Today’s treasure hunt was prompted by this two-sentence dispatch in the Tipperary Free Press for :
The Times has received a dispatch dated Melbourne, . The Chinese are organising a passive resistance to the four pounds’ resident tax.
I was surprised I hadn’t come across anything about this before, as there’s a good Australian newspaper archive on-line and I’d rifled through it a while back to try to find evidence of tax resistance campaigns of yore. I tried again, and this time I found several articles I must have overlooked the first time through or that perhaps have been added since my last visit.
The resulting story tells of a powerful, large-scale, well-organized tax resistance campaign that used a variety of tactics including consumer and labor strikes, petitions, mass-demonstrations, threats against collaborators with the tax system and potential strikebreakers, and prison-stuffing. They eventually convinced the government to rescind the hated tax.
There’s a note in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser in which Mr. [Australian legislator Charles Hotson?] Ebden complains that Chinese people in Australia had figured out how to avoid the £6 residence tax by purchasing “naturalization letters” for much less. He suggested the legislature pass an amendment requiring Chinese people to pay the residence tax before they can get such a letter.
The parliament of New South Wales began to deliberate a “Chinese Immigration Bill” in . From the debate it seems that there was a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment among the politically-dominant ethnic groups (largely whites of British ancestry), though there were also those who thought immigration should be unrestricted and certainly not restricted by race or country of origin. The Bill was not designed to thoroughly exclude Chinese people, but it did restrict Chinese immigration, and put an additional £10 tax on Chinese immigrants alone. The Solicitor-General got up to address the legislature and explained why he thought a new tax wouldn’t be a problem:
[T]here were from 6,000 to 8,000 Chinese at Ballaarat, and… they were rather heavily taxed there. They were expected to pay annually the £10 poll tax — a gold digger’s fee of £3, £1 per annum for a protection ticket, and also a resident’s tax. In spite of all this, however, the Chinese continued to increase in number at Ballaarat, and also to advance in wealth.
However, in another part of the debate it was alleged that when the government of Victoria (where the mining area of Ballaarat was located, and which was the focus of the tax resistance action) instituted its £10 tax on Chinese immigrants, they stopped coming to Victoria and disembarked instead in New South Wales in order to avoid the tax.
A few other articles mention in passing either that Australian governments are finding it difficult to enforce new Chinese poll taxes or that they have more or less given up (one says: “The residence tax upon them seems to be a dead letter, and I believe no effort is now made to enforce it.”)
Victoria, meanwhile, was rewriting its law so that it would make the poll tax on Chinese immigrants £4, with an entry fee of £10 by sea or £4 otherwise; the poll tax would serve also as the miner’s tax and free them from having to pay that also. The new bill also put more teeth in the enforcement of the law, and authorized imprisoning those who did not or could not pay the tax.
Soon after this new version of the law took effect, this notice appeared in the Melbourne Age ():
The new Chinese Act is, it appears, to be rigidly enforced. The Beechworth papers state that at the Wodonga Police Court seventeen Chinamen have already been committed for nonpayment of the residence tax, and the gaol is likely soon to be full of such delinquents.
Another note in the issue reads:
The New Chinese Act has come into operation on the Ovens, and the Constitution remarks on the inadequate arrangements which have been made by the Government for enforcing the residence tax. On Monday last ten Chinese were committed to Beechworth gaol, with hard labor, as defaulters, and forty-nine were similarly treated at Belvoir. There is likely, at this rate, very soon to be a scarcity of prison accommodation for these recusant aliens. “If the Act is carried out daily with the firmness and consistency that are needed, in order to impress the Chinese with a respect for the law — their ideas on this head having been particularly confused by a former specimen of anti-Chinese legislation — we (Constitution) shall not be wrong in estimating the additions to the inmates of the gaol and lock-up in district at something like a hundred per day.”
