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Developing the north

Developing the north

This scene depicts Chinese labourers sorting railway sleepers and loading them on to a wagon

Many Chinese labourers where employed in the construction of the Darwin-Pine Creek railway. These Chinese labourers are sorting railway sleepers and loading them on to a wagon.

The labour shortage

Because of the isolation and extreme living conditions in the far north of Australia, it was difficult to find sufficient numbers of workers from the southern states. Following the discovery of gold at Pine Creek in 1872, Chinese people were imported to work the mines. During the construction of the Overland Telegraph in 1874, the South Australian government — which administered various aspects of the Northern Territory at the time — imported Chinese labourers from Singapore to Palmerston (renamed Darwin in 1911) to overcome the labour shortage.

By 1886 there were approximately 4000 Chinese living in the Port Darwin area. More than 2000 Chinese labourers were employed to build the railway between Pine Creek and Darwin which was completed in 1889. This is the only railway in Australia built with Chinese labour. After the South Australian government introduced restrictions on Chinese immigration, the mining industries suffered a setback and many leases had to be abandoned due to a lack of available labour.