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Coolie Alibis: Seizing Gold from Chinese Miners in New South Wales

  • Sophie Loy-Wilson (a1)

Abstract

This article examines debates over Chinese indentured labor in the Australasian colonies at the height of the gold rushes. It does so through the testimony of Chinese gold miners who protested the seizure of their gold by customs officials in Sydney Harbour. As a result of these protests, a “New South Wales Select Committee into the Seizure of Gold from Chinese Miners” was established in 1857 to investigate customs law and “coolie” rights. The findings of this committee uncovered Chinese and white settler memories over failed coolie transportation schemes, revealing the ways in which the legacies of coolie migration continued to shape understandings in the Australian colonies of law, labor rights, and fair taxation well after the cessation of such schemes in the 1840s. The archive of Chinese grievance against the colonial state, preserved in testimonies given to the select committee, reveal the long shadow of slavery in the British Empire, the complexities of multiracial communities, and the role of law and legal institutions in shaping both.

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1. “Report from the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold on Board the Ethereal and Mary Nicholson together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix,” ordered by the legislative assembly to be printed, August 13, 1858, NSW Legislative Assembly Votes & Proceedings Vol. 3 (Sydney 1858), 53383 .

2. Rose Cullen has detailed these debates for the 1830s. See Cullen, Rose, “Empire, Indian Indentured Labor and the Colony: The Debate over ‘Coolie’ Labor in New South Wales, 1836–1838”, History Australia 9 (2012): 84109 .

3. “Indian Labor,” Morton Bay Courier, October 30, 1847.

4. The size of the runs claimed by these squatters was unimaginable, as the average acreage claimed exceeded the size of most English counties. For example, one run in New England, New South Wales, was 14,720 acres while Canning Downs in the Darling Downs was 168,960 acres. Roberts, Stephen H., The Squatting Age in Australia, 1835–1857 [1935] (Carlton, 1964).

5. Morton Bay Courier,  December 19, 1846; Davidson, G.F., Trade and Travel in the Far East (London, 1846), 200 .

6. Sydney Herald, June 28, July 12, 1842.

7. Rusden to Nicholson, February 17 and 28, 1848, Macarthur Papers: W.S. Macleay, miscellaneous letters 1815–1868, Mitchell Library, ML A4304.

8. People's Advocate, 8 April, 1847.

9. “Coolie Labor,” South Australia Chronicle and Weekly Mail, August 15, 1868, 1.

10. Herald, December 26, 1846. See also February 27, March 9, 16, June 19, 1837; April 9, 23, May 17, July 27, October 1, 1838; January 4, 7, 14, 1839. Quoted in Ohlsson, Tony, “The origins of a White Australia: The Coolie Question, 1837–1843,’ Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 97 (2011), 206 .”

11. A coolie association was formed in Sydney in 1842. The Australian,  September 19, 1842.

12. Maxine Lorraine Darnell, “The Chinese Labor Trade to New South Wales: An Exposition of Motives and Outcomes” (Ph.D. diss., University of New England, Armidale, NSW 1997), 76. These figures are based on reports in the British Parliamentary Papers, vol. LXVIII, 1852–53, 9–10. In total, 3,685 Chinese laborers were shipped to NSW between 1848 and 1853. See C.W. Bradley to H. Marshall,  March 25, 1853, in The Coolie Trade and Chinese Emigration”, American Diplomatic and Public Papers: The United States and China, vol. 17, ed. Davids, J. (Wilmington, DE: 1979), 180–83.

