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Date: 1885-1887
Overall: 540 x 730 x 5 mm
Medium: Watercolour on paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Gift from the Trustees of the Sydney Training Depot
Object Name: Painting
Object No: 00046572

User Terms

    A watercolour painting of the SS BURRUMBEET by George Frederick Gregory. Built in 1885 the 2420 ton modern steamer operated on intercolonial and interstate runs for the Huddart Parker line until 1915.

    SignificanceThe painting is a good example of the work of well known ship portraitist G F Gregory Jr and is a record of a ship that was involved in the so-called AFGHAN-BURRUMBEET affair of 1888.
    HistoryDuring the 1860s to 1880s there was an increasingly strong anti-Chinese movement in Australia. Although Chinese immigration had slowed from the 1860s due to immigration restrictions and the decline of aluvial gold mining, Chinese immigration was still legal if the immigrants possessed naturalisation papers or paid a tax on arrival.

    The BURRUMBEET arrived in Melbourne on 30 April 1888 with just fourteen Chinese immigrants aboard. Six of the fourteen men offered their £10 poll-tax to enter Victoria and eight presented Victorian naturalisation certificates. However they were not allowed to land.

    Previously, the constitutional barrier that prevented the colonies from banning Chinese immigrants had been side-stepped in the case of the over 200 Chinese immigrants on the AFGHAN. The government invoked quarantine regulations. The same regulations were now applied to the BURRUMBEET.

    Quarantine was undeniably within the constitutional authority of the colonies but the Governor, Sir Henry Loch, was reluctant to sign the necessary order because of his concern about the effect on relations with China. He eventually yielded, accepting that he was constitutionally obliged to take the advice of his ministers.

    Placing a ship in quarantine meant that none of the passengers or crew should have landed until the ship was cleared by health officers but in an act of administrative discrimination the Chinese were detained while European passengers and crew were allowed to land.

    The Trade Unions in Victoria and elsewhere - who had been actively and successfully struggling for better wages and conditions for workers - were very concerned about Chinese immigrants being a cheap labour force.

    However many of the Chinese were already effectively 'Australians'. They had lived previously in Victoria working as market gardeners, storekeepers, labourers and miners. Some such as Wang Gay, Ah Hay, Won Kay, Le Hong, Sin Din, Lee Shun and Gee Sing had lived in the Victoria previously for over 10 years and spoke fluent English. They were returning to Australia and presumably presented their naturalisation papers at Melbourne.

    A delegation from the Victorian Trade Unions demanded to the Governor that Victoria turn away all the Chinese on the AFGHAN and the BURRUMBEET. Meanwhile in Sydney, the Anti-Chinese League there had held a mass
    meeting, fifty thousand strong, to protest Chinese immigration. The meeting resolved that when the AFGHAN came on to Sydney the Chinese would be kept on the ship by force if needed, to prevent them landing.

    Although the threatened violence did not eventuate other than minor incidents in Brisbane, the pressure from Trade Unions and anti-Chinese leagues on the colonial governments resulted in continued and heightened restrictions on Chinese entering the colonies. So too, the apparent threat of Chinese immigration was taken up as a platform for nationalists seeking a Federation of the colonies, as this was seen as the only way for the colonials to decide on such matters, rather than the British government.

    British interests in China were indeed being damaged by the Australian colonies restrictions on Chinese immigrants. There was some guarded support for the Chinese - the official position of the Presbyterian Church was that the BURRUMBEET passengers were being illegally detained, but the church was careful not to adopt a pro-Chinese stance.

    In May 1888, with the BURRUMBEET passengers still in quarrantine aboard ship, the Chinese Residents Committee of Melbourne sought a writ of habeas corpus to force the release of the BURRUMBEET detainees. The Victorian government abruptly accepted the poll-tax and let the men land. They arrived in Melbourne from quarrantine off Portsea on 24 May 1888 to a huge welcome from the Chinese community in Little Bourke Street.

    By the end of May there were four Chinese immigrant ships detained in Sydney
    Harbour: the AFGHAN, TSINAN, GUTHRIE and MENMUIR. Many of the Chinese had certificates of exemption (including naturalisation papers) and the rest offered to pay the poll-tax. Mei Quong Tart, George On Lee and other Chinese community leaders took the matter to the NSW Supreme Court.

    An appeal by the Parkes Government to the Full Bench of the New South Wales Supreme Court confirmed Justice Windeyer’s ruling that Chinese who offered to pay the poll-tax had a legal right to land.

    See Ian Welch 'Alien Son : The life and times of Cheok Hong Cheong, (Zhang Zhuoxiong) 1851-1928', Chapter 8, The Afghan/Burrumbeet episode 1887-1889, Thesis for Department of Pacific and Asian History Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies Australian National University, Canberra, 2003.

    Additional Titles

    Assigned title: Watercolour of SS BURRUMBEET

    Web title: SS BURRUMBEET

    Collection title: Len E Forsythe Snapper Island Collection

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