Five hundred bodies lost: The troubling tale of gold fortunes at Arrowtown

They wanted to be buried near their families, yet 500 Chinese miners never made it home after years of hardship in New Zealand.

Now a busy, pretty tourist centre and known for its appearance in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the gorgeous little South Island town of Arrowtown became a bustling gold mining town in the late-1800s.  Chinese miners joined European miners at the invitation of the New Zealand Government, but they found it tough-going when the Europeans opposed their presence because of their success. The Chinese work ethic and mining knowledge meant they found gold in areas others didn’t.  That was seen as a threat to the other miners.

An information sign in the tourist precinct reads, “Ageing Chinese depended primarily on each other for support. Officially, they remained unwelcome immigrants and were specifically excluded from New Zealand’s Old Age Pension Act in 1898.”

Alienated they stuck together, forming their own little community. The remnants of the Chinese village along the Arrow River remain in Arrowtown. Now restored, they’re a popular tourist attraction.

A restored Chinese village greets tourists at Arrowrtown these days.
A restored Chinese village, including Chinese miner huts like this one, greets tourists at Arrowtown these days.

Yet surprisingly, a walk through the Arrowtown cemetery reveals a lack of Chinese graves. Gold rush towns in Australia contain many Chinese graves, but not in New Zealand’s Arrowtown. Many Chinese were buried in the local cemetery but they were later exhumed.

The Arrowfield cemetery has few Chinese graves
The Arrowfield cemetery has few Chinese graves, despite the town being home to many Chinese miners in the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.

Here’s why…

“Old miners longed to be buried in ancestral cemeteries, where their spirits would find rest.

“Fund-raising among wealthier Chinese enabled hundreds of elderly men to make the final journey home and provided for the dead to be exhumed.

“The last ship carrying nearly 500 bodies back to China sank off Hokianga in 1902.”

A tragic end to a tough life. 

Arrowtown remained a mining village until 1928. 

Arrowtown is now a bustling tourist precinct.
Arrowtown, near Queenstown, is now a bustling tourist precinct and proud of its Chinese mining heritage.

Lisa Herbert regularly wanders through cemeteries. She’s the author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an amusing and informative workbook for those who want to have a say in their funeral.  “Your ideas, funeral plans, and your life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed.” The second edition is currently available in Australia for $18.95 delivered. Purchase here

 

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