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Fish Curing

 

Home Up Fish Curing Market Gardening

The Chinese Involvement in Victoria’s Colonial Fishing Industry

By Alister Bowen

“while they are making a power of money they are doing good to the fishermen of the district” (The Gippslander, November 10, 1865).

 Abstract

From approximately 1850 to 1900 Chinese people played a crucial role in the development of Victoria’s fishing industry.  They caught and purchased large quantities of fish to cure and sell to Chinese gold miners.  Chinese increased fishing activity in Victoria, helping to stimulate economies and establish and develop the fishing industry in remote coastal regions.  By 1900 the gold rush had ended and the Chinese fish cures all disappeared.

 

The arrival of many thousands of Chinese Gold miners to Victoria during the 1850s increased demand for fish, a Chinese dietary staple.  In this period, Chinese people began fishing commercially in Victoria, supplying their compatriots with fresh and cured fish.  Chinese did fish, however their major contribution to Victoria’s fishing industry is that they purchased great quantities of fish for curing from European fishing people.  Transport of fish to market during the 19th century was the biggest factor hampering development in Victoria’s rural fishing industry.  It was common for whole catches of fish to be condemned through purification before a market was reached.  Chinese purchasing large quantities of fish to cure created a reliable fish market in areas distant from Melbourne like Corner Inlet, Port Albert and Metung.  This created an influx of European fishing activity in areas previously regarded as unprofitable for commercial fishing.  Documentary evidence for Chinese involvement in Victoria’s fishing industry is limited.  Therefore, to explore and describe aspects of this Chinese activity, and construct and test related hypotheses, historical archaeological investigation becomes the most rewarding avenue.

 Documentary evidence from the colonial period gives some insight into Chinese activities in Victoria’s early fishing industry.

 In 1861, H.W. Wheelwright, a naturalist touring Victoria, wrote: 

…and if John Chinaman has benefited no one else in the colony, he had at least done some good the fishermen; for instead of being obliged now to run the fish to Melbourne, on every fishing station along the coast Chinamen are camped, who buy the fish from the boat...  Tons of fish are yearly sent up to the diggings for consumption by the Chinamen (Wheelwright 1861: 248). 

 A writer for the Gippsland Standard in 1894 (described only as ‘One Who Was There’), wrote:  

About the year 1860 the first of the Chinamen curers started to cure fish…they came to Port Albert and Port Welshpool and were open to buy all the fish they could get…the Port boats…generally made a fair cheque out of them (The Gippsland Standard 5 May 1894). 

A Chinese fish curing site was located at Chinaman’s Point, 1.6 kilometres east of Port Albert in Victoria’s south Gippsland region.  Archaeological excavation of the fish curing site began on the 2nd of February 2004 and was completed on the 28th of February 2004.  The excavation was carried out by Alister Bowen as part of a La Trobe University PhD project in Australian historical archaeology.  The excavation was conducted under Heritage Victoria Consent No. C227 and the Department of Sustainability and Environment Permit No. 10002564.  The site is listed as H 8220-0011 on the Victorian Heritage Inventory, and the excavation report may be obtained through contacting Heritage Victoria and quoting this site number (H 8220-0011). 

This site represents the only remains located during extensive field research in eastern Victoria and presently represents the only located material evidence of Chinese fish curing activities in Australia.  To examine the fish curing site, three levels of investigation were employed: 1) an analysis of documentary evidence, 2) ground survey, to locate and establish the level of remains available for interpretation and 3) excavation, to obtain for analysis a representation of the domestic and industrial remains. 

The aims of the excavation were to:

  1. Gain an understanding of Chinese commencement and involvement in, and disappearance from, Victoria’s fishing industry.
  2. Obtain an indication of the methods the Chinese in Victoria used to catch and cure fish.
  3. Model a representation for layout, structure and function of a Victorian Chinese fishing site and its associated material culture.

As Chinese fishing sites in Victoria had a maximum occupation period of fifty years, site stratification is expected to be shallow.  Therefore, the technique of horizontal excavation by squares on a grid layout was deemed appropriate.  Excavation depths varied from 50mm (one spit) to 150mm (3 spits) in depth.  Most cultural material was located within the first two soil units (one to three spits). 

In total, 29030 separate artefacts, weighing 234.655 kilograms and representing 6335 accession catalogue entries were recovered from the Chinaman’s Point site.  The majority of artefacts (21838 artefacts) came from a surface collection conducted on the tidal affected area of the site.  The remaining 7192 artefacts were excavated from sub-surface ground layers. 

The predominant site feature is 131 timber post remains, uncovered approximately 50mm below surface level.  Post circumferences ranged from 50mm to 150mm.  In most cases, the posts appeared as vertical, circular tubes of dark humic matter encased in tan coloured clay.  It is evident from the layout of the posts that they were placed in four distinct rows, each approximately 1.5 metres wide and 15 metres long.  Such solid timber foundations had been designed to support a great deal of weight.  From historical documentation and the layout of the uncovered post remains, there is little doubt that Area 3 represents the remains of a very sturdy (built to take tons of weight) fish drying rack. 

The extent to which the Chinaman’s Point site occupants themselves fished, and their methods, remains unclear, although the presence of net sinkers and marine nails indicate that at least some of their activities involved the use of nets and boats.  

The size of the drying rack suggests that fish were cured on an industrial scale and that curing was done in the open air.  As no nails or fastening equipment were recovered within the drying rack area, the fish curers may have used traditional building techniques of mortise joints and lashed timbers.  No fish scales and very few fish bones were recovered from the drying rack area, suggesting that fish were scaled before drying and, if displaced from the rack, were considered valuable enough to be picked up and not left to rot on the ground. 

Much of the recovered metal fragments indicate that timber casks were present on the site.  It is possible that casks were used for fresh water storage, or to brine fish, or both. 

The recovery of large amounts of Chinese artefacts suggests that the site occupants had contact with people who traded in Chinese goods.  Shipping records for the early 1860s reveal that ships sailed cargoes of cured fish from Port Albert to Singapore; therefore it is possible supplies came from Singapore to Port Albert.  Shipping records also show cured fish was frequently shipped from Port Albert to Melbourne and then carted to the goldfields.  A more comprehensive investigation into how and what quantities of cured fish were leaving Port Albert to locations within Victoria and around the world would provide further insight into Chinese social and economic activities in colonial Victoria. 

Historical archaeological studies on Chinese activity in Australia have been under way for over twenty years.   Broad geographical historical and material comparisons, and symbiotic relationships between Chinese and non-Chinese people, are two areas of research that require more attention.  Their ability to reveal new aspects of the historical past and to better understand some of the influences of the Chinese participation in developing colonial societies will be aided through this process. 

These preliminary findings demonstrate that Chinese people played a larger role in Victoria’s colonial fishing industry, and in the Victorian economy more broadly, than was previously known.  In the Port Albert region, Chinese fish curers created a reliable market for European fishing people and helped sustain the industry for approximately 20 years until ice and fast, reliable transport became available.

The Chinese fish curers arrived with the gold miners during the 1850s, fished with boats and nets, purchased considerable quantities of fish from European people, prepared then cured their fish using heavily constructed drying racks and shipped their product to Melbourne and Singapore markets.  A very similar situation appears to have occurred during California’s initial gold rush period.  As research progresses, this almost forgotten ingredient in Australian history will provide further insight into the processes that shaped Australia’s present day society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Location map

Figure:  Map showing Chinaman’s Point in relation to Port Albert  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Figure: Chinaman’s Point Alberton East: showing the site and associated features 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 FIGURE: Gutter system and location of excavated areas