Every Sunday and Wednesday mornings we would watch for the sails of the Chinese junks to come sailing up the river one behind the other. Red, white & black beacons guided them. Some sails were snowy white, some had …huge patches on and some were old and yellow.
D.E. Griffith ‘A Little history [of Cairns]’ 1959
When we think of the history of ship building in Australia, Chinese junks probably don’t spring to mind. Yet for a period from the 1870s to the early 1900s a fleet of junks operated in northern Queensland. At least some, if not all of the estimated ten to fifteen known junks, were made locally, in places such as Cooktown.
And in terms of smaller boats, it may surprise many maritime historians that hundreds if not thousands of sampans – smaller, often poled, barge-like vessels – were made across the north of Australia, particularly around Cairns and in Darwin.
My interest in these vessels began when I came across reference to a ‘Water Picnic’ that was held at Innisfail (then known as Geraldton) for Federation celebrations in 1901. News reports mention that the centre-piece of the water picnic was to be a flotilla of ‘around 400 sampans’. That’s a lot of sampans gathered together for one small north Queensland country town festival.
With further research it became clear that junks and sampans (often mislabelled by European observers who sometimes used ‘junk’ and ‘sampan’ as a catch-all for any Chinese vessel) were not just a common sight on northern Australian coastal waters and rivers, but were in fact critical to the development of the north. But why were they there? Who were these Chinese shipwrights? How and why did they make junks and sampans in Australia?
After the discovery of gold on the Palmer River (inland to the northwest of Cairns) in 1872, Chinese goldseekers turned their attention from Victoria and New South Wales to Queensland. Between 1874 and 1880 tens of thousands of Chinese goldseekers arrived – some of them landing in Darwin and walking across, through the Gulf Country, to the Palmer River.
The Endeavour River was the closest feasible port to the Palmer River fields and the township that was established there could be given no other name but Cooktown, after Captain Cook who had repaired his ship Endeavour there in 1770. By the late 1870s steam ships regularly called at Cooktown and unloaded Chinese goldseekers. At Maytown in 1877, around 90 percent of the 19,000 people on the diggings were Chinese. Cooktown grew rapidly to boast a population of around 7,000 – with a large Chinese community that was branching out from goldseeking to farming, storekeeping and fishing.
To those curious in naval architecture and ship building, a trip to St Patrick’s Point, Cooktown, will afford a subject for contemplation, in the shape of a real Chinese Junk, built by Chinese shipwrights, on Chinese lines, fastened together in a most extraordinary fashion with some hundredweights of putty and a fair allowance of oakum. The Chinese order of constructing ships differs from ours in that the skin or outer sheathing of the vessel is first built – the planks being bent by fire instead of steam as with us. After which the ribs and the knees are inserted and made taut. This marine curiosity, which will be launched in a few days, is intended for the beche-de-mer fishery, her owners having a station in the neighbourhood of Cape Bedford.
Brisbane Courier 13 August 1877
The first ship of any type built in Cooktown was a Chinese junk. Named Wong Hing after its owner, captained by Ah Gim and crewed by Chinese sailors, the vessel scoured the seas around New Guinea and the Solomon Islands for bech-de-mer (trepang or sea-cucumber – a delicacy in South East Asia). Another junk known to have been constructed in Cooktown was the Sin O Ney. With the enigmatic Captain Ah Gim – who was reportedly undaunted by foul weather or ‘unfriendly natives’ – the Wong Hing operated very successfully for ten years in bech-de-mer fishing and trade.
Both the Wong Hing and Sin O Ney were listed in the British Register of Shipping. Captain Ah Gim and another unamed Chinese captain also were granted their Master of a Coasting Vessel certificates by the Queensland Marine Board. Ah Gim was a well known figure in Queensland waters. Described by the Queenslander newspaper in 1890 as a ‘portly celestial bech-de-mer fisher’ and ‘one of the most respectable men in New Guinea waters’ who ‘makes very successful voyages.’
