Samuel Charles Brees, Flemington Melbourne, watercolour, ca 1856.Contributors
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Many walked to the diggings, but the Chinese had to walk the furthest.
At first, like all gold-seekers, Chinese miners arrived at the Victorian ports closest to the gold fields.
Chinese corporations and associations organised to help the newcomers adjust. An English-speaking and dialect-speaking headman would meet the group and steer newcomers to lodgings in Melbourne. The Chinese offered highly organised support to newcomers through associations such as the See Yup Society for those whose home village was part of the See Yup 'four counties' region of Guangdong (Canton) Province.
Chinese working teams would then assemble provisions and head out to the diggings, walking the same route as other gold prospectors and entrepreneurs. Many headed north past the village of Flemington and then west, north-west or north-east towards the known goldfields up to 200 kilometres away, usually several days hike in good weather. To onlookers the Chinese were an exotic sight, walking in single file in groups of up to 700, carrying twin bags or baskets of belongings on a long pole, balancing the weight of the bags with a distinctive gait.
A powerful lobby group of non-Chinese miners resented the Chinese and pressured the Victorian government to ban Chinese immigration. In 1855 the government limited the number of Chinese passengers a ship could carry into Victoria and instituted a hefty poll tax (10 pounds per Chinese passenger) to be paid by the ship's captain. This was a punitive amount: the 1854 Eureka Rebellion was fought by miners protesting a 30 shillings monthly fee, when 20 shillings made up one pound.
To avoid paying the tax, ships carrying Chinese passengers began to drop them off in other colonies: Sydney in New South Wales (900 kilometres away); Port Adelaide in South Australia (700 kilometres away); and then, most famously, Robe in South Australia (500 kilometres away). For the Chinese it took weeks of hard walking over unfamiliar territory to get to the diggings.
With thanks to the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka ‘Chinese Fortunes’ curator Cash Brown.