Robe Chinese Festival

This weekend is the Robe Chinese Festival, and launching at the festival is a new book by Liz Harful, author of Almost an Island. Guichen Bay and the Chinese Landings incorporates material from Almost an Island with new research. Both books will be available from the foreshore pavilion on Saturday 6 May, and Liz will be signing books from 10.30 am to 12.30 pm.

After Victoria introduced a tax on Chinese passengers during the gold rush, some 15,000 migrants landed at the small, isolated community of Robe during a calendar year, from there walking over 400 kilometres to the Victorian goldfields. As this excerpt from Almost an Island shows, the local community made the most of this influx!


Wall mural, Robe Institute.


Many local businesses and residents seized the opportunity to make money. Robe had a reasonably new jetty but the water was too shallow for ships to dock there so passengers and cargo had to be ferried ashore in lighters or row boats. [Guichen Bay harbour master Henry] Melville records that boatmen charged exorbitant prices to land the passengers and their belongings, leading to a few minor skirmishes with the Chinese who knew they were being exploited. Thomas Drury Smeaton, who did not arrive in Robe until 1864 but is often mistaken as an eyewitness, claims in a colourful account that the intention was to ‘make them pay as much as they could, and even (it is said) take the money by force’. According to Melville, the amount ranged from five to ten shillings – a price so extreme the government resident sought new regulations to prevent such extortion.

Chinese miner in traditional garb relaxing with a long-stemmed pipe by Richard Daintree. (Courtesy John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland: Neg. 51355)

Once ashore, the Chinese had to pay guides and carriers to take them overland to the goldfields. These fees varied but were generally £50 per party, depending on the number and the terms. If the newcomers were able to secure the services of a carrier, heavier items might be placed in the carrier’s wagon. But most possessions were ported in the traditional Chinese manner, across the shoulders in bundles fixed either end of a stout bamboo pole. Once they realised how far they had to travel and the limited transport available, most objects too heavy or awkward to carry were left behind. Some of these ended up in Robe households and others were abandoned along the way.

Painting titled ‘Flemington Melbourne’ showing a long line of Chinese wearing coolie hats on their way to the goldfields, c. 1856, by Samuel Charles Brees. (Courtesy State Library of Victoria: H17071)

The Chinese ‘must have put in circulation at Robe not much less than twenty thousand pounds sterling in gold and silver’, wrote Melville 30 years later in his not-always-reliable memoirs. A flotilla of fine new boats emerged in the bay to cater for the new landing trade and local businesses thrived, with new stores opening up along Smillie Street. One newspaper report in May 1857 even claimed real estate had increased in value by 200 per cent within the past 12 months.

Chinese encampment by Charles Lyall, c. 1854. (Courtesy State Library of Victoria: H87.63/2/6B)

Find out more about Almost an Island here.

Blessing the Fleet from Liz Harfull’s Almost an Island

Almost an Island: The story of Robe

Liz Harfull’s Almost an Island is full of fascinating information about Robe on the Limestone Coast. One of the great traditions of the area is the blessing of the fleet, which happens every spring. Liz explains:

Blessing the Fleet

Every spring, at the start of the rock lobster fishing season, people gather at the Robe marina for an important ceremony. The Blessing of the Fleet brings peace of mind to the fishers and their families who are involved in what remains a risky way to earn a living.

According to celebrant Jan Bermingham, the tradition started sometime in the 1950s under the influence of immigrants arriving in Australia from Italy and Greece. Blessing the fleet is a strong tradition in Mediterranean countries where it is held every season to ensure a safe and bountiful fishing season. When the custom was introduced in Adelaide, an Anglican priest serving on the Limestone Coast thought it worth doing at Robe too.

Fishers have a reputation for being superstitious and the ceremony has real meaning for the community. At one stage it was moved to the end of November, weeks after the season started, so it could be part of a village fair designed to draw tourists to the town. ‘The local fishermen had the Church of England priest down here on the morning the season opened to bless them as they went out to sea. They were not going to wait a whole month,’ says Jan.

‘Even though a lot of fisherman don’t grace the doors of a church they are very, very conscious of their God.’

The ceremony involves a brief service, which seeks God’s blessing and commemorates the lives of fishers lost at sea. Teenagers then dive into the harbour to retrieve a wooden cross.

As the daughter, sister and aunt of professional fishermen, Jan knows the worry many families experience. ‘When we lose a boat everybody feels it,’ she says.

‘They don’t like to show emotion but they are so bonded together, and they know it could have been one of them.’

Blessing the fleet, from Almost and Island

Decorated fishing boats gather for an early Blessing of the Fleet ceremony, c. 1950s. (Courtesy Met Riseley)

On the silver screen …

SA Tourism have been producing some great ads recently.

There has been a bit of disagreement over the most recent Adelaide ad (see on InDaily here). Amber Petty wasn’t much of a fan. But I think it’s killer, and it is nice to be reminded just how darn beautiful and alive this old state of ours is.

But it’s not all about the big production ads. Through the SA Tourism Through Local Eyes project, a whole bunch of wildly talented South Aussies have been making short films to show their view of the state.

It’s through this project that the most recent Limestone Coast ad has been made – and of course, if we’re going to talk beautiful areas of SA, we’re going to talk Limestone Coast.

The thing that has got all us Wakefieldians so excited, however, takes place at 1:42 exactly:


To see more of the innovative advertising SA Tourism have got going on (and you really should – they’ve got some beauties), have a look here.

New books, and three sleeps til the fair!

Almost an IslandThings are ripping along over here at Wakefield Press HQ. We all know that the lead up to Christmas is the busiest time of the year, but this year we decided to challenge ourselves by bringing out a bunch of new books at the same time. Johnny in the warehouse is getting a workout!

First things first: you’ve all had a peek at Janis Sheldrick’s superb Nature’s Line: George Goyder, Surveyor, Environmentalist, Visionary by now, and bought a few copies for Christmas presents (not yet? Don’t worry, let us help you out with that). This one has been flying off the shelves since it arrived late last month.

Then, of course, you’ve all seen Rodney Fox’s joy at the final version of Sharks, the Sea and Me, an extraordinary autobiography about his extraordinary life. This one will be launched at our book fair extravaganza, which is only three sleeps from now.

In the last few days, we’ve also welcomed in stock of Liz Harfull’s Almost an Island: The Story of Robe, which details the history of the Limestone Coast town alongside beautiful images (see the gorgeous cover to the left). There have been a lot of people eagerly awaiting the arrival of this title, with Harfull’s Blue Ribbon Cookbook one of Wakefield’s most popular titles from the last few years, and Australian winner of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, in the Best Easy Recipes category.

Last but certainly not least, there’s also Don Loffler’s Holden Days, the hardback reprint of the latest Holden title from Loffler’s extremely popular series. Something to flick through and think about while the productivity commission rolls on.