The Overseas Chinese Social Landscape of Cooktown 1873–1935

01st December 2006

Kevin Rains

PhD, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, December 2004

This thesis is an historical archaeological examination of the socio-economic relations of the overseas Chinese of Cooktown in north Queensland. In 1873 alluvial gold was discovered on the remote Palmer River in Cape York Peninsula and this initiated a rush of miners and businesses into the area, with Cooktown being established on the coast as a supply port. The influx included a large number of Chinese and the Palmer River gold rush was to be a major event in Chinese migration into Queensland.

Chinese settlement of Cooktown and its district was part of a broader pattern of migration known as the Chinese Diaspora, which saw the movement of large numbers of people, mostly unattached males, from the coastal provinces of southern China to other parts of the world. Until relatively recently, studies of these Diasporic people, or overseas Chinese, have been limited by historical stereotypes and positivistic understandings of social groups and identity. Relations between the overseas Chinese and their host societies have also been coloured by simplistic, exaggerated statements on the effects of European racism and Chinese cultural difference. The overseas Chinese have been portrayed as homogenous, insular, culturally conservative people who were the victims of European exploitation and antagonism. Perspectives of the overseas Chinese in northern Queensland have been limited further by the promotion of a European history that stigmatises or ignores the Chinese participation in colonial expansion. More recent studies have, however, begun to recognise the diversity, social complexity and dynamism within the Diaspora, and to highlight the important roles Chinese played in the socioeconomic development of Australia.

It is within the context of this new approach that this thesis is presented. It adopts a framework based on current theories of social networks, power and landscapes to look at overseas Chinese social relations in terms of the interactions that occur at the level of individuals and factions. Within the concrete social settings of everyday life, human beings live a negotiated existence whereby they construct many social networks which they use to acquire material resources, social status, social identity and emotional fulfilment. These interactions can cut across, reinforce, or complicate ethnic group structure, and are manifested and expressed in the symbolic and physical aspects of the material world.

The social landscape of Cooktown is examined from data collected from archival material and a surface survey of archaeological deposits. Analysis of these data focuses on three core components of the social landscape: the socioeconomic history of the people, their way of life and social institutions; the physical landscape and built environment; and the importation, exportation and consumption of portable goods. What emerges from the analysis is a landscape of many complex social negotiations and intersections. Cooktown was a small and relatively isolated frontier town and the Chinese position within it was a powerful one as Chinese primary production, services and commerce were critical elements within the town’s economic fabric from the 1870s through to the early twentieth century. Socio-economic positioning and the struggle for social power among various social agents established networks that led to a society that was heterogeneous and possessed of multiple sources of self-identification. Within the overseas Chinese community social homogeneity was eroded by particularised alliances and divisions, while between the Chinese and other ethnic groups there were various close relations of mutual dependency and assistance.

Kevin Rains
The Overseas Chinese Social Landscape of Cooktown 1873–1935
December 2006
Thesis Abstracts
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