Tag: children

Willie Sheen – born at sea, died by drowning

With the long summer holidays upon us again, we’re back at our local pool every day for a couple of weeks of swimming lessons for the kids. I’ve had one reluctant swimmer, who for a good long time refused to get her face or hair wet, and one little fish, whose propensity for holding her breath underwater has been quite unnerving at times. Growing up in Australia, we teach our kids to swim because it’s fun and a good form of exercise. We also teach them to swim to keep them safe.

According to Kim Torney’s Babes in the Bush (Curtin University Books 2005, p. 13), the most frequent cause of accidental death of children in colonial Australia was drowning. One boy to meet this awful fate was William Sheen.

In April 1862, the body of 10-year-old Willie Sheen was found floating in a deep part of the Macquarie River near Bathurst. Dr George Busby, the Bathurst coroner, held an inquest into his death, but there was no suspicion of foul play and the coroner recorded a verdict of ‘found drowned’.

The inquest, as reported in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, revealed some interesting details about this young boy’s short life.

'In the background is seen part of the town of Bathurst, with the towers of the Protestant and Catholic Churches appearing beyond the plain; nearer, and crossing the bed of the Macquarie River, parties of eager pilgrims may be observed with their dray loads of tools and provisions, entering the town after their long and tedious journey across the mountain ranges.' (State Library of Victoria http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/136967)
‘In the background is seen part of the town of Bathurst, with the towers of the Protestant and Catholic Churches appearing beyond the plain; nearer, and crossing the bed of the Macquarie River, parties of eager pilgrims may be observed with their dray loads of tools and provisions, entering the town after their long and tedious journey across the mountain ranges.’ (State Library of Victoria http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/136967)

According to evidence given at the inquest, Willie was the son of a Chinese man and a European woman ‘of the name of Shean’, and he was said to have been born at sea between California and New South Wales (Bathurst Free Press, 5 April 1862, p. 2).

If he was aged 10 in 1862, baby Willie and his parents would have arrived in Sydney in about 1852, some of the earliest ‘American’ arrivals to the NSW goldfields. The NSW gold rushes had began after Edward Hargraves and his assistants discovered the first payable gold near Bathurst in 1851, and Hargraves himself had recently returned from California.

Chinese miners in California (Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library,http://cdn.calisphere.org/data/13030/pj/hb6k4004pj/files/hb6k4004pj-FID3.jpg)
Chinese miners in California (Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library, BANC PIC 1963.002:1399–B)

At the time of his death in 1862 Willie Sheen was living with a cousin of his father’s, a storekeeper, in Howick Street, Bathurst. Their store would have been one of the number of Chinese homes and businesses – stores, boarding houses, gambling shops – located there. By the mid 1870s the area was well-known as a ‘Chinese quarter’ or ‘Chinatown’ (Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser , 1 September 1877, p. 7Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 20 April 1886, p. 2).

Juanita Kwok, a PhD candidate at Charles Sturt University, is currently researching the Chinese history of Bathurst, from the 1850s to the 1950s.

Unfortunately Willie Sheen’s death certificate (NSW BDM 2463/1862) provides only a few more details. His father’s name was given as ‘A Chou’, a ‘Chinaman’, and his mother’s name was recorded as ‘Supposed Sheen’, the absence of detail suggesting that her son had probably not seen her for quite some time.

Where are the women?

Yesterday on Twitter Jenny Symington asked the question, ‘Where are the women?’ in relation to The real face of White Australia:


This post is a quick attempt to answer that question.

Record series

The first thing to consider is where these photographs are taken from. They are from certificates exempting from the dictation test, which were issued to non-white residents of Australia who wanted to return to Australia after travelling overseas. The particular records we have used with Faces so far are from New South Wales.

Demographics

The non-white, non-Aboriginal population of early 20th century Australia was predominantly male. Most of the Chinese, Japanese, Indians and Malays (among others) who came to Australia in the 19th century did so to work and to earn money. Asian women as economic migrants were not unheard of (there were Chinese women who came to the colonies as domestic workers, for example), but generally a combination of economic, social, familial and legal factors meant that a much smaller number of ‘coloured’ women arrived on Australian shores. The Syrian community is a bit of an exception to this, as numbers of men and women were much more balanced.

