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By Eric Rolls

Occasional Papers No. 14




Darwin 1990

Cataloguing in Publication data provided by the Northern Territory

Library Service.

ROLLS, Eric C (Eric Charles), 1925 The erratic communication between Australia and China / by Eric Rolls.

Darwin: Northern Territory Library Service, 1990.

Occasional papers; no. 14 ISBN 0 7245 0493 1 ISSN 08 17-2927 Chinese - Australia - History 1.

Australia - Emigration and immigration 2.

Northern Territory Library Service I.

11. Title

111. Series (Occasional papers (Northern Territory Library Service); no.

14) P&P90/189 July 1990 (The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the publisher)


John Stokes and the Men of the Beagle - Discoverers of Port Darwin, by Alan Powell. (1986) The History of the Catholic Church in the Northern Territory, by Bishop John Patrick O'Loughlin. (1 986) Chinese Contribution to Early Darwin, by Charles See-Kee. (1987) Point Charles Lighthouse; and The Military Occupation of Cox Peninsula, by Mike Foley. (1987) Operation Navy Help: Disaster Operations by the Royal Australian Navy, Post-Cyclone Tracy, by Commodore Eric Johnston. (1987) Xavier Herbert: a Bibliography, compiled by David Sansome.

(1988) The Founding of Maningrida, by Jack Doolan. (1989) Writing a History of Australia, by C M H Clark. (1989) Katherine's Earlier Days, by Pearl Ogden. (1989) Aboriginal Pharmacopoeia, by Ella Stack. (1989) The Pioneers of the Old Track, by Graeme Bucknall. (1990) Arnhem Land: a Personal History, by Ted Egan. (1990) Elsie Bohning, the Little Bush Maid, compiled by Barbara James.

(1990) The Erratic Communication between Australia and China, by Eric Rolls. (1990)


This lecture was delivered by Eric Rolls a t the State Reference Library of the Northern Territory in November 1986, a s one of a series of 'lunchtime entertainments'.

Eric Rolls is the distinguished author of a number of books, notably, A million wild acres and They all ran wild. H e is currently carrying out

- research for a book dealing with the Chinese in Australla.

This lecture encapsulates, as far as is possible w t i the space of an ihn hour, the results of his research, and presents a fascinating picture of a side of Australian society seldom seen by the average ~ u s t d i a n.



Australia and China, so geologists believe, lay side by side for three hundred million years. They drifted apart for millions more and now they are moving back towards one another a t the rate of a few centimetres a year. Within imaginable time, anthropologists believe that the slight thin-boned Peking man sailed down to Australia in wellbuilt rafts, mixed with a sturdy Indonesian people that were already here and engendered the Australian Aborigine.

So the earliest Chinese were an adventurous people. There is a strange concept that the Chinese were a race who stayed closely at home until stories of gold in California and Australia brought them out of isolation.

The Silk Road, a trade route, opened into Europe through northern China two thousand years ago and Ch'ang-an, on the site of the modern city of Xian, became one of the world's greatest cities, busy with two million people of many nations, a centre for art a s well as trade.

By the 7th century AD Chinese colonisers from the poorer parts of Fukien Province, always on the edge of famine, upset by rebellion and village squabbling, sailed eastward and settled Taiwan and other islands near it. Hakka boatmen began a regular two-way trade with them.

By the middle of the 13th century southern China was producing sugar, iron and silk far in excess of its own needs and of the foreign shipping that came to Guangzhou. Even the exquisite porcelain, the finest ever made, from the kilns a t Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province lost value as more and more Wns were built. So Guangdong and Fukien merchants ordered big ocean-going junks from the shipyards that had been turning out river craft and coastal craft for centuries and sailed the South and East China Seas in search of markets. Some of them sent out a hundred junks and became fabulously wealthy.

Thousands of sailors came back with thousands of stories of rich lands overseas and Chinese emigrated to them by the thousand. They were peaceful emigrants. They had the numbers and the resources to seize many of the-countries h e y settled in, but they never attempted it.

They wanted commerce, not conquest.

Three quarters of the way through the 13th century the Mongols invaded northern China. Successive rulers forbade emigration from China, forbade foreign trade. The southern Chinese felt distant enough from authority to do much a s they pleased, a policy they still follow successfully. Emigration increased; trading voyages increased.

But it was with the new dynasty, the Ming, in the early 1400s that China became extraordinarily adventurous. The great eunuch, Zheng He, who carried his dried organs in a little porcelain jar tied to his waist so that he would not go into the next world incomplete, made seven marvellous voyages with more than sixty ships manned by about thirty thousand men, including a detachment of cavalry who took their horses aboard. Known affectionately a s San Bao, Three Jewels, he planned the voyages meticulously. He carried enough seeds on board and earthenware jars to grow them in, to keep up a supply of fresh vegetables to his vast crew for a two-year voyage. He sailed as far as East Africa and brought back plants, rare timbers, pepper (then as valuable as ginseng), a king or two who needed chastising, ostriches, zebras, antelopes, and a giraffe that was paraded to astonished crowds through the streets of Nanking, then the capital, to the palace.

