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Chinese people formed a large proportion of the mining population in Beechworth during the 1850s. What’s less well known is that at the peak of the gold rush, there were almost no Chinese on the Ovens diggings. Why?


Loading Tea at Canton (Tinqua [active 1830s–1870s]), circa 1852. (Peabody Essex Museum)

A walk through the Chinese section of the Beechworth cemetery will demonstrate clearly enough that, historically, there were plenty of Chinese people in Beechworth. The Cemetery opened in 1857, and the fact that whoever designed its grounds felt compelled to create a Chinese section within its bounds, should be proof enough that by the mid-1850s, Beechworth had a substantial Chinese populace. That there were also anti-Chinese riots on the Buckland diggings (considered part of the Ovens district) in 1857, will also tell you there were many Chinese people here: enough for racist mobs to warrant persecuting.

China is a big country, but the people who came to the Victorian diggings weren’t from all over China; they were mainly from the Siyi (Sze Yup) or the ‘Four Counties’ in the Pearl River Delta of southern Guangdong province, south-eastern China. The capital of this area is Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton); and the majority language is Cantonese.

It isn’t so surprising that those coming from China to Australia in the 1850s were from Guangdong province, especially when one realises that from the mid-eighteenth century, Canton had been China’s port of international trade (in fact, its sole international port; famous for its tea, silk and porcelain); and that by the time of the Victorian gold rushes, it had been operating for around a decade as one of the ‘treaty ports’ established by the British in the wake of First Opium War under the Treaty of Nanking (1842). More than any other region in China, Guangdong province had the richest history of contact with Britain and her colonies.

However, throughout all of my research concerned with the initial gold rush at Spring and Reid’s Creek (which happened in the summer of 1852-1853), I’ve been surprised by the conspicuous absence of Chinese people. At its high point, there were roughly 8000 diggers on Spring and Reid’s Creeks, and yet it seems that there were not enough Chinese among them as to be remarked upon. The only exception I have found to date is this solitary account in The Argus of what could be the very first arrival of a Chinese person in the area:

The Ovens diggings (from our Special Commissioner), Royal Hotel, Albury, November 28th, 1852:

No little astonishment has been excited at the Ovens by the appearance on Spring Gully of a gentleman of decided Tartar physiognomy. A wide field for speculation has been opened by the proceedings of this individual, who speaks English fluently, and appears tolerably conversant with English habits and manners. In consequence of his having spent a whole week in the erection of his tent, it is surmised that he can hardly have arrived with the view of digging for gold, but that he is commissioned here by the merchants of Canton in some capacity or other. It will be singular if he should turn out to be sent by a private channel to this the youngest colony of the Empire, on a commercial or emigration errand, while the Celestial Government itself still disdains to enter into diplomatic intercourse with the Home Government. [1]

The man in question is described as looking like a Tartar, Tartary being the name used until the late nineteenth century to refer to a vast area from Russia to Mongolia, to Kazakhstan and countries immediately to the south. It is clear that he isn’t a gold seeker, but instead, a trader or merchant of some kind. He is accustomed to speaking in English, which supports the suggestion he may have recently come from Canton (Guangzhou). Alternatively, there is the possibility that he was already established in Australia as a trader, perhaps having arrived here as an indentured labourer (many of whom came from Fujian province and were brought to Australia to replace convict labour in the 1840s).

The article also spells out that his presence on the Ovens diggings is ‘singular’, i.e.: somehow unusual or extraordinary. This is probably because Chinese didn’t really start arriving on the Victorian diggings until 1853 (see Melbourne’s Chinatown ); and also because — as the author of the article suggests — the presence of this Chinese man, particularly as some kind of a merchant, runs contrary to the uneasy diplomatic and trade relations which existed at the time between the ‘Celestial’ Chinese Qing dynasty Government and the British ‘Home’ Government. The casual way in which the author refers to the lack of ‘diplomatic intercourse’ between the two governments assumes that readers of The Argus are more or less fully aware of the recent history between China and Britain, in which the Qing dynasty was compelled to sign unequal trade treaties with the British after the British won the First Opium War in 1842.

The exact reason why Chinese people didn’t start arriving on the Victorian diggings en masse until late 1853 remains something of a mystery to me. Recently, I came across the biography of Louis Ah Mouy (1826-1918), a Melbourne-based merchant and Chinese community leader, originally from the Toishan district of Kwangtung province, south of Canton. His arrival in Melbourne in 1851 coincided with the discovery of gold, and he claimed to have written the letter (home to his brother) that prompted the migration of many thousands of Cantonese to the Victorian goldfields. [2] At a guess, it seems that it took a while before news of gold in Australia spread sufficiently for Chinese agents in Canton to develop partnerships with the captains of the foreign ships who would deliver people to Australia. I also wonder how much this timing relates to the fact that by 1852, California had introduced a Foreign Miners Tax to deter Chinese miners; and by 1853, Chinese were actively being driven off the Californian diggings by racial violence.

However, the reason many Chinese left China in the early 1850s is more readily discernible: At the time of gold discovery in Victoria, China was rapidly falling into a state of total civil war between the ruling Qing dynasty and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom — an oppositional state based in Tianjing (present-day Nanjing, inland from Shanghai). The fighting broke out in Guangxi province, directly west of Guangdong province, in January 1851. From here, the situation (commonly referred to as the ‘Taiping Rebellion’) devolved into one of the bloodiest wars in human history. Tens of millions of people were killed in the fighting and associated plagues and famine, with millions more displaced. Chinese people coming to Beechworth weren’t coming merely for the sake of personal wealth or adventure; they were escaping a country ravaged by war, as well as sending home remittances of gold and money to help struggling family members who couldn’t join them.

As always, comments and contributions welcome.


[1] ‘THE OVENS DIGGINGS. (FROM OUR SPECIAL COMMISSIONER.) ROYAL HOTEL, ALBURY,’  Nov. 28th, The Argus, 3 December, 1852, p.4.

[2] Ching Fatt Yong, ‘Ah Mouy, Louis (1826–1918),’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, Melbourne University Press, 1969.