Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Chinese in New England 1848-1853

The abolition of transportation in 1840 caused severe labour shortages in New England. This led squatters in the Inverell district to sign a petition in 1842 calling for the introduction of coolies and other Indian labourers[i]. This petition was refused. However, the arrival of Chinese workers provided a part solution[ii]

The earliest known Chinese immigrant to arrive in New South Wales was Mak Sai Ying. Born in Guangzho (Canton) in 1798, he arrived as a free settler in 1818 and purchased land at Parramatta. Initial numbers were small, with just 18 identified Chinese settlers prior to 1848. Numbers then increased quickly as British and Chinese agents responded to labour shortages by shipping out boatloads of indentured or contract labourers from China. In December 1848, for example, the Nimrod arrived in Moreton Bay with about seventy Chinese on board[iii]. One settler immediately hired sixteen.

Maxine Darnell notes that nearly 3,000 indentured Chinese labourers were imported into the colony during the period 1847-53[iv] Most of these were from the densely populated southern provinces of Guangdong (Kwangtung) and Fujian (Fukien) where conditions were difficult and a significant rise in population had put pressure on available resources.

As part of her work, Darnell compiled a table of known Chinese workers that in conjunction with her footnotes provides interesting insights into early Chinese arrivals.

At least two Chinese workers entered into services of J Pike of Pikedale run in The Granite Belt in September 1849. In May 1850, M H Marsh employed ten Chinese workers from Amoy at Maryland in the Granite Belt, all of whom arrived on the Cadet. By the end of 1852, Chinese workers were widely if thinly dispersed across New England.

The Chinese workers were paid less than their European equivalents.[v] In 1850, Chas and M H Marsh signed a contract with one Chinese worker under which he agreed to work as a shepherd, farm and general labourer for five years[vi]. The new worker was to receive three Spanish dollars (about 12/-) per month, with a weekly ration of 8lb flour or 10lb rice, 9lb meat and 2 oz of tea.

In his short biography of M H Marsh, Eric Dunlop suggests that Marsh was a believer in cheap labour[vii], noting that in 1852 he imported Chinese shepherds from Amoy for whom he paid £7 4s. a year. There is a little more to it than that.

While Chinese workers were paid less, their employers had also to meet transport costs. In the case of the Chinese arriving on the Nimrod, the settler hiring sixteen records that he had to pay freight of £8.15.0 each. Another settler purchased two from the Nimrod for a little more, a total of £21.4.0[viii]. These costs had to be set against lower wages.

There were also management issues. Dunlop records that Marsh found English immigrants discontented and troublesome'[ix]. Marsh was conscious of his position and could display a harsh temper. In evidence before Justice Burton in December 1841, it appears that Marsh beat the son of an employee till he was black and blue because he had taken two dogs out that had been worrying the rams despite a previous warning.[x]. However, it does seem clear that Chinese workers were likely to be easier to manage than locals. There was also in Marsh’s case. an apparently comfortable sense of doing good. Writing of the Chinese workers in 1850 he said they would be rescued from the thraldom of a gloomy and degrading superstition …. exchanging it for the glorious and beneficient principles of Christianity[xi].

Relations between the Chinese workers and their new employers were not always easy. In March 1854, two Chinese workers were sentenced to three months’ imprisonment following official complaints by Inverell squatter Alexander Campbell (Inverell Station). Campbell complained that Suchang and Kouhan: had refused to work. The two men made use of bad language. They have been sometimes past impertinent and disobedient and at times very riotous[xii].

This type of case recurs in Darnell’s table and supporting footnotes. From them we get a picture of some of the difficulties and challenges facing the Chinese, as well as those who dealt with them.

While the European settlers who sailed for Australia knew they were going to an alien land, they at least spoke English and were within a system that might be harsh but at least was understood. The Chinese workers spoke limited or no English and were going to a completely alien land. With time, there was no doubt feedback to home villages, but the colony of New South Wales remained alien.

The problems faced by the Chinese were compounded by the fact that the Chinese workers came from different areas and spoke different dialects. The Chinese workers going to M H Marsh’s Maryland run were all from Amoy and presumably spoke the Amoy dialect, Hokkien as it is better known today. This meant that they could talk to each other. This was not always the case.

Apart from the difficulties of day to day communications, inability to speak the English language or to find an interpreter created major difficulties in the event of a dispute or crime. The Chinese were not always as helpless as it may seem.

It seems quite clear from the evidence collected by Darnell that courts and the broader community were aware of the language problem. Here it’s not just the self evident – the difficulty in obtaining interpreters that led to complaints about justice – but also the apparent attempts to compensate. Employers might win, but this could not be guaranteed.

As the Chinese gained experience with Australian conditions, I suspect that their capacity to manage the system improved. In the case of the 1852 case of Athong v Alexander Campbell, Athong employed an Armidale solicitor[xiii]. Athong seems to have lost the case, but he did have representation.

Life could be dangerous. In May 1852, the Phoenix sank on its way to the Clarence River with 12 Chinese on board[xiv]. A thirteenth was found wandering the beach with the Aborigines. He was reportedly quite mad, although no-one knew how he had got there.

Madness in isolation was an issue, as was suicide. There was also sometimes violence between Chinese and between Chinese and other groups. There is no evidence that I know of to suggest that this was worse than that which happened in the broader community, but it certainly happened.

[i] Elizabeth Wiedemann, World of Its Own: Inverell’s Early Years 1827-1920, Inverell Shire Council and Devill Publicity, Inverell, 1981, p43. Material on the Chinese experience at Inverell is drawn especially from this book.

[ii] Unless otherwise cited, background material on the Chinese is drawn from the Harvest of Endurance Scroll, Australian National Museum. Accessed 23 April 2009.

[iii] Maxine Darnell, NSW 1828-1856, accessed on-line May 2009, footnote 9, p19

[iv] Maxine Darnell, NSW 1828-1856, accessed on-line May 2009

[v] European costs to be inserted.

[vi] Jean Harslett and Mervyn Royle, They Came to a Plateau (The Stanthorpe Saga), second edition, International Colour Productions, Stanthorpe 1973 p20.

[vii] E. W. Dunlop, 'Marsh, Matthew Henry (1810 - 1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, Melbourne University Press, 1974, p. 213

[viii] Maxine Darnell, NSW 1828-1856, accessed on-line May 2009, footnote 9, p19

[ix] E. W. Dunlop, 'Marsh, Matthew Henry (1810 - 1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, Melbourne University Press, 1974, p. 213. I wonder whether this is in fact the same group as the 1850 one.

[x] R. v. Betts, Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899, Division of Law Macquarie University, accessed on-line 6 May 2009.

[xi] Quoted Jean Harslett and Mervyn Royle, op cit, p20

[xii] Wiedemann, op cit, p43, quoting the Wellingrove Bench Book 22.3.1854, AO4/5555.

[xiii] Maxine Darnell, NSW 1828-1856, accessed on-line May 2009, footnote 170

[xiv] Maxine Darnell, NSW 1828-1856, accessed on-line May 2009, footnote 45, p21

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