The murderer and the missionary
Gazettes and newspapers in Trove uncover Chinese-Australian history
18 January 2018
At the end of May 1878, In Chee of Goulburn was executed for the murder of a fellow Chinese, Li Hock, the previous summer. In Chee had been found guilty at the Goulburn Assizes of viciously attacking Li Hock after arguing with him over gambling losses, and so was sentenced to death.
We, the undersigned, do hereby declare and testify that we have this day been present when the extreme penalty of the law was executed on the body of In Chee, lately convicted at the Circuit Court, Goulburn, held on the tenth day of April, 1878, and duly sentenced to death. And that the said In Chee was, in pursuance of such sentence ‘hanged by the neck until his body was dead.’
George Ah Len was the only Chinese among the seventeen official witnesses to In Chee’s execution. Others included the medical officer, gaoler and warders from Goulburn gaol - where In Chee was incarcerated and the execution took place - and local constables. But who was George Ah Len, and why was he present at the execution of his countryman?
Historical newspapers and the NSW Government Gazette, both digitised in Trove, are an excellent place to begin to answer these questions. Using these sources, we can follow George Ah Len from the Victorian goldfields of the late 1860s through to his death in Sydney in 1889 – including his involvement with the 1878 murder case.
The earliest Trove newspapers reference to George Ah Len is late in 1868, when it was reported that Ah Lin had been baptised at Maryborough, Victoria and had begun to train in Melbourne as a Presbyterian evangelist. After his baptism, Ah Lin became George Graham Mackie Ah Len – a name borrowed from the convenor of the committee of the Presbyterian Mission to the Aborigines and Chinese, the Rev. George Mackie. George Ah Len worked as a missionary to his countrymen at Beechworth for three and a half years before moving to Sydney in 1872.
George Ah Len was sent north to New South Wales to take charge of the Presbyterian Church’s Sydney Chinese Mission. The mission aimed to convert the city’s Chinese residents to Christianity, as well as those who passed through on their way to and from the goldfields and elsewhere in the colony. A report on George’s Ah Len's work in November 1878 described how he conducted regular Sunday services out of the Ragged School in Harrington Street in the Rocks, with attendance of twenty to thirty Chinese. George also spent much time ‘visiting the Chinese in their own homes and of conversing with them about the gospel of Christ’. It was noted that of about 900 Chinese living in Sydney, sixteen had been baptised.
It was in 1878 that George Ah Len met In Chee, the man sentenced to hang for the murder of Li Hock. After the date for his execution had been set, In Chee agreed to being visited by a Chinese missionary, despite not being a Christian. George Ah Len, who had recently been naturalised as a British subject, was sent down from Sydney, and over the following fortnight he met and ministered to the condemned man.
On 27 May 1878, In Chee was baptised by the Rev. Andrew Macdonald Tait of the Goulburn parish, taking the Christian name of Paul. The following morning, after prayers and words of comfort from George Ah Len, In Chee was executed. He was buried in the Presbyterian cemetery. A year later it was reported that Goulburn’s Chinese residents performed traditional rituals at his grave during the hungry ghost festival (中元節).
George Ah Len died on 23 April 1889 at his home at 4 Queen Street, Sydney, aged 52. He had lived in Queen Street from his earliest days in the city – an unclaimed letter notice in the NSW Government Gazette in 1874 had, for example, given his address as Queen Street. George was mourned by his wife, Chin Sheng Geong, who had arrived in Sydney in 1877, and their six Sydney-born children, including twin baby sons Peter and Thomas.
For more information about the NSW Government Gazette in Trove: https://www.nla.gov.au/blogs/trove/2016/11/01/nsw-government-gazette
For a timeline of sources about George Ah Len and Chin Sheng Geong’s lives in colonial Australia: http://chineseaustralia.org/chin-sheng-geong/
For a list of newspaper reports and NSW Government Gazette notices about the murder of Li Hock and execution of In Chee: http://trove.nla.gov.au/list?id=110335