There was a farmer who lived in the nineteenth century on the Currawong Creek, about 20 minutes as the crow flies from me in southern New South Wales. His name was James Roberts and that name should be known in Australia but it is not. Roberts lived in a big stone house, which in the style of the times hid its occupants from the hard Australian sunlight. He was born in 1812, the son of a pardoned convict called William, who made his living building roads. James was one of the first white settlers in the district and subsequently squatted at the property called Currawong in 1828. He was married twice but had no children.
His remarkable place in history grew from the Currawong Creek, which ran from the nearby town of Lambing Flat, now known as Young. His Currawong station house was built where the Currawong meets the Moppity Creek and if it is going to be green anywhere, it is green around that house. Roberts grew wheat, but he was a bit of an entrepreneur and so he began a supplies business, selling goods to goldminers on the road to Lambing Flat. At the height of the gold rush Roberts was killing four bullocks a day to keep up with the demand for meat.
As the Victorian goldfields were picked clean, miners on their last chance headed for Lambing Flat. The Burrangong goldfield included Lambing Flat, Wombat and Little Wombat. Demondrille had been declared in 1860 and was considered the last yielding goldfield in the southern states. A certain madness took hold as diggers could see their fantasy fortunes slipping away. Chinese miners had long been a feature of the Australian goldfields, and there had been violence and riots at other diggings. By December 1860 riots had occurred at Burrangong and two Chinese were reported killed.
The skirmishes continued and in March 1861 NSW premier Charlie Cowper visited the fields, promising to end Chinese immigration. But his legislation didn’t pass the state’s Legislative Council. By July, the Sydney Morning Herald was regularly editorialising about the need for order to be maintained. On 20 July 1861 the newspaper stated:
Our special correspondent, who had been sent up purposely to watch the course of events, has over and over again pressed upon the public, through our columns, the necessity for largely increasing the police force on the Burrangong goldfields, if it was intended to prevent the recurrence of scenes of brutality and violence, such as it had been his misfortune to have previously recorded. No attention was paid to these warnings, coming from all quarters; and so long as no actual disturbance took place, all was considered to be going on well.
Things were anything but well. Further riots unfolded in the winter of 1861, with European miners wielding bludgeons and revolvers marching under flags yelling ‘no Chinese’. They began as ragtag groups, failing to attract more than 30 supporters, picking out Chinese miners, threatening to burn tents, stealing gold and other belongings before dispersing. Eventually, as contagious as the gold fever, a racist madness took hold of the larger mob, and once organised they walked five miles to get to work on the Chinese diggers. Reading the reports of the time, the scene was verging on A Clockwork Orange: a violent rampage punctuated by a brass band playing ‘stirring airs’. Music to scalp by.
And scalp they did, wrenching off Chinese pigtails with bloodied scalps attached, which they proudly pinned to their flags. The Herald reported 1000 men armed with pick handles and bludgeons were involved in the initial riot but they were quickly joined by another 2000. They descended on the Chinese camp, which was positioned away from the Europeans to stop the fights. Down came the bludgeons, one, two, three. Those Chinese who were not ‘gravely injured’ had all their belongings stolen. They disappeared down old mine shafts, down creeks and gullies, bleeding and confused. It was reported that some European women and children were involved in the looting while the killing, burning and beating took place. The SMH correspondent wrote that:
Excited with their triumph, heated with their violence towards unresisting captives, and possibly thirsting for the plunder, of which this last attack had given them a taste, a wild and savage yell of joy was raised, when someone suggested Back Creek as the next spot to visit.
There were several hundred Chinese miners digging on the Back Creek and the bush tele-graph sent the message ahead of the thugs. The Chinese packed up and while the victims got a slight head start, the attackers, now armed with guns as well, hunted them down after burning and looting their camp. The mob was helped with a number on horseback who rounded up the Chinese miners like sheep, holding them until the rioters arrived. According to the correspondent:
Some of the acts of barbarism said to have been committed here were such, that Englishmen can scarce be brought to credit that their country-men could be guilty of them—for whom amongst the British people could ever believe that men of their own country—Britons, would take the Chinese pigtails with the scalp attached.
