eugenics, NZJH, 39(2) 2005
[4] M Finnane, ‘From dangerous lunatic to human rights?: the law and mental illness in Australian history’ in C Coleborne [Ed.], Madness in Australia: Histories, Heritage and the Asylum
[5] C Hamilton, ‘Sterilisation and intellectual disabled people in New Zealand – still on the agenda’, Kōtuitui: the New Zealand Journal Social Sciences Online, 7(2), Nov 2012
[6] S Garton, ‘Eugenics in Australia and New Zealand: Laboratories of Racial Science’, in A Bashford & P Levine [Eds.], The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics
[7] ibid.

‘Old’ Britons Vs ‘New’ Britons: The ‘Coming Man’ Cult in Australia and New Zealand

Popular Culture, Racial politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture, Sports history

Australia’s “impure origins” as a convict colony in 1788 cast a shadow over the country’s European inhabitants which stayed with them long after transportation to the colonies was halted (with the exception of South Australia whose citizens have taken a certain self-satisfaction from its status as the sole free colony from its foundation)[1]. The deep imprint of the “convict stain” was a difficult burden to throw off but as Australia became more involved in world events especially external wars, this dubious tag started to recede and a new, more estimable self-identity started to take shape in the consciousness of Australians. A catalyst for this gradual change of self-perception was the accumulated list of valiant Australian achievements on the battlefield (South African War, Gallipoli, the Western Front in WWI). The feats of Australian soldiers in war worked as an antidote to the lingering convict inferiority complex[2].

Geo. Wood, "Convict Stain" debunker
Geo. Wood, “Convict Stain” debunker
The ‘stain’ of colonial Australia continued into the Federation era but in 1922 the intervention of a Sydney University history professor into this debate presented a new (positive) perspective for Australians to build on. George Arnold Wood in his highly influential book, The Discovery of Australia, reassessed the early colonial era, repudiating the “convict stain” and argued that Australia’s convict legacy should elicit admiration rather than being the enduring object of shame for Australians. Wood tapped into a powerful Antipodean undercurrent of the time, by exulting the convict heritage and raising up the current generation of their descendants, he was emphasising a (superior) point of difference with the character of Britons back in the mother country. Wood contended that Australians were free of the environmental drawbacks that was sapping the vitality of the working class Briton (industrial grime, overcrowded tenements in cities, etc). From the late 19th century some observers had started to view the Australian and New Zealand “White Dominions” as being the region of “the coming man” vis-à-vis the mother country[3].

New Zealand unlike Australia did not have the stigma of a convict society to overcome, but New Zealanders had been cultivating their own distinctive image of the country which set it apart from Britain. New Zealanders nourished a national myth that NZ was peopled by highly selected stock, “Better Britons” and “Britain of the South”❈ as they described themselves and the country that they inhabited (the claim to possess exclusive racial stock was referenced in NZ medical journals of the time)[4].

The “coming man” hypothesis bought into a number of prevailing Antipodean myths of the period. The 1850s phenomenon of the gold-rushes in Eastern Australia led some to conclude that only the best men from Britain migrated to Australian goldfields, having what it took to make the journey and prosper … the thinking was that Australia had attracted the “pick of Britain’s stock” and therefore it was somehow better than Britain[5]. Immigration patterns have contributed to the modified sense of Australian identity. With migrants being drawn predominately from the British Isles and Ireland until the 1950s, James Jupp has argued that a belief has persisted that Australians (especially native-born ones) were both of British racial and cultural descent and “superior to the British”. The ‘ordinary’ English working and lower-middle classes were often seen as “dirty, servile, unhealthy, inferior” and held in low regard by Australians[6].

Conditions in Australia were often cited as a building block for the construction of a ‘superior’ cut of British man. Australia benefitted, it was said, from a climate infinitely better than Britain, a lavish land … making for a vigorous and healthy ‘race'[7]. W K Hancock (Australia, 1930) described the Australian ‘type’ of man as a harmonious blending of all the British types, nourished by a “generous sufficiency of food (good diet) … breathing space (vast countryside) and sunshine”, endorsing a view of environmental determinism[8]. A sense of ‘racial vigour’ was a recurring motif in contemporary references to the coming or ‘new’ man in Australasia✤.

