A Murder Story, New Zealand 1905

I first published this sad story of racial discrimination in New Zealand at the beginning of the 20th century on the site, Knoji, 5 April 2010. I believe stories of our past, such as this one, are worth retelling. Can we really say society has learned from such terrible events?

The discovery of gold in three New Zealand locations in the mid nineteenth century resulted, as it did elsewhere, with a rush of miners arriving to test their luck. At first the New Zealand government encouraged Chinese miners, as they boosted the economy of the young country, and were prepared to work over ground abandoned by European miners.

Resentment and racism grew as the Chinese became more established and successful. Public meetings urged the government to stop allowing alien immigrants into the country. In the Otago goldfields and surrounding areas, tensions grew and many outbursts of violence occurred. This discrimination against the Chinese continued long after the gold rush days had ended.

Murder in Wellington

On the night of 24 September 1905, long after the gold rush days, an elderly Chinese ex miner from the West Coast mines was shot twice in the head from behind. At first his cold-blooded murder seemed a mystery.

Next morning, however, a well-dressed gentleman, Lionel Terry, walked into the Wellington Police Station and announced he wished to give himself up for shooting a Chinaman in the head. He explained  he didn’t believe Chinese should be allowed to live in New Zealand and that European and Asiatic races should not be allowed to mix.

On the day of the murder, Terry apparently behaved quite normally. He spent the afternoon with a friend, before having tea at his hotel at 5.50pm. After the  cold-blooded murder he shared supper with a group of friends, including several members of parliament.

Terry conducted his own defence in court, arguing no harm had been done, as he’d chosen an old and crippled man who was only a burden to society. On these grounds he sincerely believed his deliberate act of murder could be justified. He stated that he’d never recognise any law of the land protecting alien races in British countries and his act of murder was deliberate. He believed the issue of the Chinese presence  in New Zealand needed to be brought to the public’s attention. Because of this he was prepared to take the consequences, still believing he’d done no wrong.

Life Imprisonment

It took only thirty minutes for the jury to reach the guilty verdict. The judge handed down the death penalty, but  the Government intervened and changed it to life imprisonment. Terry was soon transferred from prison to Seacliffe Mental Hospital, where he lived the remainder of his life.

This event was believed to be the last major act of unprovoked violence against Chinese arising from the gold mining era.

Reference: Opium and Gold by Peter Butler. Published by Alister Taylor, New Zealand, 1977

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