13 Pacific Realm: Cultural Geography I – Australia as Melting Pot


   A melting pot is a metaphor for a population that assimilates a variety of different peoples – ethnicities and races.  Historically, the United States often has been characterized as a melting pot society, though many question how well contemporary America fits into that model. More recently, America often is characterized as an ethnic salad bowl.  The salad bowl metaphor portrays a society where many ethnicities are mixed together, but largely maintain their separate identities.  Sometimes the salad bowl concept is described with a different picture – the mosaic.  Overall, a multicultural country has a mixture of peoples and ancestries.  Before modern transportation made international migration much easier, countries, especially in Europe, often had a homogenous ethnic population.  Everyone in Greece was Greek and all Greeks were in Greece.  Now 7% of Greece consist of non-Greeks.  Now there are Greeks living in countries around the world. The multicultural spectrum assesses a range of acceptance of the benefits of diverse cultural ideas and offerings, while also looking at the levels of assimilation and pride in the majority culture and citizenship of that country.


Contemporary Australia likely is a better example of a melting pot society than present day America, less so a salad bowl.  This was not always so for Australia, as British exploration and settlement installed a powerful white racial advantage.  Even so, it may be that Australia’s geographic isolation helps a melting pot society become more likely than a salad bowl.

Long before there was a country Australia, there was a vast empty land.  People crossed from nearby islands, so that now-called aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples sparsely populated the continent.  Eventually, the British and other Europeans came to explore, but the British took over.  Later a variety of peoples from across the globe reached Australia, but were assimilated into the melting pot.  Now multiculturalism has allowed more retention of ethnic differences, so that while the salad bowl metaphor has not been certified, it has gained ground.

Following sea captain James Cook’s exploration of the eastern shores of Australia, the British claim and settlement of Australia famously began with the transportation of convicts from the Britain to this new land.  Over time (1788-1868) more than 160,000 white prisoners sailed to Australia, accompanied by another 200,000 free white settlers who performed various roles in the creation of a new British society in an otherwise lightly populated yet huge land.

Of course, the native peoples had sailed to Australia much earlier, originally about 50,000 years ago, crossing from New Guinea and nearby islands.  Numbering between 400,00 and 750,000 in population upon European arrival, the aborigines were divided into many communities, speaking about 700 different languages.

As was frequently true throughout the world of conquest and colonialism, the British easily dominated the native peoples in military might, seizing control of territory with little difficulty. Aboriginal populations not killed by better weaponry were decimated by disease and through habitat loss.

The large flow of migrants that next followed the stream of convicts to Australia was the gold rush.  From 1851 to 1861, about 600,000 people came to Australia to seek their fortunes.  While most of these settlers were from the British Isles, notable flows came from a few countries, including 42,000 from China.

Nevertheless, the 20th century brought constraints to immigration.  First, the so-called and now infamous White Australia policy limited in-migration. For instance, for the first half of that century, Asian migration to Australia was banned.  Second, World War I placed several countries on the enemies list. An example is that Turks were barred as migrants to Australia until 1930.  However, small flows of Greeks, Italians, and Jews did move to Australia.  Third, World War II reclassified the enemies list. Now Italians were not welcome. After WWII, Australia graciously accepted refugees and displaced persons from Europe.  This policy brought 171,000 people such as Estonians, Belgians, Danes, and others.  As these migrants of those fifty years were almost exclusively white Europeans, their assimilation into Australians was not too difficult.

The second half of the 20th century introduced reform to the White Australia policy, including its repeal and the substitution of multiculturalism in 1973.  Soon, people were arriving from a variety of countries around the world – China, India, Vietnam, South Africa, and other lands.  The 21st century has continued this pattern of a diverse range of origins for migrants to Australia.


What is Australia now?  For Australia’s current population of 26 million people, there are approximately 800,000 aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people; accordingly, that is about 3% native ancestry.  The Guardian reported results of the 2016 Australian national census, that “The top five most commonly reported countries of birth among the 26% of Australians born overseas were England (14.7%), New Zealand (8.4%, down from 9.1% in 2011), China (8.3%, up from 6%), India (7.4%, up from 5.6%) and the Philippines (3.8%).  In the same news article, The Guardian also indicated that “Nearly half (49%) of all Australians were either born overseas (first generation) or have at least one parent born overseas (second generation). The remaining 51% were at least third generation – born in Australia to Australian-born parents.”1

Clearly, Australia’s ethnic mix is becoming more diverse and colorful.  Government and society have rejected the “white only” idea, replacing it with ideas of openness.  So now, melting pot or salad bowl?  That’s not an easy call.  However, Australia’s relative isolation still may have an impact.

