James Minahan’s Homecoming

Over the past ten years I’ve been researching the story of James Minahan and the 1908 Potter v. Minahan High Court case. The case is an important one in the history of the White Australia policy, and the story goes something like this.

In 1908 James Minahan arrived in Australia after 26 years in China. Born in Melbourne, as a small boy he was taken by his Chinese father to live in his ancestral village in rural Guangdong to be educated in Chinese. Growing up in China James remembered little of the country of his birth or of his Irish-Australian mother, but Australia was always part of his plans for the future. His father had kept shares in the store he had run on the Indigo goldfields in the 1870s and, as an adult, James planned to return there.

What he found on his arrival in the newly federated Australia, however, was that being born in Australia did not guarantee a right to live there if you were deemed to be Chinese. No longer able to speak the English of his Victorian childhood, James was made to sit the infamous Dictation Test, which he failed. After he was arrested as a prohibited immigrant, the Chinese community rallied around him and began legal proceedings to have him released. James Minahan’s case made it all the way to the High Court of Australia, who ruled in his favour. 

James Minahan was allowed to remain in Australia, but what happened to him after his legal victory? Did he stay and make a life for himself in Victoria or did he return to China?

Following extensive work in the archives in Australia, three visits to James Minahan’s ancestral village in Xinhui, some blog posts and a couple of earlier written pieces, I will soon be publishing the full story of James Minahan as an online narrative developed in partnership with Tim Sherratt. The narrative will be in the form of what Tim is calling a LODBook (Linked Open Data Book), an experiment in developing online historical narratives that embed rich structured data about people, places, events and resources.

James Minahan's handprint

Handprint of James Minahan, taken on his return to Australia from China in 1908 (National Archives of Australia: A1, 1908/12936)