The Bendigo Advertiser of noted:
Apropos of Chinamen, the imposition of a residence tax of £4 per annum under the new act has caused considerable dissatisfaction, and the other day a perfect crowd of Chow Chows swarmed up to the camp to protest against it. Their remonstrance has been forwarded to head quarters, and pending an answer, John proposes to indulge in a sort of passive resistance, and to abstain from all commercial intercourse with the Fanqui (English) for the present. We have no doubt some abatement will be made in the taxation of these unfortunate beings, who really occupy among us a similar position to the Israelites in Egypt, being expected to make their task of bricks, without the necessary straw being allowed them by their more civilised taskmasters.
Symptoms are manifesting themselves of a disposition among the Chinese to initiate a Convention of their own, if indeed the thing has not been accomplished. Their resistance to the residence tax is becoming general; it broke out simultaneously at Beechworth and Bendigo, and at the latter place the Celestials are master of the position. The authorities have agreed to a truce, for the very good reason that there is not prison accommodation for one-tenth of the defaulters. We select at random from the Beechworth papers a specimen of the business with which the Benches of Magistrates are now occupied:—
A Chong, and four more celestials, were charged by Constable McCormack with obstructing the police in the execution of their duty, and were fined £3 each, or 14 days’ imprisonment.
A Hen, and eighteen other celestials, were brought up charged by Constable Connors with a similar offence. They were all, with one exception, fined £3 or 14 days’ imprisonment.
A Gong, for having twice attempted to escape, fined £5 or one month’s imprisonment.
A Fuk and A Pow were brought up by Constable Connors on a similar charge and were fined 20s or three days.
A Powey, for non-payment of residence fee, and A Chee and four other unfortunates, for a similar crime, were fined 20s or three days’ imprisonment.
Five Chinamen, named Jung, Shy, Ah Sing, Ah Fou, Ah Chu, and Ah Moo, were brought up charged with being on the Yachandandah gold fields without a residence license. They pleaded guilty, and were each fined £2, or in default one month’s imprisonment
The Melbourne Age of reprinted a report from the Mount Alexander Mail, in which the resisters added petitioning and boycotts (and what may have been a threat to submit en masse to imprisonment for non-payment) to their campaign:
The Chinese at Castlemaine.
An unwonted degree of excitement prevailed in the Chinese quarter, Urquhart street, on Monday. It was understood that on that day, at three o’clock, as many as could assemble would march to the camp, seek an interview with the resident warden, proclaim their inability to pay the residence money, to give themselves up to be dealt with according to law. At three o’clock more than 1,000 Chinese were gathered together, awaiting the signal, but from some cause with which we are unacquainted, the procession was postponed. While the crowd were waiting, one of the headmen who was stated to have come from Melbourne, addressed some Europeans standing near him. His speech, which was accompanied with much impassioned gesture, was to the following effect:— Why this tax on Chinamen? Chinamen pay for what they eat, Chinamen work very hard, but very little money earn, and can’t afford to pay tax. Why difference made between Chinaman and other men! We obey law, we make no noise, we have feelings like other men, we want to be brothers with Englishmen, why we not let be so! Why we made to pay £10, then £1 miners’ right, then £1 protection ticket, and then £4 more? We can't pay it, and we must go to jail. The speaker then addressed a few words in Chinese to the surrounding crowd, who, no longer fascinated by his eloquence, withdrew, and shortly afterwards dispersed.
In accordance with their resolution the Chinaman waited upon Captain Bull yesterday. They assembled in the first instance in front of the office, of Mr Smyth, whose services they have retained in this matter. From Lyttleton street they started in great array and large numbers to the Camp, accompanied by banners, one of which bore upon it the emblazonry of the sun and moon, which figure so largely in Chinese mythology. Their procession looked very imposing as it wound its way round the hill towards the Camp, and the numbers were soon swelled by Europeans from the township and the adjoining diggings. On reaching the warden’s office, the crowd assembled in front of the balcony, when some military men calculated that there must be at least three-thousand Chinaman present. As soon as order was established,
Mr Smyth proceeded to read the petition, as follows:—
To the Resident Warden and Magistrates of the Castlemaine Mining District. The memorial and remonstrance of the Chinese residents in the mining district of Castlemaine, showeth— That the evident tendency of legislation in this colony for natives of China, has been to harass and oppress them, whilst in all other parts of the world, California and else where, the Chinese have been received upon the same footing as other foreigners, and have not been de barred from any of the privileges which have been conceded as a matter of right or courtesy to other nations of the earth.