Figures for ‘birthplace’ from the 1911 Commonwealth census (the first national census conducted in Australia) gives a picture of this:

  • Born in China: male 20,453 female 322
  • Born in India: male 5049 female 1595
  • Born in Japan: male 3260 female 214
  • Born in Syria: male 895 female 632
  • Born Java: male 535 female 43

In New South Wales (where the people shown in Faces mostly lived) Chinese, Indians and Syrians were the main non-white population groups.

The snapshot below has images of three women: Mary Saleba and Raja Basha, both Syrian, and Mary Hoe, who was Australian-born Chinese.

The nature of travel

Few of the men shown in Faces were travelling for leisure, as such. They were mostly either returning home to visit relatives (including wives and children), or for business reasons, or a combination of both. This, combined with the cost and logistics of travel, may have meant that women and families living in Australia did not accompany their men when they travelled.

The law and administrative processes

Travelling alongside some of the men whose images appear in Faces, though, were women and children who were not documented in the same way as their husbands and fathers. White wives of Chinese men, for example, who also travelled to Hong Kong and China, were not subjected to the indignities of photographing and handprinting, even though strictly they had become ‘Chinese’ on marriage and had officially lost their status as British subjects (their racial identity trumped their legal one). Often the only record of their travel is a name on a passenger list. Mixed-race Australians also travelled without being issued a certificate exempting from the dictation test—many Anglo-Chinese Australian women married migrant Chinese men, and accompanied their husbands to China, but they too may have avoided being photographed and handprinted, instead using their Australian birth certificates as proof of identity on their return to Australia.

Ah Yin family of Adelong, c.1897

Every time I poke around in series NAA: SP42/1, I find something new and interesting that I hadn’t noticed before.

Today’s find is a photograph of the family of Ah Yin (or Ah Yen), who was a storekeeper at Adelong in southern New South Wales, and his wife, Ah Hoo (or Ah How). The family, with six children, left for China in 1897.

The file NAA: SP42/1, C1916/7308 PART 1 relates to a request for one of the Ah Yin daughters, Sarah (b. 1890), to be permitted to return to Australia in 1910.

More on Sarah Ah Yen’s return to Australia from the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 1915.

‘Birth of a Chinese in the colony’, 1865

In July 1865, the Maitland Mercury carried an article announcing the birth of the second Chinese baby in the colony of New South Wales – a little boy named Henry Sydney Ah Foo – or, as recorded in the NSW BDMs index – Ah Cong, son of Sam Ah Foo and Ah Fie (15489/1865):

Some days ago Mrs. Ah Foo, wife of Mr. Ah Foo, storekeeper, of Nundle, to the delight of her husband and every other celestial on the Peel river, presented the former with an unmistakable pledge of love in the shape of a fine healthy son, no half and half affair, but a thorough Mongolian. We are given to understand that this is the second birth in this colony where both parents were Chinese, and is, consequently, well worth mentioning. The Chinese in the neighbourhood have taken the matter up, and elated with joy, have made a present to the parents of £150. On Sunday last, the Rev Mr. Whitfield of Tamworth performed the interesting ceremony of christening the child, which was witnessed by a large number of Chinamen. The youngster’s name is Henry Sydney. Mrs. Ah Foo is said to be an interesting woman.

The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser, 18 July 1865

I’ve recently started working on a project that has its roots back more than ten years. As part of my PhD research, I started compiling a database of marriages between Chinese men and non-Chinese women in 19th-century New South Wales. A version of it ended up as an appendix to my thesis, but since a lot of time went into the original data-gathering (thanks Mum!) I thought that perhaps this data should now take on a new and exciting life.

I’m therefore extending my original database to include any ‘Chinese’ marriage or birth registered in New South Wales up to 1918 – that is, where either husband or wife, father or mother, were Chinese or part-Chinese. I’m initially working from the published NSW BDM indexes (hence the 1918 cut-off), but I’ll then add information from my piles and piles of other research notes and also hopefully crowdsource further data to fill out the scant details provided by the index. So far I’ve worked through maybe a tenth of the material I have, and I’ve already got over 1000 entries in the database.

You can read more about the database project, Threads of Kinship – and there’s a prize for guessing the origins of the project name and why I chose it.