By all reports, the Chinese miners put up absolutely no defence, and they were cut down where they stood, openly robbed. It was all carried out with a mixture of anger, glee and bloodlust. Oddly, none of the reports talk of numbers killed. A European woman married to a Chinese man with three small Eurasian children was rocking the baby to sleep in her tent when the mob fell upon her. They ransacked their tent, ripped up all their clothes and there was talk of raping the woman and killing her children. Someone stepped in and intervened. Others were not so lucky, as the SMH
Men, or rather monsters, on horseback, armed with bludgeons and whips, with a fiend-like fury, securing the unfortunate creatures by taking hold of their tails and pulling their heads so that they came with their backs to the horse and their heads upon the saddle, and then cutting, or rather sawing, them off and leaving them to the fury of others who surrounded them. One unfortunate Chinese boy went down upon his knees, the tears ran down his cheeks as he lifted his hands and pleaded for mercy; a ruffian, with a bludgeon sufficient to kill a giant, with one blow felled him to the ground. Another unfortunate creature, a cripple, was trying to crawl away into the bush—he could not walk—and endeavouring to take a blanket; it was ruthlessly torn from him, and carried to a fire where their property was being consumed. Here was to be seen another propped up against a tree, his forehead laid open, and the blood running down his face—truly terrible to behold.
As this was going on, the telegraph punched out an urgent call for all police in the surrounding areas to come immediately with 57 police gathering under the command of Captain Zouch. A street in Young still bears his name. The government was keen to enforce the law, and over the next week Zouch identified the ringleaders and arrested them, sparking another riot, which attracted between 500 to 1000 people. They demanded the release of their leaders. Again, the rioters walked the streets, asking people to roll up to the tunes of a band playing ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ and ‘Cheer, Boys, Cheer’, two of the battle songs of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War, which began in April of that year.
The Yass Courier reported that Zouch begged the mob to disperse. They laughed and jeered when Zouch and commissioner Griffin read the Riot Act, and after an advance and retreat, the crowd attacked the police. Three police were wounded and three rioters killed on that rainy night, while the SMH journalist had to leave the town after his life was threatened ‘on account of the too truthful way in which he had dealt with their proceedings’, wrote his editor. When the mob vowed to return the following day with reinforcements, the ringleaders were quickly committed for trial, but then released on bail to ensure an end to the rioting. Zouch reported that the police position was untenable. ‘Some three thousand, better prepared and organised, were to attack, and had sworn to destroy the whole of us. I have brought away the whole force.’ The Yass Courier reported:
The step taken by Captain Zouch is said to have been absolutely necessary to prevent the annihilation of his men by the excited mob. It is stated the leaders of the rioters had the balls extracted from the dead bodies of the unfortunate victims who fell in the preceding night, and that they had charged their fire-arms with the same bullets, resolved that with each one of them the life of a trooper or official should be sacrificed to revenge the death of their comrades.
This is not how that story ends.
Our family was the modern-day equivalent of that family in the tent at Lambing Flats. Anglo mother, Chinese father, three Eurasian kids. My father told us to always be proud of our heritage. ‘You have superior genes,’ he used to say, part joke, part confidence trick. I learned the Lambing Flat story from the other side. The Chinese were hated for working hard and finding gold where white miners could find none. The Chinese invented the printing press, gunpowder, noodles. In a Sydney suburban brick veneer, my father joked that we should kill a fly a day because Chairman Mao said they were pests. When he wasn’t working double shifts to support his young family, he was chasing flies around the house with a plastic flyswatter.
His history lessons were driven by the need to nurture an inner strength to survive in a world that looked different to us. We were the half-castes who stood out like sore thumbs, neither here nor there; the dark kids in the class photo, all teeth and 1970s hair. Dad came to Australia as a university student in the early 1960s. Although the country had a decade or two to integrate postwar migration, to his Singaporean eyes it was a very white Australia. His marriage to my Anglo mother made them an oddity on the streets of Sydney. He remembers racist encounters from that time and nearly 60 years on, a little uneasy digging can still unearth the hurt.
Dad is of a generation of Chinese migrants who have sought to blend into Australia. The approach is: head down, bum up, work for success, often to the detriment of other things; take part in the national sport of Sydney and Melbourne real estate speculation; and above all push your kids through as good an education as they can get to ensure they are set for life. Not just for the Chinese, this is the migrant creed.
That is mostly what has happened and, despite our difference, we have survived and thrived. I learned to use my Chinese heritage as a marketing tool, a way of adding diversity before diversity was talked about. A little bullshit and bravado goes a long way and I had the relative comfort of growing up under the Racial Discrimination Act. I stormed bars in Hong Kong with Eurasian friends and joked about the rise of Eurasia, a time when the whole of the West would look like us. Look upon your future, suckers.
