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Reviewed by:
  • Patricia E. Roy
The Burden of White Supremacy: Containing Asian Migration in the British Empire and the United States. David C. Atkinson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Pp. xi + 319, US $32.95 paper

The cover of The Burden of White Supremacy features a cartoon of Miss British Columbia clad in a Union Jack and, with the help of "bc Immigration Policy," holding shut an "Oriental Exclusion" gate behind which hordes of Asians are alighting from a sailing ship. Through an adjacent and open "White Immigration" gate, dozens of neatly dressed men, women, and children are disembarking from a modern steamship. This telling cartoon originally appeared on 24 August 1907 in Saturday Sunset, a magazine published in Vancouver. Never judge a book by its cover. There is material on British Columbia, but the subtitle Containing Asian Immigration in the British Empire and the United States accurately reflects the content that deals with the efforts of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States to halt immigration from Japan and India between 1896 to 1924. The book deals only briefly with China on the grounds that by 1896 the receiving countries had halted or severely restricted immigration from that country.

David Atkinson presents three main intertwined arguments: that racial militants in the British Empire and the American West believed that Asian migrants were a "racial and economic threat whose mobility required urgent suppression"; that despite being inspired by these "same exclusionary impulses," the anti-Asian campaigns in each country developed independently and followed "distinctive strategies of restriction"; and that administrators in these countries tried "to [End Page 822] mitigate the worst excesses of the settler impulse" to bar "the mobility of nonwhite labor migrants" (2). Using reports from American and British diplomats abroad, he also shows something of the reactions in Japan, India, and China.

An examination of every action designed to restrict Asian migration and its domestic, international, and imperial implications would require the equivalent of a multi-volume encyclopaedia. Atkinson wisely focuses on some illustrative episodes. In the Canadian context, they are the 1907 Vancouver anti-Asian riot and subsequent gentlemen's agreement with Japan; the rejection of the would-be immigrants from India who came on the Komagata Maru in 1914; and, briefly, the exclusionary Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. Given space limitations and the interests of readers of the Canadian Historical Review, this review focuses on only one of Atkinson's topics, matters relating to the 1907 riot.

Atkinson delved extensively into the records of the Department of External Affairs and the Laurier and Borden papers. Curiously, he did not look at the papers, especially the diary, of Mackenzie King–listed under the "M's" in the index–despite an extended account of King's visits to President Theodore Roosevelt and Roosevelt's endeavours to use King as an intermediary in his efforts to promote "an Anglo-American coalition against transpacific Asian immigration" (109). Nevertheless, Atkinson adds some new detail to accounts of the response to Vancouver's 1907 anti-Asian riot by showing the conflicting opinions of the New York Times and The Times of London and other British newspapers about the role of Americans in stimulating the riot. One of Atkinson's main arguments is that the cross-border collaboration of agitators for Asian exclusion was "quite limited" (2). In the case of Vancouver, he observes correctly that while such agitators as A.E. Fowler of Seattle crossed the border, the Vancouver and American branches of the Asiatic Exclusion League (which Atkinson initially refers to as the Vancouver Exclusion League) operated independently, the leaders of the movement in Vancouver were wary of too close an association with the Americans.

Atkinson draws extensively on records in the British Foreign Office to show its reluctance to become too closely associated with the United States because of its concern for the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. By extending his study to include other dominions, he demonstrates another British problem, its worry that the excesses of the white dominions in their efforts to keep out Asians could provoke reactions in its non-white colonies and especially in India where Britain might have to "choose...


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