Chinese Contribution

Chinese labourers were first brought to NSW in numbers between 1848 and 1852 as indentured workers for pastoralists as cheap convict labor was phased out.

These early migrant workers lived isolated lives on remote properties.

With the news of the very rich gold finds in Victoria echoing around the world in 1852, a new wave of Chinese emigrants began arriving in Melbourne from the start of 1853. Unlike the original laborers who came out on their own, the Chinese miners were organised into groups of between 30 and 100 men under the direction of a leader. This organised labour force made them very effective at winning gold, much to the resentment of many. Calls increasingly went out to expel them from the diggings.

Above: Chinese miner outside wattle and daub hut. Reproduced courtesy State Library of Vic (Image H89.266/19 )
Chinese Miners on their way to the Diggings – Charles Lyall, 1854. Reproduced courtesy State Library of Victoria H87.63/2/4

18th July 1854

This newspaper report from a meeting on the Bendigo field in July 1854, provides an invaluable insight into the way the matter of the Chinese on the goldfields split the mining community.

One the one hand there were the agitators who used the issue to stir up unrest, while on the other there were those who spoke out saying that all the Chinese require is “quietude to pursue their calling, and it will be a lasting disgrace to the men of these mines if they not permit them to do so.”

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7th May 1855

This however was 1854 and events on the Victorian fields were building steadily to the Eureka uprisings at Ballarat in December that year. While the Chinese had no part in this affray, the Royal Commission which followed did address the issue of their presence on the goldfields.

The end result of these deliberations saw legislation ennacted in June 1855 to limit Chinese entry to the Victorian fields by imposing a £10 entry tax on each ‘Celestial’.

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15th July 1856

As a result of this new landing tax being imposed, the Hong Kong traders despatching the mining parties decided to stop the ships in Sydney instead and let the miners walk overland to the Victorian fields.

Given they would be passing by the NSW fields along the way, most of which at that time were undermanned, this news was welcomed in Sydney.

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14th August 1856

And indeed the arrival of some of the Chinese on established NSW fields like the Turon was also well received. “About 150 Chinese arrived here during this month, and have apparently determined upon remaining; they are a patient industrious race, who do well where Europeans cannot.”

By the following year, the Chinese were well established in both this and adjacent communities like Tambaroora further to the west.

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Above: Chinese encampment. Charles Lyall, 1854. Reproduced courtesy State Library of Victoria H87.63/2/6B

I have applied myself diligently, in obedience to your command, to acquire the knowledge of the barbarians; and to their learned men and religious teachers I have not been deaf. I think their words are very good and that if they would themselves practice only a little of what they are so anxious to teach others, I could find no fault with them. Many of their maxims and precepts are worthy of being treasured up and held in remembrance equally with those of Confucius himself, … But now, alas when I know these people better, I see plainly that they wish to make up their zeal in teaching others for their remissness and neglect, in practicing these golden rules themselves.

[extract from letter as included below in newspaper inset]

25th June 1858

While the new presence of the Chinese miners on the NSW diggings was largely welcomed in the media, events on the fields themselves did not always accord with this sentiment.

Far from the sharing the view that the Chinese were there to revitalise the flagging goldfields, many miners saw them as competing for both the gold and other resources like water.

While some flare ups did occur, the extent of these was limited by the fact that the NSW fields were by and large both very extensive and also very undermanned.

This scattered quality tended to favour a “live and let live” approach, much more so than the intensely rich and concentrated Victorian fields at Ballarat and Bendigo had.

Set against this backdrop, a letter home by a Chinese miner that was translated and reprinted in the Sydney media in 1858 makes for compelling reading. Just what did the Chinese miners think of the reception they received from the locals?

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Above: Chinese encampment. Charles Lyall, 1854. Reproduced courtesy State Library of Victoria H87.63/2/6B

Late in the winter of 1860, a new alluvial goldfield was discovered on a pastoral holding north of Murrumburrah. The local name for the place was Lambing Flat. The goldfield that instantly sprang up around it was called Burrangong after the creek that flowed through the area.

This was the field that small scale miners across both NSW and Victoria had been waiting for. A very rich and extensive area of easily worked ground that held out prospects of instant wealth and fortune without needing to invest a large amount of time and money before getting your hands on the golden metal.

Accordingly they flocked to Lambing Flat in their thousands. They were not pleased to find that Chinese miners were actually amongst the first miners to have developed the field and as a result held claims in some of Lambing Flat’s best ground.

Confrontation started almost immediately with riots breaking out in December 1860. Then in late January, the Chinese were driven off from the claims and forced to seek shelter on a nearby property.

When additional law enforcement officers arrived on the field, the Chinese were returned to their claims. Determined once and for all to drive the Chinese off the field, some 2,000 to 3,000 miners gathered on Sunday 30 June and brutally set upon the Chinese miners.

In the wake of the riots, the NSW Government legislated to follow the Victorian initative and actively discourage further Chinese immigration by means of an entry levy. Over the next ten years, the numbers of Chinese on the NSW goldfields went from around 14,000 in 1861 to half this number by the start of the 1870s

Learn More About the Lambing Flat Riots