64. Goldseekers Box

Probably not made to carry whisky but something of equal value?

A feature often overlooked (among so many – see No.16) in the history of Chinese goldseekers is that many on arrival carried with them articles for sale. Setting up a market on arrival in a port or a town on the way to the goldfields was not unusual. Fans, hats, umbrellas, purses and other objects were exchanged for the cash money the new chum arrivals from China would have then used to purchase provisions to aid their assault on the goldfields. But what happened to these many objects? Is this humble wooden cask in the possession of a family long resident near Edenhope on the Robe to the Victorian goldfields walk the only verifiable object remaining?

Of those embarking at Adelaide in 1856 – doing so to avoid the new Victoria £10 poll tax – it was reported that they, ‘as soon as they had effected a landing on the wharf, began to sell various articles to those who evinced a desire for the novelties, which comprised curious fans, straw hats, with conical crowns and broad brims, beaded purses, &c.’[1] In the same year a group that was making its way from Sydney to the western goldfields of NSW stopped at Bathurst where: ‘There was the usual display of fans and purses, and other trifles for sale, but the exorbitant prices asked reduced their traffic almost to nil.’[2]

In addition to items for sale there would have been items carried for use and in the case of the Robe walkers perhaps too much. Julian Woods when travelling along the same route from Robe to Penola as the goldseekers in 1857 reported: ‘The road to Penola was like Guichen Bay in its Chinese aspect. Both sides of the track were marked by stray articles of clothing or baggage indicating how like a retreating army fatigue had made the Chinese abandon their goods one by one.’[3] Their passing left many objects ‘both useful and ornamental but these were too numerous to attract attention and really the population of the district was then so scattered and small that there was no one to collect them.’[4]

Light and tight – something moist?

In the case of the box pictured, the family history is that George Ramsay Johnstone who was manager of a property near Edenhope, Victoria, just across the border from South Australia, was given it by a Chinese goldseeker in return for food. Can this item be positively claimed to be an object from the time of the Chinese goldseekers? At first glance it would seem a bulky item to be carrying but eyewitnesses report: ‘They had a very large number of baskets, with a small proportion of small casks, boxes, cases, and tubs, in which were stowed every requisite for a campaign upon the gold-fields.’[5]

In style it is not easily recognised as typical of any specific kind of box and would appear to have been custom made to carry something of value to the owner. What, we will probably never know, just as we may never know what happened to the many fans, hats and purses eagerly purchased from the Chinese goldseekers so many years ago.

[1] South Australian Register, 24 January 1856, p.3.

[2] Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 30 July 1856, p.2.

[3] Woods, Julian Tenison, Ten Years in the Bush, The Australasian Catholic Record, July 1989, p.264.

[4] Woods, Julian Tenison, Ten Years in the Bush, The Australasian Catholic Record, July 1989, p,264.

[5] The Age, 10 April 1855, p.5.

For more images of the goldseekers box.