Thursday, 30 May 2013

Gold in Victoria: Chinese immigration

During the 1840s and 1850s, the discovery of major gold reserves in northern California, Victoria and later British Columbia and New Zealand transformed the European settler societies of the Pacific Rim. [1] Many of the international gold seekers of the 1850s and 1860s followed the gold rushes to Victoria and Chinese gold seekers, mostly from southern China, were key members of all these rushes. The southern provinces were overpopulated and subject to invasions, rebellions, severe floods and famines between 1830 and 1887. The greatest numbers of Chinese came to the colony of Victoria from 1852 onwards. The first Chinese seeking gold arrived in 1853 and in 1854 there were 2,000 Chinese in Victoria. By June 1855 this had grown to 15,000. In 1858 the Chinese population of Australia reached a peak of 40,000, representing roughly 20 per cent of the adult male population and 3.3 per cent of the total population. The Chinese largely settled in the key goldfields centres of Bendigo, Ballarat and Castlemaine and brought with them their distinctive way of life and specialised mining techniques.

Chap 2 Chinese

In 1855, Victoria levied a £10 poll-tax on all Chinese entering by sea leading to many of them landed at Guischen Bay near Robe in South Australia. [2] The routes to the mining areas of Ballarat, Bendigo and Mount Alexander were most arduous part of this journey and Chinese gold seekers were the largest group of non-English speaking diggers on the Australian goldfields. [3] The full extent of the Chinese role in the emergent central Victorian goldfields society has only recently been recognised. Although best known for their role in the gold mining industry, they were involved in other activities on the goldfields working as herbalists, merchants, and restaurateurs. As a cultural group they stood out because most retained their identity and customs and the ‘Chinese question’ began to vie with the other major issue of the day, the ‘unlocking’ of Crown Lands. European miners were angered by their increasing presence in the fields and in 1854, an irritated group of European and American miners met in Bendigo and declared that a ‘general and unanimous rising should take place for the purpose of driving the Chinese off the goldfield’. Local constables acted quickly to prevent the uprising and warned the miners against any further vigilante action. The event was only the beginning of greater anti-Chinese tensions. In some instances, full-scale rioting resulted as angry Europeans attacked Chinese diggers for example at Buckland River in Victoria in 1857 and Lambing Flat in NSW in 1860-1861. [4]

Chap 5 Lambing Flats riot


[1] ‘The Chinese’, in ibid, Jupp, James, (ed.), The Australian people, pp. 197-204; Curthoys, Ann, ‘Men of All Nations, except Chinamen’: Europeans and Chinese on the Goldfields of New South Wales’, in McCalman, Iain, Cook, Alexander, and Reeves, Andrew, (eds.), Gold: forgotten histories and lost objects of Australia, (Cambridge University Press), 2001, pp. 100-123, and Lake, Marilyn and Reynolds, Henry, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality, (Cambridge University Press), 2008, pp. 15-47.

[2] The South Australia Parliament soon passed similar legislation to Victoria and over 10,000 Chinese were landed in southern NSW, who mostly made their way to Victoria.

[3] The experience of Chinese gold-seekers in Victoria during the 1850s can be explored in Daley, C., ‘The Chinese in Victoria’, Victorian Historical Magazine, Vol. 14, (1931-1932), pp. 23-35; Serle, pp. 320-335; Price. C., The Great White Walls are Built: Restrictive Immigration to North America and Australasia 1836-1888, Canberra, 1974; Markus, A., Fear and Hatred: Purifying Australia and California 1850-1901, Sydney, 1979; Gittins, J., The Diggers from China: The Story of the Chinese on the Goldfields, (Melbourne University Press), 1981; Curthoys, Ann, ‘’Men of All Nations, except Chinamen’: Europeans and Chinese on the Goldfields of New South Wales’, in McCalman, Iain, Cook, Alexander and Reeves, Andrew, (eds.), Gold, pp. 100-123, passim, and Cronin, K., Colonial Casualties: Chinese in Early Australia, (Melbourne University Press), 1982. McLaren, Ian F., The Chinese in Victoria: Official Reports and Documents, (Red Rooster Press), 1985, is an invaluable study including critical sources from the 1850s.

[4] Reeves, Keir and Wong Hoy, Kevin, ‘Beyond a European protest: reappraising Chinese agency on the Victorian goldfields’, in Mayne, Alan, (ed.), Eureka: Reappraising an Australian Legend, (Network), 2006, pp. 153-174, is a crucial revisionist contribution to discussions of the Chinese in Victoria in the 1850s. There is a growing literature on Lambing Flat: Carrington, D. L., ‘Riots at Lambing Flat 1860-1861’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 46, (1960), pp. 223-243; Walker, R. B., ‘Another Look at the Lambing Flat Riots 1860-1861’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 56, (1970), pp. 193-205; Selth, P., ‘The Burrangong (Lambing Flat) Riots 1860-61: A Closer Look’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 60, (1974), pp. 48-69; Connolly, C. N., ‘Miners’ Rights: Explaining the ‘Lambing Flat’ Riots of 1860-61’, in Curthoys, A., and Markus, A., (eds.), Who are Our Enemies? Racism and the Australian Working class, (Neutral Bay), 1978, pp. 35-47, and Messner, Andrew, ‘Popular Constitutionalism and Chinese Protest on the Victoria Goldfields’, Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 2, (2), (2000), pp. 63-78.

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