Doing Business: Chinese and European Socioeconomic Relations in Early Cooktownby Kevin Rains

International Journal of Historical Archaeology


Geography, Planning and Development / Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous) / History / Archaeology


Doing Business: Chinese and European Socioeconomic

Relations in Early Cooktown

Kevin Rains

Published online: 2 June 2013 # Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Abstract This paper is an historical archaeological examination of the socioeconomic relations of the Chinese and European communities of Cooktown in north Queensland during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It looks at the social landscape and production, exchange and consumption of material culture to show that the Chinese were not a disengaged group, as depicted in conventional understandings of colonial life, but integral to the town’s socioeconomic fabric. This close relationship arose out of a process of negotiation between Chinese and Europeans which responded to the strengths, weaknesses and resources of their individual business networks, and the particular conditions of Cooktown’s frontier environment.

Keywords Cooktown . Chinese . Economic activity . Social landscape . Queensland .



Chinese settlement of Cooktown and its district was part of a broader pattern of migration, known as the Chinese Diaspora, which saw the outward movement of large numbers of people, mostly males, from the coastal provinces of southern China to other parts of the world in search of economic opportunity. Until relatively recently, studies of these overseas Chinese communities have been limited by historical stereotypes and positivistic understandings of social groups and identity (e.g.,

Hum Lee 1960; Lee Sung 1967; Lyman 1974; Yong 1977). In northern Queensland perspectives have been constrained further by the promotion of a European history that diminishes Chinese participation in colonial life to something peripheral, contentious and exotic (e.g. Binnie 1944; Browne 1927; Eykyn 1896; Holthouse 1967;

Palmer 1903; Pike 1979). The early Chinese immigrant has been constructed as the

Int J Histor Archaeol (2013) 17:520–545

DOI 10.1007/s10761-013-0232-3

K. Rains (*)

Gold Coast City Council, Nerang, Queensland, Australia e-mail: itinerant sojourner, a perpetual outsider laboring solely for the purpose of returning home with wealth and not interacting with the host society. More recent studies have, however, begun to recognize the socioeconomic diversity and dynamism in the

Chinese Diaspora, and to highlight the important roles Chinese played in the development of Australia (e.g., Fitzgerald 1997; Harvey 2000; Lydon 1999; Rains 2003, 2005; Williams 1999; Wilton 2001). Following on from these later studies, this paper examines the complex relations between Chinese and Europeans in early Cooktown, far north Queensland.


In 1872, alluvial gold was discovered on the Palmer River in Cape York. This event precipitated a massive influx of miners and businesses into the region and saw the establishment of the port of Cooktown in October 1873 on the east coast as a service and provisioning center for the goldfield (Kirkman 1984; Ormston 1996) (Fig. 1).

The Palmer River goldfield was to prove among the richest in Queensland’s history, and by the mid 1870s Cooktown possessed a population of approximately 2,400, and was the supply center for an estimated 15,000 people on the Palmer (Ormston 1996, p. 2). The town was a major revenue producer for Queensland through customs duties and gold exports and was the colony’s second busiest port (Ormston 1996, p. 2).

The development of Cooktown was marked by considerable instability and among the critical issues were the difficulties of maintaining communications with the goldfield during the monsoon, remoteness from southern markets, poor planning, and a paucity of infrastructure, and the district’s reliance on mining—a type of industry whose profitability historically was short-lived (Ormston 1996). By the late 1870s, production on the Palmer River goldfield had entered a decline and the population of the district fell. After the gold rush ended, Cooktown faced a crisis of relevance as it remained relatively isolated and its district under-developed. Despite frequent advertisements of the area’s potential, this went largely unrealized. Capital investment was hard to attract and objectives were mired in political partisanship.

Cooktown did, however, manage to sustain itself through the exploitation of various gold and mineral fields throughout Cape York as well developing agricultural, marine, timber, and pastoral industries. Yet it remained a typical frontier town, narrowly focused on extractive enterprises, run by petty merchants and publicans, and dependent on distant markets for the sale of its commodities and the supply of necessary goods (Ormston 1996; Purser 1999, p. 120; Rains 2005). The town’s vulnerability was revealed from the 1890s when it was impacted by a sequence of crises, including cyclones, drought, and global depressions. By the early decades of the twentieth century, the town had ceased to be a major port.

The Chinese of Cooktown

The first reports of Chinese in the district were of miners and market gardeners who had travelled overland from the Etheridge goldfield near Townsville and reached the

Palmer River within weeks of the discovery of gold (Cooktown Courier 1874e, p. 2).

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Immediately after Cooktown was established, modest numbers of Chinese also arrived on the ships dispatched from southern ports (Ormston 1996, p. 219). However, the reports of the area’s wealth soon reached China and by 1875 the mass recruitment of workers was initiated by large Chinese merchant firms (Cooktown

Courier 1875a, p. 2; Cooktown Herald and Palmer River Advertiser 1875a, p. 2;

Kirkman 1984, p. 171). The bulk of these new immigrants had no prior mining experience (Cooktown Herald and Palmer River Advertiser 1876a, p. 2). They were also mostly young men in their 20s and 30s (Cooktown Herald and Palmer River

Advertiser 1875e, p. 2) although some women and older men also made the voyage (Cooktown Courier 1875d, p. 2; Rains 2005, pp. 110, 386–390). The majority came