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1854 was a year of miners’ riots in Australia’s gold fields

Posted in Australia, Geology, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 9 August 2012

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This edited article about the Australian gold rush originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 762 published on 21st August 1976.

Australian riots, picture, image, illustration

Anti-Chinese riots in the Victorian gold fields were eventually put down by the colonial army, by Clive Uptton

They were 6,000 strong and were armed with pick handles, bowie knives, revolvers and other weapons. Anything that came to hand was clearly carried by the diggers who were bent on giving the Chinese what they had been asking for.

And what was the crime that the yellow-skinned gold-seekers had committed? They alleged that they had ruined the local water; they were dirty in their habits and they took up more ground than they were entitled to. That was the white man’s version, but it was by no means as simple as that. Leaving the armed diggers on the march for a moment, a march headed by a brass band and men carrying banners, let us look at the background of the affair.

After the tragic end of the Eureka Stockade battle many of the miners’ grievances were put right. But having had their scrap with authority, they now found a new and almost defenceless enemy, the Chinese.

These would-be gold-miners started entering Australia in large numbers from 1855 onwards and within six years there were 24,000 of them in Victoria alone as compared to 204,000 European diggers. Gold was becoming harder to find – the real reason, apart from actual racialism, for the hostility towards the Chinese.

In Victoria and New South Wales the old-fashioned pan and rocker were having to give way to modern machinery burrowing deeply into the ground in the search for gold. The Chinese worked for far less than the Europeans, and this was hardly guaranteed to make them popular.

The governments of Victoria and New South Wales tried to keep the Chinese out by levying a £10 tax on each of them, a big sum in those days, and they ordered that the number of passengers per ship should be reduced. The Chinese got round that by simply landing in South Australia and heading for the goldfields from there. Later, South Australia tightened up her immigration laws, but the situation gradually grew tenser, a riot occurring as early as 1857.

This was nothing compared to the one mentioned above. It happened at Lambing Flat in New South Wales (now the town of Young) in 1861 and it is easy to see why, for the local fields were still “poor man’s” diggings, meaning that there was gold to be got near the surface or even on it.

White diggers, following every rumour of a strike, rushed off to the new El Dorado to see if they could strike it rich, but the Chinese did not. As a rule they simply squatted on a field that the Whites had abandoned and proceeded to work it. Meanwhile, the rest of the diggers, more often than not disappointed, sometimes returned to find that they had left a really good spot for a phantom rumour.

Lambing Flat had some 15,000 inhabitants at this boom time, and a local banker, George Preshaw, left it on record that many were of “the worst class of men”, though fortunately there were also some “true, noble-hearted men, ready at all times to stand loyal to the best interests of the State”. Let it not be thought that Preshaw was merely a desk man. To get to his post, he had had to elude a gang of bush-rangers, who infested the area, taking a heavy toll of the gold in a thoroughly Wild Western manner.

There were only some 2,000 Chinese at Lambing Flat, many of them scattered over a wide area in small encampments. The first objective of the gallant 6,000 was to threaten those storekeepers who had been supplying the Chinese with provisions, promising them that their shops would be burnt down if they did not obey.

Next the mob headed for the Great Eastern Hotel where they – wrongly – believed the special correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald was lurking. He was cordially hated because he was an upholder of law and order and the Government. In fact, the journalist was in the Oriental Bank with a detective, but some of the marchers burst into the hotel intent on stringing him up.

The landlord managed to convince them that he was not sheltering the man, after which the invaders fired a volley through the roof and settled down to a night of hard drinking. The landlord took £80, but wisely threw cases of brandy and gin to those outside who were missing the party.

It should be stressed that the majority of miners took no part in all this, but things got rapidly worse, especially on Sundays. Sunday being a day of rest, mobs, sometimes of several thousand miners, would assemble to martial music then set off, the banners decorated with pigtails torn from earlier victims. One such mob headed for a camp of industrious Celestials, as the Chinese were called, on Victoria Hill. There some 300 Chinese made good wages and kept a canvas town as neat as any in the area.

The mob went into action, hooting, yelling and hunting down and whipping the Chinese, often tearing their pigtails out by the roots and adding them like scalps to their banners. In two hours nothing was left of the camp but a pile of smouldering ruins. Then the band played “Rule Britannia”, the men reformed, and marched to another camp.

Here a Briton married to a Chinese was beaten up and his baby almost burned in its cradle. The police were too few to prevent these atrocities, but they made three arrests and took their prisoners back to their camp which was guarded by a thick three-rail fence.

That morning a howling mob appeared, demanding the release of the prisoners, and the Riot Act was read to them. Shots were fired at the police, who fived above the mob’s heads, though one man was killed. The mob fired again and the mounted police, 24 in number, charged out at them and sent them scampering, many of them with scars from the policemen’s sabres. There were a number of wounded on each side.

With less than 50 men, the police decided to retreat, as did the local bankers, who decamped during the night with their money. So the goldfield was left to the mercy of the miners, who, unlike the men of Eureka Stockade, had no right on their side. The three prisoners were let loose by the police before they went.

Finally, troops and marines, plus extra police, were sent to restore order. There were 200 in all and their arrival ended the uprising without further bloodshed. Scarcely anyone was ever punished for the incidents and a vast amount of compensation was paid out to the unfortunate Chinese.

When sympathetic juries let off rioters galore, the Sydney Morning Herald was moved to comment that it was a “a fitting wind up for so disgraceful a commencement with which it is so perfectly in keeping”.

But there were plenty more dramatic events ahead in the Australian goldfields.

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