“Men, or rather monsters, on horseback, armed with bludgeons and whips, with a fiend-like fury, securing the unfortunate creatures by taking hold of their tails and pulling their heads so that they came with their backs to the horse and their heads upon the saddle, and then cutting, or rather sawing, them off and leaving them to the fury of others who surrounded them.”
The atrocities perpetrated on 30 June 1861 upon the Chinese at Lambing Flat , near Young were many. Some 1,200 Chinese, with open wounds and broken limbs, with nothing more than the clothes on their back, camped on the paddocks at James Roberts’s station, that rainy night in the dead of winter.
Yet to this day that historical moment has been sanitised as “Riots”, in history books, in museum displays, in school curricula, and in the media.
Why do we continue to tell our children lies about our past?
Sloth? More likely, though, a hangover from the unexpected hanging of seven white men for the 1838 Myall Creek Massacre: an enduring “pact of silence”.
The Sydney Morning Herald continued: “One unfortunate Chinese boy went down upon his knees, the tears ran down his cheeks as he lifted his hands and pleaded for mercy; a ruffian, with a bludgeon sufficient to kill a giant, with one blow felled him to the ground. Another unfortunate creature, a cripple, was trying to crawl away into the bush—he could not walk—and endeavouring to take a blanket; it was ruthlessly torn from him, and carried to a fire where their property was being consumed. Here was to be seen another propped up against a tree, his forehead laid open, and the blood running down his face—truly terrible to behold.”
Ah, it was just a riot.
In fact it was the grand culmination of several smaller attacks which began in December 1860. This time the “ruffians” had a band, a professionally painted “Roll Up, No Chinese” banner trimmed with lace and tied with red and green ribbon, and ring-leaders on horseback egging on a 3,000 strong mob.
Ahead of his arrival on 2 March 1861, Premier Charles Cowper, contrary to the wishes of the NSW Parliament, had despatched 174 troops to Lambing Flat to restore order. Staying barely a week, Cowper, to appease the white miners, ordered a furrow to be ploughed around the richer areas of the field to keep the Chinese out. But the white miners wanted the Chinese gone! Thus, after the troops left on 24 May, it was well-whispered that the Lambing Flat Attack would happen on Sunday 30 June 1861.
When the mores of a society are weak, the law is unenforceable.
(Even the High Court displayed this affliction when, in 1906, its judges declared South Sea Islanders to be ‘indisputably alien’ because of their race, thus sanctioning their mass deportation. This miscarriage of justice, laid out in Peter Prince’s PhD thesis, has now, in 2020, been acknowledged, for the first time, by Justice Edelman of the current High Court in Love & Thoms ).
Eventually Premier Cowper gave in to the demands of the mob, cowed by boisterous MPs and influential social agitators. On 26 November 1861 his government passed the Chinese Immigrants Regulation and Restriction Act, the fore-runner of the Commonwealth’s first substantive Act, Immigration Restriction Act 1901.
The Lambing Flat atrocities occurred 160 years ago. As a society we have travelled some distance. But when will we reach the nirvana when our politicians are no longer obsessed with garnering any vote to entrench their own power, or to prepare themselves for acquiring personal gold mines as compradors for corporations – including war-mongering behemoths – the moment they graduate from politicking through the Aladdin’s labyrinth that is our Parliament?
Moral and principled leadership is crucial, though not fool-proof, if the rule of law is to prevail. But when our government recently condoned ex-ministers becoming overnight compradors for corporations dredging for gold in our national coffers ordinary citizens were unlikely to be impressed. It is as though we had learnt nothing from our “Timor Sea Intrigue” that began with our national interest in mind but ended up serving the interest of oil corporations, owing it would seem to the cosy relationship our successive ministers and ex-politicians had with those corporations.
Our democracy is in dire straits: only one in five punters trusts our pollies to act in the national interest.
A memorial to the Lambing Flat Attack, with genuine commitment from all parties, might vaccinate Aussies against future outbreaks of antipathies towards Chinese Australians, pave the way to integrity in public life, and restore trust in our politicians as they are seen to take on principled and courageous leadership.
It will be a memorial like none before. The challenges facing the main parties are:
1. For Chinese Australians
Most have never heard of the Lambing Flat Attack. Some see it as the harbinger of the White Australia Policy; others want to “move on”, to honour James Roberts as our Oscar Schindler or to erect “peace” gardens along the route taken by the fleeing Chinese on that vicious day. But such “forgiveness” is not for the latter day Chinese to give. The proposed memorial and its begetting must therefore reorient Chinese Aussies to search for what is uplifting for the spirit of their native-born heirs.
