Sunday, 2 March 2014

Clunes 1873: racist or industrial action?

There appears to be two different explanations for what happened at Clunes in December 1873 in both the contemporary record and among later historians. The first maintains that the attack on Chinese labour was simply part of industrial action and that race played no part in the disturbances. Attacks on blackleg labour that was seen as a threat to the livelihood of striking workers were not uncommon in Australia or in other parts of Britain’s empire. In this explanation, the race of the blackleg labourers was irrelevant. The Age, in the course of its successful attempt to push the Lothair dispute to arbitration in January 1874, argued that the miners were keen to prevent ‘any body of men, be they moon-faced opium eating celestials, or sturdy British diggers’ working the strike-bound mine. The Argus also thought the ‘hypocritical and canting’ motion passed after the riot was a cover: ‘The ‘moral pollution’ business was only put forward because [the rioters] felt ashamed of having broken the Queen’s peace in the pursuit of sordid gain.’

The second sees the events at Clunes as motivated by racism. One Clunes resident who wrote to the Age recounted the response of some rioters to appeals to desist:

We will keep the peace if possible, but we must stop the Chinamen. If the company can get Europeans to fill our places we will submit, but we cannot compete with these Chinamen...

This represented a further expression of anti-Asian prejudice that can be traced back to the 1840s when squatters first began agitating for the systematic introduction of Asian labour. [1] The Sun blamed the pastoralists for igniting the issue at a time when ‘hundreds of free mechanics were wandering about the streets of Sydney seeking employment of any kind in vain’. [2] Some of the agitation was undeniably racist: a mass petition warned of the ‘vices particular to the Natives of India’ that would hinder ‘the growth of virtue and morality amongst us’. [3] These early attempts by the pastoral interest failed, but in 1844, with increased numbers in the NSW Legislative Council, they again felt sufficiently confident to re-visit the proposal. The Guardian reported that a committee on immigration had been set up and was about to recommend the import of Indian labour, the result of which would invariably be the ‘depreciation of labor’ and the ‘distress of the working-classes’. [4] Public opinion was again mobilised and the squatters’ second attempt to introduce indentured labour was dropped and ‘free-born Englishmen, Scotsmen, and Irishmen’ no longer faced the prospect of having to compete in the labour market with ‘heathen slaves’.[5] Towards the end of the 1840s, the source for potential cheap labour turned towards China and marked the beginnings of a shift away from anti-immigration rhetoric framed in simple class terms to a more sophisticated racist discourse in which radical newspaper editors played a significant role. It was an attitude that was exacerbated by the unparalleled immigration from Asia, and China in particular, following the discovery of gold in the 1850s.

The problem is that the evidence is ambiguous on whether the protest would have occurred anyway or whether negative views of the Chinese motivated the protesters to act. The active involvement of women in the protest might be taken as evidence of opposition to the ‘morally polluting’ Chinese given the emphasis in contemporary public culture on women as protectors of moral virtue. Certainly the involvement of women in the march around Clunes the afternoon before the riot was a departure from the norm. A union march earlier in the strike, before the issue of Chinese labour was raised, seems to have been composed solely of men, as appears to have been the custom on such ceremonial occasions.

Women’s involvement in the Broken Hill strikes of the 1880s shows the same pattern as at Clunes and at Broken Hill, Chinese labour was not an issue. Women at Broken Hill, like those in Clunes generally did not take part in the miners’ union marches and mass meetings. However, they were often prominent when it came to picketing including physical violence to would-be strike-breakers and on rare occasions, around high points of a struggle such as mass pickets, would also participate in the union marches. Women acted largely in defence of their maternal responsibilities that they believed was threatened by attacks on the ‘moral economy’ and in support of their menfolk.  There was one interesting difference between the attitude of the press to Broken Hill and Clunes. Conservative newspapers savaged the women at Broken Hill ‘they hardly deserve to be called women’ for their participation in the picketing. However, of the newspapers that commented on the Clunes riot, only one expressed any regrets that ‘women, lovely women, should so readily engage in aggressive warfare.’ In contrast, women were cast in heroic terms in a Castlemaine paper:

Who has not read of Frenchwomen working on the ramparts to resist an invading foe, and the Clunes women have emulated them.

