The Lambing Flat riots

To understand the Lambing Flat riots, you really need to understand the overall context within which the new goldfield developed.

Exactly what was it about the new field at Lambing Flat that set it apart from those numerous big new discoveries that had gone before? Just why was the mood of that time so keen seize upon the new alluvial goldfield?

Well – the fact was that the easily won gold that had set Victoria apart from all others was giving out and, as one correspondent reported “Should the decrease continue at this rate for a few years, diggers – that is, men working alluvial claims – will become a rarity, and gold digging will become what it eventually must, a question of machinery and wages.”

25th September 1860

In this environment, the news that emerged at the start of spring in 1860 of an exciting new find at Lambing Flat in south west NSW was sure to get the attention of a wide audience.

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8th October 1858

By October 1860, Lambing Flat was really beginning to make a stir with one pundit predicting it would produce more gold than any other goldfield in NSW.

Small wonder then that people were really starting to stream in. Significantly fears were already being expressed about the general lack of water however, and it was the absence of this precious resource that would help fuel tensions on the field.

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27th October 1860

Also noted in this report was the fact that “In New South Wales, the last few years show so considerable an increase in the yield of gold, with almost an absence of machinery, the average earnings per man being far above the Victorian diggers, it is not very surprising under these circumstances that there are thousands of diggers in Victoria at the present time eager to get to New South Wales.”

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7th February 1861

As a speech given at Lambing Flat early the following year was to explain however, the general state of NSW goldfields was poor … “instance Kiandra, Araluen, Turon, Meroo, Tambaroora, &c., in short, gentlemen, they are all in a state of insolvency and the only solvent one is the one on which we are striving for an honest livelihood.”

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With the general state of alluvial mining on the NSW fields being sluggish, it's easy to see why the rich prospects of the Lambing Flat field excited such attention.

Because of its wide extent and the easy nature of the ground, it was a field that could be worked with little financial investment – a ‘workin’ man’s field as opposed to a capitalist’s field.

This at the very time when the future viability of the self employed, small scale alluvial miner was being questioned amidst the likelihood of NSW following Victoria down the path of independent diggers becoming a mere labour force to further the interests of mining companies.

Passionate stuff this and any wonder that when one threw in the vexed issues of the Chinese presence on the new fields, people seized upon it as the pivotal issue around which to condense a broader sense of ‘they dun me wrong’. This in turn ushered in a very tragic ten month period on the new Lambing Flat field as the first racial riots erupted there at the start of summer 1860.

18th December 1860

The first news of a major incident at Lambing Flat broke in the Sydney media just prior to Christmas.

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22nd December 1860

Significantly it was soon followed up by a series of reports from Yass questioning the veracity of the claims. It was noted that “one Chinaman lost his life from the buffeting he received. Some others had their pigtails cut off, and were somewhat injured, but there does not appear to have been any premeditation in the affair.”

Maybe – maybe not. The Yass Courier was after all noted for its partisan support of the miners. Certainly come the new year and further disturbances there was no doubting the premeditation evident in the attacks on Chinese.

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When the Lambing Flat diggings were proclaimed as a goldfield on 27 November 1860 they were given the name Burrangong after a local creek.

The opening days of the new field were tumultuous ones indeed with violence directed not only at the Chinese but also amongst the European miners themselves.

In the absence of any effective police force the new diggings were a fertile field for brigands such that a miners protection league was formed to look after the more sober elements of the community.

This protection league which seems to have started out as a genuine community endeavour to assist in the stabilisation of the field was quickly hijacked by extremist views to become a mobilising force of anti-Chinese activism.

It was at one of the group’s public meetings on Sunday 27 January attended by around 1500 of the field’s 8000 European miners that what started out as call for concerted political action degenerated into a riot leading to forcible expulsion of the estimated 1500 Chinese from the field.

Many of these then took refuge on the Currawong Station of James Roberts some 20km to the south east near Murrumburrah.

3rd February 1861

A detailed account of the events of that day was published soon after in the “Lambing Flat Miner”.