imageSouth African Boer War – coming crisis in British Manhood?
Imperial Britain’s performance in the Boer War (especially early on) against a “rag-tag” army of Afrikaner farmers fed into the rising tide of Britain’s fears of the degeneration of its racial stock. Britain’s sudden reverses in the war required reinforcements from home, leading to a manpower dilemma – unhealthy British cities and slums, from where the foot soldiers were drawn, churned out recruits from the working class who were “narrow-chested, knock-kneed, wheezing, rickety specimens” of men[9]. The average British soldier in 1900 was shorter than that of 1845 and over three-fourths of those volunteering in Manchester recruitment halls were rejected as unfit for service[10]. This crisis gave further credence to the idea of Australia and New Zealand as embodying the coming man. Whilst British soldiery seemed to struggle and its martial supremacy stumbled (albeit temporarily), the Australasian contingents of soldiers conversely equipped themselves well. The Boer War reversals only accentuated anxieties about the racial deterioration of working class Britons[11]. A report conducted in 1904, with the title “Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration”, confirmed that Britons were even more physically unfit than the war had suggested.

The ‘proof’ of Gallipoli
The valour and skill exhibited by Australian and New Zealand soldiers in WWI vis-à-vis the British reinforced the coming man stereotype[12]. Even English social Darwinists such as Randolf Bedford (London Times, 1915) described the ANZAC troops as a “race of athletes”. These ‘athletes’, it was claimed, were scientifically superior to their British cousins. Prominent in the myth-making was Great War correspondent C E W Bean who attributed Australian achievements on the battlefield to a sense of mateship and the democratic culture bred in the Australian bush[13]. Regeneration of the white stock was only achievable through the “new Anglos” to be found in Australasia amongst its soldiers and athletes, so this myth went.

Depletion of racial stock
The Great War, and specifically the Gallipoli campaign, was a “defining moment” for New Zealanders and Australians, a “global test that proved the manhood” of those “representatives of the ‘coming man'”[14]. The war was also a devastating loss of that same manhood … both countries lost a “chunk of their tallest and healthiest A1 stock” with New Zealand suffering casualties of 59% of its entire forces¤. In a talk in Australia NZ eugenicist-physician Truby King, lamenting the loss of manhood, implored white women to “repair the war wastage” by producing more babies from good stock and preventing infant deaths[15].

The 1905 champion All Blacks
The 1905 champion All Blacks
This Antipodean sporting life … demonstrating superior prowess through sport
Manhood through the testing experience of war – imperial and global – helped shape Australians and New Zealanders’ sense of their own national identities, another definer of character was sport. The dominant performance of the 1905 All Blacks (New Zealand rugby team) in the UK, with its formidable physical power and skill proving too much for the best of the British Isles and Irish rugby … the Kiwis’ display of “muscular manhood” on tour made an unmistakeable impression at home. For many the All Blacks’ triumph was confirmation that NZ was “the best place to build strong bodies”. Prime Minister Richard (‘King Dick’) Seddon attributed the team’s dominance to the country’s “natural and healthy conditions of colonial life (which produced such) “stalwart and athletic sons” as the NZ players in the rugby touring team[16].

The following year, 1906, the South African tour of the British Isles saw the South African ‘Springboks’ triumph over the rugby home countries as well (two years after that the Australian ‘Wallabies’ toured Britain and Ireland, also winning the great bulk of games it played). As rugby was considered in Britain as “a sport of the elite” (played by gentlemen), defeat at the hands of these ‘colonial’ teams was a savage blow to British pride and another indicator for many of the home nation’s racial decline[17].

Not all contemporary observers accepted the distinctiveness and pre-eminence of the ‘new’ Australian and New Zealander as espoused by Wood and Bean et al. John Fraser, a visitor from Britain, observed in Australia: the Making of a Nation (1910), that the native-born Australian lacked vim and vigour, and would degenerate without “infusion of British blood”. Fraser concluded that Australians were “just transplanted British people”, albeit “modified by the influence of climate” and social environment[18].

