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).
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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.
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