In the sweep of life, the thread that relates to race and discrimination only snags every so often: the odd taunt at school; the dickheads on the banks of the Lane Cove river, looking down on us paddling a canoe, singing the Cold Chisel line, ‘looking like a choir girl, she’s crying like a refugee’; the drunk who called me a slope cunt outside a Wolloomooloo pub in the days before it was highly priced real estate; or the homeless man who told me he had fought for me in the Vietnam War. I remember them but they do not define me. I survived.
But my experience was framed by those childhood history lessons of the goldfields, the miners who were targeted because of their race. They had not survived. We don’t know how many died from their horrific injuries as they fled the Lambing Flat goldfields looking for shelter.
But it is likely the survivors followed the water courses until they came to James Roberts’ station. The police also took refuge at Currawong. The women in the Roberts household were sent packing early after Roberts received threats to burn the property out—a tried and true payback method to farmers. Reports vary on the numbers who took refuge, but Roberts told the government that he sheltered and fed 1276 Chinese miners for the better part of July. Once Currawong was seen as a refuge, other Chinese people who had not been at Lambing Flat arrived just in case they were attacked.
‘This is our Schindler’s List,’ a Chinese community leader said when he was recently shown the Currawong homestead, referring to Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved 1200 Jews in the Holocaust.
The Lambing Flat story encompasses the twin Australian impulses, to repel the outsider and to welcome them. To push away and to assist. It is reflected in the split over asylum seeker policy. At the end of 2016, 1262 asylum seekers were in offshore processing centres, a little under the number Roberts had taken in.
In 2017, with almost half the Australian population born overseas or with a parent born overseas, our government cannot contemplate allowing those 1262 asylum seekers into the country. What it must have been for a white farmer, the son of a convict, in 1861 to see the flow of Chinese people heading down to his Currawong Creek flats, different of skin and dress and carrying brutal injuries. He would have known they were pursued by a large mob of rioters. What makes one person shelter others and another bludgeon them?
My first teenage love was an apprentice carpenter from a big Anglo-Australian family, plenty of brothers and all tradesmen: builders, sparkies, fridge mechanics. They were all comedians, every one of them, and the race-based jokes came thick and fast. They offered me chopsticks, carried conversations in bad Chinese accents, mashed up half a dozen different Asian cultures into their comparisons. I gave as good as I got. Dad was horrified. I adored them. They welcomed me with open arms as one of their family. Our conversations were unremarkable to me. Yet if they were recorded for public consumption today, they would no doubt go viral.
My beloved grandmother also excelled at white Australian wisecracks. She told us chewing gum was made from Chinamen’s fingernails. You mustn’t put money in your mouth because a Chinaman could have touched it. It cracked us up in an ironic way, before I knew what irony meant.
My father’s experiences in 1960s Australia hurt him deeply. He has an ear for a dog whistle but is also capable of indulging in a little racial stereotyping. When I moved to the country in 1996, the year Pauline Hanson warned that Australia was being swamped by Asians, my father was worried. He knew the Australian bush of legend, the hard culture reflected in Wake in Fright, a very white culture that might not accept his only daughter. Obviously rednecks, all.
Labor Senate leader Penny Wong’s father had the same fears for his daughter in 1996. Wong was twenty-eight when Hanson hit the national stage. Hanson’s speech reverberated around the region and she was a topic of conversation in my family. Wong has talked about conversations in her own family when Hanson first appeared in Australian politics. Wong’s father, who had studied in Australia, rang her to ask whether she needed to come back to Malaysia, given Asians were no longer welcome in Australia.
I was in the Senate the day George Brandis declared that ‘people do have the right to be bigots’. It was 2014 and Brandis was making a point to defend the Abbott government’s first attempt to change section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Wong turned her back on him. It is a common trick of leaders in the chair to ignore their opponent. But her silent fury seemed to suck the oxygen out of the chamber, or perhaps I was projecting my own revulsion at the Brandis statement. A few days later she agreed to talk to me about that moment and the concept of bigotry.
When he described me as bigoted, I turned around. As someone who has been the target of bigotry before, it was a difficult thing to hear. There’s no doubt there is a personal emotional response, an evoked emotional response. For people who have been the subject of racial abuse, when we are reminded of that, when we hear an echo of it in the parliament or public debate, of course it brings back some of those emotions.
You remember how you felt as a child, you remember how, watching my younger brother, who was much less resilient than I, watching how he responded. You emotionally react to those things and I had to think about whether I actually gave that speech because I wanted to make sure when I did make a contribution that I was in a place where I could do the subject matter justice and say what I wanted to say and not be too caught up in my own response.