The race card: immigration and border control
Backers of the eugenics movements and believers in the notion of the “coming man” in Australia and New Zealand tended to view new immigrants as suspect. In the reasoning of the authorities it was imperative that the numbers of the ‘unfit’, the “social undesirables” already in Australasia do not swell further. A watertight immigration control, determining who is ‘fit’ and appropriate to enter the country, would compliment the eugenic measures of sterilisation and segregation. Accordingly in 1899 New Zealand, and 1901 Australia, passed Immigration Restriction Acts. Australia’s legislation barred permanent entry for non-white people. The White Australian Policy reflected Australian fears of invasion from the north … Australia’s sense of isolation and vulnerability at the proximity of what racists depicted as “teeming hordes of Asiatics” (concerns intensified by Japan’s population spurt coinciding with a trend towards low rates of birth for Australia)[19].

In a work breaking new ground Alison Bashford in Imperial Hygiene has focused attention on the function of quarantine in Australia’s racially motivated immigration policies that came into force after Federation. Positioning quarantine as an integral part of the White Australia Policy, Bashford argues that the quarantine line on Australia’s border was also a “racialised immigration restriction line”, and together with the immigration restriction measures, part of an “international hygiene”. In an effort to block so-called “racially impure” and “unfit” immigrants from entering the country, Australia wrote mental health and hygiene criteria into its immigration laws and regulations (as did other western nations including Britain, the US and Canada)[20].

PostScript: D H Lawrence and Australia
Lawrence in his novel Kangaroo, written entirely with the exception of the final chapter whilst the itinerant English novelist was in Australia (1922), fleetingly entertained the possibility of Australia as a new and uncorrupted Britain. One of Lawrence’s enduring preoccupations, informed by his readings of Herbert Spencer and other early eugenics proponents, was the degeneration of western industrial society. In other works also Lawrence subscribed to the notion of the coming man, eg, in Aaron’s Rod Lawrence described an Australian character as a “new and vital version of an English man”[21].

❈ with such fidelity did New Zealand uphold the notion of being (better) Britons, that it wasn’t until 1948 that New Zealanders ceased to be British citizens and became “New Zealand citizens”
✤ the idea of the common or new man in society and its association with eugenics was not confined to Australasia, the Southern Hemisphere or even to the Anglo-Saxon world, for an account of the Italian eugenics movement see F Cassata, Building the New Man: Eugenics, Racial Science and Genetics in Twentieth-Century Italy
¤ this was an imperial anxiety for the British and the Dominions, the loss of the best or fittest elements killed on the battlefield, a diminution of the “pool of fit white stock”, J M Hobson, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010

[1] J Hirst, ‘An Oddity from the Start: Convicts and National Character’, The Monthly, July 2008, www.themonthly.com.au
[2] D Walker, ‘National Identity’, in J Jupp [Ed.], The Australian People: An Encyclopaedia of the Nation, Its People and their Origins
[3] S Garton, ‘Eugenics in Australia and New Zealand: Laboratories of Racial Science’ in A Bashford & P Levine [Eds.], The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics
[4] A C Wanhalla, ‘Gender, Race and Colonial Identity: Women and Eugenics in New Zealand, 1918-1939’, Unpub. thesis, MA in History, 2001 (University of Canterbury, NZ)
[5] J Jupp, quoted in A Jamrozik, Chains of Colonial Inheritance: Searching for an Identity in an Subservient Nation
[6] ibid.
[7] Walker, op.cit.
[8] Walker, op.cit.
[9] C Hitchens, ‘Young Men in Shorts’, (The Atlantic Monthly, June 2004), www.theatlantic.com
[10] P Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke and Culture in Britain since 1800,
[11] S Dubow, ‘Placing Race in South African History’, in W Lamont [Ed], Historical Controversies and Historians
[12] the Great War in Bean’s vision was the fulfilment and defining feature of Australia’s manhood – shaper of the nation’s character, S Garton, ‘War and Masculinity in Twentieth Century Australia’, JAS, 22:56 (1998)
[13] Garton, ibid
[14] P Mein Smith, A Concise History of New Zealand
[15] ibid.
[16] the British press noted that the All Blacks rugby players (the ‘Originals’) possessed superior fitness (and utilised professional training techniques), T Weir, ‘Professionals, Cheats and Superior “Muscular Madhood”: British Domestic Responses to the 1905 New Zealand “All Blacks” Rugby’, (University of York, 2011), www.academic.edu; P M Smith, A Concise History of New Zealand
[17] ‘The Boer War: British Fears of Physical Deterioration and the Build up to World War I’, www.boerwar.weebly.com
[18] Fraser noted as further evidence of decay the country’s birth-rate decline from 1901, Walker, op.cit (Fn: Although according to Statistique Internationale the downward trend in Australia, NZ and GB began in the 1870s)
[19] Garton, ‘Eugenics in Aust & NZ’, op.cit.. As David Walker has noted, from the 1880s on there emerged a “powerful, masculinising and racialising impulse in Australian nationalism” which coincided with the advent of a “geo-political threat (from an) awakening Asia”, D R Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia, 1850-1939
[20] A Bashford, Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health
[21] D Game, D.H. Lawrence’s Australia: Anxiety at the Edge of Empire

The Eugenics Movement in Australasia IV: a Progressive Crusade?