Not surprisingly the field’s very own newspaper gives a highly sanitised and understanding view of what transpired. Its attention to detail however makes for an absorbing account.

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21st February 1861

Nor was this the end of the matter. As some Chinese drifted back to the field, additional riots broke out to drive them away.

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26th February 1861

Analysis of the events soon began to emerge in the Sydney media. As the report here explains the rioters should not be taken as represeentative of the diggers in general.

“On all the old gold-fields there has been an accumulation of men whose career of indolence, blasphemy, drunkenness, and crime, exposes them to the detestation, of all industrious diggers. Thus the opening of a great gold-field is to them a new career. They rush in hundreds and in thousands! to the sphere of fresh operations.”

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20th February 1861

Other voices though were also raised in vigorous defence of the actions to expel the Chinese from the field.

“I can assure you it was not out of any hatred or jealousy on the part of the diggers [that the Chinese were expelled], but the whole motive was, as I stated, that they consumed, appropriated, and spoiled the water, and that is the only reason that the European population is as determinedly resolved not to tolerate them any longer.”

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1st March 1861

Very quickly the issue zoned back in on the overall policy that had resulted in such a major expansion of the Chinese on the NSW goldfields in the first place –  the lack of an Chinese immigrant entry tax that made landing in NSW so much more desirable than going to Victoria.

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What though of events on the Burrangong goldfield as this debate played out in general media?

Well the political pressure to respond was extreme and with elections looming, the Premier – Charles Cowper – gathered a major military force around him and set off for Lambing Flat.

5th March 1861

Cowper arrived at Lambing Flat amidst much speculation as to what the government would do. Especially high on the concern list of the reform league was that the government would use its major military force to return the Chinese to the field.

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12th March 1861

Upon his arrival, the premier was presented with a petition from the chief organisers of the miners league committee.

He however refused to accept their legitimacy as spokesmen for the miners. All in all the exchange is a valuable reference as to the state of the agitators organisation at that time.

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15th March 1861

The effect of Cowper’s visit became clearer in the wake of his returning to Sydney and the reports of his visit started to emerge.

In effect he staved off open rebellion against the Chinese being returned and the rule of law upheld by assuring the assembled crowds that he regarded “the Celestials as pests and he would use every effort to keep them away.”

This bought some breathing space, but it raised expectations that the government act on their behalf sooner rather than later.

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Upon Premier Cowper's return to Sydney legislation to restrict Chinese immigration by levying an entry tax was introduced and passed in the lower house Legislative Assembly.

Similarly legislation to allow them isolate the Chinese to certain specified places on the goldfields was passed. While the immigration bill was rejected by the state's upper house the segregation legislation passed.

This was mistakenly seen as being the end of the matter. As Gold Commissioners were issued with instructions to restrict Chinese to specified areas the very expensive military presence on the Lambing Flat field was withdrawn thus paving the way for a new round of violence to emerge.

24th May 1861

A chief problem lay in the fact that the Chinese were removed to their new mining zones even before the new legislation was enacted, and they were rightly angry at having their legitimate mining claims taken away from them without compensation.

As they set about working both within and without of their allotted areas, the departure of the troops left the field on a knife edge.

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31st May 1861

As the military departed in late May the correspondent for the Herald noted that in relation to the Chinese question “if the Chinese were allowed to work on Spring and Stoney Creeks, now comparatively deserted, and from which they were expelled, and never reinstated, as many in Sydney have been given to understand, our yield of gold would be increased by one thousand ounces every week.”

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21st June 1861

Speaking of ounces of gold per week – just what was the significance of the Burrangong field at that time in the overall pantheon of the NSW fields? A call of the card from this time shows just how important Lambing Flat was for gold mining in NSW at that time. It also provides crucial details of a battle between the Chinese and Europeans at Native Dog Creek close by the Lambing Flat field, where the Chinese successfully defended themselves against a small mob of miners seeking to drive them off their claims.

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With tensions on the field barely contained, the occasion of Chinese miners successfully defending their claims against attack at the nearby Native Dog Creek, escalated the sense of anger at the 'Celestials'.

