Chinese diggers were subject to growing resentment on the gold fields. European miners were angered by an increasing Chinese presence in the fields, and on several occasions violently lashed out at the Chinese camps in an attempt to drive them away. In some instances, full scale rioting resulted as angry Europeans attacked the Chinese diggers in "roll ups". Colonial authorities were at a loss to control the violence.
In 1855, a member of the Castlemaine bench stated: "All men here are equal; they come here from all parts of the world in equality, and you have no right to drive any away because they do not work as you please". However, by 1858, one of many petitions signed by large numbers of miners stated that the Chinese were "a very ineligible class of immigrant".
The first call to violence - Bendigo
An angry group of European and American miners met in Bendigo in 1854 and declared that a "general and unanimous rising should take place… for the purpose of driving the Chinese off the goldfield". Local constables acted quickly to prevent the uprising, by asserting their presence and warning the miners against any further vigilante action. The event was only the beginning of greater anti-Chinese tensions.
Full scale riot at Buckland River
After a series of violent clashes between Chinese and white miners at the Buckland River gold field in Victoria in 1857, a Sydney reporter wrote, "the increasing number of celestials has been gradually creating a feverish and dangerous state of excitement". Following a meeting of white miners on July 4th, a small group began to charge through the Chinese camp tearing down tents and demanding that the Chinese leave. After a tense but orderly few minutes, acts of violence increased as the European crowd gained momentum. With the mob shouting, "Come on and let us drive the long tailed devils off at once", Chinese miners were trampled, robbed and beaten. A European wife of a Chinese miner was beaten and nearly killed, another Chinese miner had his finger severed for a gold ring, as tents, a joss house, and property was looted and burned around them.
Panic-stricken Chinese fled across the river and were given assistance and shelter by sympathetic European diggers and landowners. 2500 Chinese miners were expelled from their camps, three died from exposure and another is said to have drowned. The Victorian government granted compensation for the Chinese diggers and they were encouraged to return to the field under the guidance of police and an appointed Chinese Protector. Nervously the Chinese came back to the field to abating hostility, and camped among specially selected Chinese villages. All but four of the arrested white rioters were acquitted, as local juries believed their anger was understandable.
Chinese beaten by the lawless and the Law - Ararat
While travelling overland, Chinese miners had stumbled upon a rich field in Ararat, months before any European diggers arrived. News of the rich field spread and the rapid influx of prospective diggers left authorities unprepared, trouble began to rise from the large percentage of "lawless characters". Police were undermanned and the local goal was overcrowded. The success of the Chinese was deeply resented, as they had been able to secure the best claims on the field. Several incidents occurred in May, and after a violent incident in a Chinese store, a small group charged the Chinese camp. Eyewitnesses stated that European and American diggers attacked the Chinese with timber and axe handles felling Chinese "senseless to the earth" as "Chinamen were to be seen flying thick and numerous, like scattered sheep before dogs".
After the attack, rumours were abound that the Government were planning to confiscate the Chinese claims and hand them over to European diggers. Several claims were jumped and the Chinese Protector was forced to dispel the rumours to restore order. The Chinese were finally forced from the field in 1858. A new law required all Chinese in Victoria to purchase a Residence Ticket. A Chinese digger without a ticket could not sue for the recovery of a mining claim that had been jumped. Due to language difficulties, the Chinese didn’t understand the new law and very few on the Ararat diggings purchased a residence ticket. On February 3rd European diggers demanded to see the tickets. When the Chinese failed to produce them, the Europeans jumped over sixty claims, worth over 1000 pounds each. An inquiry was held but the only compensation awarded the angry Chinese was they were able to sell their mining equipment and timber used in their mines. In a buyer’s market, they received a poor price.
Mob rule at Lambing Flat until Police restore order
After many of the goldfields in Victoria had been raked bare, most diggers headed to new fields in New South Wales. In 1860 miners felt Lambing Flat was their last chance to find their fortune, it was to be the new Ballarat. By January of 1861, it was estimated that the population at Lambing Flat had grown to almost 15,000. Also by 1861, a myth had grown for white miners that the Chinese were to blame for their lack of prosperity. A Miner’s Protective League had formed, petitioning for the removal of the Chinese "for the protection of native industry". In August 1860, several "roll ups" had taken place in Chinese camps, and again in January 1861. Criminals plagued Lambing Flat, like Ararat, and police held little influence. A brawl resulted from a "roll up" in February and 1500 Chinese fled. With the guidance of police, the Chinese returned to the field. However, on June 30th, miner George Preshaw witnessed one of the worst riots of the Australian gold rush.
A full brass band trumpeting "Rule Britannia" fuelled 2000 to 3000 white diggers marching on the Chinese camp. Ringleaders had made anti-Chinese banners and marched on the unprepared Chinese shouting and chanting themselves into frenzy. George Preshaw comments:
"...On marched the mob, and as they neared the camp they made a run for it, and with yells and hoots, hunted and whipped the Chinamen, knocking them down with the butt ends of their whips... in many cases pulling their pig tails out by the roots, and planting their fresh trophies on their banners. Not satisfied with this, their next step was to rifle through the tents for hidden gold, and then deliberately fire every tent in the encampment…In less than two hours, all that remained of the camp was a heap of smouldering ruins."
A Sydney magazine reported that miners who stayed to hide their gold in mine shafts were buried alive. Over a thousand Chinese miners fled, and almost five hundred were injured. Finding refuge on the nearby property of James Roberts, they received food and shelter for several weeks. Once peace was restored, police arrested three white miners involved in the riot. This brought 3000 angry miners to the police camp, demanding their release. After a volatile confrontation that saw an exchange of fire, a sudden surprise charge of mounted troops scattered the mob. The outnumbered police were forced to retreat during the night, and the mob returned and released the prisoners. Peace and order was restored with massive police reinforcements a few days later.
By Benjamin Hoban
Robert Coupe, Anti-Chinese Feelings, New Holland, 2000.
Andrew Markus, Fear and Hatred; Purifying Australia and California 1850 – 1901, Hale and Ironmonger, 1979.
Marion Place, Gold Down Under, The Story of the Australian Gold Rush, Crowell Collier Press, 1969.
Charles A. Prize, The Great White Walls are built: Restrictive Immigration to North America 1836 –1888, Australian National University Press, 1974.
Sovereign Hill Education Service online Research Notes , The Chinese in Ballarat.