History never repeats?

Migration in the 1850s

RECENTLY, I WATCHED worried policemen and politicians denounce the crimes of Sudanese Australians. If you only caught the headlines, you could be forgiven for thinking that Melbournians were sandbagging their houses and stockpiling canned goods as a wave of African gang violence swept the city.

Listen to the public debate and it’s not hard to find voices worrying away at the cultural and ethnic make-up of the Australian population. The flashpoint is the volume and diversity of Australia’s migrant intake – that’s what gets the public debate really heated. Yet, this is not new. We have been here before, many times before. The origins of migrants may change, but the issue remains the same. It may be Africa today; it was Vietnam in the 1970s and Italy in the 1950s. It goes even further back. The caution and hostility remains.

‘They are ignorant of our laws, our habits and our social feelings.’

‘He believed in two to three years it would not be a question of what to do with the Chinese, but what the Chinese would do with them.’

While these quotes may sound remarkably familiar to what you can hear today, they aren’t contemporary. The first quote comes from a South Australian newspaper in 1856, and the second from a Victorian newspaper in 1857. Our fears today continue the historically strong and robust debate about who should be included or excluded from our definition of Australia.

Gaining a bit of historical perspective is insightful. Finding out what happened in the past, and more importantly what legacy has been left, is not a self-indulgent walk down memory lane or chest beating, from either side, about a ‘black armband’ view of history. Understanding the story can help us chart a better way into the future. To ask the historian’s favourite question: Are we doomed to repeat history’s mistakes? Or can we make the journey ahead a little more considered and thoughtful than we’ve done before?

Australia experienced a previous period of sustained and intense migration in the gold rushes of the 1850s. The responses to the challenges of that time gave us the country we live in today. If you attended an Australian primary school, or have children who do, you probably know the story. In 1851, gold was discovered at Ophir in New South Wales. A few months later, gold was found near Ballarat in Victoria. Within a matter of weeks, the rush was on as people left the cities to dig for alluvial gold.

International migrants also joined the rush, risking everything to get to the Australian goldfields. The sheer volume of people who came from overseas to dig for gold is almost incomprehensible to us today. In Victoria, there was a 191 per cent increase in the population from 1851 to 1854. Over the ten year period from 1851 to 1861, the Victorian population increased by 454 per cent.[i] That’s like the current Australian population going from 24 million to 109 million in ten years. This is truly extraordinary growth, and puts our contemporary situation into context.

It is well recognised by scholars that Australian multiculturalism began on the goldfields. The majority of migrants came from England, Scotland and Ireland, making up 73 per cent of the new arrivals.[ii] This may sound homogenous, but in those days it very much mattered whether you were Cornish, Welsh, English, Protestant Irish or Catholic Irish. Others came from China, the US and European nations such as Germany, France and Italy. The English settlers, who themselves had been here for just over sixty years, were challenged by the reality of living with others of similar cultural heritage, such as the Cornish, the Scots or the Irish. This doesn’t sound confronting today, but it was in the 1850s. It was the kind of difference they knew could turn violent, as at Castle Hill in 1804, where there had been an Irish insurrection against the English colonial administration.

Even more challenging were the other nationalities the British groups thought so very different to themselves: the Americans, the Europeans, the Chinese. Multiculturalism, though, isn’t just about the dominant culture being challenged by the other. This was the first time, in Australia at least, that so many different cultures voluntarily lived side by side in stressful, dense and confronting situations.

We also didn’t invent temporary migration in the twenty-first century. One of the curious features of this 1850s wave of migration was that so many who came expected to be temporary migrants, and those here thought they would be too. The Americans expected to go home. The Italians expected to go home. The Chinese did also. The idea was that you came and made money digging for gold or in business and then went home with your wealth.

For many though, the journey became one way, particularly for those from the UK. The dream was to return home with substantial wealth, but if that didn’t work out they believed they could move onto the land here in Australia. Just as now, that longing for home ownership – in this case a decent smallholding where you could have your own crops and animals – would come to fuel much of the tensions that erupted in the 1850s.


THE COLONIAL GOVERNMENTS found the volume of people, and their aspirations, confronting. There were the immediate infrastructure problems of dealing with the influx of so many people. Even more unsettling was that these migrants carried here the hope of a democratic voice in government, reasonable taxation and affordable land that could be freely purchased by all. Authorities struggled to find the talent and the money to manage this situation with sensitivity. The response of the government, and the people, to these challenges laid the foundations for modern Australia.

