Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Clunes incident, 1873

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] 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.[2] 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 December 1873, a major disturbance against Chinese miners occurred in the Victorian gold mining town of Clunes, some twenty miles north of Ballarat. [3] The scale of the incident and the level of violence were only slightly less than occurred in the riots at Buckland River in 1857 and Lambing Flat in 1860 and 1861. [4] Despite this, the events at Clunes have not been accorded the same significance and those historians who have written about it offer little detail on what transpired there. Generally the incident is mentioned in passing or used to moralise about colonial Australia’s hostility towards Asian peoples. Much of what has been written is inconsistent and unreliable and examining contemporary colonial newspapers casts doubt on the traditional ethnic explanation.

Chap 5 Clunes

Historiographical confusion

This is evident in the most widely disseminated account of the Clunes incident: a paragraph in Manning Clark’s A History of Australia

When news reached Clunes in Victoria on the morning of 9 December 1873 that numbers of Chinese were about to move onto their field, the miners took instant action. The bellman was sent round the town to alert the diggers of the impending arrival of ‘the leprous curse’. Work was immediately suspended in all the principal mines, and on what remained of the alluvial flats. Public meetings were held at which miners and diggers unanimously resolved to drive the unclean yellow men off the fields. Axe- and pick-handles and waddies of all descriptions were distributed to the men waiting for the arrival of the Chinese. Women turned out in hundreds to incite their menfolk against the Chinese. That morning one thousand men, accompanied by troops of women and children and inflamed by the fire-bells ringing out the alarm as well as by stirring music from the brass bands, erected barricades at the junction of the Ballarat and Clunes Roads to stop the Chinese coaches. Ploughs, drays, timber, stones and bricks were used. As soon as the Chinese coaches came within distance, a hail of stones and bricks fell upon the occupants. The police tried gallantly to protect the Chinese and restore order, but all in vain, as the miners, ably assisted by their better halves, who shouted and cursed and swore and cast stones with the best of the men, compelled the Chinese to retrace their steps back to Ballarat, to the cheers of the victors in this battle for Clunes. Before returning to work the miners again declared their determination to oppose the introduction of Chinese labour in the mines at Clunes. The Australians might not have been capable of creating a Paris Commune, but they were capable of defending the slogan ‘No Chinamen’.[5]

Clark provided three sources in the footnote for this colourful passage but references to the Sydney Illustrated News seven years after the event and a note in the Bulletin thirteen years later were clearly second-hand accounts. However, he also cited a newspaper report from an unidentified ‘Clunes correspondent’ printed in the Age, the important Melbourne paper, the day after the disturbance. The Age’s account stated:

The bellman was sent round the town to apprise the inhabitants, and work was immediately suspended in all the principal mines. The miners, to the number of over five hundred, assembled, and headed by a band of music, paraded the streets. Public meetings were held, and it was resolved to resist to the utmost the introduction of the Chinese...As soon as the coaches came within distance a perfect storm of stones and bricks fell upon the occupants, and a charge made to assault the Chinese. The police, though few in number, fought well, and for a short time maintained their position, but the overpowering and determined onslaught of the miners, assisted by their better halves, compelled them to retrace their steps back to Ballarat. The battle, for nothing else can it be designated was fought with determined energy and bravery...[6]

Clark relied heavily on this passage adding detail to give dramatic vividness to the description and in the process taking liberties, especially when describing the behaviour of the townspeople. The newspaper stated that their wives ‘assisted’ the miners but for Clark the women ‘shouted and cursed and swore and cast stones...’ He also included descriptions of the Chinese as ‘unclean yellow men’ and as ‘the leprous curse’ highlighting the bigotry of the rioters implying that they were recorded remarks. However, they did not occur in the newspaper report or any other record of the event. Clark was not simply guilty of selective quotation but of putting words into the mouths of the participants.[7]

Historians examining colonial race relations have also used this 1873 account as a main source on the Clunes incident. Andrew Markus is less emotive than Clark and he refrains from embellishing the facts but his account is distilled from this report.[8] It was used by Eric Rolls though he added information from another colonial newspaper, the Melbourne weekly Australasian. However, Rolls provides no source for the assertion that the miners at the barricade ‘tried to haul the Chinese from inside [the coaches]’, or for the claim that the police sergeant escorting the coaches was ‘a kindly man who had helped Chinese lepers cast out of Ballarat’. [9] Markus and Rolls, as well as Charles Price, all mentioned that the Chinese were being brought to Clunes to break a fourteen-week miners’ strike. [10] The Age’s account stated that this was the cause of the riot though Clark omitted this crucial point from his melodramatic telling of the story leading readers to assume that the miners’ action was openly racist.