That the treaties between her Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Chinese Empire have been hitherto based upon a reciprocal footing, and the recognition of mutual obligations, and your memorialists submit that the imposition of the very heavy taxes levied upon your memorialists is at variance with the ordinary international relation which should subsist between friendly nations, and is unjust in principle, and if attempted to be enforced upon any other class of foreigners would be deemed a violation of British good faith and hospitality.
That it will be equally just for the Chinese to levy similar taxes on the English residents in China. That many of your memorialists have not only paid the £10 head money, but for storekeeper’s miner’s rights, and protection tickets, many of which are still unexpired, and they conceive that the imposition of the new residence license of £4 per annum is most unjust.
That others of your memorialists are very poor, and the attempt to levy such will lead to great hardship, and be impossible to enforce.
That having regard to all the circumstances, and to the allegation that the residence of the Chinese in this colony leads to some additional expense to the Government, your memorialists submit that a tax of £2 per head per annum, payable quarterly from the 1st June instant, would fairly meet all the requirements of the case, and would be willingly paid by or on the part of your memorialists, and would be productive of a much larger income to the Government than the attempt to enforce the present very onerous tax.
Signed on behalf of the Chinese residents in the District of Castlemaine.
Captain Bull, the head warden, then addressed the crowd, his words being translated by James A Coy, the interpreter. He said: I have now received your memorial through the hands of Mr. Smyth, and, as head of this district, I have great pleasure in doing so, in consequence of the manner in which you have thus addressed your remonstrances to the authorities. You have acted in the proper and constitutional manner, and the orderly and peaceful character of this meeting is one which will command the attention of the Government when I report to them the circumstances under which I have received this petition. I conceive that you must already be perfectly aware that I am only receiving this memorial as a subordinate officer of the Government, my duty being simply to send it down, which I will do at once, with as strong a recommendation as it is in my power to append to it. The matter, however, must ultimately rest with the Executive Council: I am but the officer whose duty it is to receive the petition and forward it to that body. You may also rest assured that so far as the Government officers are concerned, they will act with as much moderation as possible in carrying out any instructions which may be given them. As I told you before, this is the proper and legitimate way in which you should address to the Government your complaint of any grievances under which you conceive you labor, and I would also add, that it is your duty to remain perfectly passive — so for as taking any action in this matter is concerned, until I have received a reply to this petition. You must also be aware that no breach of the law, or anything of that sort can be tolerated, and that should such a thing be attempted by any of you he will in all respects be treated as other people who break the law. I have now nothing more to say, except to repeat that I will forward this petition to town, and that I thank you for your orderly proceedings at this meeting. This fact is one of those which I must mention particularly to Government, when explaining to them, as I will, that the petition was laid before me in a most respectful manner. You have placed your concerns in the hands of Mr. Smyth, and I trust that you will be entirely guided by him, will follow his advice as that of a friend, and not take any steps which are against the laws of the country. I have nothing more to add than to recommend you to disperse now in an orderly manner.
Mr Smyth: I also now recommend you to separate to your respective homes. I will communicate the answer of the Government, when received, to your headmen.
The crowd upon this gave a cheer. One of their headmen then told them that it was the birthday of the Queen of the English, which her own people were celebrating, and called upon them to give a cheer for her Majesty. “John” readily complied; at first it was but a very feeble imitation of the British hip-hurrah, but after one or two attempts, it rose, into a very respectable cheer.
