Gold brings out the worst in humans, and nowhere more so than on the goldfields themselves. In 1857, far from the prying eyes of the colonial government, European miners slaughtered their Chinese counterparts, destroyed their homes, stores, temple and equipment, and largely escaped justice. Meanwhile, incarceration in barbaric mental asylums awaited other Chinese miners who dared step out of line. Thus, greed and racism drove some of the most tragic events in Australia’s troubled immigration history.
Victoria’s High Country is a majestic region of old historic gold towns, tobacco kilns, wineries, farmland and forests, 306 kilometres (190 miles) north of the State capital, Melbourne. Within this wilderness of national parks and snowclad mountains, wild horses still roam where the map boasts such intriguing names as Germantown, Trappers Gap, Nug Nug, Dingo Creek, and Dinner Plain. Even today the area guards its many secrets from the casual visitor. The Buckland Valley massacre is but one of them.
By turning off the Great Alpine Road at tiny Porepunkah, one can descend into the Buckland Valley without seeing any evidence of its dark history. Certainly, the valley walls are steep and forbidding, and in winter a grey curtain of swirling mist veils the bush. But over the years, harsh weather and raging bushfires have wiped out virtually all trace of Australia’s most violent race riot.
The Buckland River flows 39 kilometres (24 miles) north through the remote Mount Buffalo National Park. The country is rugged; the river descends 282 metres (925 feet) over its course. A sealed road follows the riverbends before eventually petering out into little more than a dirt track, accessible by four-wheel drives only. Leave your vehicle and cut into the bush; long abandoned mine workings, water races, and even the footings of old miner’s huts and stores might still be visible.
During the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s, the Buckland Valley was home to 6,000 miners. Two thousand were Chinese. After the race riot, rumours abounded. Some said that Chinese in their hundreds were slaughtered and tossed down mine shafts. Others reported the decomposed remains of Chinese miners were found in the surrounding gullies, frozen to death. One thing is certain, however. Only 4 July 1857 European miners turned on the Chinese community and drove them out of the Buckland.
Racism was at the heart of the troubles.
Originally the handful of Chinese miners in the Buckland Valley had attracted no resentment. They stuck to impoverished workings, scratching a living as best they could. But as the Buckland Valley gold declined, the Chinese population suddenly increased. Waves of industrious Chinese workers descended on the narrow valley, sinking sophisticated shafts rather than merely fossicking, and set up flourishing encampments, their own stores, and a new joss house.
Bitter racist sentiment focused on the joss house. A local newspaper anguished that “long tailed intruders of the Mongol breed” had beaten Christians to the punch by building the first place of “worship” in the valley — although it was certainly a “desecration” to use such a term in relation to a Heathen temple, the paper argued. The “gaudy” joss house, twenty feet in length and decorated with scrolls of Chinese hieroglyphics, was built at the “principal campsite of the Celestial race upon the Buckland”. The reporter described crackers exploding, gongs ringing, cymbals clashing, and voices in the crowd that made a chorus “which defied description”. The newspaper singled out the musicians for special condemnation: “a fiddler, whose instrument and music was (sic) enough to raise the ghost of Paganini from the dead, in order to chase such a vile imitator of his noble art out of existence”.
It was also “common knowledge” that European women were not safe around the Chinese. After all, the majority of Chinese miners were single men, a fact which indicated either crudely suppressed sexual urges, or a very odd Oriental sexual proclivity!
As more Chinese arrived, European miners found themselves in the minority. Racist feelings escalated. Placards appeared, demanding that all Chinese be driven from the gold fields. Fearing an outbreak of violence, local authorities called on the Chief Secretary in Melbourne to help subdue the troubles. No such help was forthcoming. (After all, institutional discrimination was the rule in Victoria; Chinese were taxed heavily when they arrived by ship. When the ships carrying them were also taxed, captains began dropping Chinese passengers in South Australia, leaving Chinese miners to walk four hundred kilometres — 250 miles — overland to Victoria.)
Hostilities soon flared. At first the Europeans were content to claim-jump profitable Chinese mines, beating and stoning their owners, and cutting off their pigtails. But when a European was charged with shooting a Chinese miner’s horse, residents came to his aid; how could Chinese evidence be relied upon, they demanded. Whenever white culprits faced court charged with anti-Chinese behaviour, white juries returned verdicts of not guilty.
Unrest climaxed on 4 July, when American miners celebrated Independence Day. Liquor flowed freely. But did they start the Buckland race riot? Witnesses branded disgruntled Scottish, Irish and English miners as the real troublemakers; however, since most took off into the bush afterwards, few remained to face court. Only two constables were on duty in the valley that day. They were unable — and arguably unwilling — to prevent the spread of violence.
A rowdy miners’ meeting that morning at the Buckland Junction hotel decided that if the government wasn’t prepared to protect them from the evil Chinese, they would take matters into their own hands. Followed by curious onlookers, a band of miners set upon the first Chinese settlement they found, destroying stores and shanties. The Chinese fled, leaving a trail of possessions strewn through the bush.
As the day wore on, European miners rioted along the length of the valley. At one settlement, Maguire’s Flat, the mob set fire to a tent with four Chinese inside. Only a constable’s arrival averted tragedy.
The precise number of Chinese fatalities is unknown. That day, white miners drove an estimated 2,500 Chinese out of the valley. At one crossing, panicking Chinese drowned as they tried to escape across a narrow log bridge. Some Europeans stepped in to help, defending the fleeing Chinese and helping them negotiate the swift flowing river.