Then in mid June, news came in of the arrival in Sydney of around 1500 new Chinese miners. With agitators ever mindful of a chance to rouse up violence against the Chinese population, this was the catalyst they needed to call a roll up to finally drive the Chinese off the field once and for all.

2nd July 1861

On Sunday 30 June, the long threatened ‘roll up’ occurred that brutally drove the Chinese off the field from their camps in Blackguard Gully and Back Creek A first hand account of events was delivered by the Herald correspondent writing at 11pm that same night. At the very time these words were being penned the brutalised Chinese were once again on a long trudge seeking refuge on a cold wet winters night at James Roberts’ Currawong Station some 20km away.

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6th July 1861

Several days later and additional accounts were received by mail and published in the papers. Amongst the descriptions of the affray, calls for a strong response sounded out. As the writer here notes – “If the Government do not attempt to bring some of the parties engaged in this last riot to justice, no man’s life on any of the gold-fields will be safe.”

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9th July 1861

Amongst these accounts one record of enormous importance stands out. It is a letter from the Chinese to the NSW Governor outlining the extent of the grievances visited upon them at Lambing Flat over the course of that year up to and including the most recent riot.

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20th July 1861

Several weeks later the Herald correspondent returned to the events surrounding the riot of 30 June in a most comprehensive summary.

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Devastating though the events of 30 June were for the Chinese, it is the affray that came along afterwards that actually proved more shocking to those with political authority.

With calls being heard on all sides for the ringleaders of the riots to be arrested, a large police force of 50 additional officers arrived and locked up three men on 14 July. This prompted 1000 miners to attack the lock up where they were held in what proved to be NSW’s largest ever civil uprising. A police horse charge and gunfire broke up the riot with one miner being killed and many others wounded from sword thrusts and being trampled by horses. The following day the three men were hurriedly released and the police and many officials beat a hasty departure from the field. Before long however they were back with reinforcements. Martial law was declared on 17 July and with 280 extra troops there to enforce it, it worked. Soon after some 250 Chinese were escorted back from James Roberts’ Currawng property where they had sheltered and were re-established at Back Creek.

20th July 1861

Along with the return of the military to the field came the erstwhile reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald who had beaten a strategic departure along with the police after the miners assalt on the lockup. His even handed reporting of events had seen him pegged as a Chinese sympathiser – not a good tag to wear with no police presence on the field. His authorative account of the second riot complements his earlier work.

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With order re-established on the field, the public attention then shifted to State Parliament in Sydney.

Amidst the shock of an armed civilian uprising against the police, broader public opinion rounded firmly upon the Chinese. The logic here was that their presence had driven a peaceful mining community to acts of insurrection. The demand for strong action on “the Chinese Question” was unrelenting. Significantly this coincided with a newly composed state upper house – the Legislative Council – whose new array of members took up their duties in September. It was the previous Council that had vetoed Government legislation to effectively stop Chinese immigration via an entry tax in accordance with the Victorian model. Hence it was time to revisit that legislation and game, set and match for racial prejudice. It was also goodbye to those moderate voices who argued for the rightful place of the Chinese to contribute to colonial society. The last major arrival of Chinese took place in March 1862. Over the next ten years their numbers in the colony halved from their peak in 1861 of 14,000 to 7,000 by 1871.

26th November 1861

The new Chinese Immigration Act was assented to on 22 November 1861.

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The aftermath

It was more or less all over bar the shouting with the Chinese on the goldfields by years end. Their numbers were now capped and the authorities had the power to restrict them to segregated off areas.

Basically it was a case that if no one else wanted it – then Chinese could work it.

This in itself was not devoid of opportunity for those who remained to work the fields rather than either depart for new diggings elsewhere around the world or indeed head home to China.

Even so called worked out portions of the fields, were often still very rich in gold for those with the skill in separating it out from the mass of earth that surrounded it.

This largely spelled the end of hostilities for most of the diggings – except for Lambing Flat / Burrangong. Passions here ran very deep and issues continuing to simmer for at least the next five years without however revisiting violent conflicts.