59. Case for the defence – an Amoy shepherd’s evidence

In what is likely the first piece of Chinese Australian literature (broadly defined) a man accused of murder makes his defence. (See also No. 11 & No. 22) The accused is from China, brought under contract through the port of Amoy (Xiamen) to work as a shepherd. Not only does he not speak English but from this defence, produced in a mixture of words and drawings, it would seem his written Chinese or Fujianese is poor also. Nevertheless, his point is made clearly enough as the accompanying note in English understood it:

“This is the defence of a Chinaman accused of manslaughter. The Chinese characters are supposed to tell the same story as the sketches which evidently assert the death of the slain man to be accidental.”

In addition to the dramatic images and the faint pencilled text we now can link this account to an 1850 incident and trial. [Thanks to Tony Anderson for pointing this out in the research of Margaret Solcomb.] [1]

Sydney’s Mitchell Library catalogue only provides the single line:

“Letter from F. Proeschal to Justice E. Wise, manuscript in Chinese characters and negatives of manuscript. 29 December 1863.”

The date is merely that of when the envelope containing this vivid account was deposited in the then NSW Public Library. Justice Edward Wise was a progressive politician and Supreme Court judge who strongly condemned the anti-Chinese Burrangong rioters and collected “Australiana”, while F. Proeschal was a geographer and publishers of maps and an atlas of Australia.[2]

The language and the occupation of those depicted as shepherds identify the participants as some of the many thousands of “Amoy” (really Fujian) people who were recruited as indentured workers into the Colony of NSW in the period after convict transportation ceased. These men are often forgotten by a history obsessed with the gold rush and the arrival of greater numbers of people from further south in China – Canton or Guangdong – and speaking other languages. The Amoy men frequently stayed to establish families in Australia, many of whom are only gradually discovering this ancestry. 

Produced in 1850, the claim for this text as the first piece of Chinese Australian literature is strong. The first Amoy shepherds arrived between 1848 to 1853, and while many shifted to the goldfields many also continued to work in various locations after this. Our defendant was by no means the only Amoy person to appear in court, with numerous instances of cases involving poor treatment or unpaid wages under the contracts they were brought to Australia on. It was a tough life and as one report observed around this time: 

“It is the intolerable cruelty that is exercised upon the Chinese labourers in this colony that causes them so very frequently to revolt and commit many outrages that might otherwise have been avoided”.[3] 

When Fujian (aka Hokkien) speakers did appear in court interpreters were frequently needed, and it can only be hoped that this document was sufficient to exonerate our man. In this case no news is perhaps good news as a hanging for murder would have been more likely to generate evidence of this trial that is as yet lacking.

[1] Moreton Bay Courier, 26 October 1850, p.3.

[2] For a murder trial presided over by Justice Wise involving Chinese people see Sydney Mail, 12 September 1863, p.10 – https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/166655352

[3] ‘Original Correspondence’, Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 12 August 1854 in Juanita Kwok, The Chinese in Bathurst: Recovering Forgotten Histories, Doctoral thesis, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, 2018, p.71.

For more on the Amoy Shepherds see:

Responses and Reactions to the Importation of Indentured Chinese Labourers
by Maxine Darnell