Friday, November 2, 2012

A Chinaman Transmogrified

News reports of outbreaks of plague in Asia regularly created hysteria in the colonies and made the locals wary of any boats arriving from the East.

In the early days of the settlement the shortage of labour to work on the large pastoral runs had prompted the importation of Chinese labourers known as coolies from the port of Amoy [Xiamen] in Southern China. In 1851, the Duke of Roxburgh arrived in Sydney after a voyage from China. There had been unusually large number of deaths during the voyage including one of the English officers.

A 19th Century view of Amoy (Xiamen)

The Duke of Roxburgh, from Amoy 8th November, and Singapore 2nd December, with Chinese labourers for Moreton Bay, arrived in Sydney on the 6th inst. There were sixteen deaths on the voyage, and the chief officer had also died.

The number of Chinamen arrived was 242. Some of the Chinamen were forwarded to Wide Bay in the Albion and the Vixen, and the remainder were embarked for this port in the Emma, barque, which vessel came down Sydney harbour with the Ann Mary last Monday. We are informed that the Emma has been purchased by a Mr. Josephs, of Sydney, for the Moreton Bay trade. She is a vessel of more than 200 tons burthen, and of light draught.[1]

Some of the Chinese men were transhipped on to Moreton Bay on board the barque Emma, but not before news of the death toll on the Duke of Roxburgh reached the northern settlement.

Although it was not reported in the Moreton Bay press, there was talk that further Chinese deaths had occurred on the Emma and that bodies had been disposed of overboard. A chain of unusual events ensued which were recorded in a poem in the epic style by a local bard under the sobriquet “Frederick”.  In fact this was the only record of the incident in the press, but there must have some substance to the tale, however embellished with poetic licence it may have been.

The Moreton Bay Courier 8 March 1851

The highly racist language used is typical of the times in outposts of the British Empire.  The poem is a great example of Victorian era satire and is humorous even today.    The form was often used anonymously to lampoon public figures, in this case the Brisbane Coroner.

A GOATISH TALE,            

"The murmuring tide was falling fast, and sultry was the day,
A barque upon a sand-bank stuck, not far from Moreton Bay;             
Her deck was full of China slaves, - for B & B & Co.;
Long had they been at sea detained, and now their grub was low.                   

Strange tales of plague and cholera dire in Brisbane were rife:-
T’was told how these poor Chow-chows - each was weary of his life;
And what with hunger and disease, t'was said, they dwindled fast.
And when they died, to save expense, were in the river cast.

Our coroner, of habits swift, on mercy’s purpose bent,
Embark'd him in the customs boat, and towards the vessel went;                     
But on their way a form was seen, as evening shades grew dark,     
Upon, the river's floating tide, besot by many a shark.

And towards the course the boat was steer'd, while every bosom beat,   
To think how poor "Celestials" thus became for fishes meat;                   
All swore it was a fearful sin, poor Chow-chows thus to bury,     
Without a coffin or a shroud, so near public ferry!   

And Mr. T. grew pale with fear, and, quaking every limb, -
By G-, says he, let's halt awhile, and sing a little hymn!     
So pulling out a flask of wine, and Book of Common Prayer,           
He did his best to nerve his mind to bear the sad affair.

With throbbing pulse they nearer drew, and, through the gloaming light,     
They pausing, gazed, with noses held, upon the hideous sight,           
A dark and mangled mass it lay upon the heaving tide,
And-strange to say-a horned ghost upon it seemed to ride.         

How should they act? It would not do to take it in the boat,-
To catch infection and a smell;-and yet, if left to float
A few more hours, the sharks would end the meal they had begun,-   
An inquest would be lost, and they would lose the fees and fun.   

In this dilemma long debating, they resolved, at last,
In Chow-chow's "human form divine" to stick the boat-hook fast,-
With line attached;-at distance kept, to tow him thus to land, 
A formal inquest hold, and then inter him in the sand.

And now they pull and tug and haul, and strain each creaking oar,                 
To get delivered of their charge, and gain the welcome shore.                     
Tis gained! - On terra firma now the crew and captain tread,
Each took a dram, and said a prayer, then pull'd ashore the dead.             

With lighted torch uplighted high, and nestling close together, -
(For men and masters in this case displayed a whitish feather), -         
They drew around poor China's form, and gazed upon the corpse,               
Then turn'd and laugh'd, and shook and roar'd, until they all were hoarse.     
And well they might, for after all their terrors in the boat.

The fancied Chow-chow's corpse turned out - a drowned billy-goat!   
Here drops the curtain on the farce: - I've only room to hope.       
That here they will not stop their work, but use the hook and rope.               
Upon the hundred roaming goats about our town that run,
And, I, for one, will wish them luck, and join them in their fun.                 

North Brisbane, March 5th. 1851[2]

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 22 February 1851
[2] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 8 March 1851

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the Emma information. I am trying to track down the list of Chinese immigrants on that boat who went to Gayndah.