February 2015

The Nation Reviewed

Sydney Ducks

By Peter McAllister
In gold-rush California, Aussie diggers were unwelcome boat people

How their spirits must have soared as they sailed through the Golden Gate. After the interminable, vomitous passage from colonial Sydney’s slums, the calm of San Francisco Bay must have seemed heavenly, the sprawling, gold-rush shanty towns the anterooms of a promised land. Imagine, then, their confusion at the sudden tramp of an armed boarding party’s feet on the deck, their bewilderment as they were taken, one by one, for “processing” in a makeshift interrogation cabin. And then, finally, their disbelief as they were sent, under guard, not to the modest boarding house or tent camp they’d expected, but to onshore detention to await forced deportation.

Such was the fate of many an Australian immigrant to 1850s San Francisco – the “Sydney Ducks”.

Anglo-Australians were once boat people – economic migrants – too. Between April 1849 and May 1850, the maelstrom of gold-rush California sucked some 11,000 Australians to San Francisco’s shores in search of gold and a better life. There they collided with the 20–30,000 rabidly nativist American migrants already in residence. And the scene was set for one of the most peculiar episodes of attempted ethnic cleansing in colonial history.

The grim rollcall of events seems eerily reminiscent of today’s asylum-seeker problem. There was the outrage at a potential immigrant crime wave, the clamouring demand that an out-of-touch political elite take severe action against the “Sydney scoundrels”: “Are we to be robbed and assassinated in our domiciles, and the law to let our aggressors perambulate …?” There was the dramatic birth of a military-style operation – not Operation Sovereign Borders, in this case, but the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance: “Lynch law must be the remedy!”

This last, incidentally, was no joke. At least four Sydney Ducks (criminals all, admittedly) would leave San Francisco at the end of a lynching rope.

There were boatloads of unauthorised and undocumented arrivals turned back or deported, usually to “the care of their natural protector, Sir Charles A FitzRoy” (the then governor of colonial New South Wales). Detention centres featured too, in this case the hastily adapted prison cells in the chambers of the firm Bullitt, Patrick & Dow. There was even an attempt at a regional solution: a US consul, one correspondent thought, should be stationed in Sydney permanently to stem the vile torrent at its source.

The Sydney Ducks (a derogatory moniker that apparently mutated from the earlier “Sydney Birds” and “Sydney Coves”) were stereotyped as claim jumpers rather than queue jumpers, of course, but that was the mildest slur they suffered. They were “hardened thieves and robbers”, “the most abandoned men and women”. “[They have] mildewed the name of everything Australian,” one San Francisco weekly thundered. They congregated in their own “whorish quarter”, an ethnic slum called Sydney-Town, where “vagabonds watched the street … their features concealed by slouch felts”, and the depraved inhabitants indulged in “the most hideous orgies”.

They even looked different. Sydney Ducks were often recognisable, straight off the boat, by their shaved heads: “so recently [were they released] from confinement that the hair had not had time to grow”. Their legs were bowed and they walked with a peculiar swinging gait, learnt from wearing leg irons. They were also, fortunately, identifiable from their peculiar accent and dialect, which bristled with criminal “flash talk”.

So ingrained was the Australian criminal stereotype that it even became the yardstick of other misfortunes. For example, the abolitionist agitator George Thompson, wrote one newspaper correspondent, was “a greater curse … than a full cargo of Sydney convicts”.

As always, the stereotype was only partially deserved. Certainly, some Sydney Ducks were escaped convicts who, in true people-smuggling style, had bribed captains to let them stow away. Others were ticket-of-leavers, freed convicts who couldn’t resist plying their old criminal skills in a new setting. Since there were so many Sydney Ducks in San Francisco, however, even a small number of these made for a bustling cast of colourful underworld characters.

Thieves ranged from the Sydney desperado lashed for stealing six miners’ breakfasts from a Rattlesnake Bar boarding house to outlaws who robbed the Monterey Customs House of $14,000 – a king’s ransom. Slightly more respectable were the gambling scammers who ran tables relieving miners of their ounce-bags of gold dust using waxed cards and rigged wheels. One burly Sydney Duck preferred “The Badger Trick”: playing the outraged husband bursting in on his supposed wife as she seduced some vulnerable mark – he would, of course, forgo violence or the police for a bag or two of dust.

City fathers were particularly outraged by the shady hotels and inns that sprang up in Sydney-Town. Some of these were simply a moral outrage, offering live sex shows or, even worse, all-night grogging and dancing.

San Francisco’s moral panic over Sydney criminals seems to have been partly a hysterical reaction to the fires that incinerated the city six times between 1849 and 1852. The real culprit was probably the explosion of cheap wooden buildings, but supposed Australian arsonists made for a much more tempting explanation. A tiny but highly visible minority seemed determined to prove it. Of 70 looters arrested after one fire, 48 turned out to be light-fingered Sydney Ducks unable to resist the opportunity.

As with most immigrant groups, however, behind the hubbub, the hangings, the colourful misfits, and the petty and not-so-petty criminals lay a silent success story. The committee of vigilance was soon identifying so few convicts among Australian immigrants that it had to disband. In fact, as the Californian census of 1852 revealed, Sydney men turned out to be more often married, employed, sober and non-criminal than Americans. Even single female Sydney Ducks, supposedly prostitutes and unsavouries all, turned out to have their respectable uses in a colony where there were 12 men for every woman. One Sydney shipload “of whom over 70 were females … caused a rush of bachelors to the Bay … with boatloads of them climbing the ship’s sides”. These women, and all their supposedly fallen sisters, disappeared into the matrimonial city where they undoubtedly, as one author has pointed out, went on to produce a large proportion of the city’s later ruling elite.

In the end, the wave of anti-Australian activity broke as abruptly as it had started. By late 1851, the Ballarat gold rush had roared into life and Californian newspapers started decrying the Americans flooding out of San Francisco, bound for Australia. Sydney criminals suddenly seemed the least of the city’s problems, and panic about the Ducks receded. The stereotype lingered for decades, however, as a stock villain in stage plays, and even NSW Premier Sir Henry Parkes’ 1882 visit to California was reported under the uncomplimentary headline ‘A Sydney Duck’. It stands now, like the incongruous blue gums that line Californian highways, as a largely forgotten marker of how integration rolls on despite our worst atavistic fears – quietly, unassumingly and ultimately (usually) successfully.

Peter McAllister

Peter McAllister is an anthropologist and science writer from Griffith University on the Gold Coast. 

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