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.