While the Bendigo Advertiser noted:

...the wives of the miners took a prominent part in the unfortunate affair...When women are led to take up arms, we may be sure that the cause is one in which it would be utter folly for the adverse party to persist.

In the absence of compelling evidence, it is impossible to tell if the response at Clunes would have been the same to Chinese as to other strike-breakers. However, the involvement of Chinese gave newspapers and other ‘respectable’ opinion the option of agreeing with the people of Clunes heading to the cultivation of working-class support, despite the townspeople’s involvement in action that they would normally have condemned. The Age unequivocally condemned the violence:

A greater disgrace could not have befallen the working men of Victoria, whose grievances have hitherto been adjusted without appeal...to physical force...[6]

It was, however, sympathetic to the anti-Chinese views expressed by the rioters. Having condemned ‘opposition to constituted authority’, the Age made clear its views on the Chinese:

...this community would suffer severely were the mining leases...to be worked by an inferior and barely tolerated race...If it be not advisable as a matter of public policy for the capitalist to have resort to a semi-barbarous race when unable to bend his fellow-countrymen to his will, then the police...were wrongfully employed in furnishing aid to the one set of disputants against the other.[7]

The argument put forward in the more liberal newspaper leaders had four dimensions. First, workers were condemned for taking the repulsion of strike-breakers into their own hands, rather than leaving matters to their ‘warm friends and assiduous advocates’. Secondly, there was clear hostility to the Chinese. Thirdly, the provocative decision by the company to employ Chinese labour as strike-breakers was attacked. Finally, the police were criticised for favouring one party. In some goldfields newspapers, the issue was not seen to be the use of strike breakers, but the ‘insult to our race’ of ‘the introduction of Chinese labor’ in any form. The conservative press ran only the first two arguments with a heavy emphasis on the first. The Argus warned,

For the first time in our history, rioting has been resorted to...to enforce the demands of labour...employers have as much right to employ Chinese labour...as the miners have to strike...

The Argus was not opposed to anti-Chinese racism arguing that ‘Englishmen should give their own countrymen the refusal of employment before applying to aliens.’ The condemnation was limited to ‘the exorbitant demands of grasping unionists, enforced by violence.’ [8] In Bendigo, Stawell, and Maryborough, local Miners’ Associations organised well-attended meetings in the wake of the riot. [9] Newspaper reports of the Maryborough and Stawell meetings are sketchy, but both approved motions supporting the rioters’ action at Clunes. The most detailed press reports covered the large meeting of the Bendigo Miners’ Association. Association where its president Robert Clark defended the action of the miners while regretting the law breaking. Noting the ‘well-known fact that Chinamen as a class were very objectionable to a large portion of the population’, Clark read negative comments on the Chinese from the Age before introducing the speakers.[10] One of these Mr Hattam argued that the issue of the strike and riot was entirely subsumed under the ‘Chinese question’. Though starting with the usual disclaimer that he ‘did not intend to incite feelings of hostility or that the law should be broken’, by the end of his speech Hattam was referring to Chinese as ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’. The response showed that he was speaking to a largely sympathetic meeting stating:

....he would not object to Chinese labor if it was found prudent to employ it — (dissent) — but he objected to the manner in which it had been attempted to be introduced. (Hear, hear.) What right had the Government to try to force Chinese labor upon them?...the people of Clunes objected strongly to it. (Applause) It was not long ago since a poll tax on Chinamen was in operation. This showed that they...would not suit to mix with Europeans... (Cheers.)...Why should these Mongolians...enjoy the advantages of this colony, which were only intended for Europeans. (Loud applause.)

Opposition to the torrent of racism was slight, and it met a hostile reception from some of the crowd. The Bendigo Advertiser reported on the fate of an interjector during another virulently anti-Chinese speech:

...nothing could be heard but cries of ‘He’s a capitalist,’...’Put him out,’...it seemed for a moment as if a general fight was about to take place... Mr Matthew Barker came on to the platform...bleeding profusely... [he] stated that the only remark he had made was, ‘Wasn’t a Chinaman a man and a brother.’

