The great ‘Australian Maritime strike’ of 1878 was triggered when the Australiasian Steam Navigation Company decided to replace all of their Australian sailors/seamen with Chinese sailors. They were paying Australians eight pounds per month and knew that Chinamen would work for three pounds per month.
The strike was on, in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland Australian seamen went on strike and in November 1878 they were supported by miners in NSW and by wharfies in three colonies. In December 1878 a crowed gathered outside the Australian Steam Navigation Companies wharf and when the scabs finished work and made their way home, the crowd began hooting and harassing them. Sixty police on foot and six mounter troopers turned on the crowd and beat many of the demonstrating seamen.
On the 2nd of January 1879 the company capitulated and agreed to discharge all their Chinese crews over the next two years and re-employ the Australian seamen who had been terminated. 1878 in this strike clearly put race, international capital and labour squarely on the colonial political agenda.
International capital claimed the right to employ anyone they wanted to; including workers from Southern China and the South Pacific – these coolies were targeted as they would work for something akin to a ‘bowl of rice per day’ and they were not unionised and therefore would not oppose their big business overlords. Australian workers refused to be muscled out of meaningful employment by foreigners, and it was this event (among many others) which kindled the cause for the White Australia Policy.