Political History, Racial politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture, Sports history

The period in the first part of the 20th century when advocates of eugenics solutions ran rampant, “playing God” with the lives of society’s powerless unfortunates, was an abomination on many levels. Deeply flawed by racial and class biases, self-righteous eugenicists categorised a typology of ‘lesser’ humans. They then arbitrarily assigned certain of their country’s citizens to this ‘underclass’ of ‘unworthies’, trampling all over their human rights and liberties in the name of an allegedly ‘scientifically’ determined inferiority. The inequity of individuals being singled out for ‘special’ treatment based on perceived racial stereotypes, mental or physical capacity or because of ‘inherited'(sic) criminality, and the denial of their basic human rights, cannot be overstated, nor can the devastating consequences for its victims (segregation, removal from birth family, sterilisation, even liquidation in extreme cases).

The harm and wrong-headedness of eugenics ideology with its ‘scattergun’ approach lies fully exposed to scrutiny today, and is viewed with the opprobrium it deserves. The eugenicists in all countries practicing eugenics were offering nothing less than a recipe for racial cleansing. Notwithstanding the ‘bad'(sic) eugenic applications of that era, it is important to note that the phenomenon paradoxically did lead to changes in Australian and New Zealand health practices that were significant, progressive and far-reaching to society. As cogently argued by Diana Wyndham, putting aside eugenics’ alarming consequences for a moment, the movement in Australia also involved a genuine attempt to “increase national efficiency and vitality through enlightened state intervention programs” in areas such as “sanitation (eg, cleaning up or eradicating slums) town planning and quarantine” … and of course in health[1]. The Queenslander in 1914 praised its state health authorities for pursuing what it called “practical eugenics”, vital pre-natal and after-birth care for the infant, a pre-condition for a “strong and healthy race”[2].

Eugenics as preventative care
Those who enthusiastically took up the banner of eugenics in the early 20th century were in the main well-meaning if ill-conceived in their reasoning. The scientist-eugenicists genuinely saw themselves as engaging in science for the benefit of “social efficiency”, and what they were doing, targeting the “unfit and feeble-minded”, was in accordance with Benthamite principles of the greater good of society. They believed that breeding a higher calibre of person was ‘proof’ of rational, social progress and civilisation … eugenics was just such a simplistically enticing blueprint for society’s ills and problems, eliciting the support of social reformers as well as leading international intellectuals including J Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell☼, T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence and the Fabian socialists H G Wells, G B Shaw and the Webbs, as well as businessmen and politicians, eg, Alexander Graham Bell, the Rockefellers, Teddy Roosevelt (see PostScript) and Winston Churchill[3].

The medical practitioners who sought to introduce eugenic programs (such as Dr. John Cumpston, first director-general of the Australian Commonwealth Department of Health) believed that by stopping the ‘unfit’ from breeding they were in fact practicing preventative medicine (or that’s at least how they rationalised it)[4]. Eugenics in Australasia was the domain of scientific experimenters and social reformers as well as the governors[5], and touched areas which include child welfare, birth control, sex education, moral purity, temperance advocacy and urban planning.

1930s Australian poster warning against VD
1930s Australian poster warning against VD
National fitness and advances in health care
Emphasising one of the eugenics movement’s objectives as national fitness, Wyndham identifies a number of positive spin-offs of in Australia – it put the focus on maternal care and on the care of the child❈; it played a part in the fight against both VD and TB; in the provision of sex education and birth control; it stimulated the study of genetics (before 1938 not part of the university training of Australian doctors). Eugenics influenced the advancement of Australian health services, especially in family planning and public health (introduction of baby health centres, child endowment schemes, a national health bureaucracy, etc.)[6]. New Zealand eugenicist and health reformer Dr Truby King established the Plunket Society (pioneering early childhood health and development service) as well as introducing innovative child-rearing techniques.

