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John Fitzgerald on life for Chinese miners on Victorian goldfields

John Fitzgerald and Mara Moustafine.

Historian John Fitzgerald describes life for Chinese miners on the Victorian goldfields



Date Added:

03 February 2009


source not available


mov (Quicktime);

File size:

8.5 MB






I canít say with real confidence what relations were like between the Chinese and other communities of miners on the Victorian goldfields. We know from the later period, the 1880s and Ď90s, when thereís heightened racism in Australia, thereís a strong anti-Chinese Ė anti-Asian sentiment, and we can easily read this back into the goldfields periods and imagine that that kind of racism was there at the outset but itís not clear that was the case. Initially before Chinese miners came in significant number, Chinese like other settlers from Asia in this polyglot colonial community, consisting of convicts, freemen, soldiers and people from many different parts of the world, Chinese fitted in quite well as part of the pageant of being colonial Australia.


And recent research by Barry McGowan (sp?) who is an archaeologist, suggests that on the early goldfields Chinese and non-Chinese miners actually lived cheek by jowl. And that there was quite a lot of Ė one can assume there was quite a lot of dialogue among them. But come the 1860s one starts to see instances of violence, large scale violence in some of the Australian colonial goldfields, including in Victoria, in New South Wales and Queensland. Oddly enough a number of the early anti-Chinese riots started on July the 4th, this is the case in Victoria and also the case in New South Wales and thereís been some speculation about why July the 4th, American Independence Day should have been the day on which anti-Chinese riots were initiated.


I donít think itís direct Californian goldfield agitation, there may have been a bit of that, but I think itís more likely that the white miners in Australia were conscious that Australia was bound by Britainís colonial treaties to allow Chinese in. That the Americans had had a revolution, they had asserted their independence of Britain and the Americans had asserted this independence in racist ways in California, by banning Chinese outright. And American racism is not mealy- mouthed as Australian racism sometimes is. American racism was very direct, there was significant violence on the American goldfields, far more in fact that in Australia. And itís quite possible that the early miners and Iím just speculating here Ė saw in the American colonies and the declaration of independence a precedent theyíd like to emulate.


That they werenít just emulating racism, they were emulating this struggle for autonomy from Britain and they Ė in a sense that fed into anti-Chinese agitation as well. So itís not merely a matter of racism, or that is racism, itís also a case of white colonial settlement, wanting to establish its autonomy from Britain and the Chinese become a target of that struggle.


End transcript