This alternative explanation that the townspeople were angered by strike-breaking places the incident at Clunes in a different light. In the decade before Clark and Markus penned their descriptions, prominent Labour historians such as J.T. Sutcliffe[11], Edgar Ross[12] and Joe Harris[13] had argued that far from being chiefly motivated by racial intolerance, the miners were protecting their livelihoods from dilution by cheap labour. Ross neatly avoided mentioning either the ethnic aspects or the violence of the Clunes incident, insisting that it marked a turning in the labour movement

A miniature ‘Eureka Stockade’ in December, 1873, contributed to the militant spirit of the period. This occurred during a strike of Clunes miners for the right to have Saturday afternoons off. The Clunes Miners’ Association under the presidency of the Mayor of Clunes, W. Blanchard, erected barricades of timber and stone to bar the way to five cartloads of scabs recruited by the Lothian [sic] Mining Company and being escorted by police. About 1000 unionists and a contingent of irate women assembled, and the scabs and the police were forced to retreat to Ballarat. The Clunes action is generally regarded as providing a stimulus for the formation in 1874 of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association with a constitution to cover all miners in Australia and New Zealand.[14]

However, despite agreeing that a strike was under way, Ross, Sutcliffe, Harris and other labour historians differ on the level of hostilities and what the miners’ grievances were: did the miners want reduced hours on weekends, were they pressing for an eight-hour day or was the dispute about calls for wage increases.  The strike-breaking explanation had also been advanced twice by Geoffrey Blainey. The first occasion was in his history of mining, where, following a passage outlining how mining companies shunned employing Chinese except when they could be used for some devious purpose, he wrote:

In December 1873, for example, Peter Lalor, the hero of Eureka, and his fellow directors of Clunes companies tried to break a strike by employing Chinese in their deep quartz mines, but the coachloads of Chinese they recruited were halted by an angry crowd on the outskirts of Clunes.[15]

For Blainey, the initial charge of racism should be directed at the Lothair Company that treated Asian employees as readily exploitable, a view apparently shared by Price in The Great White Walls are Built. Blainey said more on the townspeople’s motivations when he revisited the subject twenty years later in his history of Victoria

In 1873 at Clunes, the Lothair gold mine, of which the Eureka hero Peter Lalor was a director, resolved to break a miners’ strike by recruiting Chinese miners and bringing them from Creswick in horse-drawn coaches. On reaching the edge of town the Chinese were driven back. Fear that the Chinese would lower the high standard of living for the average Victorian was the strongest of all fears directed against them.[16]

The inference was that existing employment conditions were being threatened with reductions leading miners to strike. However, Blainey failed in either text to cite a specific source on the Clunes incident though he consulted Withers’ The History of Ballarat, an important source of information on the district. W.B. Withers was a reporter and sub-editor for the Ballarat Star at the time of the Clunes riot giving him a unique slant on the event. Yet apart from Blainey, historians have overlooked Withers and the neglect of this text and especially its revealing aside on the political figures involved is surprising. Withers wrote in his account of the incident at Clunes

There were a few Chinese digging gold in Ballarat as early as 1852, but there was no rising of the ‘yellow agony’ in the district till the year 1873, when a dispute at Clunes led to a disturbance of the peace of 9th December. There had been a strike of miners employed in the Lothair mine, as the directors refused to give a Saturday afternoon holiday shift as was generally the custom … The directors of the mine, including Mr Francis (then Premier), and Mr Lalor, the whilom hero of freedom, &c., at the Eureka Stockade, decided to counter-plot against the strikers by employing Chinese labor, of which Creswick and Ballarat offered an ample supply...the more emotional of the commentators in the Press championed their doings and some were silly enough to compared the riot to the stand made at the Eureka Stockade. This was not wonderful if not very wise, for the business was a medley of conflicting legal and moral rights. [17]

Keith Windschuttle identifies Timothy Coghlan’s pioneering work, Labour and Industry in Australia as the foundation for most left-wing versions of the incident.[18] This is evident Coghlan’s text where wrote that the Chinese were being used by employers to prevent controversial claims presented by their workforce.

In December 1873 there was a strike of goldminers at the Lothair mine at Clunes. The men had asked for shorter hours and increased wages, the employers refused their request and determined to obtain Chinese from Ballarat to fill the strikers’ places. This infuriated the miners, who summoned a meeting of the Miners’ Association, and resolved to prevent the Chinese from working. The Government had sent an escort to protect the Chinese, but this did not prevent a riot, as soon as the strike-breakers prepared to set out, and they were unable to get to their destination. The Government made no attempt to prosecute the miners, and at the end of January the strike ended by the concession demanded being granted to the miners.[19]

The problem is that Coghlan’s assertion that the mining company was not trying to force a lowering in wages and conditions, as Blainey maintained, but to prevent them increasing is not supported by any references. It appears to be derived, at least in part, from the colourful memoirs of the miners’ union organiser William Spence published a decade earlier that described the Clunes riot in some detail.[20]

The excitement and cheering was great, men, women and children joining in the resistance. Nearby was a heap of road metal, and arming herself with a few stones, a sturdy North of Ireland woman, without shoes or stockings, mounted the barricade as the coaches drew up. As she did so she called out to the other women, saying: ‘Come on, you cousin Jinnies; bring me the stones and I will fire them.’ The sergeant in charge of the police presented his carbine at the woman and ordered her to desist. Her answer was to bare her breast and say to him: ‘Shoot away, and be damned to ye; better be shot than starved to death.’ With the words she threw a stone, cutting the cheek of the officer. After that stones flew rapidly; the horses began to plunge, and the Chinese to yell; whilst the terrified director (by name of Solomon) in charge crawled into the boot of the coach for safety.[21]