Opposition to anti-Chinese discourse was also in the minority six months later, in June 1874, when delegates from ten miners’ associations met in Bendigo to form the Amalgamated Miners’ Association (AMA).[11] Along with the adoption of motions on the eight hours system, ventilation of mines, and draft bills relating to mining, there was a ‘lengthy discussion’ of the ‘Chinese Question’. A Clunes delegate, Mr W. Taylor, moved to insert a clause in the rules ‘prohibiting any member thereof working in any mine where Chinese are employed.’ Taylor argued that ‘European labour could not compete with Chinese... [who] morally speaking, were a pest...’[12] Blanchard agreed with his fellow delegate, as did a series of others who suggested reimposing the 1850s residence tax on Chinese residents. It seems that the motion in favour of a poll tax was defeated, however, and a number of delegates had reservations about Taylor’s motion:

Some of the members thought that the subject was too difficult...and others believed that the majority of miners would think the terms of the resolution were very arbitrary...

Probably to placate these sentiments, the motion was modified so as not to affect existing claims. Reservations were also expressed by Robert Burrowes, MLA for Sandhurst at the public meeting following the conference attended by some hundreds of miners. Burrowes declared that he was ‘strongly opposed’ to the AMA decision:

...that Chinese labour should not be admitted to mines...It was unjust oppression of foreigners...He thought that, no matter what the man was, he ought to have fair play.

Although some had reservations, there was clearly a strong sentiment for shutting out the Chinese. And as Andrew Markus points out:

...even the diluted motion meant that the Association became the first major union to adopt a clause debarring its members from working with Chinese and by implication, debarring Chinese from membership.[13]

File:Anti-Chinese Cartoon from 1886.gif

Anti-Chinese cartoon, The Bulletin, 1886

This represented the beginning of a long tradition in the Australian labour movement. Gold miners with experience in the AMA such as W.G. Spence went on to form the Australian Shearers Union in 1886, later to become the giant Australian Workers Union. The ASU and AWU continued the policy of the AMA, effectively barring Chinese from joining. In histories of ‘White Australia’, the Clunes riot of 1873 is usually seen as the start of a second wave of agitation that saw new restrictions on Chinese immigration passed in 1881 and led eventually to the systematic exclusion of Chinese and other non-whites. Though the agitation following the Clunes riot continued only for a few months, Andrew Markus argues that it helped to pressure a key, conservative section of the ruling class into supporting the 1881 restrictions. The Clunes riot, like the 1878 seamen’s strike against Chinese labour highlighted the role of organised labour as the greatest single influence on this phase of the anti-Chinese movement.


[1] The question had already been raised the previous year: see Free Press and Commercial Journal, 27 February, 1841.

[2] Sun, 28 January 1843.

[3] Burgmann, Verity, ‘Capital and Labour’, in ibid, Curthoys, Ann, and Markus, Andrew, (eds.), Who Are Our Enemies? Racism and the Working Class in Australia, p. 25.

[4] Guardian, 30 March 1844.

[5] Sun, 23 February 1843.

[6] Age, 11 December 1873.

[7] Age, 12 December 1873.

[8] Argus, 15 December 1873, p. 6.

[9] Argus, 16 December 1873, pp. 6-7.

[10] Argus, 18 December 1873 printed a letter from ‘Quartz-Miner’ that took issue with Clark’s and Hattam’s stance: ‘As a resident in Bendigo for over 20 years, will you let me assure the Victorian public that the people of Bendigo generally do not entertain the principles advocated by the two magistrates who took part in the demonstration here on Saturday night last...We in Bendigo have been accustomed to use Chinese labour for years. Chinese have lived here for years, and we have two or three encampments, and until now we never heard a word against them or against any other aliens, such as the Germans, Swiss, Italians, &c, of whom large numbers live here.’

[11] Argus, 25 June 1874, p. 7, 26 June 1874, p. 6.

[12] See, Amalgamated Miners’ Association of Victoria, General rules of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association of Victoria, as compiled the 27th June, 1874, and revised the 16th September, 1880, (F.N. Martin and Grose), 1884.

[13] Ibid, Markus, A., Fear and Hatred: Purifying Australia and California 1850-1901, p. 77.

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