13. Ohlsson, “The Origins of a White Australia: The Coolie Question, 1837–1843,” 203–19.

14. Darnell, “The Chinese Labor Trade to New South Wales,” 3.

15. The definitive study for New South Wales is Maxine Lorraine Darnell, “The Chinese Labor Trade to New South Wales: An Exposition of Motives and Outcomes,” (Ph.D. diss., University of New England, Armidale, NSW, 1997). For NSW see also Cullen, Rose, “Empire, Indian Indentured Labor and the Colony: The Debate over “Coolie” Labor in New South Wales, 1836–1838,” History Australia 9 (2012), 84109 ; Ohlsson, Tony, “The Origins of a White Australia: The Coolie Question, 1837–1843”, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 97 (2011), 203–19; Ohlsson, “‘Better than Nothing’: Eurasian Labor in New South Wales 1854–1854”, Labor History 105 (2013), 153–69; Broeze, Frank, “Australia, Asia and the Pacific: The Maritime World of Robert Towns 1843–1873”, Australian Historical Studies 24 (1990), 221–38; Hales, Dinah, “Lost Histories: Chinese-European Families of Central Western New South Wales, 1850–80”, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 6 (2004): 93112 ; Dwight, A., “The Use of Indian Laborers in New South Wales”, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 62 (1976): 114–35. For Queensland, see Evans, Raymond, Saunders, Kay, and Cronin, Kathryn, eds., Race Relations in Colonial Queensland: A History of Exclusion, Exploitation and Extermination (St. Lucia, 1975); Slocomb, Margaret, Among Australia's Pioneers: Chinese Indentured Pastoral Workers on the Northern Frontier, 1848–1880 (Bloomington, 2014); Graves, A., Cane and Labor: The Political Economy of the Queensland Sugar Industry, 1862–1906 (St. Lucia, 1982). For shepherding, see Marchant, L.R., “Shepherds in Buckram: An Episode in the History of the Chinese in Australia,’ Westerly 1 (1962): 123–24. In terms of court records, we know that around nine hundred Chinese indentured laborers appeared before the courts between 1847 and 1853. See Finnane, Mark, “Law as Politics: Chinese Litigants in Australian Colonial Courts”, Journal of Chinese Overseas 9 (2013): 193211 . For Western Australia and a more recent history of indentured labor in the pearling industry, see Julia Martínez, “Belated Labor Reform: Australia and the Abolition of Asian Indenture,” in Transforming Labor: Proceedings of the 8th National Labor History Conference 2003, ed. B. Bowden and J. Kellett, 225–31, held at the College of Art, Griffith University, South Bank, Brisbane. Brisbane, Australia: Brisbane Labor History Association; Martinez, Julia and Vickers, Adrian, The Pearl Frontier: Indonesian Labor and Indigenous Encounters in Australia's Northern Trading Network (Honolulu, 2015).

16. Darnell, “The Chinese Labor Trade to New South Wales,” 119, 216–17.

17. For example, “The Eleanor Lancaster now lying off Newcastle has on board one hundred and twenty Chinese emigrants willing to engage themselves for a period of FIVE YEARS to any person willing to pay their passage, 12 12s and the rate of wages as per agreement with FW Lodge viz 12s per month and rations as per scale attached to the agreement.” “Shipping Intelligence,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 17, 1852.

18. Towns to Russell, September 27, 1851, Towns Papers, Mitchell Library, 307/60. 514.

19. Evidence of Dr. David Little: Water Police Report, Empire, March 4, 1852; Central Criminal Court, Sydney Morning Herald, June 12, 1852.

20. Darnell, “The Chinese Labor Trade to NSW,” 80.

21. Fitzgerald, Shirley, Red Tape and Golden Scissors: The Story of Sydney's Chinese (Sydney, 1996), 21 . See also W.D.P. Swain, “Journal on a voyage from Sydney to Amoy and back on the Eleanor Lancaster,” November 12, 1851, Mitchell Library B1654 1.

22. “Non-European groups were to be excluded from the new policy. Colonists assumed that both the indentured Chinese who arrived in New South Wales from 1848 and the gold-rush Chinese immigrants who came to Victoria and New South Wales from 1852 were unable to assimilate and thus to share in the political rights and responsibilities of European colonists.” Curthoys, Ann and Mitchell, Jessie, ‘The Advent of Self-Government, 1840–1890s,’ in The Cambridge History of Australia, Vol. 1: Indigenous and Colonial Australia, ed. Bashford, Alison and Macintyre, Stuart (New York, 2013), 154 .

