The Beginnings of Racism in Australia?


Affect of the Gold Rushes on Population Size

In 1851, gold was discovered in Australia near Bathurst in New South Wales. In the same year, gold rushes soon started in Victorian towns such as Bendigo and Ballarat. The gold rushes quadrupled Australia's population in ten years:
1851 438,000
1861 1,168 000

Chinese Proportion of the Population

Of that 1861 population, the Chinese numbered about 40,000 - 3 percent of the population. However, they were concentrated in the Victorian gold-rush areas that also attracted the mass of the early white diggers - Ballarat, Bendigo, and Beechworth.

Influx of Chinese Miners
The rate of Chinese migration alarmed Victorian government officials. According to the 1853 census there were 2000 Chinese in the colony. At the beginning of 1855 there were 10,000 on the goldfields. During March 1854, four ships arrived bringing 1,400 Chinese. By June the numbers had increased to 17,000.

The 1850s was a period of rapid population changes, especially for Victoria. In the Census of 1851 there were 197,186 people in New South Wales and 97,489 in Victoria. By 1861, these figures were 541,800 and 350,086 respectively. Melbourne's population increased from 23,143 to 139,196 in this period.

1855 Restriction Act

The colonists began to feel that, in the words of the Victorian Governor, they 'could without much difficulty calculate the period at which the Chinese would outnumber the subjects of the Queen of Great Britain'. The Restriction Act was passed to limit Chinese passengers to one for every ten tons of registered tonnage. A fee of £10 (twice the weekly wage of a skilled worker at the time) was imposed on each Chinese miner.


In Australia the strong government presence and the wide respect for the rule of law meant that mob action against the Chinese was usually contained or nipped in the bud. By contrast, mob action and murder were quite common in California.
John Hirst in IPA Review December-February 1988/89, p.54.

In support of Hirstís point:
Andrew Markus, Fear and Hatred: Purifying Australia and California, 1850-1901 (1979)

Against his point:
Kathryn Cronin, Colonial Causalities: The Chinese in Early Victoria (1982)

Document Collections:
The Chinese in Victoria: Official Reports and Documents (1985).
John Hirst, The Chinese on the Australian Goldfields (1991)


1) There were few signs of hosility towards the first Chinese gold diggers. The worst troubles did not begin in Victoria until 1857 and in NSW until 1861. In California the Chinese were subject to immediate harassment.

2) The Californian government made little attempt to control the violence directed against the Chinese by the American miners who believed that Americaís treasures belonged exclusively to ĎAmericansí. Australian authorities frequently intervened to prevent bloodshed. Despite the lack of protection, lynch mobbing was not common.


1) As soon as the Chinese landed in 1854 at Melbourne Wharf they were subject to cruelties, and the police had to be brought in to control the landing.

2) Cronin documents many cases of violence directed at Chinese miners. The white authorities did not always intervene to prevent riots. Murders were few, but violence was common.

Phases of the Exclusion of the Chinese

1. Chinese were attracted by the discovery of gold in 1850s.

To restrict the number of Chinese miners, the Australian colonies levied a poll tax on the Chinese coming into the country:
1855 Victoria enacted a £10 poll tax(twice the weekly wage of a skilled worker at the time). One in five adult males was Chinese.
1857 South Australia enacted a poll tax to prevent the Chinese from arriving at the Victorian goldfields after disembarking in South Australia.
1861 In New South Wales,  by 1861 there were 21,000 Chinese in the colony - one in sixteen of the population.

2. Withdrawal of these Restrictive Measures

 The restrictions and the decreasing value of the goldfields led to a decline in numbers.
In Victoria the 42,000 Chinese of 1859 had dwindled by 1861 to 24,700. The diminution led to, in the following year, the abolition of the residence tax and a short time afterwards an experimental suspension. By 1865 it was safe to repeal them altogether. In 1867 New South Wales Chinese immigration had become so small that it removed its restrictive measures.

3.1870s and 1880s Exclusion of the Chinese

1. Factors which roused strong feeling against Chinese immigration:

(1) The large influx of Chinese during the years 1875-6-7 to the newly discovered goldfields of Queensland.
(2) Some experience by the working classes of competition with cheap Chinese labour.
(3) The example that the Pacific States afforded the results consequent on Chinese immigration, and the measures America took at this time to cope with it.
(4) Actual increased immigration into all eastern colonies of Australia.
(5) The introduction of dreaded diseases by this immigration.
(6) The indenture of Chinese coolies by Western Australia.

Restrictive Measures Against the Chinese in the 1880s

Increasing migration of the Chinese during the late 1870s, and 1880s, although relatively small (especially when compared to the time of the gold rushes of the 1850s), brought about agitation for restrictive measures. The outcome was two major conferences:

December 1880 to January 1881 Intercolonial Conference

It was agreed:
1.Britain should follow America's example and re-negotiate its treaty with China.
2.Chinese immigration to Australia should be controlled.
3.This control should be uniform, based on a £10 poll tax plus tonnage restriction.
4. Chinese who were British subjects were to be exempt.

1888 Intercolonial Conference on Restricting Chinese Immigration.

 1. Traditional Chinese immigration should be virtually prohibited. The poll tax was dropped, but the passenger limit was raised  to allow only one Chinese for every 500 tons of cargo.
2. Britain should negotiate a new treaty, along the lines of that being negotiated by the United States, whereby all Chinese should be denied entry except certain exempt groups such as crew, officials, merchants, students and tourists.
3. Chinese who were British subjects were to be excluded from entering Australia.
4. Restrictions were placed on the movement of Chinese from Colony to Colony in Australia.
5. No Chinese were to be naturalised as British citizens in Australia.

Concentration of Chinese in Australia

In certain areas, there were considerable numbers of Chinese. This was largely due to the attraction of gold. In North Queensland during the time of the gold rushes there were large Chinese communities. In 1886, the Chinese were:

Area in North QLD         Percentage of the population.

Cairns district                 20
Innisfail                           40
Port Douglas                   40
Agricultural districts       60

Explanations of Racism Against Chinese

1.Competition on the goldfields.

2.Competition in the labour market.

3.Anglo-Saxon belief in racial superiority and purity. These ideas were influenced by Social Darwinism. The idea of building a 'racially pure' nation was quite common at the time.