There are unproven, unprovable, but not irrational suggestions, that Zheng He travelled to Australia. I t is more than likely that Chinese vessels did have early contact with northern Australia, either by design or by accident. The Chinese traded with Timor from early times and it is only 650 kilometres from Darwin. They traded w t West New ih Guinea and that is even closer. Perhaps they made early trips to Australia for beche-de-mer (trepang). Carbon dating of sites where the trepang was cooked gave readings of 1200 and 1400 A D among the expected dates of two hundred years ago. Aborigines tell stories of people with golden skins who once came each year to fish for trepang.

The definite trade in trepang began after the middle of the 17th century. Macassan prahus came down each year on the wet monsoon and sailed back on the change to the dry. Some of their ships were owned by Chinese businessmen. The whole catch was sold to the Chinese junks that met the prahus on their return. Trepang was the first article of trade between Australia and China.

After the last voyage of Zheng He in 1431 China did make an attempt to seal herself off from the rest of the world. The voyages had been inordinately expensive and money was needed to guard the north against more Mongolian threats. So the fifth Ming emperor, Xuan De, forbade the building of ships bigger than coastal traders, he forbade emigration, which continued, he forbade private foreign trade and the southern merchants ignored him. Chinese trade became all important in world trade. Chinese merchants of the 16th century could make or break any foreign merchant.

The leaders in trade with China kept on changing. After the Arabians, the Portuguese, and the Dutch, the English began to exert their power.

In 1636 the Courteen Association, built around the court of the improvident Charles I, the king who was later beheaded, sent Captain Weddell with a flotilla of ships to Canton (now called Guangzhou) to open direct trade with China. Weddell's extraordinary behaviour probably had much to do with the later difficulties of trade. After running the gauntlet of Portuguese and Dutch ships that tried to sink him he arrived in the Pearl River estuary in a bad temper. Instead of waiting for a pilot and clearance, he sailed straight up through the Tiger Passage into the Pearl River. An on-shore battery opened Are.

Weddell blasted it out of existence, then went ashore and burnt the neighbouring town. After that he announced that he had come to trade.

The astonished Viceroy of Canton arranged a cargo of sugar, spice, porcelain and silk on condition that he never returned.

Over fifty years later, in 1689, the expanding English East India Company had calmed the Chinese enough to begin direct import of tea,

- a commodity fast becoming known and wanted throughout the world.

I t was by no means a free trade. For an enormous rent, the Chinese allowed the company to build a factory on the waterfront near Canton.

They could remain there for the six busy months of favourable trade winds, then they had to retire to Macau, the Portuguese settlement. All ud trade had to be conducted through special Chinese traders, the merchants of the Hang. These men were regarded a s being so contaminated by their association with foreigners that they could never p sit down during their discussions with Mandarins. The Viceroy, whenever he was displeased with any action by the foreigners, called the Hang merchants before him and kept them standing for hours before he even deigned to see them, th.en he would threaten them with the disgrace of the wooden collar, the cangue. He kept one for each merchant on display in a comer of the meeting room.

Each year, at the start of business, the Chinese pasted up a poster on the outer wall of the factory. Unfortunately, no posters, no translations, are extant. From scarce descriptions the poster reviled the English for the colour of their skins, their hairy bodies, their language, their food, their sexual practices. The Chinese laughingly picked on the English expression, 'I say', and nicknamed them, 'I say', but they used the remarkable opportunity the language gives for punning and pronounced it, ' i Sui', which means 'Love Piss'.

A The increasing direct trade with China meant increasing movement of Chinese sailors. In those days captains regarded sailors a s the scum of % the earth and expendable. The death rate from dysentery, scurvy and malaria was appalling, up to 70 per cent of the crews. I t became common practice for captains from several countries to replace the a dead with Chinese sailors for the run home. They prepared their own meals aboard. They knew more about diet and they lived.

When Australia suffered British settlement in 1788, the tea trade, controlled absolutely by the East India Company, had grown enormously. Three of the ships in the First Fleet were on charter to load tea in Canton after they had unloaded their convicts. When the new settlement, short of competent farmers, grew hungry after two years of no contact with Britain, Phillip considered sending for supplies to China and ordered the little Sirius to be got ready for the trip.

China had become the symbol of good things.

Good things take paying for. Britain grew short of the silver the Chinese Government demanded a s payment so the British Government sent Lord Macartney to find out Chinese needs. The Emperor, Qian Long, was amused at the idea of China needing anything from the western world. He explained in a letter to George I11 that trade was permitted, 'so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence'. Lord Macartney returned home with no orders whatever.

But the East India Company had a product it thought it could promote.

For years it had been quietly selling about two hundred cases of opium a year to China. It began to market opium ruthlessly, building up to 4000 cases by 1796, to 26 000 a few years later. Opium added extraordinary tensions to ordinary trade. I t still colours our relations with China.

They do not take our humanity for granted.

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