23. Broeze, Frank, “Australia, Asia and the Pacific: The Maritime World of Robert Towns 1843–1873”, Australian Historical Studies 24 (1990): 221–38.

24. NSW Legislative Council, Votes and Proceedings, 1854, Report from the Select Committee on Asiatic Labor, Vol. II.

25. Ibid., 155.

26. Abstract of the returns of the population in the police districts, at the  March 1, 1856, classified with relation to the native country of the individuals; abstract of the returns of population in the several towns and villages, at the March 1, 1856, classified with reference to place of birth, NSW census 1856, 4, 32, NSW Legislative Council Votes and Proceedings, 1857, 1.

27. Ohlsson, “The Origins of White Australia,” 212.

28. Ibid.

29. Testimony of John Black, of the firm Molison and Black, examined Thursday, July 22, 1858, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,” 49–50.

30. Testimony of Sang-Hyo or Asseng and Seng-How or Ong-Sing, two Chinamen, then examined by the interpreter, Aheng, Chinaman, further examined through the interpreter, Friday, December 18,1857, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold on Board the Ethereal and Mary Nicholson together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix,” ordered by the Legislative Assembly to be printed, August 13, 1858, NSW Legislative Assembly Votes & Proceedings Vol. 3 (Sydney, 1858), 122 .

31. Testimony of John Black, of the firm Molison and Black, examined Thursday July 22, 1858, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,” 49–50.

32. Testimony of Charles Lockyer, tide waiter in customs department, Friday December 18, 1857, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,” 19.

33. On February 12, 1857 an Act for Granting Duty on Gold was passed. This act applied to “gold in its natural state” and clarified that “‘the very ‘export’ shall mean and include transmission or removal from New South Wales by land or by sea.”

34. Testimony of John De Courcey Bremer, December 11, 1857, ‘Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold on Board the Ethereal and Mary Nicholson together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix,” ordered by the Legislative Assembly to be printed August 13, 1858, NSW Legislative Assembly Votes & Proceedings Vol. 3 (Sydney, 1858), 18 .

35. Ibid.

36. Testimony of Sang-Hyo or Asseng and Seng-How or Ong-Sing, two Chinamen, then examined by the interpreter, Aheng, Chinaman, further examined through the interpreter, Friday, December 18,1857, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold on Board the Ethereal and Mary Nicholson together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix,” ordered by the Legislative Assembly to be printed August 13, 1858, NSW Legislative Assembly Votes & Proceedings Vol. 3 (Sydney, 1858), 1–22.

37. Testimony of John De Courcey Bremer, December 11, 1857, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,” 1–8.

38. Testimony of Colonel Nathanial Gibbes, Collector of Customs, December 11, 1857, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,” 1–8.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. “Petitions from certain Chinamen referred to the Select Committee Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold on Board the Ethereal and Mary Nicholson together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix,” December 10, 1857, 223.

43. Mark Finnane has recently drawn attention to the history of Chinese litigants in Australia who developed networks with lawyers and Chinese merchants in order to use the courts “to redress what they saw as discrimination or other harms.” Finnane, “Law as Politics: Chinese Litigants in Australian Colonial Courts,” 193.

44. Ngai, Mae, “Chinese Headmen and Protectors on the Victorian Goldfields 1853–1863,’ Australian Historical Studies 42 (2011): 1024 .”

45. Ibid., 14.

46. “Extensive Seizure of Smuggled Gold,” Shipping Gazette and Sydney General Trade List, October 19, 1857, 231; “Extensive Seizure of Smuggled Gold,” Goulburn Herald and County of Argyle Advertiser, October 21, 1857, 2l; “The Gold Seizures,” Illawarra Mercury, October 26, 1857, 3.

