“Piracy” on Sydney Harbour: The Ethereal & Mary Nicholson gold seizures

Embedded in thick bound volumes are the minutes of a committee of the NSW Legislative Assembly of 1858.(1) Within are the transcripts of evidence taken during an inquiry about one of the more remarkable incidents to have occurred on Sydney Harbour. On the surface, in what appears to be a legalised act of piracy, some 2,680 ozs of gold (or nearly £10,000) in the possession of Chinese gold miners about to return to their homes in the Pearl River Delta was seized and divided up among the NSW Customs officials involved as personal prizes; a percentage only being the governments take.

The ostensible reason was the failure of those involved to pay a recently introduced duty on unminted gold. A duty the miners claimed to know nothing about. The seizure, and the sudden impoverishment and distress of the men, many of whom remained destitute in Sydney, resulted in a Parliamentary inquiry. The inquiry, including evidence of many of the miners concerned, makes fascinating reading and provides much of interest about the life of those who came from southern China to look for gold.

However, those who look to politicians for justice are doomed to compromise. Despite compelling evidence that in fact the miners did not know of the new requirement to pay the duty, The decision was to repay only that proportion the government had received and leave the rest in the hands of the Customs Officials. The repayment was considered an “act of grace” rather than a requirement of justice.

(1) “Report from the Select Committee on the Seizure of Gold on Board the Ethereal and Mary Nicholson together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix,” 13 August, 1858, NSW Legislative Assembly Votes & Proceedings, No. 21, (Sydney, Government Printer, 1858 ), pp.431 -493.

See also:

The Age, 22 October 1857, p.5 – Smuggled gold dust seized

The Courier, 11 September 1858, p.2 – Report on the Select Committee

For more on the context of this incident see: Sophie Loy-Wilson, “Coolie alibis: Seizing gold from Chinese miners in New South Wales,” International Labor and Working Class History, 91 (2017): 28–45.