A BENDIGO leader may have quietly helped head off a race riot on the streets of Bendigo, 168 years ago.
Joseph Panton never specified exactly what he did to head off a groundswell push to expel Chinese miners from the goldfields.
"I took steps to frustrate it, which I need not relate," he would surreptitiously remark in an unpublished autobiography, decades later.
Maybe that was for the best.
Leading government figures like him were already unpopular on Bendigo's goldfields, and some leaders had to play a little fast and loose if they wanted to get things done.
The threat of chaos subsided, for the moment, at least.
This is the story of a 23-year-old goldfields commissioner trying to navigate a sprawling, brand new tent city in the middle of nowhere.
"He was virtually in a position to run Bendigo in those early days, along with [prominent magistrate Lachlan] McLaughlan and various police outfits," historian Terry Davidson says.
The Bendigo history buff has studied Panton for years and says the young Scotsman was exceptionally bright and quite formidable.
That was just as well. Panton's job was anything but easy.
"We can't comprehend the intensity of life there, the milling of people, the primitiveness of the conditions," Davidson says.
"We can see drawings and various descriptions but it is hard for us to understand what a society it was."
What was more, anger was building amid the thousands of tents, dust and mining holes on Victoria's goldfields.
By the end of the year, miners would hole up at Ballarat's Eureka Stockade in a revolt over police corruption and an exorbitant goldfields licence system.
At least 22 miners and six soldiers would die when the military marched on the rebels.
It was not just coppers and their overlords grappling with hostile miners on Victorian goldfields.
So were Chinese miners.
They were widely distrusted by jealous Europeans who watched them find gold in mine tailings everyone else had deemed worthless.
Worse still, Bendigo's less enlightened miners said, more Chinese people were showing up to work the diggings.
So European miners started meeting en masse and discussing ways to drive Asian miners out.
Authorities were preparing to read the Riot Act in an effort to quell any aggravations.
Fifty extra police had purportedly been called up from Melbourne.
The way Davidson sees it, Panton probably played a backroom role in a plan authorities hatched to defuse racial tensions.
Midway through 1854, the authorities hauled an activist leader in for a very long "interview" with a prominent local magistrate.
Close to midnight, the activist walked free, promising to drop threats on Chinese miners.
The problem was solved.
There was no riot.
Still, by the end of 1854 it was obvious the authorities would have to do something about tensions simmering throughout the goldfields.
The winds of democracy were starting to finally blow through Victoria. A parliament would soon be established, along with the colony's first elections.
Those reforms were not going to stop Chinese people being targeted in racial violence.
That was a problem for people like Panton.
He liked having Chinese miners around.
For one thing, they did not periodically threaten to revolt against the Crown.
And they tended to pay their mining licence fees promptly and in full, which was critically important in a cash strapped colony where thousands of workers had recently walked off the job and headed to the goldfields.
So Panton came up with a proposal that would swiftly become law throughout Victoria's goldfields.
Authorities would gather together scattered Chinese mining camps into centralised areas, "for their own protection", Panton said.
They would have a culturally appropriate system to resolve issues with colonial authorities.
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Today, such an idea would be seen as segregationist.
Bendigo's Chinese community appears to have approved of the solution, even if they did not end all tensions, or systematic discrimination.
"Panton had kept the Bendigo field relatively peaceful and free from violence," Anita Jack and Leigh McKinnon wrote in their 2015 book A biographical Dictionary of Historic Figures in Bendigo's Chinese Community.
"Perhaps it was this that they [Bendigo's Chinese miners] were most thankful for."
Panton left Bendigo in 1858 "with high repute", according to Alan Gros in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
He was by that time a magistrate judging legal cases and a warden judging mining disputes.
Panton later settled in Melbourne, mapped the Yarra Valley and continued to serve the courts, though he kept land in Epsom and Huntly, and in his later years turned down a knighthood.
He died in 1913.
Davidson says there are many people who would look at 1850s colonial figures and conclude they were oppressors of miners.
"There are people with very closed minds about this. I realise lots of bad and oppressive things happened," he said.
Sure, Panton probably was part of an austere, formidable set of colonial bigwigs who sometimes interpreted the law according to their own whims.
But he was also a very intelligent, deep thinking public servant, Davidson said.
"I've seen enough of this very complicated man to say it's not the way to fully understand him," Davidson said.
This story is the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's regular history series, entitled 'WHAT HAPPENED?'
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