Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Chinese Gardens - The Remedy for Land Scurvy

From the 1850s, Chinese labourers were contracted to work in the pastoral industry as shepherds, hutkeepers, shearers, and cooks. 

Many soon put their gardening skills to work supplying fresh vegetables and fruit. Within a few years most towns of any size boasted at least one Chinese garden. 

The Chinese gardeners established their plots close to a water source, whether a river, creek, or permanent waterhole.

Chinese Garden & Hut
(State Library of South Australia)

For many communities, these gardens were the only substantial source of quality fresh produce. Chinese producers soon came to dominate the vegetable markets.

Rockhampton has its market reserve, but, like that in Brisbane, it is not much used, as the vegetable market is almost entirely supplied by the Chinese gardeners, some of whom adhere to their native custom of carrying everything slung on bamboos, or, if wealthy enough, employ carts.

Their gardens are well worth a visit, for even after the long drought, which only terminated a few days after my arrival, they were one mass of green, and were producing vegetables equal to any grown in localities more kindly favoured by nature and climate.[1]

Chinese Gardener
(National Museum of Australia)

Some European settlers were impressed with the ability of the Chinese gardeners to create such productive small plots and studied their techniques.

Those who may be interested in the matter of growing vegetables could not do better than pay a visit to the Chinese garden, on Mr C. Lawson's property. The garden has been worked for some time, and hence the whole system of management is now apparent. At present the attention of the Celestials is specially directed to the growing of lettuce, onions, and radishes, and the luxuriant manner in which they are flourishing speaks volumes for the mode of treatment.

The system they adopt is to grow vegetables in extremely narrow beds, just sufficient to carry two rows. The ground is kept scrupulously clean, and morning and morning and evening the plants are carefully trimmed of all dead leaves, and a small quantity of liquid manure is deposited at the root of each plant.

The manure used is chiefly that obtained from pigstyes, and being carefully stacked, until it presents the appearance of a dry compost, it is soaked in water and carefully strained; all the insoluble particles are then thrown away, and the liquid only applied to the plant. Onions are treated similarly, and, in fact, more as exotics than vegetables.[2]

Chinese gardener at work
(State Library of Queensland)

The health benefits of fresh produce were quickly recognised especially to those suffering from “land scurvy”.

Usually associated with sailors on long sea voyages, scurvy, a disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C, was also widespread among isolated rural workers such as shepherds and hutkeepers. These bushmen existed on basic rations of meat, flour, tea, and sugar.

One newspaper correspondent recommended that pastoralists consider employing Chinese gardeners.

WE have frequently felt it our duty to direct public attention to the miserable existence that too many shepherds and hut keepers are forced to endure.

If there was no other call for change than the terrible scourge of land scurvy from which nearly all bushmen more or less suffer, this in itself would be sufficient to show reason for an alteration in the present system.

This idea of employing a Chinaman to raise vegetables is novel, and deserves more than a passing consideration. The wonderful results obtained by the small party of Chinamen in Deniliquin prove beyond a doubt tho possibility of vegetables being raised in even the hottest weather.

Throughout last summer their garden was a perfect oasis in the desert. The fresh green patch where they grew their produce formed a wonderful contrast to the surrounding brazen herbage, and only showed what can be done by knowledge and perseverance.

The Celestials have produced their luxuriant crops by enriching a poor soil with sheep-dung and stable manure, and on all stations could be found a site for a garden with more natural advantages than that possessed by the one above described, when the Chinamen first leased the ground.[3]

Chinese Gardener & Cauliflower
(State Library of NSW)

The occupation of a Chinese gardener was not without its dangers, particularly on the goldfields. One particularly perilous experience was suffered by the Chinese at Crocodile Creek in 1867. This goldfield was south-west of Rockhampton and was the scene of a violent anti-Chinese riot. One eyewitness described the scene.

A row between the Europeans and Chinese took place between half-post two and three o'clock; he [eyewitness] was at work in his claim when he heard a great noise and came up to see what it was; he saw the Europeans chasing the Chinamen before them, and throwing stones at them; it occurred at the spot known as the Chinaman's garden.

He saw them treat the Chinamen cruelly by throwing stones at them; he interfered telling them that they should not do so; he made one man drop a stone and the mob threatened to stone him;

He at this time saw Stone amongst the mob; after he left the mob he went into the Chinaman's garden; the mob had opened out into two parties, one party went towards Chinese-street which he might say was exclusively occupied by Chinese and the other part, upon whom he kept his eyes remained at the garden, and also went down the Creek; the mob at the garden set fire to the canvas and calico tents, thatched with bush hay, belonging to the Chinese; the tents were burned.

The mob were crying out "chase the bastards off, roll up, come out, burnt the damned place down”.

Six men were later put on trial at Rockhampton. Two were acquitted and four sentenced to 9 months in the Brisbane gaol.

Chinese gardeners on their plot.
(State Library of South Australia)

Despite occasional harassment the Chinese gardeners continued to ply their trade well into the 20th century.

Chinese garden with water lift, Gympie region ca. 1902
(State Library of Queensland)
© K. C. Sbeghen, 2014.

[1] The Brisbane Courier Monday 14 January 1867
[2] The Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser Thursday 21 June 1866
[3] Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser Thursday 31 August 1865