Geographically, it makes sense that there are two main factors in affecting ease of or resistance to assimilation into the majority national culture.  1) How easy is it to live within your own ethnic enclave and still succeed economically? As different ethnic groups migrated to America, typically they initially stayed within their own ethnic enclaves, but as these enclaves were not large enough to sustain significant economic success and even the American Dream, the second-generation and overwhelmingly the third-generation ethnicities spoke the English language and assimilated into the American culture.  As ethnic groups in America have increased in size and as globalization has increased economic opportunities with foreign connections, perhaps it is easier to resist assimilation in America.  2) How easy is it to travel to and communicate with the ethnic homeland? Again, in America when the first generation Irish or Italian or Norwegian migrants came to the USA, it was costly to travel back to the European homeland and costly to telephone home as well.  Modern transportation and communication is much easier, so perhaps this too has reduced the urgency of assimilation in America.  This is a good geographic discussion, but some now argue that America is more like a salad bowl than a melting pot.


Map simulating a globe and positioning Australia in the center.

So what about Australia?  Considering both of the factors in the previous paragraph, Australia’s relative location suggests higher likelihood of assimilation. 1) How easy is it to live within your own ethnic enclave and still succeed economically?  As historically Australia shows a very modest population, certainly it would be difficult for any ethnic group of migrants to reach a critical mass needed to succeed outside of the main culture. 2) How easy is it to travel to and communicate with the ethnic homeland?  Well, Australia is noted for its isolation and separation from the rest of the world. Certainly, as it developed through British colonization and its successor Australia’s growth, Australia’s position on the periphery of the world’s landmasses made it difficult more migrants from other lands to travel back to or communicate with the homeland.  For both of those factors, it has been overwhelmingly easier to assimilate, more so than in America even.  Now though, as in America, the modern world of globalization, transportation, and telecommunication has shrunk the world, so in Australia too it is newly somewhat comfortable to keep that separate ethnicity while mixing with the majority Australian identity.  In both cases of America and Australia, it seems that the movement from melting pot to salad bowl is a natural evolution, but more advanced in America than in Australia.


Did You Know?

A pure melting pot society is portrayed by the Borg in various Star Trek episodes.  The Borg assimilate all other species, taking their technological and cultural singularities and incorporating these features into the Borg collective.  The Borg mantra “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile” is presented as an ultimatum.  In human societies, melting pot societies sometimes present varied levels of coercion in assimilation.

Australia celebrates Harmony Week as they commemorate the country’s cultural diversity but also its sense of belonging together.  The Harmony Day holiday is set on March 21.


Cited and additional bibliography:

1 Hunt, Elle. 2017. “Barely Half of Population Born in Australia to Australian-Born Parents.” The Guardian, June 27, 2017, sec. Australia news. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jun/27/australia-reaches-tipping-point-with-quarter-of-population-born-overseas#maincontent.

“Australia with AAT (Orthographic Projection).” 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Australia_with_AAT_(orthographic_projection).svg#file. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

“Australia’s Migration History | NSW Migration Heritage Centre.” 2010. Nsw.Gov.Au. 2010. http://www.migrationheritage.nsw.gov.au/belongings-home/about-belongings/australias-migration-history/index.html.

Colebatch, Tim. 2012. “Land of Many Cultures, Ancestries and Faiths.” The Sydney Morning Herald. June 21, 2012. https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/land-of-many-cultures-ancestries-and-faiths-20120621-20r3g.html.

“Immigration Australia Timeline.” 2019. Noborders-Group.Com. 2019. https://www.noborders-group.com/about-us/History-of-Immigration-Australia.

“Main Features – Australia’s Population by Country of Birth.” 2017. Abs.Gov.Au. c=AU; o=Commonwealth of Australia; ou=Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2017. https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/3412.0Main%20Features22017-18?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=3412.0&issue=2017-18&num=&view=.

“Population Clock.” 2020. Abs.Gov.Au. c=AU; o=Commonwealth of Australia; ou=Australian Bureau of Statistics. March 18, 2020. https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Web+Pages/Population+Clock?opendocument&ref=HPKI.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Western World: Daily Readings on Geography Copyright © 2020 by Joel Quam and Scott Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book