The Lambing Flat Riots And Its Legacies 1861-2021

First published in The Young Witness Friday 02 July 2021, p.7.

By Karen Schamberger – Young Historical Society.

Tensions arose between Chinese and non-Chinese miners leading to the Lambing Flat riots between November 1860 and July 1861. Whose side of the story do you know?

Gold was discovered at Demondrille and Lambing Flat in July 1860, drawing thousands of people from all over the world. Alexander the Yankee, an African American cook, discovered gold at Lambing Flat according to Denis Regan, but Irishman Michael Sheedy got the reward.

Germans, Chinese and Americans were legal aliens in the colony of NSW. Some Chinese though, were British subjects from Hong Kong with equal status to New Zealanders, the English, Irish, Scottish and people from other Australian colonies.

Born in China, Simon San Ling was a Catholic and married to an Irish Catholic wife, Marcella Madigan. Together they had a family of three children born in the colony of NSW. On the 30 June 1861 this family were amongst the people who were attacked at Back Creek, about 7 miles south of Lambing Flat. Their tent was destroyed and Simon was ‘beaten with sticks, knocked down, and wounded’. In his petition for compensation from the NSW government he wrote that he was robbed of seven pounds in bank notes, two nuggets worth about two pounds together and a pocket-knife.

The press provided different accounts. The interpreter James McCulloch Henley, in the pro-Chinese Sydney Morning Herald stated that:

A European woman with three small children, who is the wife of a Chinaman, was sitting in her tent rocking her baby in the cradle. The lawless mob burned down her tent, and the cradle wherein the infant was sleeping.

Whereas the anti-ChineseSydney newspaper Empire stated that this was a ‘deliberate falsehood’.

San Ling’s wife Marcella provided evidence to magistrate William Campbell who investigated the claims. She said:

I was not in the tent during the time the mob were there, and received no-ill usage, personally, from any of their number. I was not molested by any of them in any way. I had a cradle in the tent which was burnt, but my child was not in that cradle when the mob came up.

All four accounts of the same event are different. Simon San Ling and Marcella Madigan’s accounts are different because they were at separate locations during the riots and did not see what happened to the other person. The two newspapers and McCulloch Henley reported the event according to their respective points of view.

Simon San Ling went on to work as a translator on the Adelong goldfield and publicly spoke out against anti-Chinese sentiment in 1880. He died in Wagga Wagga in 1939. He, Marcella and their descendants became part of the Australian community. Just like many other Chinese and Irish people who were at Lambing Flat.

The European, North American and Australasian-born miners provided various reasons for their violent actions. One accusation was that the Chinese exported their profits. Miners from Britain, North America and Europe also did this. However, John Stewart, chairman of the Anti-Chinese Miners’ Protective League conceded that the Chinese, like other miners, spent most of what they earnt in the colony.

The Chinese were also accused of wasting water. This was both false and a misunderstanding. Europeans mostly washed their gold on Saturdays, and only paid attention to the richest earth dug during the week. The Chinese, however, preferred to wash daily, processing low grade and rich earth together. The riots in November and December 1860 occurred when water was plentiful and even flooding the shafts. Water was also plentiful during the worst riot on 30 June 1861.

What really alarmed the Europeans was large-scale Chinese cooperative action. Where Europeans mined in small groups, the Chinese travelled and mined in relatively larger groups. They were also adept at solving water problems by building dams and diverting streams. Their comparative solidarity enabled them to monopolise large areas. Thus, they dominated Wombat, Little Wombat and Back Creek. The Europeans by contrast repeatedly left payable claims for the next new ‘rush’, betting on the dream of instant wealth rather than a steady, modest income. It was not surprising then, that sometimes attacks were made on Chinese who discovered new fields. This happened on 30 June 1861 when the attackers could not even find the main Chinese camp at Back Creek. They had to ask an old man for directions.

Water race used for sluicing gold at Back Creek, where the Chinese dominated and were attacked on 30 June 1861. Photo: Karen Schamberger.