So far all went on very well. Nothing could be more peaceable or orderly than the conduct of the Chinese. Unfortunately, however, James A Coy, the interpreter, in going away got amongst the crowd of his countrymen, to many of whom, from some reason or other, he is unquestionably very obnoxious. Several Chinamen declared to us that he used an opprobrious epithet to some of them, but this is denied on the other side. At any rate a rush was made upon him, and but for the prompt interference of the sheriff, the police, and some of the Camp officials, he might have received an injury. However, he was rescued, and one of the Chinamen was dragged of to the lock up. He was very violent, and it required no slight exertion of physical force to drag him off; probably the ignorant pagan might have imagined some very dreadful cruelty was about to be perpetrated upon him. During the struggle some of the Chinese raised a great clamour, but did not offer any resistance to the authorities; had they done so, the retaliation upon them would have been fearful, as the diggers in the claims adjoining the Camp rushed at them with bludgeons. A word — a look of encouragement from any of the Europeans of station present would have set them, like bull dogs, upon the Chinamen, an evidence of how great is the animosity of races, and how easily it might be aroused. Fortunately, however, all ended in the arrest of the one prisoner. As the crowd still lingered, and it was feared that something evil might happen, Mr Smyth, at the request of several gentlemen present, mounted the balcony, and through the medium of a Chinaman, who spoke English, told them that Captain Bull would forward their petition to Melbourne, and would recommend it to the notice of the Government, provided they behaved themselves properly, but that if they were guilty of any riotous conduct he would not do so. If they would disperse and go to their homes their countrymen who had been taken into custody would be released on bail, but otherwise he would not.
The crowd of Chinamen at this raised their hats and gave a loud cheer, laughed good humoredly, and went away peaceably. The European diggers returned to their claims, and the Camp resumed its wonted appearance.
The Chinese, however, are not limiting their demonstration to passive “resistance.” They have adopted the principle of exclusive dealing. Like the American colonists, after the passing of the Stamp Act, John has resolved to suspend business relations with those whom be considers as his oppressors. The effects of this resolution are beginning to be felt by all classes. Since Wednesday last the Chinese have practically ceased to sell their gold to Europeans, or to purchase from them. This non-intercourse policy is so rigidly carried out, that excepting a few Celestials, whose love of ease has got the better of their indignation, not a Chinaman has patronised any of the conveyances on the creeks for many days. The omnibus drivers are so largely dependent upon the Mongolians, that were it not for their support, one half the vehicles would be driven off the road. The unanimity of action which the Chinese exhibit on all matters affecting their supposed interests or wrongs is a remarkable feature in their character. Whatever may be said of the justice or injustice of the residence tax, there is danger that the disposition to combine for political objects manifested by the Chinese may assume a less harmless direction than on the present occasion. Should they be naturalised extensively, they will inevitably form the same obstruction to the proper working of our constitutional system, as the hordes of ignorant foreigners do to that of the United States. Their present object in confining their business transactions as far as possible to their countrymen, is to appeal to the self-interest of the Enropean traders. It is supposed that when the latter feel a serious diminution in their trade, they will exert themselves in favor of their Chinese customers.
A sidebar tried to explain the animosity felt by many of the Chinese to the interpreter, James A. Coy. “He says that it arises from a mistaken idea on their part, that the obnoxious tax is something of his doing. They, on the other hand, aver that he does not deal justly in his official capacity towards them, and bring specific accusations of a very grave character against him.” (An article in another paper specifies one of these accusations: “that he has plundered them by pretending that opium smoking was a crime punishable by law with death, and then taken hush money to permit them indulging.”) The article says that a £200 bounty had been offered for Coy’s assassination by means of “placards… recently distributed very extensively amongst the Chinese” and says the Coy believes “all the Chinamen in the district have contributed.” Seems a poor choice of interpreter.
