The Buckland River Riot: Victoria’s Lambing Flat [5 March 1932]

[Editor: An article about the Buckland River Riot of 1857. Published in The Argus, 5 March 1932.]

The Buckland River Riot.

Victoria’s Lambing Flat.

By Pipeclay-Brown.

Lambing Flat, New South Wales, provided the story of the greatest anti-Chinese riot on the goldfields of Australia. In 1861 diggers in the camp assembled in public meeting and resolved to expel all Chinese. The expulsion was effected with much loss of life among the Chinese, and one or two of the whites were killed. Order was not restored until the arrival of the military. Victoria had but one serious trouble with the Chinese diggers, of whom, from 1855, the diggings carried a floating population of between 25,000 and 40,000. The Chinese adapted themselves speedily to alluvial goldmining. Large parties, working co-operatively, procured considerable frontages of gold-bearing country, and as their numbers increased they crowded the white men out of the producing areas. This was the case through the whole Beechworth division, where at one time the Chinese holding alluvial claims were in the proportion of more than three to one of the Europeans. The disparity was at first apparent on the rich Ovens field, the alien diggers outnumbering the whites by more than ten to one. Their presence on the field in large numbers was resented, in view of the fact that the Chinese were not prospectors. Not until gold was discovered did they come, and where workings were smaller and profits large they quickly exhausted the possibilities of any area.

The Buckland was considered to be a white man’s field. The gold there had been discovered after specially strenuous effort, first by a Californian in 1855. Prospecting in the Ovens country, he followed the ranges in the direction of the Snowy Mountains, toward which numbers of small parties were making their way on reports of rich discoveries on the New South Wales side of the Snowy River. Few of these adventurers into a country as wild and inhospitable as was the Klondyke years later discovered any values worth considering, and the return journeys were made chiefly by disappointed men. The Californian immigrant, however, strong in the faith that he had been walking over very good gold, resumed prospecting in the valleys on the Victorian side. At the Buckland his faith was justified. In shallow sinking on the first day of his strike of surface colours he opened washdirt which was yielded at a rate of 2oz. to the dish. Values improved as the run of the wash was followed, and before he was forced to leave the discovery to reprovision, his winnings amounted to 60oz. a day for each of his party. The disclosure of the richness of the Buckland Creek would have been delayed but for one of his mates, whose tongue was loosened by the free liquor provided by the storekeepers of those days, gave the show away. A rush from all the camps in the division set up immediately. Within six months there were 6,000 diggers on the ground, to which a thin stream of Chinese began to trickle.

In 1857 there were thousands of Chinese at work, and the rich values having been taken and the Europeans having drifted to other fields, the yellow men were in a majority of about three to one. Just what gold they took from their claims is not known. That the profit was satisfactory was shown by the establishment of three large camps on the course of the river, a palatial josshouse, numerous stores, gambling shops, and comfortable humpies. Arrogant in their numerical superiority, the Chinese disregarded the mining laws and by-laws, lorded it over the smaller parties of Europeans, employed personal violence without scruple, and, as was common in those days, robbed the sluice-boxes and trail-races of the white diggers at every opportunity. Appeals to the warden for the enforcement of the observation of the laws under which the white men worked were without avail, and in July, 1857, direct action was decided on by a party of under 100 white men. These, carrying long handled shovels, pick handles, and crowbars, moved on the Chinese camp at Lauder’s Flat and ordered the occupants to quit. They were given an hour in which to pack their swags. They made the most of the time, and without offering resistance they went to the next camp at Stony Point. The eviction was complete. The white men set fire to the tents and premises on the flat, burned the camp right out, and, reinforced by other parties of Europeans, followed the aliens to Stony Point, where the destruction of this camp also was effected. At the main camp lower down the river, the head centre of their operations on the field, a stand was made by the Chinese with a show of passive resistance, but the diggers had warmed up to the work in hand and their charge was determined. In a few moments they were in the midst of the horde of frightened foreigners, swinging their shovels and bars vigorously. Panic ensued. Indicating that they would evacuate without fighting, the Chinese gathered as much as they could of their portable belongings and left. The camp was burned, and to an accompaniment of wild wailings the temple of their joss was consumed in view of the retreating Chinese. The white men, satisfied that the Chinese would not return, took possession of their claims and worked them.

A notable feature of the evacuation is that there was no loss of life on either side. Fear-stricken Chinese, heedless of where they were going, fell into potholes and some into the river, whence they were rescued by the rearguard of the whites. Another fact worthy of remark is that but three men were convicted — and these on a charge of unlawfully assembling. In November, 1857, it was enacted that the Chinese be protected under a system of Chinese residence licenses which ensured them against similar treatment. But they never went back to the Buckland.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 5 March 1932, p. 6

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