Canvas tents lined the left bank of Back Creek where the Chinese lived. They were from the southern provinces of China. Evidence from their petitions for compensation suggest that they spoke a variety of languages such as Cantonese, Hakka and Hokkien. Some were Christians, others were followers of ‘Tian Hou’ (Queen of Heaven), protector of seafarers, whose place of worship was destroyed in the 30 June 1861 riot.

According to the Goulburn Herald, about 200 Chinese were wounded on that day. Sub-Gold Commissioner George O’Malley Clarke authorised James Roberts of Currawong to provide 1276 Chinese people with ‘the common necessities of life’ until 15 July, when most followed the police to Binalong and Yass, while 522 remained until 30 July. According to the Lambing Flat Miner newspaper, at least six Chinese from Back Creek were severely injured and one of their countrymen in Adelong paid for their passage home. James McCulloch Henley, claimed that there were four Chinese deaths, however, he did not report these to the coroner so they were never investigated. He was accused and then cleared of perjury. By early August, 500 Chinese had returned to mine at Back Creek.


The NSW Parliament had voted three times against anti-Chinese immigration legislation in 1858, refusing to follow Victoria’s lead in introducing a poll tax on Chinese migrants in 1855. The violence at Lambing Flat in 1860-61 however, convinced a number of NSW Parliamentarians that Europeans and Chinese could not live together peacefully. Rather than holding firm to the original position that the Chinese had as much right to be in the colony as other aliens (non-British subjects) and British subjects, the NSW Parliament chose to pass the Chinese Immigrants and Regulation Act 1861. This act imposed a £10 tax on Chinese immigrants arriving by ship. They also passed the Gold Fields Act 1861 which enabled the restriction of noon-British subjects and was aimed at allowing the Chinese to mine in designated areas only. These were usually mines that were already abandoned. The government also passed the 1862 Police Regulation Act creating a unified NSW Police Force in order to more effectively deal with large scale rioting.

However, the gold at Burrangong did not last long. By January 1864, 34 non-Chinese and Chinese bankers, businessmen, merchants from Young, Goulburn and Sydney, petitioned the government to remove the restrictions on Chinese mining at Burrangong because the gold was petering out and the town’s population diminishing.

The Chinese also protested against the discriminatory laws. On 22 August 1864, about 400 Chinese ambushed about 25 Europeans at Spring Creek to protest the implementation of the Gold Fields Act. According to the Sydney Mail, one of them said:

Europeans fool my countrymen – tell him no come one day, come next day. Next day you tell him, no come again.

The Chinese refused to pay the fine and argued that the proceeds of the entry tax imposed on them through the Chinese Immigrants Regulation and Restriction Act should pay for their board and food in gaol. The charges were dropped but restrictions were more consistently enforced.

In March 1866, a number of NSW Chinese residents as well as white merchants, clergymen and magistrates petitioned the government to repeal the Chinese Immigration Regulation and Restriction Act. A few weeks later, the Gold Fields Act was altered to removed restrictions on Chinese mining, once again making them equal with British subjects. The Chinese Immigration Regulation and Restriction Act was repealed in 1867.

People of Chinese descent remained and moved to Young in the years after the riots. Ah Man grew cabbages, carrots and onions at Spring Creek. Ah Geang supplied vegetables to the Burrangong Hospital as well as Yass, Gundagai and Wagga Wagga. In the 1870s and 80s, the Sun Kum Hang Department Store operated on the Main Street. By the 1890s the building was occupied by Learmonts.

Main Street with the Sun Kum Hang Department Store building, later Learmonts, in the background. Young Historical Society.

By 1867 all Australia colonies had abolished their Chinese immigration restriction legislation and native-born and naturalised Chinese men had the right to vote. At Young, they were on the Municipal Roll. Ah Geang was amongst those who voted in the 1887 Municipal election.

First page of the Municipal Roll of Young for 1887-8, Ah Geang is marked as having voted during the election of 4th February 1887. Young Historical Society.

