Determined Chinese men walked over 4 million man miles through swamp, desert, mountain and plain from South Australian ports to the Victorian gold fields. The Victorian government sought to restrict the number of Chinese entering the colony and introduced of the Chinese Immigration Act. The legislation limited the entry of Chinese to one person per ten tonnes of ship cargo and imposed a ten pound head tax on every Chinese entering a Victorian port. It was largely unsuccessful as creative ship owners advertised passage to free ports of South Australia, a mere walk to the rich Victorian gold fields.
The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step
The journey to Victoria usually began in Sze Zap, an area comprising of four districts of Kwangtung in China. In a time of opium addiction, drought, over-population, famine and political rebellion, enterprising agents in China who offered loans and assistance, found no shortage of volunteers for a journey to Australia.
The sorrow of parting from loved ones on such a long and arduous voyage was no doubt greatly increased for the many young men who were married only very shortly before leaving. These hasty marriage arrangements were made to maintain the strong cultural an social traditions of the times. They added to the huge responsibility to do well and send money home for the extended family, to pay off debts and provide for the future. Sorrow was equally strong for those women left behind, whose happiness hinged to a great degree on the kindness of their husband’s family, with whom they lived a life of virtual servitude.
The men set off wearing simple loose fitting garments, straw hats and sandals, with ta’am (bamboo pole) balanced on their shoulders holding provisions necessary for their journey. Their initial journey from villages into the portside towns of Amoy and Canton took up to three days of fast paced walking and was merely a taste of the trials that awaited them.
Overcrowding and temptation: the journey to Hong Kong
Upon reaching the port, the men boarded an overcrowded junk ship bound for Hong Kong in order to link up with the British and American transport ships that regularly travelled to Australia. Some men were lucky enough to have family in Hong Kong who could house them until their ship was ready to leave. Others, however, were confined to temporary shelters, run by the same agents who had advanced them the money for their journey. The shelters provided little or nothing in the way of comfort; being scarce of food, extremely overcrowded and dirty. The confinement also allowed traders greater assurance of their investment by limiting the scope for escape.
Opportunism, as always, abounded and during their confinement some men were enticed into amassing huge gambling debts, and even less fortunate were those who became addicted to opium. All the while, making both foreign and Chinese traders very wealthy.
First contact with Europeans
Finally embarking on their overseas journey, the would-be gold seekers boarded one of the many ships berthed at Hong Kong. Once on board the men were at the mercy of the ship’s Captain and crew, some of whom treated the Chinese passengers reasonably well. Others, however, were quite unscrupulous and increased previously agreed on prices for provision of the most basic necessities. For most Chinese travellers, contact with the ship’s Captain and his crew was possibly the first exchange they had with Europeans. Given their poor treatment as paying passengers, first impressions must have been less than positive. However it is doubtful that the Captain and crew cared about the opinions of their passengers as until recently, their passengers were usually convicts.
The Land of Cakes and the New Gold Mountain
Initially ships landed their cargo of Chinese migrants in Adelaide. Later the ships docked at Kingston and finally Robe, both of which were considerably closer to the Victorian gold fields. The distance from Adelaide to Bendigo was 500 miles (800 kilometres) and about 310 miles from Robe (500 kilometres). Between 1857 and 1863, 16,261 Chinese males and one female landed at the port of Robe, on Guichen Bay.
Guichen Bay was not a particularly good harbour, and three vessels were driven ashore during bad weather or due to carelessness of the Captain. The ships were total wrecks although the loss of life was not great. For some years burial mounds of the Chinese were to be found at various places amongst the sand dunes – in one area there were seventeen, side-by-side.
The first ship carrying Chinese gold seekers to arrive at the port of Robe was the "Land of Cakes", an unusually named ship from Scotland. There were 264 Chinese migrants on board. One can only imagine the surprise of the townspeople, who would see their small population of 200 double overnight and treble in the ensuing weeks, when more Chinese arrived to seek out their fortune.
Economic opportunities for Robe
In the mid 1800s, Robe was a comparatively small portside town, comprised of a customs office (manned by one staff member), several hotels, banks, shops, churches and residences and whose economy was based primarily on wool exports.
The townspeople, while no doubt awed by the unusual sight of so many Chinese people milling excitedly on the deck of the “Land of Cakes”, readily seized on the opportunity to make a profit on their need to reach the shore, The fee for ferrying the passengers ranged somewhere between four and five shillings, and once on dry land, more money changed hands to obtain the services of a guide to show them the way overland to the Victorian gold fields. The Chinese freely intermingled with the locals, trading goods, bartering for supplies and gathering information about the long journey that lay ahead of them.
Generally, the local people seemed to accept the presence of the Chinese but there were some rumblings of disquiet when at the peak of immigration, their ranks had swelled to approximately 3,000, far outnumbering the local population. As a result of this unrest, twenty-five Redcoat soldiers were dispatched to monitor the situation. The locals’ fears proved groundless and the Chinese moved around the town in a peaceful fashion without any great incident occurring.
Helpful countrymen and unscrupulous guides
They walked overland to the central goldfields of Victoria – Ararat, Ballarat, Castlemaine, and Bendigo – travelling in stages of about 20 miles each day. During the journey they dug wells for fresh water and purchased sheep for fresh meat. The Chinese passed through many towns, leaving messages for their fellow countrymen who followed, in the hope of making the journey easier. Often the messages contained the location of natural water sources or of the well which had been dug previously.
A traveller in 1854 described a group of Chinese:
"...between six and seven hundred coming overland from Adelaide. They had four wagons carrying their sick, lame and provisions. They were all walking single file, each one with a pole and two baskets. They stretched for over two miles in procession. I was half and hour passing them …everyone behind seemed to be yabbering to his mate in front in a sing-song tone".
Some of the guides proved to be dishonest and unreliable, whereby after one or two days of travel they would desert the Chinese leaving them stranded. Even those who went most of the way with the Chinese were reluctant to accompany them on to the field due to the hostility of the Europeans miners. The Chinese quickly learned from such misfortunes. They marked the way by inscribing Chinese characters in the bark of trees, leaving a trail for their compatriots to follow.