Chinese Trek to Gold

China in the 1850’s was a poverty-striken, violent place. Political rebellions, drought, over-population and opium addiction had transformed this cultural and dignified land into a famine-ridden wasteland. Family loyalty was the strongest cultural value, and many people looked abroad for opportunities to earn and send money home to their families, rather than leaving their homeland permanently. When news arrived of the gold rush in Australia, many families and villages sent their men and boys in a desperate bid to end their poverty. From 1857, after the Victorian Government had imposed a poll tax on Chinese arrivals, more than 16,500 people landed at Robe in south-east South Australia before setting out to walk over 400 kilometers to the goldfields of central Victoria.

For some years the Chinese had been lured to the Californian goldfields to take their chances on finding the riches of the earth. They were diligent, quiet workers, but their looks and habits, unfamiliar to the Americans, made them unpopular, and they constantly faced the threat of violence. In China, around the end of 1852, the bloody Taipang rebellion devestated southern and central regions. During this terrible period, more than 600 cities were destroyed in 17 provinces. About 30 million Chinese people were slaughtered or died from disease or starvation.

Meanwhile, in Victoria, a Chinese immigrant to Australia, Louis Ah Mouy, learned of the discovery of gold in Yea and wrote to his brother in Canton encouraging him to come to Australia and make their family's fortune. News of the Victorian gold strike spread like wildfire, spread through the Chinese tea houses and encouraged by Chinese agents in partnership with the captains of foreign ships.

In January 1853, the first two shiploads of Chinese gold-seekers arrived in Victoria. By the following the goldfields. However, the Chinese soon became unpopular due to their numbers, and different appearance and customs. In 1855 the Victorian Government passed a law which limited the number of Chinese that could be carried on ships and imposed a £10 poll tax to be paid by the ship's captain for each Chinese passenger landing at a Victorian port. A heavy duty was also levied on opium.


See: Migration Heritage

Meanwhile, numbers signing up to join ships in Hong Kong were increasing, and the captains needed a port to drop their human cargo that was close to the Victorian goldfields. The South Australian government allowed the Chinese to land free and charged only 5% ad valoreum duty on their opium. The first stategy was to land the Chinese at Port Adelaide, when the unfortunate men had to face a journey of more than 700 km. Travelling via Bordertown and through the Little Desert, the tracks were confusing and there were long stretches where no water was available.

The alternative route via the Coorong took longer, but the track was used by bullockies and other travellers and there were inns and shanties along the way. The Chinese travellers dug wells to ensure a supply of water for themselves and their countrymen who followed. In 1847, Robe was proclaimed as South Australia’s third port, and by 1856 it was a major world trading port. In 1854, a second, much improved jetty was build and a year later a 40-foot shipping mark, the Obelisk, was built to guide ships through the limestone reefs into the port.

Local entrepreneur, George Ormerod had founded a shipping house, a bond store for wool and had built Moorakynbe House for himself and the Ormerod cottages for his workers. Henry Melville was appointed harbourmaster and receiver of wrecks, and was responsible for the management of the port and customs. At this time, the population of Robe was less than 200.

When the Hong Kong agents decided to try Robe as a disembarkation point for the goldfields, they kept it a secret so that the Victorian government could not interfere. On 17 January 1857, when the “Land of Cakes” sailed into Robe’s Guichen Bay flying the British flag, Robe’s inhabitants were taken completely by surprise. Thomas Drury Smeaton, the local bank manager wrote: “Those whose eyes happened to be open persceived a ship!! A ship actually coming into Guichen Bay and crowded with passengers!!! Before many hours the population of Robe was doubled. It was well that all the passengers were alike and indistinguishable, all Chinese, all men, all with moonfaces, all with pigtails.”

There were in fact 264 Chinese passengers on the “Land of Cakes”. The news spread quickly and a large croud gathered on the foreshore. The ship’s captain was rowed ashore to explain the reason for the ship’s presence to Melville. He said that the Chinese had money and would pay to be taken ashore. Melville and Ormerod encouraged locals with boats to assist in the ferry operation on the understanding that “each man can make his own gerrying charges”. The Chinese had no choice but to pay what was asked, often 8/- to £1, which seems excessive compared with the £12 fare for the whole trip from China. Disembarking Chinese passengers and their luggage became a lucrative income for the locals and the ship’s crews, and they extracted what they could without compunction.


See: Multicultural Aust.

From the arrival of the first ship, Robe was inundated. Word spread amongst the Hong Kong agents that passengers could be landed without tax, and within a few months, several boatloads were arriving each week. On 27 April 1857, three ships arrived and disembarked 1300 Chinese passengers. There had already been 1513 Chinese arrivals in the preceding six days. During 1857, thirty-two ships disembarked 14,615 Chinese men and one woman at Robe. It is no wonder that the local Robe people referred to the influx as 'the Chinese invasion', and to their visitors as 'Celestials'. The Chinese believed that their emperor was divine and referred to China as the Celestial Empire.