Seeing the women and children

I’ve been thinking further about the possibilities of Tim’s wall of faces as a finding aid, as something to help both locate archival documents and to understand their context.

The series we used in our test (ST84/1) was one in which we knew there was a very high percentage of photographs. Each item contains ten certificates, most of which have both a front and profile portrait attached. There is a small amount of other paperwork included in some files, but not a whole lot. We therefore knew what sorts of things we were going to get back.

But what about if we apply the same facial detection technology to a series in which we aren’t so sure of the photographic content? Unfortunately, Tim’s current laptop isn’t up to the task of doing all the grunt work (donations, anyone?), but here’s what I reckon might happen when we are able to move on to other series.

With series like SP42/1 and B13, which hold applications for CEDTs and similar records, I know that there are photographs in many, even most, of the personal case files. (B13 is complicated because it also contains other Customs files that don’t relate to individuals and don’t relate to the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act.) Because files might hold applications for a family, or a parent and child/ren, or an uncle and nephew, or siblings, you don’t always know from the item title exactly who the file relates to. Also, those who were Australian born did not necessarily apply for CEDTs since they could travel using their birth certificates as proof of their right to return, meaning that they don’t appear in CEDT series like ST84/1.

It was usual practice, though, to supply photographs of each person who was travelling (whether on a CEDT or not), and so by extracting those photographs, you would be able to have a better impression about who files related to. Of course, for files that are digitised (or even not) you could go through each one individually (which I’ve done, believe me…), but think how much more fun it would be to scroll through a wall of beautiful faces!

With B13 it would also be useful because there is no separate series of CEDTs; they are mixed in with the application/case files. Facial detection could be a way of extracting the forms themselves from the larger files.

My main research interest is in families, and women, and children – and we know that women are often hidden in archives because of bureaucratic systems which gave priority to the men in their lives. Although there are many White Australia records which relate to individual women and children, they can be lost in files organised and catalogued under the names of husbands and fathers. But scroll through a wall of mostly male faces, and the women and children just leap out at you!

I’m feeling a bit impatient, really, about running SP42/1 and B13 through Tim’s facial detection script. There are so many, so very interesting possibilities.

‘A pathetic story’

From the Northern Territory Times and Gazette on 14 February 1885 is this moving account of a mother’s struggle to get help for her ailing baby, and of the assistance given to her by an unnamed Chinese man.

On Christmas Day William Cooper, a bush laborer living in a wild part of the Little River district, twenty-six miles from Tumut, brought into town the remains of his infant daughter, six months old, who died from exposure and starvation in the bush. An inquest was held on boxing-day, when a verdict in accordance with the evidence was returned, the jury adding a rider that the mother had done all she could to preserve the life of her child. Cooper was absent at Brendabella woolshed at the time.

On Wednesday, the 17th inst, the mother started for the nearest neighbor’s place, which was four miles off, to get a message to go to Tumut for physic for the sick child. She took with her the deceased and Freddy, a boy six years old, and a dog. Rain came down, and a storm followed, and in the wild mountainous country the woman lost herself. On Thursday, the mother’s milk having failed, she killed the dog to nourish the baby on the blood. She and her son Freddy ate a little of the raw flesh, there being no fire and no other food. On Friday night the baby died. Next day she carried the baby’s corpse as far as she could when Freddy sank down exhausted. She left the boy to watch the corpse near a creek, and wandered on herself very weak and footsore.

On Sunday afternoon she found a Chinaman’s hut and a Chinaman and a European named Taylor went to search. They camped out at the head of Dubbo Falls that night, and next day they found the boy Freddy sitting on a rock beside the corpse of the baby. He was ‘keeping the flies of Cissy.’ The starving lad had been over a day and two nights alone with the dead baby. The Chinaman gave the boy food in small quantities, and then carried him and the corpse five miles to the nearest hut. Afterwards they took the mother and boy home, where two little children (three and two years of age) had remained all the time.

It seems likely that the mother was Eliza Cooper, who with her husband William had eight children between 1875 and 1890, living first at Yass/Patrick’s Plain and then Tumut. This baby, Annie, was not the only child she lost – three years later her five year old son Mark also died.