On the day after Christmas day in 1875, the Chinese shepherd referred to only as ‘Ah Shong’ in historical records, was allegedly murdered at Cambridge Downs Station by a large group of local Indigenous people. Although it is the only official account of violence on the station it helps to paint a chilling picture of the atmosphere of terror that likely prevailed over many years as a result of the conflict between Aboriginal inhabitants and pastoral settlers.
On receiving the news that the shepherd had been murdered, Sub Inspector M. Tyrell Day of the Native Mounted Police stationed in Bowen reportedly “proceeded in pursuit of the murderers and continued the pursuit for ten days travelling in that time over two hundred miles” (Queensland State Archives 1876). He followed the suspects without success and was similarly unable to find Ah Shong’s body or other evidence of the murder. Finally returning to Cambridge Downs Station, some two weeks after the incident had taken place, Sub Inspector Day, in collaboration with the station’s managers, questioned ‘witnesses’, “but elicited nothing to prove the murder except that the Blacks were near the place when the Chinaman disappeared and destroyed about fifty sheep” (Queensland State Archives 1876). According to the inquest documents, a young Aboriginal boy informed the police that the man’s body had been cut up and buried in a waterhole.
So many aspects of this incident warrant further investigation, not least of all Sub Inspector Day’s seemingly relentless search for the ‘suspects’ before he even established the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the ‘crime’. But it is possibly because the victim, like the alleged perpetrators, was not of Anglo descent, that the incident demands our greatest consideration. Ill-feeling between European settlers and Chinese migrants is well documented in Queensland’s pastoral and mining history of the period (Evans 2007); is it reasonable to assume that authorities would have viewed the murder of a ‘Chinaman’ with the gravity that is conveyed in the historical record or, perhaps, more pointedly, is it unreasonable to assume that such an incident provided these men with the slim justification they required to initiate a brutal retaliatory attack on local Indigenous people.
As students of archaeology we are constantly taught to question the validity of our sources. It is now impossible to substantiate the claims set forth in this record, and we are similarly even less able to appreciate the principles and beliefs of those who were involved. Is evidence such as the inquest report for this murder invaluable to teasing out a greater understanding of race relations in colonial Queensland, or does it simply serve to confound our comprehension of an exceedingly complex situation?
Megan Tutty, Master of CHM student
Evans, R. 2007 A History of Queensland. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
Queensland State Archives: Justice Department I; Series ID 36; Item ID 348647, Inquest into the death of Ah Shong, inquest 58 of 1876.