A second article gives what may be the text of one of these “placards” in the course of describing one of the resistance leaders. Excerpts:
A Chinaman, rejoicing in the euphonious cognomen of Pig Mon, who was the cause of the disturbance on Spring Creek on the Lord’s Day, is an emissary from the Chinese residents on the lower diggings, despatched to the Ovens to preach passive resistance to his countrymen here. He is a professional agitator, a character for which, judging from appearances, he is least fitted. He looks stupid and sensual, and exhibits a repulsive countenance, which was slightly marked by internal emotions when confronted with the police authorities yesterday morning. What he wants in looks is amply compensated by his acts. …[B]y a stroke of the pen, aided as it is here by the peculiar combinations existing amongst the Chinese, can secure for himself a regular weekly salary, and at the same time a species of judicial office amongst his countrymen. Though Pig Mon only arrived a few days ago in Beechworth, he is already the ruler of the one camp, the head of its secret club, and the recipient of £5 per week. He speaks to his associated autocratically. His will is law, and, unlike European mob orators, he has punishments at his command for those who are disobedient. At the time of his arrest [ostensibly for not having a Residence ticket] he was employed in preparing notices of a meeting which was to have been held on Sunday evening, for the purpose of protesting against the residence fee. We have been favoured with a literal translation of this document; it is as follows:–
On , all our Chinese, either storekeepers or miners, will be requested to come to the meeting in the store “Shang Yick,” as aforesaid, in order to concern the new licenses imposing upon us — If not, after this, they cannot talk about it any more.
Signed, Sze Yip, Club House.
Who Sze Yip is, or what the club-house may be, we have been unable to ascertain. Whether Pig Mon has authority to use the sign manual of some agitator greater than himself, or whether it is the Chinese for “deputy,” the words Club House meaning Convention, are questions to be decided by persons better acquainted with the Chinese than ourselves. Another notice, of which we also append a translation, has been put in circulation by the same nondescript authority, Pig Mon. It is rather more important than the former, and is as follows:–
Caution. — After this, no Chinese would allow, to take out the Resident Ticket, if they do, they will be punished, by apprehension to the Sze Yip Club House severely, without pardon. If a Chinese may be arrested, by having no ticket we, will with the exertion of our strength, help him and find him all the expenses, during the time of his being kept in the prison. £200 reward for killing the headman.
Signed, Sze Yip, Club House.
Pig Mon was fined £20 and he left the region. That did not have the intended effect of dampening the resistance. From the Melbourne Age:
There is a prospect of serious work at most of the diggings. At Bendigo, at the Ovens, at Ballaarat, at Castlemaine, the Chinese have banded together to resist payment of the Residence Tax. The movement has already assumed a very formidable character, as the determined passive resistance of forty thousand men may very well assume. The whole Chinese population are becoming rapidly engaged in it. The agitation has spread from gold-field to gold-field with something of the celerity of the signal beacons or fiery cross of olden times; and how so wide spread a combination is to be dealt with is now the problem and the difficulty. The incapables of the Executive have allowed the matter to come to this head. They neglected to disintegrate — to deal with the malcontents in detail. The Mongolians resisted in masses, and our sagacious care-takers proceeded to punish them in masses! You cannot arrest a whole mob — you cannot consign a refractory multitude to the lock-up; and yet such was the exact course enjoined by the wise men of Australia the Blest! Of course, failure on the part of the authorities begat confidence on the part of the recusant; and now John Chinaman snaps his fingers in triumph, for all the Celestials at the diggings seem to be knit into an alliance, the existence of which is solely due to the imbecility of the powers that be.
The Chinese are a timid and naturally obedient people, and nothing would have been easier than to have intimidated them in the outset into acquiescence in the behests of the law. A few examples would have abundantly sufficed — the seizure and punishment of a few ringleaders in one of the localities would have nipped the mischief in the bud — would have precluded the contagious influence of the immunity from penalty which, under the arrangement pursued, their numbers have conferred on the resisters of the law.…
Someone forgot the ineffective Pig Mon arrest, which just enraged the resisters further and encouraged them to do their organizing in more clandestine ways.
