Chinese New Year – and the Cantonese speaking bushranger

Happy New Year!

Australia and China have had their ups and downs, but Australia’s relations with China go back a long way, to the beginning of white settlement.

The first ships to bring convicts to Botany Bay dropped their living cargoes in New South Wales, then headed north to Canton [Guangzhou] to buy tea.  Sydney became a port for both British and American ships in the China trade, and a trickle of Chinese began to settle here from the 1830s.  But the first big immigration came in the 1850s, during the gold rush.

One of my favourite pieces of trivial information is that one member of the Kelly Gang, Joe Byrne, spoke Cantonese.  Joe Byrne was born in 1857 at Woolshed, near Beechworth, in an area, the Ovens Goldfields, with a large population of Chinese gold diggers.  As a little boy, Joe must have played on the diggings, and with the ease of small children, he picked up the local Cantonese from his neighbours.

We don’t know how well he spoke the language.  Joe is usually seen as the intellectual of the gang, since he went to primary school up to grade 5, and acted as amanuensis for Ned Kelly, who was barely literate.  It is most unlikely that Joe could write any Chinese, for the diggers who taught him the language were mainly illiterate themselves.  Most came out indentured to labour recruiters back in China, and in the indenture contracts they signed, most sign with a cross or a ‘chop’.

There was a lot of hostility towards the Chinese on the Victorian goldfields, especially by the 1860s, when the gold was running out.  Other diggers resented their hard work, their success in reworking discarded tailings, and the fact that they sent their profits back to China (initially to pay off their recruiters), and because they were single men who left their families at home – and who might, therefore, be guilty of nameless sexual crimes.

The Kelly gang shared that resentment.  One of the first crimes they committed was to beat up a ‘Chinaman’ – and it says something about community standards that, of all the crimes they later committed, this is the one the police did not take very seriously.

Yet we still come back to that odd, evocative fact, that Joe Byrne spoke Cantonese.  To know a language is to know at least something of its culture.  And children, with their easy ability to pick up new languages, can often become a bridge between cultures.  (It was often children, like the young Tom Petrie, who first learned Aboriginal languages).

I think of those lonely men from Canton, cut off from friends and family, in debt to headmen at home, and slugged with a head tax to the Victorian government, reaching out (almost certainly innocently) to a little boy with a flair for languages, a symptom of normality in an alien and hostile environment.

And then the peer group pressure that saw Joe Byrne team up with those other Australian-born sons of Irishmen with a chip on their shoulder, to beat up Chinese and kill Irish-born policemen.

Despite its many travails, the Chinese community in Beechworth has survived, and is now a centre of scholarship on Chinese in Australia.

Not so Joe Byrne.  At the Kelly Gang’s last stand at Glenrowan, Joe was hit by a stray bullet which severed his femoral artery, and he bled to death.  He was 23.

Happy New Year – and long life!


John McQuilton, The Kelly Outbreak (1979)

Picture Australia, The Chinese-Australian experience

3 responses to “Chinese New Year – and the Cantonese speaking bushranger

  1. Ned Kelly – ‘barely literate’ and the Kelly Gang beating up a Chinaman? Do your research moron.Both your statements are very wrong.

    • On ‘barely literate’ – have a look at the Jerilderie letter (the link is in my text), and remember that it was dictated by Ned, not written by him. He got a very basic schooling, and seems to have relied on others (probably Joe Byrne) to write his letters for him.

      On ‘beating up a Chinaman’ – Ned was arrested for beating up Ah Fook in 1869. He got off, but that reflects the dominant attitude towards Chinese at the time, rather than his guilt or innocence.

      On ‘moron’ – I’ve answered your comment, but have no intention of pursuing the conversation any further in these terms.

  2. Pingback: Law and History | Historians are Past Caring

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