The little port of Robe entered a period of prosperity as the locals provided food and services for the Chinese arrivals, accepting their trading goods and silver in payment. Father Tenison Woods, who arrived in Robe in March 1857 commented: "It was the oddest mixture of the usual peculiarities of the Australian bush and the celestial empire - Chinese men, clothes, trays, workbags, paper knifes - and the townspeople seemed to be making a good thing of it. There was also a building boom with many temporary shanties being demolished and replaced by new limestone dwellings and commercial buildings, such as Bank House."

However, the influx of so many people brought other problems. Some of the Chinese were suffering from unfamiliar illnesses when they landed and the spread of disease threatened. At first the government surgeon examined the men on arrival, but this soon ceased as the South Australian government was unwilling to pay for the examination of immigrants who would be crossing the Victorian border within a few days. It fell to the local ladies to nurse the sick Chinese. Mrs Elenor Mary Brewer, the wife of the Government Resident, led these volunteer nurses, but she succumbed to eastern dysentery and died in March 1847, aged 48 years, leaving eight children.

The Chinese also had some vices such as gambling and opium that frightened the Robe inhabitants, and most carried knives or other weapons for their trip to the goldfields, further raising the anxieties of the locals, outnumbered as they were by more than ten to one. One commentator wrote “their apprehension on this account is, I think not without foundation, as no doubt at any moment a quarrel between individuals might bring about a general affray, in which case we would be completely at the mercy of the Chinese.” In response, 25 red-coat soldiers from the 12 Regiment were dispatched to Robe, but there are no reports that they ever had to carry out protective duties.

The long walk of over 440 kilometres following bullock trails and other tracks must have been a daunting prospect, and the first Chinese arrivals had no idea of what lay before them. They were totally reliant on the Robe inhabitants for directions, and sought their services as guides to the goldfields. Often these guides were bullockies who were familiar with the routes, and on their return trips to Robe called at Victorian sheep runs to load their drays with export wool. Bullockies were popular with the Chinese travellers as they could load their equipment and provisions, as well as anyone who was sick or lame, on the wagons. However, some guides were unscrupulous and after taking their money left their Chinese companions in the bush to find their own way, or even worse, robbed and murdered them. Those who fulfilled their agreements put themselves at risk when they arrived in Bendigo or Ballarat from diggers resentful of the Chinese. However, the rewards were great - guides changed from ten shillings to £4 a head, or £50 to lead groups of 100 to 300 Chinese to the goldfields. The Chinese later avoided this cost by marking the route.

The first few groups were taken through Naracoorte and Apsley to link up and follow the Tolmer Gold Route around the northern side of the Grampians and on to Bendigo. After the gold strike in Ballarat and later Ararat, the preferred route was to the south of the Grampians, travelling from Robe to Kangaroo Inn. Along this route, the Chinese dug out wells to provide water for sojourners who came after them, and some of the wells may still be seen along the way. At the Kangaroo Inn, the bullockies would stop for two or three days to drink and socialise while the Chinese gambled or waited in the bush some distance away to avoid detection. The cavalcades then travelled to Penola for another drinking and gambling stop. Some Chinese stayed in Penola where they established market gardens.

From Penola, there were stops at various stations along the way to Casterton, where provisions such as sheep were available, then up the Wannon River and past Hamilton before heading north-east to Dunkeld and finally on either to Ararat or Ballarat. The trip took between three and five weeks.

William Moodie, in his book, A Pioneer of Western Victoria, recalls encountering large numbers of Chinese diggers on the road.

"On my homeward journey I was continiously passed by a curious cavalcade going in the opposite direction. There were twenty to thirty miles of Chinamen in single file, each with the proverbial two baskets and each one going to the diggings.

They travelled up to 35 kms each day, each man carrying a long pole over one shoulder, weighed down on each end with baskets carrying loads of belongings including bedding, cooking utensils, picks, spades, cradles, buckets and oil lamps.

Dressed in blue, wool-lined blouses and wide blue trousers, with parasol hats atop their long black pigtails, they would travel in large groups of 700 men and boys in single file. The procession would stretch for kilometres as room was needed for each man's shoulder pole. They developed a kind of jog trot that was fast and smooth. One observer reported that "to keepin step as they trotted, each man would chant a suitable word or phrase, the most popular being 'Ballalat Ballalat'"


See: Multicultural Aust.

The journey was treacherous, particularly in winter when many died from the cold or exhaustion. Some of the boys were as young as nine or ten, travelling with their fathers. The trekkers tended to avoid the larger towns like Hamilton to avoid being arrested and charged with non-payment of the poll tax.

Through all their hardships, the Chinese were stoic, organised and dignified, and their quiet industry and perseverance, while it infuriated the Europeans, ultimately led many to success on the goldfields. It is not known how many of those who landed in Robe were able to return to China with gold to pay off their loans. Of 62,990 who arrived at the Victorian goldfields, some 48,000 returned to China. Of those who did not return, some would have died or been killed, but others settled in Australia and became contributing citizens, helping to build the cultural diversity that we enjoy today.

Extracted from “Guichen Bay to Canton” by Fiona Ritchie














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