47. “The Chinamen and the Gold Seizure,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 30, 1857, 3.

48. “The Gold Seizures,’” Illawarra Mercury, October 26, 1857, 3.

49. “The Gold Seizure from the Chinese,” Evening News, October 19, 1857, 2.

50. Ibid.

51. “To the Editor: Chinamen and Gold Dust” letters published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 17, 1857.

52. Testimony of Sang-Hyo or Asseng and Seng-How or Ong-Sing, two Chinamen, then examined by the interpreter, Aheng, Chinaman, further examined through the interpreter, Friday,  December 18, 1857, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold on Board the Ethereal and Mary Nicholson together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix,” ordered by the Legislative Assembly to be printed, August 13, 1858, NSW Legislative Assembly Votes & Proceedings Vol. 3 (Sydney, 1858), 122 .

53. Rhook, Nadia, “‘The Chief Chinese Interpreter,’ Charles Hodges: Mapping the Aurality of Race and Governance in Colonial Melbourne”, Postcolonial Studies 18 (2015): 118 ; Mae Ngai, “Chinese Headmen and Protectors on the Victorian Goldfields 1853–1863,” 10.

54. Nadia Rhook, “The Chief Chinese Interpreter,” 9.

55. Testimony of Leau Appa (second examination), Ha-Hon (Chinaman) and Chin Ateak (Chinaman, merchant), June 25, 1858, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold on Board the Ethereal and Mary Nicholson together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix,” ordered by the Legislative Assembly to be printed, August 13, 1858, NSW Legislative Assembly Votes & Proceedings Vol. 3 (Sydney, 1858), 3338 .

56. Testimony of Leau Appa, June 25, 1858, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,” 33–38.

57. Freemans Journal, August 24, 1864, 4.

58. “Customs Letters of New South Wales: Seizure of Gold from Chinese,’ Customs Letters to the Colonial Treasurer from Colonial Nathanial Gibbes, Collector of Customs, No. 175, December 22, 1857, No. 3, January 7, 1858.”

59. Testimony of Colonel Nathanial Gibbes, collector of customs, December 11, 1857, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,’ 1–8.”

60. Testimony of Leau Appa (second examination), Appo or Ha-Hon (Chinaman) and Chin Ateak (Chinaman, merchant), June 25, 1858, ‘Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,” 33–38.

61. Testimony of Appo or Ha Hon, June 25, 1858, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,” 33–38.

62. Testimony of Leau Appa (interpreter), Appo (Chinaman), Leau Appa (second examination), Ha Hon (Chinaman), China Ateak (Chinaman, merchant) Friday, June 25, 1858, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold on Board the Ethereal and Mary Nicholson together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix,” ordered by the Legislative Assembly to be printed, August 13, 1858, NSW Legislative Assembly Votes & Proceedings Vol. 3 (Sydney, 1858), 3150 .

63. Testimony of Leau Appa, June 5, 1858, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,” 31–50.

64. Ibid.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid.

67. Testimony of Sang-Hyo or Asseng and Seng-How or Ong-Sing, two Chinamen, then examined by the interpreter, Aheng, Chinaman, further examined through the interpreter, Friday December 18, 1857. “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,” 1–22.

68. Ibid.

69. Testimony of John De Courcey Bremer, December 11, 1857, “Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,” 1–8.

70. Testimony of Leau Appa, June 25, 1858, ‘Minutes of the evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold,” 31–50.

71. “Report from the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold on Board the Ethereal and Mary Nicholson together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix,” ordered by the Legislative Assembly to be printed, August 13, 1858, NSW Legislative Assembly Votes & Proceedings Vol. 3 (Sydney, 1858), 53383 .

72. Ibid.

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Coolie Alibis: Seizing Gold from Chinese Miners in New South Wales

  • Sophie Loy-Wilson (a1)

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