We are not now called upon to discuss the propriety of a particular tax on the Chinese. The matter before us is, the undignified position in which the law, and the [white –♇] public, whom the law represents, have been placed by its successful violation, and its contemptuous defiance. Our Celestial visitor says he pays quite enough in all conscience when he pays ten pounds import duty on his person, another pound miner’s right or store keeper’s license, and one more impress of his Majesty’s image in gold for protection ticket, without tailing on to those several items four pounds residence tax. He has not sufficient comprehension of the “manners and customs” of the country, or he has not “pluck” enough, to refuse to pay the tax, but he offers to pay half of it. Were opportunity for discussion of the matter given, it is possible enough that the public would not higgle over the proposal, but the matter in hand does not admit of discussion. It is not presented in the shape of a proposal — it is simply the law set at nought, laughed at, ignominiously baffled! Whatever we concede to the Chinese it must not be on compulsion; and yet the residence tax which we imposed [on compulsion –♇] is now as matter of fact, null and void — clean gone — and that without our removal of it. The agitation has assumed the proportions of passive resistance — the malcontents won’t pay — you may place them in gaol if you like — that is if you can place thousands and tens of thousands in gaol — and if the expense of keeping there a miserable fraction of them will not involve a national burden of which the tax, or a much greater tax, would not pay a tithe! Timid people are not the only obstinate ones; but the whole body of them are, almost to a man, contumacious. The Chinese are shrewd enough and obstinate enough to see the advantage they have gained, and to hold fast by it.
But the movement is not confined to passive resistance. To make its influence felt and its disagreeableness popularly tangible, they have ceased all business relations with Europeans. The Mount Alexander Mail speaks of their dropping off selling gold or purchasing from the outer barbarians. They won’t travel in the cabs, of which it seems they previously sustained half the number in Castlemaine. They won’t buy from the store-keepers. “The unanimity of action they exhibit is remarkable,” says our contemporary.
But the movement is not purely of the passive character — at least there is a chance of its not being confined to that. At Beechworth and elsewhere there were symptoms of a riotous tendency on several occasions, and the police were assaulted. At Castlemaine the demonstrations of the Mongolians against the law congregated the European diggers, when “a look, a word, would have set them like bulldogs on the Chinamen.” It seems at any moment we may have civil war, or something like it, between the Asiatics and ourselves! Forty thousand Mongolians may not be very formidable, but still it would be a disagreeable business, and an expensive business also, to have to put them down. To shoot them down, or to “put” them down — to get them out of the eye of the law in any shape at all! And yet as literal fact there may soon be no other way of subduing this agitation. The system of passive resistance has so far triumphed, thanks to the want of intelligence which did not kill the mischief in the germ. If an ebullition arise against a city rate or any other small local assessment, does the petty court put the whole parish in the “stone jug,” as was attempted in the instance of the Chinese at Beechworth, where according to credible authority the bluestone lock-up would not accommodate the entire mob of defaulting Celestials! Mismanagement has done the whole thing — want of common brains at head-quarters — lack of earnestness for the public interest. It is a small matter perhaps to lose the Chinese Residence Tax; but it is a very serious matter indeed to have the law defied and the public peace menaced.
The Ovens and Murray Advertiser reported from Beechworth on (excerpts):
The opposition of the Chinese population of the various gold-fields to the payment of the Residence Tax recently imposed, appears to gain ground, instead of, as we had anticipated, dying a natural death, after the excitement consequent on its first infliction had passed over. The Celestials of the Ovens have remained comparatively passive while their countrymen have been driven day after day in crowds to the Police Court to receive sentence for not having complied with the requirements of the Act, and although a demonstration was undoubtedly intended, on , the agitation here is nothing compared with that which prevails on the lower diggings.…
The tactic of a labor strike was added to the tax resistance movement, according to The Argus of Melbourne (, quoting the Mount Alexander Mail):
For the last week the whole of this flat has been deserted by the Chinese, in consequence of a general understanding among themselves to strike work during the agitation for the abolishment of the residence-tax. The difference between the appearance of the flat this week and last is very striking. Instead of resembling a newly-ploughed field, covered by an immense flock of crows whose croakings and movements bear a striking similitude to those of an equal number of Celestials — the ground is as still and silent as the grave. A marked effect has been produced by this Chinese movement on the storekeepers of Fryor’s Town. One of them informed me that he had never bought so little gold as he did last week.