2. For our politicians
When prompted by Chinese Australians, our politicians have used the Lambing Flat Attacks to showcase their bleeding hearts, and their appreciation of contributions Chinese Australians have made. But on this occasion our political leaders could instead embrace genuine commitment, as Helen Clarke the Kiwi PM did, and set up a Poll Tax Trust Fund to facilitate the begetting of this memorial, and the undertaking of kindred historical and educational projects to redress the truth-deficit in the story told about the Chinese in Oz since colonial times.
On an optimistic note, this memorial could also provide a circuit-breaker for rebuilding relations with China – if our political leaders are seen to be determined to redress our past injustices to the Chinese in Oz and during our days as heroic troopers to the invincible British Empire to China, as well. Who knows: President Xi Jinping might be impressed. In 2012, on his way back to Beijing, he stopped in Darwin and took his 200-strong business and government leaders to visit Kakadu. When asked, he said that he wanted to see the place where the Indigenous art came from, those beautiful works that our Governor-General Quentin Bryce had presented recently to the Chinese government in Beijing. (Could it have been that he also wanted to see how Aboriginal people live today?)
3. For our cultural custodians
They have been telling half the story. This memorial, and the national conversation preceding it, should put an end to that. The determination of the Canadian government to right past wrongs against the Chinese is a national achievement we could emulate. We would then be on firmer grounds when we want to talk to China about human rights.
4. For our school children
The half-truths, the lies, should be a thing of the past. Not only that, we should teach every generation that admission of past wrongs is morally uplifting.
Is this a pipe dream?
Memorials have been erected for millennia. Some old statues are now being torn down; others retired to out-of-the-way sites to see out their days and to remind current generations of humanity’s follies. Some now have plaques added to tell the missing parts of their story.
One modern memorial is inspiring: the Aboriginal Memorial, a work of 200 decorated hollow log coffins, one for each year of the bi-centenary, to commemorate those Indigenous peoples who died as they defended themselves against the white invaders. This memorial was first exhibited in 1988 at the Sydney Biennale, and in 2000 was the centrepiece of an exhibition of Indigenous art at Russia’s Hermitage Museum. It now stands at the entry to the National Gallery’s new wing which opened in September 2010. Its timelessness seems assured.
This Aboriginal Memorial, dignified, imaginative, and uncompromising, is the inspiration for my proposal.
To kick it off, a national conference is envisaged:
· To seek a national discussion, with unfettered participation from politicians, Chinese Aussies, historians, school teachers, curriculum developers, and interested individuals and academics here and abroad.
· To research into similar memorials, erected to atone for and bear witness to race-related injustice and violence of the past, in Australia and elsewhere in comparable countries, particularly in New Zealand and Canada.
· To inform the design brief for a national competition for the proposed Lambing Flat Memorial.
· To furnish the body of a companion book that will provide a critical insight into the genesis of the Lambing Flat Attacks, its part in the fomentation and sanctification of the White Australia Policy, and the challenge that we must embrace to mitigate against future outbreaks of political and social anxiety against the Chinese in Australia. To this end a succinct narrative of the history of the Chinese in Australia will thread through the book.
The book must be conceived as a resource for curriculum development for schools, from a Chinese Australian perspective, as distinct from one that emanates from the lenses of the victors of a cultural war.
· To put to bed the usual riposte that “no deaths” occurred at Lambing Flat, as if death is the sole measure of man’s inhumanity to man.
Dame Mary Gilmore’s poem Fourteen Men (14 Chinese hanged from trees after the Lambing Flat Attack) will be revisited, in the light of The Third Reich of Dreams, a book of “collective diaries” in which the links between waking life and dreams are indisputable. Did Gilmore dream about the hanging? Or did she in her old age commit to paper the childhood stories which permeated her consciousness? And James McCulloch Henley’s witness account of deaths, in court, in 1861, should be given due attention. Henley, a graduate of the University of St Andrews, Scotland, stood firm when threatened in Parliament with the charge of perjury.
Then in good time a memorial. To be sited where it will be seen, day in day out, by visitors domestic and international, easily accessible for school excursions. One possible site is the Tumbalong end of Darling Harbour which leads through Tumbalong Park to the heritage-listed Chinese Garden of Friendship. In time the memorial should feature in our tourist brochures. President Xi is unlikely to visit, but he is sure to know about it.
The opening sentences of this essay, from the SMH, exemplify the founder John Fairfax’s editorial policies which were based “upon principles of candour, honesty and honour.” As well, he added that “We have no wish to mislead; no interest to gratify by unsparing abuse or indiscriminate approbation.”
It is also opportune to honour the memory of John Fairfax. His moral and principled leadership engendered the faithful reporting of the Lambing Flat Attacks, for all time.