Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Trove Tuesday: The Chinese Question

In the 1850s my mother's ancestors, John and Janet Hillgrove, were living on the goldfields at Campbell's Creek near Castlemaine. John had done a bit of fossicking for gold but they soon set up a store instead and became shopkeepers.

The population in the area was in a constant state of flux as miners chased rumours of new gold fields and new immigrants continued to arrive and make their way inland.

Today there is a lot of talk about Muslim immigrants but in the 1850s the talk was about the Chinese immigrants who had arrived in thousands. There was a lot of ignorance and prejudice because of cultural differences and if European miners were finding it difficult to make a living from the gold they were quick to blame the Chinese. The 'Chinese Question' is a big and complicated topic but this post is touches on the subject as it applied to my ancestors.

The following letter from 'a digger and a sufferer' (who I fervently hope is NOT my ancestor John Hillgrove) appeared in The Argus newspaper in 1856, arguing that Chinese were having a detrimental effect on gold yields.
THE DIGGERS BANE. Sir, I beg the favour of a space in the columns of your journal for the insertion of a few remarks on the Chinese Question, in order to disprove the arguments by Mr Kelly and other Chinese advocates as to the desirability of this class of immigrants. I have been mining in the neighbourhood of Campbell's Creek during the last four years and have observed a gradual decline in the yield of this gold-field from the time those 'desirable' people came in force until the present, the cause of which decline is entirely attributable to these destructive people, as will be shown. 1stly. By their destroying the water in the back gullies, the working of which in the dry season is thereby rendered unprofitable, as most of the wash-dirt will not pay for carting, and they are consequently abandoned. 2ndly, By their washing large quantities of surface tailings and refuse they fill up hundreds of holes which would otherwise be worked, whereby ground that is solid cannot be distinguished from that which is not. The quantity of profitable ground destroyed by this means is enormous: whole gullies in this locality have been completely levelled. Lastly. As soon as one of their party strikes gold at any place they come in droves and take entire possession of the ground, to the exclusion of all Europeans;in consequence of which the miner dare not leave his ground (though ever so poor) till worked out. This prevents new ground being opened up, keeps the miner poor and, unless laws are framed to keep these people in check, will eventually drive him off the diggings. It is wrong that ground opened up by European industry should be destroyed wholesale by hordes of ... heathens. As regards the profits derived from these people by storekeepers, I have been informed by several who do a large business with them that what is stolen by them more than equates the profit. Hoping that a check may be put on the influx of these people, I remain yours respectfully, A DIGGER AND A SUFFERER.
Letter to the editor, The Argus, 27 Oct 1856
I have no idea what John and Janet thought about the Chinese but I know from a reference in a memoir that Janet blamed ex-convicts from Van Diemens Land (Tasmania) for money that was stolen from their store on one occasion.

A year earlier, in 1855, a Chinese miner called Ling Hing was killed in a mine accident and John Hillgrove and another miner A. Restleaux, tried to save him. John was required to give evidence at the inquest. I have looked for the inquest papers in the archives and failed, possibly because of the spelling of the Chinese man's name. The misundstandings of law and culture on both sides is again evident in the newspaper article about the inquest.

Inquest on Ling Hing, The Argus 7 Jul 1855
I have visited the museum at Young in New South Wales, a museum that preserves items and educates us about the anti-Chinese riots which occurred at Lambing Flat near Young in 1860.

On the plus side, several years ago I visited the Golden Dragon Museum at Bendigo, the ‘Chinese Cultural Centre of Australia’. The museum opened in 1991 to document, interpret and preserve the Chinese heritage in Australia. It's a wonderful museum that celebrates the lives of Chinese miners and their families. It also houses the world’s longest imperial dragon, Sun Loong, who appears in the annual street parade each Easter. You could start to plan your visit here.

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