Lively though this certainly is, Spence’s description of the Clunes hostilities is questionable. Penned more than thirty years later, it appears to be a much-embroidered fiction. There is no record of an official of the Lothair Gold Mining Company called Solomon at the barricade and the three representatives who were there (Pascoe, Samuels and Bryant) did not retire into the boot of a coach. The police sergeant in charge gashed his temple when he fell to the ground, not his cheek when a stone struck him and the lowly Irish agitator who supposedly instigated the violence appears to be a fabrication arising from an unidentified stout woman at the front who tried to pelt the driver of the lead coach with stones and missed him each time. Spence was employed at Bendigo at the time of the riot he implied he witnessed and did not even get the year correct. It was 1873, not 1876 as he stated.


[1] General discussion can be found in ‘The Chinese’, in ibid, Jupp, James, (ed.), The Australian people: an encyclopedia of the nation, its people and their origins, pp. 197-204; Curthoys, Ann, ‘Men of All Nations, except Chinamen’: Europeans and Chinese on the Goldfields of New South Wales’, in ibid, McCalman, Iain, Cook, Alexander, and Reeves, Andrew, (eds.), Gold: forgotten histories and lost objects of Australia, 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. The experience of Chinese immigrants in Victoria during the 1850s and after 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, (Australian National University Press), 1974; Markus, A., Fear and Hatred: Purifying Australia and California 1850-1901, (Hale & Iremonger), 1979; Gittins, J., The Diggers from China: The Story of the Chinese on the Goldfields, (Quartet Books), 1981; 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.

[2] Lovejoy, Valerie, ‘Depending upon Diligence: Chinese at work in Bendigo 1861-1881’, Journal of Historical and European Studies, Vol. 1, (2007), pp. 23-37 provide a valuable case study.

[3] The most recent historiographical discussion can be found in Heathcote, Christopher, ‘Clunes 1873: The Uprising that Wasn’t’, Quadrant, Vol. LIII, (12), (2008). See also, Baker, David, ‘Barricades and batons: A historical perspective of the policing of major industrial disorder in Australia’, in ibid, Enders, Mike and Dupont, BenoĆ®t, (eds.), Policing the lucky country, pp. 199-222, especially pp. 202-204, Small, Jerome, ‘Reconsidering White Australia: Class and anti-Chinese racism in the 1873 Clunes riot’, BA (Hons) thesis, La Trobe University, 1997 and Griffiths, P.G. ‘The making of White Australia: Ruling class agendas, 1876-1888’, PhD thesis, Australian National University, 2006, pp. 97-136, 349-458.

[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.

[5] Clark, C.M.H., A History of Australia, Vol. 4, The earth abideth for ever 1851-1888, (Melbourne University Press), 1978, p. 350.

[6] Age, 10 December 1873. See also Argus, 10 December 1873, p. 5.

[7] Clark would probably argue that this was justifiable poetic licence.

[8] Ibid, Markus, A., Fear and Hatred: Purifying Australia and California 1850-1901, pp. 76-77.

[9] Rolls, Eric, Sojourners: The Epic Story of China’s Centuries-Old Relationship with Australia, (University of Queensland Press), 1992, pp. 181-182.

[10] Price, C.P., The Great White Walls are Built: Restrictive Immigration in America and Australasia, (Australian National University Press), 1974.

[11] Sutcliffe, J.T., A History of Trade Unionism in Australia, (Macmillan), 1967, p. 53.

[12] Ross, Edgar, A History of the Miner’s Federation of Australia, (Australasian Coal and Shale Employees’ Federation), 1970, p. 49.

[13] Harris, Joe, The Bitter Fight: A Pictorial History of the Australian Labor Movement, (University of Queensland Press), 1970.

[14] Ibid, Ross, Edgar, A History of the Miner’s Federation of Australia, p. 49.

[15] Ibid, Blainey, G., The Rush that Never Ended: A History of Australian Mining, p. 89.

[16] Blainey, G., Our Side of the Country, (Methuen Hayes), 1984, p. 50. This remained unchanged in A History of Victoria, (Cambridge University Press), 2006, p. 50.

[17] Ibid, Withers, W. B., History of Ballarat, pp. 214-215.

[18] Windschuttle, Keith, The White Australia Policy, (Macleay Press), 2004. In her review of the work in The Age, 18 December 2004, Marilyn Lake said that it was ‘a deeply political work - combative in tone, often contemptuous of other people’s work, passionate and polemical in argument. But politically driven history and the urge to cast historical subjects as heroes or villains can pose a barrier to understanding a complex and ambiguous past.’

[19] Coghlan, T., Labour and industry in Australia from the first settlement in 1788 to the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1901, 4 Vols. (Oxford University Press), 1918, Vol. 3, p. 1473.

[20] Spence, W.G., Australia’s Awakening: Thirty Years in the Life of an Australian Agitator, (The Worker Trustees), 1909, pp. 48-50

[21] Ibid, Spence, W.G., Australia’s Awakening: Thirty Years in the Life of an Australian Agitator, p. 49.

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