Her words were deliberate but careful, like a doctor performing a delicate surgery that could just as easily kill the patient as heal them. That is how we talk about race in Australia. I still can’t quiet explain why I laughed as hard as everyone else about those Chinese jokes of old and yet still feel so disappointed when race debate flares. Intention is one of the keys but not everything.
It usually begins raining around here around 10 June. I know because we are often trying to light the bonfire on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend. Where the creeks run through the place, you can still see the remnants of gold diggings that would date back to James Roberts’ day.
When I think of the miners, I think about the Roberts story and I come back to this. If 1276 refugees straggled up our creeks on a wintry June day, would we take them in, feed and shelter them in such an open-ended act of generosity? I hope so. But if I am honest, I cannot say.
More than 1000 people around our dam would cover the banks. They would spread up the hill higgledy-piggledy with the shelter of only a few large gum trees. In winter it would be cold as charity, as they like to say around here. Roberts would have found it no easier. The Currawong house still stands next to the creek, surrounded by trees and the usual number of outbuildings and yards. A frost and fog love to settle in the lowest point and at that time those river flats would have been filled with the dispossessed. Maybe he filled the stables. Maybe they just huddled in the open. We don’t know.
We do know that the sub gold commissioner George O’Malley Clark guaranteed Roberts that the state would cover the rations required to feed the refugees from 30 June 1861. In her book They Were More Than Just Gold Diggers, our local historian Robyn Atherton documents the enormity of the assistance operation according to the NSW Assembly proceedings. Of the daily rations, made up of flour, beef, tea and sugar:
- 1276 refugees from 30 June to 15 July received 20 416 daily rations;
- 522 refugees from 16 July to 30 July received 7830 daily rations.
The government argued over the amount of rations handed out, claiming Roberts was overly generous when compared to the regulation issue by the auditor general. After months of bureaucratic wrangling, Roberts cut his losses and agreed to accept less compensation. It appears not to have included blankets and tenting. The surviving refugees stayed throughout July, before some followed police to Binalong and Yass and others made their way back to the goldfields. A proportion stayed at Currawong for longer but records do not show how many or for how long.
Of the 13 men who were committed for trial, only two were sent to prison for riotous assembly. The others got off and headed straight to the goldfields, where a bullock was roasted whole to celebrate. Later that year the Chinese Immigration Restriction Act passed the NSW Parliament in a debate that slid all the way down to the White Australia policy. Soon after, the gold in Lambing Flat ran out. And as the town started to die and businesses moved away, the Chinese miners were invited back to the bare paddocks that carried their blood because a Chinese inhabitant was better than none.
With no gold, those Chinese people intent on staying had to find another way to survive. They set up vegetable gardens or general stores. They worked as farmers or cooks, hawkers or traders. Some maintained the gold fever. In 1865 the Burrangong Argus reported the case of four Chinese men charged with mining outside the goldfields: ‘to judge from appearances they must have been wretchedly hard up. Some of them could scarcely said to be clothed.’ They were sentenced to two months in jail in lieu of their five pound fine—an impossible amount to pay.
However they made their living, the descendants of the Chinese miners spread throughout the area and their remains are buried in our local cemetery. Like the tent communities of Lambing Flat, the Chinese dead are buried away from the Anglo plot, under gravestones marked with Chinese characters. Thanks to the work of the Harden historical society, the graves were refurbished and a delegation of Chinese community leaders travelled from Sydney to mark their renewal. I was struck again by the kindness of strangers.
Currawong remains in the hands of those descendants of the Roberts family. Each year the town of Young celebrates the Lambing Flat festival in autumn to mark the gold rush and the ‘important contribution of the Chinese in Australia’. One of my local newspapers lands with a wrap-around festival program written in Chinese. Some locals dress in pigtails with Chinese make-up accentuated eyes to slant or don diggers clothes to play out scenes from the riots. Chinese actors produce plays about the suffering of the Chinese miners. Martial arts displays are performed alongside Chinese opera. I am not offended by yellow face. Like the twin Australian impulses, it is at once unsettling and heartening. A welcome attempt at reconciliation.
While the story of Lambing Flat led to the White Australia policy rather than a policy of welcome like James Roberts’ act of generosity, the two strains in the nation’s personality, to welcome or repel, continue to compete like siblings. It is true in 1900 we stopped the boats and in recent times we did it again. But the Lambing Flat festival has grown over the period during which our major political parties decided to stop the boats. In a small country town we were welcoming and remembering refugees while our government was repelling them at the nation’s borders.