Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Uncommon Encounter

Chinese cook

In the early days of the Moreton Bay settlement, the labour shortage produced by the booming pastoral industry resulted in the eager importation of labour not only from Europe but from India and China.  The latter was referred to as “coolie labour”.  One such importation of Chinese labourers consisted of fifty-six workers who arrived on the ship Nimrod at the end of 1848.

Chinese coolie
CHINESE LABOURERS.- Fifty-six Chinese labourers have arrived by the “Nimrod”. The want of labour is so great that we have heard a gentleman express his determination to hire some of them, notwithstanding that the “Artemesia” is hourly expected, and that it is stated, in the Sydney Herald, of the 14th ult., that another emigrant vessel would immediately follow her, for Moreton Bay direct.

The wages for which the Chinese may be hired is £6 per annum, and their engagements are for five years. It will be necessary to pay down a sum of £15 for each labourer, if taken singly, but a liberal allowance is made on taking a quantity. Those who have no objection to taking this description of labour in preference to that which is about to arrive, might find that the £15 was well laid out - always provided they could reckon on the honesty and usefulness of the Chinaman himself.[1]    

A few weeks later an encounter took place in Brisbane between a group of these Chinese imports and some of the local aborigines.  The incident caused much amusement to the local townsfolk and was reported in The Moreton Bay Courier in the racist verbiage of the times.[2]

Chin-ring in a Difficulty.-

On Sunday morning last, as some of the lately-arrived Chinese labourers were passing down Queen-street, they encountered about six or eight aboriginal blacks, who saluted the Celestials[3] with some observations, in the mixed gibberish formed by the patois of the natives and the elegant language of their earliest instructors.

Early view of Queen Street

The subjects of the Moon's Brother[4] did not understand the words, but, as the actions of the blacks were tolerably significant, without being equally flattering, several of the offended parties tucked up their sleeves, and prepared for a bout at fisticuffs a l’ Anglaise[5]. This was opposed to the tactics of the black-fellows, and they hastened to possess themselves of waddies, to the infinite disgust of their antagonists, who in vain strove, by voice and gesture, to convince the grimy savages of the unfairness of such a contest.

At every fresh expostulation, the man-eaters opened their jaws to a frightful width, and flourished their weapons with increased glee. A crowd soon collected, and the influence of the mischievous might have been sufficient to have caused an affray between the parties, but that some well-disposed persons contrived to separate them. Certainly the Chinamen displayed considerable game and their adversaries an equal amount of the chicken.   

Chinese market gardener

Although initially employed as shepherds, shearers, and general labourers, the Chinese went on to become an important element in Colonial Queensland.   Some would be market gardeners supplying settlements like Ipswich with fresh fruit and vegetables. Others would be merchants and grocers.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 2 December 1848
[2] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 13 January 1849
[3] A common term of the times, referring to China as the “Celestial Empire”.
[4] The Chinese emperor.
[5] In the English manner.

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