Eventually word of the riot reached the main town of Beechworth, some 60 kilometres (37 miles) distant. The police warden hastened to the valley, passing brutally beaten miners. Three bodies were found along the road. Again, Victorian justice closed its eyes; the inquest found they died from “cold, exposure, and previous disease”.
The official estimate was that 750 tents, 30 Chinese stores, and the Chinese temple had been destroyed, and that the entire Chinese population had left the valley. When authorities promised to protect any Chinese miners who returned to the Buckland, few trusted them. Those that did faced more persecution. Once the police detachment had been withdrawn, the Europeans set upon them anew.
When the twelve ringleaders of the Buckland riot faced trial in Beechworth, an anti-Chinese Immigration League raised funds for their defence. The court proceedings were racist in the extreme. Chinese witnesses were thoroughly discredited. One defence barrister argued, “If it is so difficult for a European to distinguish one Chinaman from another, might not the same difficulty exist in a Chinaman’s recognition of a European?” Rioters and their friends provided alibis for one another, and juries happily returned verdicts of not guilty. Cheers from outside the crowded courthouse greeted each new verdict. None of the rioters was found guilty of assault or robbery. Only three miners, charged with affray, received nine months in gaol — significantly without hard labour.
A rousing welcome awaited the acquitted rioters back in the Buckland. Celebrations began at the Hit or Miss Hotel. The “heroes” were marched up the valley, stopping at different pubs along the way, until they reached the Britannia Hotel.
Justice for the Chinese was scant.
When Chinese storeowners were compensated for their losses, one indignant newspaper proclaimed that “John Chinaman has got greatly the advantage of his enemies, and we would imagine that they would be gladly expelled again for a similar sum!”
Brutality at the hands of white miners was only one hazard facing the Chinese. Depression, poverty and hunger took an even greater toll. Distressed Chinese miners frequently suicided or found themselves locked away in barbaric mental asylums.
Migration is a risky, stressful venture at the best of times. Around the time of the Buckland riot, more than 70 per cent of Victoria’s population had been born outside Australia, mainly in England, Ireland and Scotland. Interestingly, by 1887, only 23 per cent of inmates of Australia’s eighteen public lunatic asylums were Australian-born. The remaining 77 per cent were immigrants. Irish inmates dominated the system, comprising 27 per cent of the total. England and Wales contributed 23 per cent of all inmates, and Scotland supplied 6 per cent. Germans and Chinese made up the rest.
At the time, it was believed that different races suffered from different types of insanity, some races being more prone to insanity than others. The Irish were singled out for their lack of “will power”. Native-born Australians, being a mixture of English, Scots and Irish ancestry, were deemed fortunate; for them, the undesirable traits of the Irish had been sufficiently diluted.
Victoria boasted more asylums than any other Australian colony. In 1889 it was estimated that one in every 300 residents was in an asylum. One commentator was so alarmed by the apparent increase in insanity he predicted that if present trends continued, by 2043 Victoria would have a population of 60 million — all of them “lunatics”.
When it came to Chinese immigrants, medical views about their mental health were racialised. By 1861, nearly 25,000 Chinese lived in Victoria, mostly single men in lonely, itinerant jobs; there were only eight Chinese women in the entire colony. More Chinese men found their way into asylums, many for no other reason than being different. Only a handful of interpreters were available on the goldfields, and those Chinese able to speak a smattering of English were often ridiculed and disbelieved. Not surprisingly, medical staff fell back on racial stereotypes when diagnosing mentally ill Chinese.
Lunatic asylums became increasingly convenient depositories for problematic “Mongolians”. In one case, an agitated Chinese, shouting in Cantonese, was declared “insane” and “raving mad”, and incarcerated for life. In the Mayday Hills asylum, Beechworth, Chinese inmates were confined in a single grim cell. This hellish institution was famous for its soul-destroying use of restraint bags, strapped chairs, and isolation cages. While only two signatures were needed to commit someone to an asylum, the inmate would need eight signatures to get out!
Time and again, racism cast its shadow over young Australia. In an interesting parallel with another wild frontier — the American West — the United States Christian Remembrancer of October 1845 pointed out: “History repeats her tale unconsciously, and goes off into a mystic rhyme; ages are prototypes of other ages, and the winding course of time brings us round to the same spot again.” In the American Wild West it was the Apaches who were to blame for trouble; in Australia, the Chinese.
Nowadays, European ancestry still dominates Australian society. But from those tragic times on the Victorian goldfields where Chinese made up one in five of the male population, people of Chinese ancestry now number in excess of 1.3 million, or almost four per cent of the total population. In truth, it would be impossible to imagine modern Australia without its vibrant Chinese community.
James Aitchison is an Australian author and poet who resided in Singapore for 27 years where he researched many episodes of post-colonial Asian history. He has written over 180 books including Asia’s best-selling series of horror and mystery stories for middle readers. His books have been translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Malay, and Indonesian. In 2013, he was awarded the Literature prize in the Australian Government’s inaugural Australian Arts in Asia Awards. His poetry appears globally, including the UK’s Aesthetica Creative Awards Annual 2018.
You can read James’ previously published article ‘The Maria Hertogh Case; A Cautionary Episode from Colonial Singapore’ here…
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