A quiz to help you understand historical skepticism

  1. Did 393 Chinese coolies from Macao arrive in Hobart Town in 1851, as mentioned in Jupp’s “The Australian People”?

Trove of course solves all mysteries (nearly). What did happen was that a ship called the Mariner arrived at Hobart Town in 1851 and a couple of passengers got off. This and their names were reported in a number of newspapers (a slow news day). It was also mentioned that 393 (numbers varied) “Chinese coolies” were also on the ship. Some of the reports were truncated and it would be easy to get the impression from these that everyone got off at Hobart Town. 

This one makes it clear:

CHINESE EMIGRANTS. – The Ship Mariner, 683 tons, arrived in harbour yesterday from Macao. She is bound for Lima, South America, and has 393, coolies on board engaged as servants in Lima. The Mariner has put into this harbour to obtain supplies of water and provisions. Four of the coolies died on board from a species of cholera. The Moreton Bay Courier, 24 May 1851, p.4.

This is a problem with non-contextual history. From the context of Tasmanian and Australian history in general this number of Chinese people in Tasmania at that time would certainly have appeared elsewhere in the history. So the account in The Australian People (and repeated in at least one website) is inherently implausible and always warranted further investigation. 

2. Is New Gold Mountain the obvious translation of 新金山 (San Gum Saan/Xin Jin Shan)?

Victoria and sometimes Australia was often referred to as 新金山 (San Gum Saan / Xin Jin Shan). This is a term derived from the mid-19th century gold rush period when California was succeeded by the gold rushes of Victoria and NSW. Thus California (and San Francisco still) became the “Old” Gold Mountain and Australia (or Victoria) the “New” Gold Mountain. At least this is the usual translation. 

The translation “Gold Mountain” is now the ubiquitous choice for the Chinese characters 金山 (gum saan / jin shan) but this was originally a choice over the more accurate if prosaic “goldfields”. This is a preference that sought to make exotic what Europeans considered normal – namely, rushing to goldfields. While an attractive term that is good for titles of novels and films it should be noted that it plays a part in that “othering” of Chinese people that began in the 19th century in white settler nations such as Australia and the U.S. Now firmly embedded in contemporary discourse it’s use – while inevitable – should be qualified by this origin.

3. Was the White Australia policy’s Dictation Test made unfairly difficult so that Chinese people and other non-English speakers could not enter Australia?

What is hard, is for people to get their heads around the idea that for more than 50 years at the heart of Australia’s immigration system was a fake test. Not a difficult and unfair test, as it is often mistakenly portrayed, but an entirely fake one. Given in a language of choice – official choice (as long as it was European) – but always chosen so that it was one the person being given the test would fail. To be asked to sit a Dictation Test meant the official had already decided to bar your entry to Australia and this was merely the legal means of turning you into a “prohibited immigrant”.

For an ABC interview on this subject see Radio National and for an account of one person’s dealings with the Dictation Test in its later stages see A deserter’s fate: the Dictation Test at work.

4. Did the first lot of Chinese gold seekers who turned up in Bathurst in 1856 sell souvenir fans to the locals?

Australian history and particularly its Chinese Australian element is often coloured by incidents such as the Lambing Flat riots, racism in general and the various discriminatory laws that were enacted. This extract from an eyewitness of the arrival in Bathurst of a group of Chinese gold seekers in 1856 helps to provide a broader dimension and needs no other comment:

“Our diggings promise to become the sites of a series of Chinese colonies. A few days ago a second batch of the sons of the Celestial Empire arrived in Bathurst, consisting, as nearly as we can guess, of about 150, and proceeded to the camping ground of their predecessors, where they pitched their tents, spread their mats, and commenced cooking — , favourite pastime apparently, which, together with eating, seems to swallow up the whole day. Amongst their number we perceived several rather ancient looking pig-tails, who, in all probability, have come to deposit their bones in Australia. Their canvass village has been a favourite resort for the townspeople, who have thronged in front of their tents to witness the novelty of their proceedings, amongst which the expert use of their chopsticks was not the least amusing. Their economical use of firewood was another circumstance which called forth the astonishment of the visitors, who saw that by digging small holes in the ground, with ventilation only in front, that about as much timber was consumed in boiling and stewing for 150 as would cook a meal for a single family, after our own fashion. 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. On Monday last they struck their tents, and trotted off to the westward with their stock of domestic utensils, mats, and bedding, slung upon poles.”[1]

[1] Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 30 July 1856, p.2.
Dr Juanita Kwok is to be thanked for uncovering this gem.