On a deputation of representatives of Chinese people living in Melbourne itself met with the Chief Secretary to ask for an exemption from the tax but didn’t make any headway. They seem to have been trying to make a separate peace with the government, claiming that since the new tax was in part meant to be a replacement for the old miner’s license and protection fee (Chinese miners were ghettoized in their own camps, which were assigned government “Protectors”), that the urban shopkeepers in Melbourne who had never had to pay those taxes shouldn’t be on the hook for the new one either. After being shut down by the Chief Secretary, they responded by a sort of tax compliance protest, I guess you might call it, in which they marched on the Treasury to pay their taxes as a group.
An editorial in ’s Ovens and Murray Advertiser, said in part:
Further petitions presented by representatives of Chinese miners from various areas of Victoria were also dismissed (“if necessary,” the Chief Secretary told one, “the Government could proclaim every Chinese village a penal establishment”).
Some tax resisters began using a legal strategy in which they insisted (perhaps truthfully) in court that they were British citizens, from one of Great Britain’s possessions (such as Hong Kong, Penang, or Singapore), and were therefore justified in refusing to pay a tax not levied on all citizens equally.
The Melbourne Age of included news like this:
Yesterday, the Chinese sentenced to seven days’ hard labor for non-payment of the residence tax, and who have been employed in filling up the holes in Sandhurst Camp reserve, threw down their tools and refused to work, and within the last few days, a considerable number of Chinese puddlers have absconded from their mills, with their horses and other property, and have left their creditors in the lurch. All these events concurring, seem to show that the Chinese are acting under some organisation which has for its object, to annoy the European population, and embarrass the Government.
We were informed yesterday by Mr M‘Culloch Henly, that he has seen placards in the Chinese language posted up at Church’s Flat and New Year’s Flat, Fryer’s Creek, offering rewards for the assassination of several headmen. The placards state that the red haired barbarians having imposed a tax of £4, through the instigation of their own vagabond countryman in the pay of the Government, in addition to other onerous imposts, they offer a reward of £800 to any one who will kill A-Leong, A-Coy, A-Hing, and A-Sung, or £200 to any one who will kill one of them, the money to be received from the Chief of the Brothers of the Triads, in Castlemaine. Mr Henly says he is prepared to verify this statement upon oath.
That paper also reported on the murder of a white shopkeeper by a group of Chinese men. This raised tensions to the point where many Chinese were packing up and trying to migrate to safety ahead of antagonistic white lynch mobs. Many articles on the case describe it as an “assassination” and allege wide-spread complicity in the Chinese population (the authorities at first arrested some local Chinese leaders in lieu of arresting any actual suspects in the murder, in hopes of pressuring them to reveal the names of the murderers), but I don’t see any mention of a motive.
This made the prospects for a successful nonviolent resistance campaign less likely. Mobs of anti-Chinese whites had been looming at earlier peaceful demonstrations, with commentators suggesting it wouldn’t take much to set them off on a violent rampage. Now it would take even less to spark the powder keg. Would the Chinese back down, or would the government take some steps to reduce the tension?
The Bendigo Mercury reported that in Sandhurst, thirty-seven Chinese who were unable or unwilling to pay the poll tax had been imprisoned, together, “in a cell twelve feet by thirteen.” The paper editorialized “against the Chinese, or any other race or class being penned-up this way, like a herd of wild cattle.”
News from the Constitution, reprinted in The Goulburn Herald and County of Argyle Advertiser on , stated:
Seventy four Chinamen have just been admitted into the Beechworth jail from Belvoir, where they were sentenced to two months’ imprisonment for non-payment of the entrance fee and residence tax. Some of them on their admission proved however to be sufficiently well provided with funds to pay the capitation tax, the fine, and the expense of their carriage from Belvoir, to Beechworth. We are told that the authorities in Belvoir are now lying in wait for another numerous detachment who are expected to cross the border boundary. The government of Victoria are greatly in want of funds.
