If you have ever walked along the beach in the South Australian town of Robe, it is likely you came across a Chinese-inspired monument, seemingly out of nowhere. 

It is a nod to one of the most significant events in the town’s history which experts say has become misunderstood across decades. 

People travelled from all over the world to strike it rich as the Victorian gold rush took hold in the 1850s. 

The monument pays tribute to the thousands of Chinese people. (ABC South East SA: Sam Bradbrook)

The prospectors included thousands of Chinese migrants, prompting the young Victorian government to impose a £10 poll tax on arrivals to the country via the sea. 

The tax didn’t apply to arrivals over the state’s land border though, so during the 1850s and 1860s about 16,000 people landed in the town of Robe, which had a population of about 200. 

But Chinese-Australian historian Michael Williams said the view of Robe as a small town at the time was the first in a long line of myths surrounding the event. 

Michael Summers (left) prepares to walk from Robe to the Victorian goldfields. (Supplied: Valerie Monahan)

“Robe was a booming town at the time, not because of Chinese gold seekers but because wool was booming,” he said. 

“It was never a big place, but not as obscure as people might think.” 

Scarce records 

The majority of the 16,000 Chinese people who arrived at Robe came in 1857. 

They would set off on a 400-kilometre walk to the Victorian goldfields at Ballarat, in what became known as the Robe Walk. 

Dr Williams said another myth surrounding the landings was they were unorganised and people arrived without a plan to reach the gold fields. 

Instead, he said their ships were full of provisions for the walk and they would bring goods to sell upon their arrival. 

“One of the first myths people had was that the captains suddenly decided to divert from Melbourne and dump people at Robe and no one knew where they were,” he said. 

The jetties at Robe in 1870. (Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

“These ships were all chartered from Hong Kong by agents in Hong Kong who had already recruited people from the Pearl River Delta, set them up, put them on a boat and told the captains exactly where to go.”

Dr Williams said he was working on the first comprehensive academic study of the Robe Walk. 

He said records were relatively scarce and the stories passed through generations often perpetuated damaging stereotypes about Chinese people. 

“After two generations when people had forgotten the history, they start to use this term ‘invasion’,” he said.

“They talk about this ‘invasion’ of the Chinese in Robe and you get this exaggerated sense of fear and loathing.

Robe is a busy tourism town home to a southern rock lobster fishing fleet. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“It all has to do with White Australia [Policy] and all has to do with attitudes at that time to Chinese people rather than what was actually happening. 

“There you get these myths of tremendous hardship, people starving on the road, or people being forced to do work.”

The walk was long, but he said making the trek to the Victorian gold fields was common at the time.

He said more than 20,000 people walked from Adelaide during the same time period. 

Liz Harfull has written books about the history of Robe.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Former Robe resident Liz Harfull wrote a book on the event.

Ms Harfull said her great-grandfather was a local carrier who helped guide groups from Robe to the gold fields. 

She said it was a good thing the event was being investigated and re-interpreted to centre on the experiences of those who travelled. 

“I think over time the fascination with this story has added layer on layer of detail that may not be quite right,” she said. 

“It’s become a really important and colourful story, particularly for the Robe area and the places where they walked through.”

Past laws ‘eliminating’ history

While Chinese arrivals and the growth of wool led to an influx of money into Robe, within two decades business through the town’s port had shrunk. 

The story of the Robe Walk is on display at the town’s Customs House Museum, but the information panels are set to be removed and fact checked. 

“I don’t see any real harm in that, a lot of people aren’t worried about getting the facts really specific,” Robe National Trust president Valarie Monahan said. 

“I know those myths have been kept alive by people around the place, but it’s kept people interested in the overall happenings in Robe.”

Robe historian Valerie Monahan is in charge of the town’s National Trust museum.(ABC South East SA: Sam Bradbrook)

Dr Williams said the experience of Chinese people on the Robe Walk may have been more peaceful than first thought, but on the gold fields they were subject to violence and anti-Chinese riots. 

Laws were passed after the gold rush which limited the migration of non-white people to Australia, forming the White Australia Policy. 

Dr Williams said the lack of records stemmed from that policy. 

The display at the Robe Customs House museum on the Robe Walk. (ABC South East SA: Sam Bradbrook)

“By the time Australia gets through its White Australia period in the 1900s it starts systematically eliminating non-white people from its history,” he said. 

“It does that not just through immigration but through its history as well. 

“If you read history books from that era, you barely get any mention of Aboriginal people, let alone anyone else who’s non-white.” 

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