Every day at 12noon in Sovereign Hill’s Victoria Theatre, a group of the Outdoor Museum’s wonderful actors present a pretend community meeting called the ‘Anti-Chinese League’. What is it about?
The experiences of Chinese miners on the Victorian goldfields
Most Chinese miners arrived in Ballarat in the late 1850s (their population peaked in 1857 at approximately 7,542, or a fifth of Ballarat’s population). These Chinese people were the only cultural group on the Victorian goldfields to be forced to live in segregated camps. At most, there were 6 Chinese camps in Ballarat during this time in history. These camps were often deliberately built (on guidelines from the British Government of Victoria, called the ‘Colony of Victoria’) in the worst parts of the settlement, usually at the bottom of a hill where all of the nearby human/animal waste would flow when it rained. This was one strategy the government used to try to discourage more Chinese from coming to Australia. The Chinese were quite determined to be successful in Australia however. So, many used this free ‘fertiliser’ to grow productive vegetable gardens.
The Chinese were also forced to pay a Residence Tax and Protection Fee to the government once they arrived on the goldfields, which at times was as high as $1,000 per month in today’s money! Again, they were the only cultural group in Victoria to be treated like this.
But worst of all, the government imposed an Arrival Tax that only applied to the Chinese. This tax of £10 would be equal to almost $10,000 today!! This huge amount of money was to be paid by every Chinese person who arrived by ship in Victoria. To avoid this tax, many Chinese miners arrived in Robe, South Australia, and walked from there to Ballarat – a distance of 400kms!
Why were the Chinese discriminated against?
Today, Ballarat is proud of its multicultural community, but during the 1850s gold rushes there were many European miners on the diggings who wanted to keep Chinese people out of Australia. And, unfortunately for the Chinese, many members of the British Government of Victoria at this time also wanted them gone. By today’s standards, it could be said that many of these Europeans both in Ballarat and in the British Government of Victoria were quite racist towards the Chinese, and caused them to suffer both on the journey to Ballarat, and while they were searching for gold like the thousands of others on the Victorian diggings.
(A 21st century) Definition of racism
- The belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others.
- Offensive or aggressive behaviour to members of another race stemming from such a belief.
- A policy or system of government based on it.
Why does racism exist?
There were many cultural differences between Chinese and European people on the diggings. A fear of difference is often the cause of racism, and sadly this is true in Australia even today. People who look different to you, or practise a different culture or religion etc. are no better than you, no worse. They are just different. If everyone on Earth was the same, what a boring planet this would be!
Here’s a table demonstrating some key cultural differences between most Europeans and most Chinese in Ballarat in the 19th century. You can imagine that a 19th century European might have been shocked to meet a Chinese person for the first time, and visa-versa because of such cultural differences. This experience is called ‘first contact’.
|Chinese men wore their hair in long plaits called queues – Chinese law said they had to wear their hair like this.||Most European men wore their hair neat and short unless they were really scruffy miners. Hair styles could depend on one’s social class.|
|The most popular religions in China during the gold rushes were Taoism, Chinese folk religion (ancestral worship), Chinese Buddhism, and Confucianism.||Most Europeans were a kind of Christian: Anglican, Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, Presbyterian etc.|
|Chinese miners typically wore silk or cotton outfits called tangzhuang or changshun and often wore no shoes or hats.||European miners typically wore shirts, jackets, waistcoats and trousers made of cotton or wool, along with thick leather boots. They always wore hats when they were outside.|
|Most of the 1850-60s Chinese miners had a farming background and had lived in the countryside.||Most of the Europeans had an industrial background and had lived in big cities.|
|Most of the Chinese here in Ballarat during the gold rushes spoke Cantonese.||Most Europeans spoke English.|
The British Government of 19th century Victoria was motivated to keep the Chinese out of Australia because Britain was at war with China over the sale of opium, a dangerous and addictive drug. The British wanted to sell (Indian) opium to the people of China in return for tea (the favourite drink of the British Empire) and silk, but the Chinese Emperor was worried about the high numbers of his people whose lives were being ruined by this drug. As a result, China and Britain (with the help of France the second time) fought two ‘Opium Wars’, the first from 1839-42, and the second from 1856-60.