Embracing physical culture in Australia
Stephen Garton has noted other positive developments that grew out of the eugenics movement, most prominently a push for citizens to engage in more outdoors, healthy activities. As an antidote to the confining and often unhealthy milieú of urban life, eugenics encouraged people to take to the outdoors and to partake in physical exercise. Bush-walking and hiking clubs were formed, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides associations were encouraged and Police Citizens Boys Clubs sprang up. The establishment of gymnasiums and fitness centres (especially in NSW and Tasmania by the Bjelke-Petersen brothers) extended the emphasis on physical culture, allegedly important to maintain eugenic health[7]. An emphasis on physical culture as the method of attaining good genes also flourished in New Zealand, largely inspired by one German eugenicist.

Sandow the Strongman's 'System'
Sandow the Strongman’s ‘System’
Environmental eugenics and physical culture in New Zealand
Eugenics is commonly described as “the belief in the power of nature over that of nurture”, reducing it to a question of a person’s character being shaped by heredity[8], this is the eugenics orthodoxy. But environmental eugenicists like Eugen Sandow sought to improve the human condition by improving the external factors of one’s environment✤. Sandow, a Prussian-born strongman based in London from the turn of the 20th century, was a eugenicist who believed that the flagging racial stock of the white race could be improved by nurture, which would overcome any natural flaws in a person[9]. He pioneered the art of body-building, developing his own training regime involving repetition and barbells (which he called the “Sandow System”) which he sold to the public by mail order. Sandow toured the world giving “artistic performances” in music halls, including an extended stint in Australasia in 1902-1903. Sandow was principally responsible for popularising the physical culture movement and giving it a kick-start in New Zealand. After his successful tour of NZ Sandow-inspired gymnasiums and physical culture institutes sprang up all over the country[10].

NZ physical welfare instructors early 1940s
NZ physical welfare instructors early 1940s
As elsewhere in the advanced western nations, New Zealanders were plagued by the notion of their supposed physical inadequacies (especially after the Anglo-Boer War in 1899-1902). The disclosure that half of the young NZ men seeking to serve in the British navy were rejected as medically unfit reinforced the view that New Zealanders had poor physiques. Physical culture was presented as a panacea, a remedy to ward off the possibility of physical and mental infirmity. As Caroline Daley has shown, the potentiality of Sandow’s exercise program led to shifts in the way New Zealanders viewed their bodies. Men, with the correct dedicated training, could achieve the “He-man” physique of Sandow. The Sandow technique also pitched its message to middle class NZ women, in line with the eugenic goal of increased procreation by the elite, mothers-to-be could be trained to develop the right muscles for childbirth. After the passage of the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act in 1937 physical culture became “a state sanctioned leisure activity” in New Zealand. The Act was a boost to sport for adults, and with the outbreak of WWII the government promoted the idea that New Zealanders had “a duty to be fit”, it was now patriotic. From its initial eugenic wellspring physical fitness and culture had become firmly entrenched in the mainstream of NZ life[11].

The physical underdevelopment of the nation’s young was much in the mind of New Zealand eugenicists in the early 20th century. In this milieú school physician Elizabeth Gunn pioneered the health camp movement for school age children. An avowed eugenicist, Gunn was instrumental in getting schoolchildren out of indoors, either into active camp life or into classes conducted in the open air [12].

PostScript: Racial fitness in America
imageAgain, like the British eugenicists’ pronouncements, new ideas from America fell on receptive ears in Australasia. The centre of the American eugenics movement revolved around biologist Charles Davenport and his Eugenics Records Office whose activities reached eugenicists worldwide. Davenport and his ERO eugenicist associate Harry Laughlin were both chicken breeders illustrate the link of agriculture to eugenics[13]. Race reinvigoration in the US was championed from the very highest quarters. At the turn of the century soon-to-be president, Teddy Roosevelt, appealed to his country’s citizens to take up “the strenuous life” (his message was aimed primarily at native-born Americans of good Anglo-Saxon stock). And Americans did heed his words: many took up sports for the first time, American (college) football became popular as the ultimate physical test of manhood, competitive athletics and cycling were taken up in the quest to demonstrate masculine physical strength and endurance. Roosevelt’s urgings led to the popularity of hiking, hunting and mountain climbing among Americans. Behind all of these feats of physical exertion lurked the same self-doubts of the dominant white race as elsewhere. The depression of the 1890s and the enervating affects of industrial society accentuated these anxieties. The US was experiencing a shift in immigration patterns at this time which had started to favour especially Southern and Central Europe over immigrants from Britain and Northern Europe⚀. The more affluent, native-born Americans predictably called for a halt to immigration[14] with the purpose of stopping the ‘poorer’ stock of immigrants coming into America (Italians, Jews, Slavs, etc). The pattern of restricting particular ethnic groupings was duplicated concurrently in other western countries (eg, the WAP in Australia).

