Honour Bound by Contract
Louis Ah Mouy, photographer unknown, circa 1900.Contributors
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Some Chinese could afford to pay their own way to the Victorian goldfields, but travel to Australia was expensive.
The majority of the southern Chinese who came to the eastern Australian gold rushes paid for their travel using a ‘credit-ticket’ system. They borrowed the cost of the ship's passage from a Chinese merchant, business or recruiting agent. On arrival on the goldfields they were honour bound to repay their debt, with interest.
Not all miners were successful and could pay back their loans. Families in China would be held responsible for the miners’ unpaid debts, and this was a heavy burden on the poorest miners.
The Chinese organising company would often require debtors to form part of controlled and well organised teams with specialist subdivisions (miners, cooks, interpreters etc.) under a team manager, or a ‘headman’, until they had worked off the debt. Some companies were good to work for and some were harsh and exploitive.
Chinese societies based in Victoria, such as the See Yup Society, would collect debt payments from miners and also act as arbiters of the credit-ticket contracts, overseeing issues of unfair treatment or exploitation of the miners, and non-payment of debts.
Once the debt was paid off, successful miners were free to mine on their own account, or use their earnings from mining to set up businesses such as store keeping or market gardening, as many did.
It is thought that news of the gold rush first reached Guangzhou (Canton) in a letter from Chinese labourer Louis (or Louey) Ah Mouy, a carpenter who had journeyed to Victoria under a working contract. Louis Ah Mouy was living in Melbourne at the time gold was found in 1851 and sent word to his brother in Canton urging him to come and seek his fortune.
Louis Ah Mouy became a respected Chinese-Victorian leader, making his fortune on the goldfields near Yea in north-eastern Victoria and building a Melbourne-based business empire speculating in land, mining and trade ventures. He was a strong advocate for Chinese Australian rights in a time when harsh anti-Chinese immigration laws and discriminatory taxes were in place. He married in Victoria and raised a family whose descendants still live in Melbourne today.
With thanks to Liz Denny, Cash Brown, and Ben Mountford for research advice on this section.