One of the things that defines Australian bushranging is the diversity of those that become bushrangers. Surprisingly, the only Chinese bushranger that seems to be of note is Sam Poo, whose career as a highwayman was as short-lived as it was violent.
Not a lot is known about Sam Poo’s early life, except that he was probably born around 1835 and his real name was likely Li Hang Chiak. It is believed he arrived on the Australian Goldfields from Singapore in the 1860s looking for fortune and possibly escaping trouble back home. He quickly gained the nickname “Cranky Sam” from the others on the Talbragar Goldfields in New South Wales due to his short temper and antisocial behaviour.
The Goldfields were a place of high tensions between the white and Chinese diggers. Fights and riots were commonplace between the two races and it is believed that Sam Poo was right in the thick of it, emerging in the wake of the infamous Lambing Flat riots. Sam’s interest seemed to have been more from personal resentment rather than the more conscientious motive of trying to fight back against institutional racism. Sam Poo disliked his fellow Chinese miners as much as his white rivals and became increasingly antagonistic and socially isolated. As time went on he withdrew from the Talbragar diggings and would spend hours shooting at a tree stump then digging out the bullets, recasting and firing them again. Then one day in 1865 he disappeared without explanation.
In an unprecedented move for a Chinese miner, Sam Poo had taken to the bush to live the life of a highwayman. He reputedly robbed ten Chinese miners on the diggings as his warm-up before heading to the highway. Armed with a sawn-off rifle and a clunky old revolver he operated on the Golden Highway between Dubbo and Dunedoo. Aggressive and only able to communicate in broken English at best, he was very intimidating to white travellers who were already anxious about the Chinese. As January 1865 drew to a close, things began to escalate…
On January 30, 1865, Elizabeth Golding, who lived with her husband Robert Golding at the Plunkett’s Billabong Station near Dubbo, saw Sam Poo talking to her daughter in the late morning. The discussion appeared to be heated. He soon returned and spoke with Mrs. Golding stating “If I cannot have my will of the girl, I will of you.” Mrs. Golding noted he was carrying a sawn-off rifle with a piece of leather around the barrel. Mrs. Golding ran to seek help. By the time her husband arrived Sam Poo was gone.
Three days later while riding around the property, James Francis Plunkett saw Sam Poo in one of his shepherd’s huts. He later discovered a flour bag had been emptied and some leather leggings had been cut. The cut leather, it would be found, was that which Sam Poo had wrapped around his rifle, indicating he had been hiding on the property for some time.
Shoot-out with Senior Constable Ward
On February 3, John Cluff saw Sam Poo in the neighbourhood. Poo emerged from the scrub and threatened Cluff with his sawn-off rifle. He asked Cluff where he was going. Cluff informed him he was going to see his boss, Plunkett, to which Sam Poo replied “Go on or I will give you one too.” gesturing to his pistol on a log nearby.
Senior Constable John Ward was returning to Coonabarabran from taking a prisoner to Mudgee for trial. Two stockmen informed him just outside of Barney’s Reef (between Birrawa and Dunedoo) of where Sam Poo was camped and reported that he had been committing offences in the area. Ward investigated and found Poo camping in the scrub. When Sam Poo saw Ward he bolted. Ward gave chase on horseback and Poo drew his rifle and said “You policeman. Me fire.” Ward dismounted and took cover behind his horse as he drew his revolver. Poo, by chance rather than skill, shot Ward in the groin, a devastating hit that drives into his abdomen. Ward fired 3 shots at Poo as he escaped.
James Francis Plunkett found Ward and took him back to his homestead and sent for the doctor. While waiting for help Ward expressed distress about his family and dictated an account of the shoot-out with Sam Poo knowing that he was close to death, which Plunkett recorded. Plunkett prayed for Ward, who died at 4.00pm and was quickly buried.
The next day, Dr. William King arrived after travelling 50km to treat Ward only to discover the patient was already dead and buried.
The hunt for Sam Poo
Armed police and mounted posse-men joined a manhunt for Sam Poo over two weeks. Driven by the desire for justice to be served to the man who created a widow with four children, they scoured the bush around the Golden Highway.
On February 18, the posse found Sam Poo camped in the scrub not far from where he’d murdered Senior Constable Ward. Stockman Harry Hughes, a half-caste tracker, approached Sam Poo with mounted constables Burns, McMahon and Todd. Realising he’d been found, Sam Poo fired his rifle at Hughes, tearing the tracker’s hat near his right ear. The troopers returned fire without hesitation and Sam Poo was shot in the thigh. Collapsing to the ground, he pulled out his pistol and reeled off a few shots at the approaching lawmen. He was easily overpowered, disarmed and taken prisoner.
The Trial of Sam Poo
Sam Poo was taken to the Mudgee hospital and treated for his wounds and thereafter transferred to Bathurst to stand trial for the murder of Senior Constable Ward and the attempted murder of Harry Hughes.
On October 11, Sam Poo pleaded not guilty before Justice John Fletcher Hargrave with Sing Shigh translating. The trial was reported in newspapers across New South Wales and concluded quickly with Sam Poo found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
On December 19, 1865, Sam Poo, the Chinese bushranger once known as “Cranky Sam”, was hanged in Bathurst Gaol, aged 35. He as described as being completely unaware of what was happening, clapping his hands at the door to his cell before his arms were pinioned. Three other Chinese prisoners were brought in to witness the execution. He uttered no final words before the noose was placed around his neck, the hood drawn over his face and the trapdoor opened. He was left hanging for the required thirty minutes to ensure the execution was effective.
“NEWS OF THE WEEK.” Mount Alexander Mail (Vic. : 1854 – 1917) 5 January 1866: 2. Web. 10 Jul 2017 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article197877940>.
“Sam Poo Was Australia’s Only Chinese Bushranger” The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939) 20 February 1936: 10. Web. 10 Jul 2017 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23381448>.
“Cranky Sam—Australia’s Only Chinese Bushranger” Truth (Sydney, NSW : 1894 – 1954) 4 January 1953: 28. Web. 10 Jul 2017 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article168045145>.