The report also noted how Ah Gim ‘takes ten tons of fish, which he values at 80 pounds a ton’ and that ‘they have secured this while some other beche-de-mer fishers have been sitting down waiting for favourable weather.’ Another news report noted that ‘Ah Gim and his crew are a sober, industrious company’ and ‘the anti-Chinese cry is pretty often one of envy and jealousy of Chinese industry and perserverence.’
Ah Gim certainly took risks with his Cooktown junk. In 1878 he reportedly ‘netted seventeen bags of fish’ but had ‘broken an anchor and lost a boat.’ In 1879 the Wong Hing limped back into Cooktown with the loss of a mast and rudder. On another voyage, both masts had to be cut away for the junk to survive a violent storm.
Ah Gim also had difficulties with New Guinea locals as well. The Wong Hing came under attack several times. In fact in a six month period 30 men sailing from Cooktown alone had been killed in New Guinea waters. Some unfortunate men from the schooner Prosperity were decapitated and their own bech-de-mer smoking houses were used to smoke their bodies. Ah Gim always took firearms and guard dogs on his voyages.
In 1891 news reached Cooktown that the widely respected Captain Ah Gim had been ‘murdered’ and that ‘a force of 70 police had been sent to New Guinea to ‘punish the natives responsible.’ But obituaries of the inimitable captain were premature. He sailed back in to Cooktown with a hold full of bech-de-mer.
Apart from the bech-de-mer trade, junks similar to the Wong Hing were also used in transporting produce on the north Queensland coast. They were a well remarked upon sight with many local historians of the area mentioning them;
The junks used to work with the tides. They would come up on the rising tides and tie up at the crossing behind our house. They loaded up there and went out again next day on the falling tide.
J. Malcolm ‘Kamerunga in the Early 1900’s’, 1962
At the height of Chinese presence in northern Queensland, visitors reported that some areas were like a scene straight from China;
A travelling friend of mine told me the other day that he was astounded when ascending the Johnstone [River] for the first time. The Chinese were to be seen everywhere in the river on the sampans, in the banana fields, all in native costume. Not a white man anywhere. Huts built in Chinese fashion, the tropical foliage and conical mountain made up a mise en scene reminiscent of the Canton River.
‘Geraldton’ Cairns Post 13 April 1892
Sampans were more numerous than junks and eminently suited to the area. They could hold large loads of produce, bring them down shallow riverways and if needed, hoist a small sail. While I have only found one photograph of junks, there is much more surviving historical and photographic evidence of sampans.
After a series of restrictive immigration acts in the late 19th century, culminating in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 and the subsequent White Australia Policy, migration to Australia from Asia was effectively closed. Many Chinese returned to China and the Chinese population in Australia declined – though a signficant number of Chinese did remain, particualrly in cities and regional agricultural areas such as Cairns – which had a thriving Chinatown until the 1940s. While sampans continued to ply northern Queensland riverways for many years into the twentieth century, they were all but fond memories by the 1940s.
The long heritage of Chinese-Australians was the topic of discussion at the recent Northern Links conference hosted by Chinese Heritage In North Australia Incorporated (CHINA Inc. #chinainc) in Cairns over the weekend of 22-23 February. The conference papers ranged from wonderful personal accounts of Chinese family history to discussion of contemporary heritage issues. A visit to the Hou Wang temple in the Atherton tablelands was a highlight.
I delivered a paper at the Northern Links conference that focused on Chinese boat building in northern Australia. While there has been increasing historical and archaeological focus on Chinese-Australian heritage in studies of Chinatowns, goldfields and market gardens, there has been a distinct lack of focus on Chinese-Australian maritime history. The extent and importance of Chinese boat buidling activity has been largely ignored by historians and forgotten by communities in northern Queensland, often content to focus on European-Australian histories. Further investigation may reveal more historical and material evidence of boat building and perhaps provide Chinese junks and sampans a place in the story of Australian maritime history.
Dr Stephen Gapps
Head to the museum’s Flickr account for images of Stephen’s visit to historic sites in Cooktown, Cairns, Atherton and Port Douglas.