Historian Karen Schamberger tells the story with brutal precision. “On the day of the largest riot, over 3,000 Australian, European-born and American miners marched from Tipperary Gully through different goldfields. They cut off the queue [pigtails] from Chinese miners, scalped some of them, which were used by white miners as war trophies. They burnt the Chinese miners’ tents, brutalised them.”
The town was renamed Young in 1863 in a government effort to distance the area from the atrocities, Schamberger says, and, in the 19th and 20th century, official histories omitted the riots altogether. In broader Australian history, there’s little known about the riots and it has been avoided. An article came out last year from Australia First saying it’s an example of why we need the borders to be shut. There are people who want to rename Young ‘Lambing Flat’ as the events became known as to celebrate the riots.
The Yass Courier and Goulburn Chronicle reported on miners driven into watercourses and trampled under police horses’ hooves. One report speaks of “several killed and wounded” by a “mobocracy” of lawless insurgents, while expressing sympathy with “meek” local mining populations suffering from “insecurity of life and property” at the hands of the dying gold industry. Another report reads like a horror story, describing “abominable diggers”, “rebels swallowed up in abysses of mud” and “the artillery, the military, the blue jackets, and the troopers” descending on nearby Yass. In 1935, the Sydney Mail said that the riots’ “close approximation to civil war is only comparable in Australian records to the tragedy of the Eureka Stockade”. By 1978, labour historian CN Connolly had called the riots a “monument to fear.”
Just one rioter was convicted, William Spicer, and two unconvicted rioters were later elected to parliament. The Chinese immigration act was passed in New South Wales in November 1861, after 3,000 white miners petitioned for it. And the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, the basis of the White Australia policy, effectively formalised the sentiment of the riots. Fear turned to law and the Chinese miners were forgotten.
Britain had signed a treaty with the Chinese empire to allow free movement of citizens through the colonies. Petitions from Sydneysiders and businesses wanted the Chinese to be there, because it’s good for business. You grow the population, you can trade, you can buy stuff, you can sell things. But as the mines were exhausted, the Chinese miners, with their highly effective collective mining techniques and distinctive cultural practices, bore the brunt of local anxieties about job security. So when there were people who were clearly different, who worked in ways that European miners didn’t understand, who were successful in ways that made them envious, they had to demonise them.