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William Brookes (1825–1898)

by Don Dignan

This article was published:

William Brookes, by J. Watson, n.d.

William Brookes, by J. Watson, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 9458

William Brookes (1825-1898), anti-Kanaka crusader and radical politician, was born on 14 October 1825 at Hanging Ditch, Manchester, England, son of William Brookes who had eloped with the daughter of George Oakden, a small-scale cotton manufacturer. The family income from a shoe shop at the Old Mill Gate was sufficient to send Brookes to proprietary institutions, but at 14 he left school against his father's wishes and the schoolmaster's advice. Nevertheless he read avidly and at the Athenaeum, opened in 1837 'to afford persons of the middle class … information of all advances in science and art', concentrated on public speaking, in pursuit of a self-education which later served him well. Meanwhile he was apprenticed to a Manchester wholesale draper but angrily resigned to emigrate to New South Wales after his employer's wife accused him of abusing their hospitality at Wesleyan singing by laying siege to the affections of their 13-year-old daughter. A £50 cabin passage in the Bengal brought him in 1848 to Sydney where his letters of introduction established him as assistant to a small merchant at £75 a year. This enabled him in 1849 to marry Mary Ann Evans, a fellow passenger in the Bengal; they had two daughters and three sons.

In 1851 his employer's bankruptcy led Brookes to try his luck at the goldfields but without success. He then worked for the Union Bank in Melbourne, living in misery with a young daughter and his ailing wife. His plight moved the bank to appoint him to the Sydney office and in 1853 as accountant, teller and ledger-keeper to the new branch in Brisbane. In 1859 despite his ignorance of the trade, he bought Sutherden's ironmongery for about £400 deposit and £2000 in bills of sale. Within five years he redeemed the debt and, by appointing C. M. Foster his managing partner, freed himself for political activities. After a stormy year in the Brisbane Municipal Council, he entered the Legislative Assembly in 1864 and represented Brisbane for three years. The sources of his radicalism were never in doubt: he sponsored a motion of condolence to Abraham Lincoln's widow, quoted Michelet and John Stuart Mill in debates and respectfully tried to model his career on that of the great Quaker radical, John Bright.

This formidable ambition might not have distinguished Brookes from many radical liberals, had not his humanitarian objections to the Kanaka trade fused with its impact on white workingmen to furnish him with a crusading cause. Kanaka immigration rose from 177 in 1866 to 1237 in 1867. In the elections that year he was defeated but assailed the traffic in the press, at protest meetings and by organized disruption of the campaigns of pro-Kanaka politicians. When local agitation led only to inadequate regulation in the Polynesian Labourers Act of 1868, Brookes directed his arguments towards London, claiming that the Act was repugnant to the anti-slavery laws of England and that the Queensland legislature had exceeded its powers. Under pressure from Whitehall, the Queensland government set up a select committee in 1869 to investigate the working of the Act, with the result that government agents were placed in the recruiting ships and the testimony of Kanaka witnesses was made legal in Queensland courts. Brookes had been a principal witness before the committee; angered by the outcome, he denounced its proceedings as a farce since six of its seven members were known to favour the traffic and some even employed Kanaka labour. With his principal collaborator, Robert Short, Brookes now stirred the powerful London Aborigines Protection Society, which in turn moved Lord Kimberley to threaten the Queensland government with imperial suppression of the traffic.

Although loath to interfere with powerful colonial interests, Kimberley argued that a well-regulated immigration might benefit the islanders and that the traffic could not be suppressed without the concurrence of the other nations in the area and the presence of a large squadron in Pacific waters. The imperial Pacific Islanders Protection Act of 1872 merely empowered colonial courts to impose drastic penalties for kidnapping. At the same time Queensland's leading Liberal politician of the period, Charles Lilley, and his more eminent successor, Samuel Griffith, both told their electors that they would not oppose Kanaka immigration unless it were shown to be inimical to white workers. Brookes also suffered a final defeat in the sensational case of the recruiting ship Jason. In 1871 his efforts on behalf of James Harper, a crew member, and John Meiklejohn, government agent, resulted in a five-year prison sentence for the captain, John William Coath, who was nevertheless pardoned a year later after some of his crew had discredited Harper; Meiklejohn was sent to an asylum suffering from a mental illness which he and Brookes alleged had been caused by physical ill treatment in the Jason. In 1876 Brookes's eloquent denunciation of the traffic at a more thorough select committee was again fruitless, and in 1877 his radical associates in parliament failed to carry an abolitionist amendment to a Liberal government bill designed to deny Kanaka labour to the squatters.

The losing battle so preoccupied Brookes that he narrowly escaped bankruptcy in 1869, and the struggle to rebuild his firm, Brookes & Foster, restricted his political activities for a decade. However, by 1882, the active partnership of his son and son-in-law enabled him to sell out to Foster and to devote his last years to politics. In 1882 when the McIlwraith government sought to replace Kanakas with indentured Indian coolies, Brookes won a by-election in North Brisbane, which proved the harbinger of the decisive victory of Griffith's reoriented Liberal Party in 1883. In the next two years Brookes and the abolitionist Liberals, discounting their leader's anxieties about the colony's economy, pressed for a final solution of the Kanaka question; yet outrages in the Hopeful were more important than the abolitionists' pressure in moving Griffith in 1885 to legislate against further recruiting after 1890. When he recanted and extended the immigration in 1892 Brookes, in a memorable though futile gesture, was carried from his sickbed to the Legislative Council, to which Griffith had appointed him in 1891. Too weak to stand and shaking painfully, he spoke movingly for over an hour against the Kanaka traffic, emphasizing his remarks by pounding the floor with a stick until he collapsed. His cause was not successful until after his death in Brisbane on 16 July 1898.

Select Bibliography

  • W. O. Lilley, Life of the Hon. William Brookes (Brisb, 1902)
  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During the Last Sixty Years (Brisb, 1919)
  • D. K. Dignan, Kanaka Political Struggle (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1949).

Citation details

Don Dignan, 'Brookes, William (1825–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Brookes, by J. Watson, n.d.

William Brookes, by J. Watson, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 9458

Life Summary [details]


14 October, 1825
Manchester, Greater Manchester, England


16 July, 1898 (aged 72)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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