This seems to indicate that resistance, and not just inability to pay, was still ongoing at this date. The Bendigo Advertiser suggested, that perhaps the resisters were wearing down the government rather than vice versa:
We find on reference to statistics that there is something very remarkable in this matter. No sooner was the act in force, than the man-catching fraternity out-Heroded Herod in their assiduity in fetching up our long tailed co-colonists, and they managed to bag an average of six per day for a length of time. On one occasion a batteu on a grand scale brought in 130 in one day. The business has within the last six weeks fallen off remarkably, and our Police reports show a gradual decrease of Chinese nonconformists, and during the last two weeks not one has been brought up on this charge… At the first sight we supposed that the gradual decrease in the apprehensions was the result of the more general submission to the impost, but in this we reckoned without our host, or without the official memoranda, for on referring to the documents, we find an exactly proportionate decrease, and that though six weeks since they were being issued at the rate of thirty eight per week, it has gradually dwindled down, and the last two weeks’ returns have shown nil against this item. How this can be it is most difficult to understand, and forms another feature of the Chinese puzzle. Can the Government have become compunctious, and issued instructions to the police not to further interfere with them? Is the gaol full? In brief, can any one furnish a solution to this apparent anomaly?
In a bill was introduced to halve the Chinese residence tax, to satisfy a request voiced by some the resisters. (The bill was later withdrawn when the ruling government said it was planning on putting forward its own similar proposal at a later session — though this wouldn’t happen until .)
In , a Melbourne court ruled that the practice of arresting Chinese immigrants who were unable to produce their resident tax receipt on demand by police (which had allegedly become a popular shakedown scheme) was illegal, and that the only way to bring residence tax evaders to court was via summons. One police officer, a Constable Ellison, was convicted of killing a Chinese man who was trying to evade such an illegal arrest, and Ellison was sentenced to prison, a sentence that was affirmed by the Supreme Court.
A letter to the Bendigo Advertiser threatened more nonviolent resistance if the government would not yield:
Sir,– I have it from good authority that the Chinese are fully determined not to take out any more residence tickets after the expiration of the present quarter, let the Government punish them as they may. This determination on their part has been come to in consequence of the Government and Legislature refusing up till now to do anything for them, and it is not to be wondered at when their indigent circumstances and the gross cruelty with which they have been treated are taken into consideration.
Well, Sir, I foretold the Government of this long ago. I knew that after the Chinese had appealed for justice to the proper authorities, and had rigidly adhered in all their movements to the constitutional modes provided by the law for those in search of justice, and their appeals had been treated as they have been, with silent contempt, that they would — poor heathens as they are — turn to their own resources for help, and can they be blamed for doing so? The great body of them are doing next to nothing. They are not earning scarcely sufficient to buy bread with. How, then, in the name of justice can they afford to pay a residence tax? After the treatment the Government has given the Chinese, I shall not be at all sorry to see them put to their wits end how to get them to pay the tax. Many of the Chinese express a desire to go to prison, in order that they may be provided with the common necessaries of life at the expense of the state. Is the Government prepared to proceed to such an extremity in support of the residence tax. If not, why does it not take immediate steps to have it repealed. Perhaps the Government wants to see the Chinese in open rebellion, to give it an excuse for continuing the tax; if so, I may tell them that they won’t be so gratified. The Chinese will resist the further imposition of the tax, but it will be passively. The Government may imprison the whole Chinese population if it chooses, but after it will not succeed in making one of them pay the tax.
I am, Sir, &c.,
A Faithful Warning.
That said, I don’t notice much of anything in the papers about Chinese resistance to the residence tax after this time. The government moved sluggishly to rescind the tax, though it at the same time reaffixed the miner’s tax to Chinese miners, and added a new excise tax on rice which it anticipated would hit Chinese immigrants particularly hard, and so on the whole the government hoped to extract more money from Chinese immigrants this way.
The tax that led to this resistance campaign was finally abolished in .