Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Jottings on New England’s history

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 13 May 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

It is Sunday evening. I am sitting at the computer feeling quite uninspired. It’s not that I don’t have things that I could write about. I just don’t want to write about them. I am written out.

Instead, I thought that I might simply chat about some of the things that I have been researching.

I have just finished some material on the Chinese in New England during the period 1848-1853.

The earliest known Chinese immigrant to arrive in New South Wales was Mak Sai Ying. Born in Guangzho (Canton) in 1798, he arrived as a free settler in 1818 and purchased land at Parramatta. Initial numbers were small, with just 18 identified Chinese settlers prior to 1848.

Then between 1848 and 1853 nearly 3,000 indentured Chinese labourers were imported into the colony in an attempt to solve labour shortages. This is prior to the big influx that came with the gold rushes.

At least two Chinese workers entered into services of J Pike of Pikedale run in the Granite Belt in September 1849. By 1852 Chinese workers were thinly spread on various runs across New England.

It must have been quite difficult and sometimes dangerous for these new workers.

In May 1852, the Phoenix sank on its way to the Clarence River with 12 Chinese on board. A thirteenth was found wandering the beach with the Aborigines. He was reportedly quite mad, although no-one knew how he had got there.

So how did he get there? Almost certainly he came from one of the ships taking indentured Chinese labourers to the new colony. But did the ship sink, or did he simply run away because he could no longer bear the conditions?

By one of those strange circuitous routes, my search for information on the Chinese led me to Annie Maria Baxter.

She apparently had an affair with Crown Lands Commissioner Robert George Massie between July 1841 and July 1843. She was an inveterate diary writer. Her husband, who later committed suicide, ripped out the pages of her diary on the affair but left the rest.

Now neglected, Massie was a not insignificant figure in our regional history. His notes on his activities could have been written by one of today’s public servants.

Annie Marie Baxter herself was born in Exeter on 24 November 1816, daughter of James Hadden, an English army officer. She married Lieutenant Andrew Baxter of the 50th Regiment in England on 8 February 1834, and soon afterwards travelled with him to Van Diemen's Land on board the convict ship Augusta Jessie.

In September 1838 Andrew Baxter's regiment was transferred to Sydney and then to Port Macquarie. Two months later Baxter sold his commission to take up land near Kempsey.

The marriage was not happy, nor did the prospect of pioneer rural life did not please Annie who had found Sydney crude in comparison with Launceston: She wrote:

'I suppose that about the end of next week we shall have to leave Sydney for the bush--what I shall do there God only knows! I shall be so miserable--no books to read! or any person near me that I care about'.

The Baxter home at Kempsey, Yesabba, was a bark hut, occupied when only half the bark roof was on. To add to Annie’s discomfiture, it rained almost incessantly for the first three weeks.

Perhaps we can understand why she became involved with Robert Massie.

Massie himself appears something of an unknown figure, with very little information about him available on-line. This is a real gap, given that he was quite important in our history.

All this may sound very obscure. However, history is about people, not just dates, trends and current issues of concern or models of thought.

At a purely personal level, there is a certain joy in pealing back the veil of the past, seeking to understand not just what happened and why, but also how people thought and felt.

No comments: