1860 Gold Fields Chinese Opium Box

Era: Cultural background: Collection: Theme:Crime Drugs Gold Goldrush Miners Settlement

Opium container, c.1860–70s. Photograph Janis Wilton

Private Collection, Sofala, Australia

Object Name
Opium containers

Object Description

Opium containers (2), metal/paper, some Chinese characters, circa 1860–70s. These tins were found on the Sofala gold fields. They were used to import and store opium. Tins like these held about 186.5 grams of opium, which came as a black gummy substance. They have orange paper labels with impressed markings in Chinese on the lids, which usually provide a brand name, manufacturer or a general greeting to the user. 100 mm high x 90 mm wide x 90 mm deep.
The opium tins are part of a larger collection of objects integral to the story of the Chinese on the goldfields and the establishment of regional Chinese communities. Their primary significance lies in their relationship to the themes of the Gold Rushes experience, racial antagonism and fear of the exotic and unknown, Australia’s links to Britain and the development of racial discrimination policies after Federation.

The discovery of gold in NSW from the early 1850s saw a huge influx of migrants in search of instant wealth. The primary result of the Gold Rush was that the economy boomed and, for a short time, gold outstripped wool as the Colony’s primary export. Many of the people who came in search of gold were Chinese men. Drawn from their home villages (mainly in Kwangtung) by the first gold rushes in Victoria, California and NSW in the 1850s, they usually arrived in organised groups of 30 to 100 men. In 1861 there were about 13,000 Chinese in NSW with the majority (12,200) on the gold fields. Throughout the 19th century, Chinese arrivals continued to the mining regions of NSW, replacing those who had returned home or left for opportunities elsewhere.

Script on the container. Photograph Janis Wilton

The Chinese diggers moved from goldfield to goldfield within NSW and across the border. Constantly on the move, their presence and experience are evidenced mainly from the observations and interpretation of Anglo-Australians, from archaeological digs and from objects saved by families and community members. There are few written accounts and sources from a Chinese perspective. The Chinese attracted particular attention and local newspapers were quick to comment on their distinctive features, clothes, languages and habits — especially their tendency to travel en masse — their methods of transport, their diligence, tirelessness and productivity. Any admiration of their work ethic was offset by envy and resentment when times got hard. The Chinese were often scapegoated by disgruntled Anglo diggers as seen in the violent anti-Chinese riots at Turon (1853), Meroo (1854) Rocky River (1856) Tambaroora (1858) Lambing Flat, Kiandra and Nundle (1860 and 1861) and Tingha tin fields (1870). They were seen initially as oddities, later as rivals and then as threats to white Australia.

Gambling and smoking of opium were singled out in a raft of complaints against the Chinese as the greatest threat to white Australia. From early on Chinese gambling was criticised for the negative effect on the Chinese communities, for the fights and arguments it provoked and particularly the negative influence on Europeans who took part. It also diverted the gaze from the variety and extent of gambling in white Australia. These criticisms prevented onlookers from seeing the role and reason for gambling and opium smoking in the Chinese community; the roles of leisure activity, the predominance of males in the local Chinese population, the isolation from surrounding social activities and familiarities with tradition brought from China and the need to spend time with fellow countrymen.

Opium smoking was part of the way of life for many Chinese in the 19th century in China. It was an activity which dated back to at least the 1700s and ironically received its greatest boost thanks to the activities of the British East India Company which, from the late 1700s, began to import great quantities into China where the company found a lucrative market. For the Chinese, opium became a symbol of foreign intervention and attempts to ban the trade resulted in what became known as the Opium Wars. The Chinese lost and through the treaties of Nanking (1842) and Tientsin (1858) were forced to ensure that Chinese ports remained open to opium.

Opium smoking and its paraphernalia followed Chinese migrants overseas. In the Chinese camps which grew in and around towns in regional NSW, regular reference was made to opium dens and opium sales. The comments were often hysterical, although a large number of Europeans did argue that opium smoking was a non-threatening leisure activity among the Chinese.

Opium was also present in NSW as a component in medicines. Addiction for non-Chinese often came through the consumption of these, although throughout the 19th century an increasing number of Europeans took to smoking opium.

Opium smoking was legal in NSW until 1906. For the Chinese the reasons for smoking opium varied. For some it was a habit brought from China. For others it provided a means to survive the trials and demands of a hard day’s labour, a means to relax and perhaps to go to sleep and a focus for social interaction. For Europeans it could offer a means of escape and relaxation, a pleasant alternative to alcohol, something exotic and different.

A variety of objects were associated with importing, storing, preparing and smoking opium. Fragments of jars and pipes are occasionally found in archaeological digs and are represented in public museums and private collections.

Initially, opium could be purchased at the local grocery. However, after opium was banned in 1906, demand slowly dropped off and throughout the 20th century it went underground, into the hands of smugglers and criminals. It was only when the opium smokers themselves were no longer around that the opium trade into New South Wales and Australia slowly died out.

The opium tins have historic significance as evidence of the gold rush experience of the Chinese in the 19th century, racial antagonism and fear of the exotic and unknown. They are part of a larger collection of objects integral to the story of the Chinese on the goldfields and the establishment of regional Chinese communities.

The opium tins have aesthetic significance relating to the design and manufacture of 19th century opium packaging. The opium trade was an open and legal activity in the 19th century and the packaging gives an insight into a relatively unknown culture.

The opium tins provide a research tool for historians to explore the culture of the Chinese on the goldfields. Objects such as these have already provided invaluable evidence for the Golden Threads Project exploring the experiences and world of Chinese communities in 19th century regional New South Wales. The opium tins, evidence of the closed culture and forced isolation of the Chinese on the diggings, later were used as evidence on which to base hysterical racial slurs against the Chinese in order to further isolate, victimise and drive them out of the camps or townships. These slurs provided the basis for the racist logic of the White Australia Policy.

The opium tins have an intangible significance to Chinese communities to recognise and acknowledge their ancestors and to rise above the inherent racism that was dealt out to the 19th century Chinese miners. These objects have a resonance right across regional New South Wales and Australia.

The opium tins are well provenanced. They were found on the Sofala goldfields and have been in a private collection ever since. The owner has carried out research and has speculated that they might have had a secondary use as burial boxes for money for the second life or for valuables from the first life’.

This type of object is quite rare because a lot of the material culture of the Chinese on the goldfields either ended up in mine tailing or rubbish holes or was simply destroyed. An extended collection of material related to the Chinese in the Gold Rush is in museums and private collections across regional New South Wales. These opium tins are the best examples of a total of four tins held in collections in New South Wales.

These objects represent the culture and traditions of the Chinese miners. They are evidence of the culture and practices they brought with them to New South Wales. They are also evidence of the British domination over China through the trade of opium by the British East India Company and the cool stand-off between China (and Asia) and the West ever since. The objects also are evidence of the source of hysterically racist slurs by Anglo-Australians against the Chinese, seeking to run them off the diggings, camps and towns. It was these myths and slurs that formed the basis of the White Australia Policy. When a newly Federated Australia saw itself vulnerable to apparent threat from Asia, as an offshoot of Britain in the Pacific it sought to keep the Australian population Anglo.

The condition of the objects is excellent given the rarity and fragile nature of the fabric. There is evidence of some corrosion on the metal. Importantly, the labels are intact and the Chinese characters still legible. It is significant that such objects remain in good condition, intact and in the region they have an historical association with.

The opium tins are powerful interpretive tools in communicating the experiences and the treatment of the Chinese on the diggings. They also provide evidence of the history of the relationship between China and the West in general, the influence of the British mercantilists on Chinese culture and the adoption of opium smoking as a cultural habit. The opium tins, in unison with other collections from the Golden Thread Project, communicate the stories of the Chinese in regional New South Wales.



1 Mitchell Library object record



Broese, F 1998, Island Nation: Australia’s Maritime Heritage , Sydney.

Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1992, Their Ghosts may be heard: Australia to 1900, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.

Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.

Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.

Wilton, J 2004, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales 1850 -1950. Powerhouse Museum Publishing.

Written by Stephen Thompson
Migration Heritage Centre
2006 – updated 2011 

Crown copyright 2006 ©

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The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.

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Regional Services at the Powerhouse Museum is supported by Movable Heritage, NSW funding from the NSW Ministry for the Arts.