☼ Nietzsche was another leading philosopher who earlier embraced the theory of eugenics as a panacea
❈ in New Zealand as well, “national efficiency” was high on the agenda … degeneracy anxieties (c.1920 NZ had the world’s 2nd highest mortality rate for mothers, much worse than its (Pākehā) infant mortality rate) prompted a safe maternity campaign in NZ. Eugenic concerns led the state to intervene in maternity services (P Mein Smith, A Concise History of New Zealand)
⚀ immigration from the British Isles, Ireland, Scandinavia and Germany fell dramatically from 1900, replaced by immigration surges from Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia and the Baltics
✤ Known as the science of euthenics (AKA “the science of controllable environment” (Ellen H Richards) – cf. eugenics “the science of controllable heredity”)

[1] D H Wyndham, ‘Striving for National Fitness: Eugenics in Australia 1910s to 1930s’ (Unpub. PhD, Dept of History, University of Sydney, July 1996), www.kooriweb.org
[2] The Queenslander (Bris,), 11-Apr-1914, quoted in E Wilson, ‘Eugenic ideology and racial fitness in Queensland, 1900-1950’, (Unpub. PhD, Dept. of History, University of Queensland) www.espace.library.uq.edu.au
[3] in a memo to the prime minister in 1910 Churchill said: “The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race”, V Brignell, ‘The eugenic movement Britain wants to forget’, New Statesmen, 9-Dec-2010, www.newsratesmen.com
[4] Wyndham, op.cit
[5] as well as that of socialists, feminists and other radicals, S Garton, ‘Eugenics in Australia and New Zealand: laboratories of racial science’, in A Bashford & P Levine [Eds.], The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics
[6] Wyndham, op.cit
[7] Garton op.cit.; the physical culture school founder, Lt-Col. H C Bjelke-Petersen, exploited the anxieties around eugenics at the time to promote the B-J brothers’ physical fitness schools, E J Wilson, ‘Eugenic ideology and racial fitness in Queensland, 1900-1950’, (Unpub. PhD, Department of History, University of Queensland, May 2003), www.espace.library.uq.edu.au
[8] C Daley, Leisure and Pleasure: Reshaping and Revealing the New Zealand Body, 1900-1960
[9] the emerging physical culture movement dovetailed neatly into eugenics thinking at the time. Latching on to the prevailing perception that the “racial stock” of white settler societies such as Australia and New Zealand had become “soft and weak”, the tangible positive benefits of an active exercise plan (as illustrated by Sandow) presented itself as the obvious counter to this growing ‘feebleness’ on a national level. The popularisation of the Japanese self-defence skills, judo and ju-jutsu, for women in Australasia early in the 20th century also grew out of the ‘race’ anxieties (athlete and entertainer Florence LeMar toured Australasia with a ju-jutsu vaudeville act in the 1910s), C Macdonald, Strong, Beautiful and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935-1960
[10] Sandow inspired a generation of home-grown NZ bodybuilders who opened gyms, such as Fred Hornibrook and Dick Jarrett, Daley, op.cit.
[11] ibid.
[12] M Tennant, ‘Gunn, Elizabeth Catherine’, TEARA – The Encylopedia of New Zealand, (Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Volume 3 1996), www.teara.govt.nz
[13] S A Farber, ‘U.S. Scientists’ Role in the Eugenics Movement (1907-39): A Contemporary Biologist’s Perspective’, Zebrafish, 2008: December; 5(4), www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
[14] J Murrin, P Johnson, J McPherson, A Fahs, G Gerstle, Liberty, Equality, Power: Volume II: Since 1863 (Enhanced Concise Edition)