With the large number of migrants arriving on the goldfields of NSW and Victoria, the colonial governments were faced with the simple operational matter of how to deal with them all. The dirt roads weren’t adequate in either number or quality for so many people. In the days before piped sewage and water, the campgrounds of the goldfields quickly became polluted, and the subsequent waterborne diseases killed frequently and quickly. A nutritious diet was beyond the budget of many, who weren’t making much money.

The response of the Australian-based administrators was a steadfast policy to make the migrants pay. The British colonial office had never been keen to fund the Australian colonies more than was absolutely necessary, and they had no inclination to change. With little outside help expected, and the Legislative Councils of both NSW and Victoria firmly in the grip of the squatters, their reaction was to make the cause of the problems with the infrastructure – the migrants – pay. The resulting tax, the miner’s licence, would come to symbolise all that was wrong with the existing system of governance.

There were obvious problems with the miner’s licence right from the start, and these were clearly apparent to public servants in the government and the miners themselves. In Victoria, a miner was paid thirty shillings a month – about £8 a year. This gave the miner the right to dig a piece of land approximately thirteen square metres. Squatters paid £10 a year for runs of various large sizes, with sixty-four square kilometres (twenty-five square miles) common. With long leases between eight to fourteen years, they controlled the majority of the land. The obvious inequity of the situation, along with police corruption and brutality, fuelled public protests from the start.

Despite the obvious problems of levying unfair taxes, the colonial government continued to see them as the answer to their other migration-induced problems, especially when it came to the Chinese. No other group came to represent the fear of the other, of the migrant, as much as the Chinese. Their cultural differences challenged a nineteenth-century society totally unfamiliar and unwilling to work with diversity.

Both the governments and the people felt that too many Chinese men were coming to Australia. The data shows the speed at which this relatively small cultural group grew in number in a short space of time. In 1854, people from China were less than 1 per cent of Victoria’s population; in 1861 they were 7 per cent. By this later stage, in some parts of the goldfields one in five men were Chinese.[iii] In one four-month period in 1857, ten thousand Chinese migrants landed in South Australia to walk to the Victorian goldfields.[iv]

In 1855 the Victorian government’s response to this confronting volume of Chinese migrants, and the miners’ daily vocal irritation against the Chinese on the goldfields, was to levy a £10 poll tax. This was payable by a ship’s captain for every Chinese person landed at a Victorian port. This was a large tax designed to be prohibitive. They also imposed limits on the number of Chinese people carried on any one ship. The people’s opposition would erupt into violence at Buckland River in 1857 and the Lambing Flat riots in 1860–61, despite, or perhaps encouraged by, these legislative responses.

The miners’ licence and the poll tax were the governments’ attempts to control an unexpected situation and retain the cultural and political dominance of one group. But this period also sparked reactions from the people that would drive both transformative and reactionary change. Opposition to the unfairness of the miner’s licence became the focal point on which the transformative change of political representation, taxation and land access was forced.

In Australia, this people’s challenge can be seen in the huge meetings from 1851 across the goldfields in both Victoria and NSW, repeated written petitions to government, the violence of 3 December 1854 at Eureka, the large meetings in support of these Ballarat miners in Melbourne, and the subsequent acquittal of the Eureka men for high treason in early 1855 by a jury of citizens.

Immediate changes in Victoria in 1855 alleviated this vocal opposition caused by the licence fee. The miner’s licence was replaced with a more affordable annual fee and gave the licence holders voting rights to elect members to local courts and the colonial parliament. In 1857, all British men over twenty-one, regardless of how much property they owned, were given the right to vote in Victoria. By the end of the decade, NSW, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland also adopted these voting rights, along with the secret ballot.

Greater access to land ownership, though, remained a bitter point of contention for many years. The 1855 Gold Fields’ Commission of Enquiry report listed land access as a more pressing matter to miners than the right to vote. Peter Lalor, in his public letter in April 1855, lists the reasons for the events at Ballarat as first exclusion from land ownership and then exclusion from the vote and the miner’s licence.

Land equalled political power, even more then than now. In Victoria, prior to the 1857 changes, a man had to own property worth £1,000 to vote and own £5,000 worth of property to stand for election. Imagine just how exclusive these requirements were; it meant a tiny pool of men were eligible to stand for election from a very small number of voters.

Not finding success on the goldfields, many migrants questioned the rich man’s hold on the land and political power. The squatters held the majority of rural land. Prices for the small amounts of land for sale around the towns had also soared during the gold rushes. Salaried government officials or the squatters, who could afford the rising land prices, often purchased these town lots. It was very hard for the average family to buy land.