White Australia’s Foundation Myth and Its Problems

From the late 1860s to the late 1870s, Chinese and non-Chinese settlers cooperated and co-existed peacefully. It was only from the late 1870s that tales of the riots became entwined with the founding of the new Australian nation. In 1878 fears of cheap Chinese furniture labourers and crews on steam ships at the ports of Melbourne and Sydney renewed anti-Chinese sentiment. Memories and stories of the riots reappeared in fiction, memoirs, newspapers and re-enactments. The stories emphasised the violence of the riots and Chinese victimhood. They also ensured that memories of cooperative race relations in the previous decade were erased.

The NSW government introduced the Influx of Chinese Restriction Act 1881. The Immigration Restriction Act 1898 excluded all non-Europeans, including British subjects. It included the Dictation Test which the Commonwealth of Australia maintained in its Immigration Restriction Act 1901.

In 1927 Phil K. Walsh filmed The Birth of White Australia at Young which included the Lambing Flat riots. The film traced Australia’s history from the landing of Captain Cook in 1770 to the opening of Parliament House in Canberra in 1927. The British are portrayed as natural successors to the disappearing First Nations people. The British are then shown fighting the invading Chinese at Lambing Flat, in order to develop the Australian nation.

This film and myth downplays the role of Wiradjuri leader Coborn Jackey, who negotiated with James White to allow him to set up his cattle and sheep station at Burrangong.  It was common in the 1830s for pastoralists to present brass breastplates to Aboriginal people they perceived to be leaders. In return, these Aboriginal leaders were expected to stop their kin from interfering with pastoralists’ activities and provide information about the land or labour. Coborn Jackey did this and more, ensuring that his people were able to remain on Country and continue their social, economic and spiritual practices while also working for and with the European settlers. Coborn Jackey was a highly skilled negotiator.

Coborn Jackey’s breastplate. Young Historical Society.

This myth also silences the voices and actions of Chinese people and denies the reality that some Chinese miners stayed and became part of the Australian nation. It denies the fact that Chinese people alongside the Europeans, Americans and Australasian-born, saw themselves as being entitled to land in order to extract gold from it. They were colonisers too. The petition for compensation for damages from Hu Foo and Kylong in relation to the February 1861 riots noted that they had purchased the appropriate Government licences to be able to work as miners or storekeepers and which they believed entitled them ‘to the quiet enjoyment of personal property, but also (to some extent) to a temporary interest in the soil’.

China’s Century of Humiliation

The anti-Chinese riots at Lambing Flat and their mythological association with the White Australia Policy have more recently become incorporated into the national story of the People’s Republic of China, through the ‘Century of Humiliation’. This story is about China shifting from being the centre of the world to a weakened position after the Opium War (1840), threatened by European imperialism, to rise again only after, and because of, the Communist Revolution (1949). In this version, the Lambing Flat riots fit into the period where China is weak and unable to protect its sovereignty, nor its people. The voices and actions of the Chinese miners are again silenced. They are saved by James and Ann Roberts of Currawong, ‘white’ settlers who provide a model for Europeans who want to befriend Chinese people. It is only the Chinese Communist Party that can save the Chinese nation, and by extension, only the power of the Communist government of China that can protect modern-day Chinese Australians from racism.

Australia’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1972 and the subsequent rise of the PRC as a major trading partner mean that this version of the tale became popular from the 1980s onwards. Examples include the creation of the Chinese Tribute Garden at Young, tourism signs, publications sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party and a monument to the victims of the Lambing Flat riots in Rookwood Cemetery. It continues through events, tours and re-enactments aimed at overseas Chinese tourists and investors, as well as through diplomatic relations.

Both the Birth of White Australia and Century of Humiliation versions emphasise Chinese victimhood, ignore the social and linguistic diversity of the Chinese who were on the goldfields, erase the agency of Aboriginal people, deny that Chinese became an accepted part of the Young community after 1861 and deny that people of Chinese descent have always been a part of the Australian community.

Both versions turn the Lambing Flat riots into a metaphorical story about Australia-China relations, turning and twisting as the diplomatic winds blow one way or another.

How have these national stories influenced what you know and retell?

Gates to the Chinese Tribute Garden, Young with the national flags of the People’s Republic of China and Australia demonstrating the Australia-China relationship rather than specific examples of the contributions of people of Chinese descent to the community of Young and the Australian nation. Photo: Karen Schamberger.

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