Chinese shepherds in NSW

This is a section of a long carved and gilded panel on display at McCrossin’s Mill Museum in Uralla. It was part of the decorations on the front of an altar in one of the Chinese temples in the New England North West. It is appealing to imagine that this panel acknowledges Chinese indentured labourers who worked as shepherds in the area prior to the gold rushes. This may not be the case as the motif is a traditional one with a distinct signification. Pictorial reference or no, Chinese indentured labourers were amongst the earliest colonial settlers on land where gold and tin was mined in later years.

Prior to the gold and tin rushes, the colonial settlement of the region that we now call the New England and North West was characterised by pastoralism. Pastoral expansion began a process of dispossession for First Nations traditional owners who defended their country against the incursions. Pastoralists relied on convict labour until the system of assigning convicts to settlers ended in 1838, causing a shortage in pastoral labour. Frontier wars made shepherding work an unattractive proposition for free migrants.

Pastoralists in NSW turned to Chinese indentured labour as a solution to their need for shepherds. Many of these labourers were brought to work on sheep grazing runs in the New England North West. A global trade in Chinese labour was already developing as a response to the end of slavery in the British Empire. Entrepreneurs including Robert Towns imported an estimated 3000 Chinese contract labourers to NSW between 1848 and 1854. The majority of the shepherds were from the treaty port of Amoy—now known as Xiamen—in the province of Fujian.

Maxine Darnell’s 1998 thesis, “The Chinese Labour Trade to New South Wales 1783-1853: An Exposition of Motives and Outcomes” is the authoritative text on indentured labour in the middle districts. For those searching for Amoy ancestors in the district, Darnell’s very useful listing “Indentured Chinese Labourers and Employers Identified, New South Wales, 1828-1856 ” can be found by following this link:…/5/5/1/public/indentured.htm
Margaret Slocomb’s book Among Australia’s Pioneers is also essential reading for those wanting to research indentured labour further.…/625854-Among-Australia-s…

In the context of these references to settlement, Our Chinese Past would like to state that it acknowledges and respects the traditional custodians of the lands where the temples it is researching once stood. We acknowledge the deep feelings of attachment and relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to country. We acknowledge the Anaiwan, Bigambul, Gamilaraay, Jukambal, Kwiagambal, Ngoorabul, Nucoorilma and Wirrayaraay peoples. And we pay our respects to their Elders past and present and emerging.

Posted by Our Chinese Past member Juanita Kwok