Land reform required wider democratic participation. The wealthy squatters would not voluntarily change the rules themselves, only a more diverse parliament could deliver land reform. The political reforms that opened up the right to vote, and to stand for election, ushered in the subsequent pieces of legislation that attempted to make land acquisition more accessible. The Nicholson Act in Victoria (1860) and the Robertson Act in NSW (1861) were the first attempts to break the squatter control of land, and encourage family farming on smaller parcels of land. Both acts reduced the block sizes of agricultural land, and then sold these smaller parcels at more affordable prices. The process of sale was also made more transparent and efficient than what had gone before. These political and land reforms were a transformative and visionary political change, which set the course we continue to follow today. Giving the vote to all British men over the age of twenty-one not only removed the property qualification but also challenged the belief that only those who had wealth should make the rules by which the rest lived. Attempting to open up the land for purchase with more affordable blocks was also a concession that land ownership, and the power and stability that comes with it, was an aspiration for the many not just the few. In the nineteenth century, these changes made Australia an inspiring model for many nations around the world. These are the modern concepts we continue to seek to live by: that the rules are made by the people, not the few; that taxation is levied on all fairly; and that property ownership should not be impossible. These changes would not have happened, at that time, without that combination of circumstances that included the influx of migrants to the goldfields.

We are quite comfortable with this legacy today. We cherish, and advocate for, a rigorous democracy based on the inherent right of the people to choose and direct those we elect. But the other key legacy of the 1850s gold rushes is a lot more polarising. The issue of migration, and who should or shouldn’t be part of Australia, is one of the most contentious and unresolved issues that we face today. We are yet to come to a unifying vision.


RESTRICTIVE LEGISLATION TARGETED at some nationalities in NSW and Victoria was introduced during the intense 1850s period of migration, and remained in some form for the next hundred years. The legislation was primarily targeted at Chinese migrants, but in later decades would also include Japanese and Pacific Islanders. The legislation included the poll tax on entry by Chinese migrants and restrictions on numbers of arrivals. At times it also included a Chinese residency tax. After the gold rushes were over, the fears and the policies remained. By 1888, every colony in Australia and New Zealand applied similar restrictions on the entry of Chinese-born people. It was also during these later years that the policies to curtail Indigenous lives and their future as a people were introduced. In the lead-up to Federation, exclusion of the ‘other’, coupled with British dominance, was one issue on which all the different colonies agreed.

These restrictions led directly to a suite of national legislation that began with the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, which became known as the White Australia policy. The purpose was to limit non-British migration, tested primarily on language proficiency through the notoriously difficult Dictation Test. These policies were gradual dismantled from the late 1960s.

The White Australia policy was very effective at doing what it set out to achieve, strongly shaping the population composition and confirming the dominant culture as British. In 1881, the Chinese population was around 2 per cent of the total population. By 1921, the Chinese population was
0.3 per cent of the nation. Even with postwar migration from Europe, which moved away from an exclusively British intake and opened up migration to Europeans, only about 9 per cent of the population was of non-British heritage in 1960.[v]

Yet over the years of the White Australia policy, something else was happening too. Many of the cultural differences, like the difference between the Cornish and the English that mattered so much on the 1850s goldfields, faded in importance. Over time, the different cultures came to an arrangement, where each individual culture has been subsumed into an Australian narrative. Sometimes the only evidence of the cultural lines that were so evident on the goldfields is in the names of streets, localities or suburbs that tell us that this was where the Canadian village or the Chinese camp had once been.

The 1850s was Australia’s most intense period of migration, and it gave birth to the values and actions that are still part of who we are today, including a constant concern about the next migrant group. We can learn from both the transformative and restrictive legacies of that period. Both legacies have shaped the country we know today, from our leadership in democratic reform to the manipulation of the population and culture. What our history really shows us is that we need to choose wisely and carefully what we value because the actions we take today sets the direction for many, many years to come.



[i] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008, 3105.0.65.001, Australian Historical Population Statistics, Table 1.1,[email protected]/DetailsPage/3105.0.65.0012008?OpenDocument [15 March 2018]

[ii] Museums Victoria, Origins – Immigrant communities in Victoria,, [15 March 2018]

[iii] Culture Victoria, Many Roads: Chinese on the Goldfields,, [viewed 26 March 2018]

[iv] Keneally, T, 2009 Australians Origins to Eureka, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p.517

[v] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1925, ‘The Chinese in Australia’ in the 1301.0 Year Book Australia,[email protected]/Previousproducts/1301.0Feature%20Article21925?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=1301.0&issue=1925&num=&view= [26 March 2018]

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