28 April 2024

Riverina Rewind: The Chinese witness who swore an oath on a decapitated rooster in the Deniliquin courthouse

| Chris Roe
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A drawing of a chicken and a knife

The ”Chicken Oath” was considered the most binding to Chinese migrants appearing in court in the 19th century. Photo: Chris Roe.

In today’s multicultural Australia, the process of being sworn in to give testimony before the courts is tailored to reflect the beliefs and values of the individual.

The Western tradition of swearing on the Bible can be adapted to substitute other religious texts, or for those with no religious beliefs, an oath will suffice.

But the early days of Australian settlement and the administration of British justice gave rise to some intriguing accounts of how non-Christian witnesses were sworn in.

While some of the language and racial characterisations are problematic, this is the story of how a Chinese man in Deniliquin was permitted to make his oath by decapitating a rooster.

Under the headline “Swearing a Chinaman”, The Scone Advocate reported on 11 July, 1891, that a Chinese man was brought into the witness box and presented with a lit match to blow out.

This was common in 19th-century Australia and would be accompanied by the words: “This candle (or match) is now extinguished, and if I do not tell the truth, may my soul, in like manner, be extinguished forever hereafter.”

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However, the strength of the oath does not seem to have been sufficient for the witness, who soon halted his testimony and refused to say any more.

“The Court officials naturally surmised that he was dissatisfied at being obliged to give evidence on a wooden match, – and a young constable suggested a wax one, or even a sperm candle if the whole truth was to be brought out. At this the Court frowned, and the young officer sat down among the council in order to escape observation,” the newspaper reported.

“But the Oriental demanded much more. It suddenly occurred to him that nothing short of a decapitated fowl was binding on his conscience, and he demanded one accordingly — not a plucked one from the nearest poulterer’s, but a vigorous rooster that could be beheaded in his presence.”

The administering of the Chicken Oath is documented in other British colonial courts, and according to The Scone Advocate: “When it came to a case of importance or complexity, there was nothing like a cock.

“So the Court was adjourned while an active policeman was commissioned to secure a cock by payment or by force in the name of the Queen.”

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Word quickly spread through the streets of Deniliquin and by the time a rooster was found, the courthouse was overflowing with spectators.

The witness stood with a knife in one hand and the chook in the other and, after making his oath, “he went for the rooster’s neck with a sweep like a mower”.

“The bird, who evidently watched the proceedings with some natural misgivings, dipped his head so that it was only taken a half off.”

The poor bird burst free and proceeded to stumble about the court with the witness in hot pursuit, raining down a torrent of (presumed) obscenities.

“Even when ultimately deprived of his head, it only made him lighter and more frivolous, so that by the time his heart ceased to beat, the seat of justice looked like an abattoir.”

It was also rumoured that the witness was not the only one to use foul language in the blood-soaked courtroom.

Words of “a reprehensible character” were heard coming “from the direction of the Bench”.

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