The main reason the government ultimately chose to make life difficult for the Chinese in Australia was due to loud, but small groups of Europeans on the various Victorian diggings who often called themselves an ‘Anti-Chinese League’. They complained about the Chinese so much that the government felt it had to do something. Here are some of the main arguments used by racist European miners etc. which encouraged the government to create policies like the Arrival Tax and the Residence Tax (apart from using it as a general way to make money through taxes, like a Gold Licence [before 1854], for example).
The text in italics represents the kinds of opinions held by members of the Anti-Chinese League.
- ‘The Chinese aren’t coming to contribute to the development of the Colony. They just find gold and then return to China to make their families rich.’ This was true, but many Europeans and Americans did the same thing. Some Chinese had to return home with their gold to use it to repay debts in China. However, those who wanted to stay in Australia often found it difficult to make enough money to buy a house, or set up a business as a result of the money they had to pay in Arrival and Residence taxes.
- ‘The Chinese bring disease.’ Some Europeans believed that the Chinese brought dangerous new diseases with them from China, while others thought the goldfields living habits of the Chinese would generate diseases like dysentery and typhoid. However, there is no evidence that disease was more common in the Australian Chinese community than it was in the European community in the 19th century.
- ‘As the Chinese men come to Australia without their wives, their ‘loneliness’ can cause trouble.’ The Chinese couldn’t afford to bring their wives on account of the Arrival Tax, and in Chinese culture it is very important to look after your parents in their old age. Many Chinese women stayed home in China to do just that, in addition to looking after their children and the family farm/business.
- ‘The Chinese don’t mine fair!’ Chinese miners and European miners searched for gold differently, and to the frustration of many Europeans, the Chinese methods could sometimes find gold in abandoned European mines. The Chinese argued that the gold would be ‘lost’ if it weren’t for their re-working of abandoned mines.
- ‘The Chinese are stealing Queen Victoria’s gold!’ Some Europeans complained that Ballarat’s gold belonged to Queen Victoria and the British Empire. Therefore, they thought the Chinese should keep their hands off it. However, there were plenty of American, Dutch, French, Italian etc. people in Ballarat who weren’t British subjects either, and they didn’t experience racism like the Chinese did. And if the gold belonged to anyone, it should have belonged to the Aboriginal people of Victoria.
More detail on these complaints from Europeans can be found here.
Sadly, many Chinese miners on the Australian goldfields experienced violence at the hands of Europeans who held these racist views. Some even had their queues (long hair braids) cut off, and occasionally they were even scalped!
The Anti-Chinese League (pretend) meeting at Sovereign Hill
Sovereign Hill’s talented actors perform this pretend Anti-Chinese League meeting and talk to the audience afterwards to explore this dark, racist part of Victoria’s history. Many audience members are shocked by what they hear our actors say during this performance, but ultimately it gives people the opportunity to think about and discuss the dangerous impact that racism can have on Australia.
Next time you visit Sovereign Hill, come along and see this provocative performance for yourself!
Links & References
A great video about the common experiences of Chinese people on the goldfields: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFEbNtTf4l4
Anti-Chinese League Meeting at Sovereign Hill Debriefing Notes and Questions for Teachers: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/Anti-Chinese-League-Meeting-atSovereign-Hill.pdf
Research notes for primary students made by Sovereign Hill Education: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/SovHill-Chinese-notes-ps1.pdf
For secondary students: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/SovHill-chinesesballarat-notes-ss1.pdf
Sovereign Hill Education’s free ‘Chinese on the Goldfields’ teaching kit: https://www.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/New-Gold-Mountain.pdf
The State Library of Victoria study notes on Victoria’s 19th century Chinese community: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/golden-victoria/life-fields/chinese
A summary of the Australian gold rushes, with detail on the racism experienced by the Chinese: http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-gold-rush
SBS Gold on the experiences of the Chinese: http://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=46
A newspaper article which provides a fascinating insight into 19th century racism in Australia towards Chinese people: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/4090625
Sovereign Hill Education notes for students on some of the most interesting goldrush characters from Ballarat, including John Alloo (successful restaurant owner, and Ah Koon (Chinese Camp Headman and interpreter): http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/Characters_of_the_Goldfields.pdf
Details on the violent riots against the Chinese that happened across Australia in the mid-19th century: http://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=56
A video on the Chinese history of Bendigo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WO2JUIoC82E
The history of Chinese Australians: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Chinese_Australians