Chinese persecution on the Australian Goldfields

Today a new book for teens & tweens is featured on this website. Set around 1860, Escaping the Triad it is the story of a young man who escaped a triad in China and travelled to Australia in the hope of making his fortune at the goldfields. It is a great adventure involving a band of friends- an elderly Chinese, a   British sailor, a tribal aborigine,  a beautiful girl and the young hero, My Li. Chased by two Chinese assassins, the group of friends experience a variety of situations in colonial NSW. Whilst a fictional story, My Li’s experiences are firmly based on fact.

His voyage to Australia is realistic. A visit to Quarantine station in Sydney Harbour would show you the accommodation provided to those Chinese unfortunate enough to be incarcerated there.  Their quarters consisted of a concrete slab and a corrugated roof, open to the elements it was a place unfit for Europeans.

In the early 1970’s an elderly lady in country Victoria advertised three sets of gold scales for sale. One was a traditional set used by miners; another larger set was typically used by gold buyers and banks. The third was encased in a leather box with the appearance of a small violin case. A little over a foot in length, the scales were similar to those used to measure a plug of opium. These belonged to her grandfather. He had been one of 250 Chinese to land in Sydney during the late 1850’s. They walked to Castlemaine in Victoria, a distance of almost 900 kilometres.  Only forty-nine arrived at their destination.   What happened to the remainder? Did they settle elsewhere along the way? Did they starve? Were they bitten by snakes, or were they killed? Undoubtable many were killed.   Although not often admitted, relationships between the races that inhabited Australia during the mid 1800’s were not always congenial. Europeans thought the Chinese less than human. Because they were different, Celestials, as Asians were called, were persecuted. The aboriginal people saw all as invaders. They brought disease, took their land and their women and poisoned their waterholes. Sometimes the aboriginal people fought back. Vicious clashes between whites, Chinese and aborigines are documented from the Palmer River Goldfield west of Cooktown in Queensland. No doubt they also occurred elsewhere.

Whereas Europeans prospected alone or with one or two mates, Chinese mined in large groups, sometimes of a hundred or more. While immigrants from all over Europe and America intermixed, the Chinese did not.  Europeans expected to be able to leave their mine sites or short periods of time and then to return to recommence mining. It was common for them to up tools and rush to a new discovered Eldorado. If it provided rich pickings, they would remain. If not, they would return to their previous diggings. These vacated mine site were targeted by the Chinese. They were experts in extraction every ounce of gold from a claim. Reworking abandoned mine sites provided good returns for the more hardworking Chinese miners.  There were often clashes between Chinese and European on the goldfields.

Clashes began at Lambing Flat in December of 1860. Following a large demonstration against Chinese opium dens and gambling establishments, the Chinese settlements were attacked and several were killed and injured.  The clashes continued until the goldfield was largely cleared of Chinese miners.  Troops were sent in to keep the peace. They remained in place until June 1861. The Chinese returned.

Gold had been discovered at Kiandra in the Snowy Mountains in the summer of 1860.  There was a rush of mainly European miners from Lambing Flat to Kiandra. In winter, as the cold and snow discouraged mining, they trudged back again, expecting to take up their old claims. They found them being successfully worked by groups of Chinese.  On 30th June hostilities began again. Riots continued into July. Troops returned and several white riots were arrested. Then an angry mob of over 2000 attacked the gaol. The prisoners were released and the troops retreated. Eventually re-enforcements arrived and order was restored. Over 200 Chinese were seriously injured in the riots.

The government of the day blamed the Chinese not the white miners for the unrest. They legislated for a hefty immigration tax to be paid by all Asian migrants into NSW. This was the beginning of the White Australia Policy which persisted in Australia until the Whitlam era in the 1970’s.

After the riots, the name of Lambing Flat was changed to Young. The extensive water races built by the Chinese to bring water to their mine sites can still be seen today. The banner that was used to lead the European miners has survived and is featured in the Young Museum. It was painted on tent canvas and, like the Eureka Flag, features the Southern Cross.   The Cross is surrounded with the words “Roll up, Roll up, No More Chinese” When the riot was put down by the troops, the banner was saved. One of the miners hid it under his cloths by wrapping it around his body. It was privately held for a hundred years before it was donated to the Museum.

After the gold rushes, most of the Chinese who came to make their fortune remained. They became market gardeners, farmers, restaurant owners, merchants, business men. They were the boat people of the period.  Escaping the Triad brings some of their story to a young generation. I hope you enjoy it.

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