Map of Victoria and South Australia showing overland routes taken by 19th century Chinese diggers, 2016, Cash Brown and Sam Brown.Contributors
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Copyright with Sam Brown and Cash Brown.
The Chinese found many routes to the goldfields.
Like all goldseekers they usually headed for the fabled goldfields of Ballarat, Bendigo (Sandhurst), Castlemaine (Mt Alexander) and Beechworth.
The first ships trying to avoid the 1855 Victorian poll tax dropped Chinese arrivals off in Sydney or Adelaide. This meant a 900 kilometre southward march from Sydney in NSW across the Murray River to the goldfields, or a 700 kilometre eastward trek from Port Adelaide direct to Bendigo. The journey from Port Adelaide through the north-west of Victoria may have seemed the most direct route to the rich goldfields of Bendigo and Mt Alexander, but it was dry, unforgiving and harsh country to walk, with little water along the way.
Soon Chinese voyagers dropped off at Port Adelaide began to head south via more populated tracks through the Coorong wetlands where they could catch rides with passing 'bullockies' - the 1850s equivalent of modern-day truckies - driving bullock teams doing long haul transport of goods.
Today 'Chinaman's Well' bears the memory of this route in its name. Chinese walkers would dig wells along their routes to ensure water for themselves and for other countrymen following the trail.
In around 1857 the shipping agents realised a new jetty constructed at the small port of Robe in Guichen Bay, in south-eastern South Australia, made a far more convenient drop off point for ship captains with Chinese passengers wanting to avoid the Victorian poll tax. There was a rush to Robe. The township's population of 200 people saw thousands of Chinese voyagers land in the next five years.
From Robe, different routes to the goldfields were taken around the natural barrier of the Grampians-Gariwerd mountain ranges. In general it was a 540 kilometre eastwards trek to the goldfields of Ballarat, a 3-5 week walk in good conditions, and 440 kilometres to the new gold field of Ararat, founded in 1857 by Chinese prospectors walking from Robe.
The walking was exhausting, muddy in winter and harsh in summer. Unfortunate Chinese travellers were often exploited by dodgy, inept or alcoholic guides and bullockies. If their rations ran run out they risked starvation. Many Chinese journeyers sickened on the way. In 1857 the Ballarat Chinese Protector reported 'great mortality amongst the Chinese...arising principally from the hardships and privations of the overland journey from the Adelaide District.'
Between 1857 and 1863 over 17,000 Chinese sojourners walked the long way from Robe to the Victorian goldfields.
At its peak in 1859 the Chinese population in Victoria reached 46,000. Chinese made up about one in five of the total male population in the mining towns in Victoria in this period.
With thanks to the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka's ‘Chinese Fortunes’ exhibition curator Cash Brown.