The golden days of Australian mining

Professors Erik Eklund and Susan Lawrence teach Australian Mining about the importance of the first Australian gold rush in shaping modern Australia, and its comparison to modern mining.

The Australian gold rush has never been as mythologised as its American counterpart, perhaps less buoyed by the lionisation of Hollywood’s golden age. From Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, through to the Paddy Chayefsky-scripted Paint Your Wagon, it’s a well-shod story.

But, according to Professor Erik Eklund, professor of history at Federation University and author of several books related to Australia’s mining history, the two events can be interconnected. He cites the Californian gold rushes starting in 1848 as a key catalyst for the birth of Australia’s gold fever.

“By the 1840s there were more free migrants [to Australia], and the prospect of a gold rush to assist colonial development was quite appealing to authorities,” he explained. “In some ways, the authorities had no choice but to open settlement to gold diggers.

“News of the presence of gold had been circulating since at least the 1820s, and there may have been unofficial gold rushes if the authorities had not attempted some form of control through taxation and new mining laws.”

Many white settlers from Australia who had moved to California in search of gold eventually moved back to Australia. There, they returned to find not just similarities to the countryside and topology found in California, but in some instances, an expectation of even larger hauls.

The example set by the chaotic gold expanse in the wild west of California was also a useful precedent for Australian authorities when dealing with the subsequent rushes in New South Wales and Victoria, drawing on this earlier experience to help navigate the early days of this strange, new prospecting boom at the far end of the Earth.

The context of immigration entirely changed with the wake of Australia’s gold rush as well, seeing a decisive end to the perception of the country as an extended penal colony.

It was this change in attitude to immigration that resulted in a more positive and opportunistic image of Australia. In the decade between 1851 and 1861, the number of white settlers in Victoria alone increased from around 77,000 people to 540,000 people.

“The news of gold meant that Australian colonial governments could stop subsidising or sponsoring migrants to come to Australia; the demand was so overwhelming,” explained Eklund.

“The population of Victoria exploded,” said Professor Susan Lawrence, head of archaeology and history at LaTrobe University in Melbourne (and expert on the Victorian gold rush). “The new arrivals were young, literate, and multicultural, with tens of thousands of Chinese joining migrants from France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, the Pacific, and North America in addition to British migrants. 

“Women came as well as men, leading to a pronounced baby boom by the 1860s.  Convict transportation ended because being sent to Australia was no longer a deterrent.”

The gold rush helped to foster communities, leading to significant regional development in Victoria and NSW from the 1850s, Queensland from the 1860s, and Western Australia from the 1880s.

“Ballarat, Bendigo, Charters Towers, Tennant Creek, Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie – in all of these towns gold was the trigger for development,” Eklund added.

In his 2012 book Mining Towns: making a living, making a life, Eklund focused on the importance of six major mining towns in the national hierarchy, arguing that the study of Australian history in the 20th century has a tendency to focus on capital cities and suburbs at the expense of mining and regional development.

One area of mining history from the 19th century that does get overlooked, in Eklund’s opinion, as well as the opinion of his Federation colleague Dr Fred Cahir, associate professor of Aboriginal Studies, is the important role of Aboriginal people in the time of the gold rush.

Cahir believes that in this inceptional period of great societal change, the Aboriginal people’s importance to mining expansion is often neglected in historical studies.

He cites the famed ‘Kerr’s Nugget’ as an example of this oversight in his book Black Gold: Aboriginal People on the Goldfields of Victoria, 1850–1870, stating that the discovery’s incorrect attribution to non-Indigenes, such as the famous 106-pound nugget of gold found by Aboriginal people near the Turon, illustrates how Aboriginal people have been excised from Australian gold history.

“Generally, most writers restrict their ‘Indigenous participation’ lenses to the latter part of the twentieth century and almost exclusively to the northern or arid gold-producing regions of Australia,” he explained in the book’s opening.

“The importance of Aboriginal people’s participation on the goldfields cannot be overstated. Not only has the traditional story of gold (characterised by a mistaken assumption that the ‘Aborigines were swept aside’) been shown to be untrue, there is now clear evidence that Aboriginal people were conscious actors and active participants in Australia’s economic history, rather than passive spectators, or pawns in another culture’s game.”

Lawrence said that Aboriginal people were aware of the existence of gold in Australia for thousands of years.

“With British colonisation, a new group of people who valued gold as a commodity arrived,” she explained. “Under British law all minerals were the property of the Crown so there was no incentive to exploit it and the authorities feared the social upheaval that a rush would bring.

  “The discoveries in California were the catalyst that made people realise that they could challenge the legal status quo and benefit from the gold themselves.”

Eklund agrees that Aboriginal workers were “often quite important” to the initial Australian gold rushes; the history of active participation among Aboriginal communities in the growth of the Australian mining industry can be seen today, he said, in the current day reality of gold mines located in rural and remote Australia, which often see Aboriginal groups holding Native Title rights over mining lease areas.

And speaking of current day reality, talk turns to the notion of the ‘new gold rush’ espoused by modern Aussie media, particularly surrounding prominent recent discoveries in the Pilbara and Eastern Goldfields region of WA.

Eklund believes it is a nice label that doesn’t stand up to close historical scrutiny, although there is one point of synergy between the 1850s and today that he says does bear particular interest: the role of China.

“Chinese miners, mostly from Southern China, were important components of the goldfields workforce,” he explained. “By 1861 there were around 24,000 Chinese in Victoria alone, and there was also Chinese investment coming to Australia. That is similar of course to today’s situation where Chinese investment houses are key players in Australian-listed gold miners, and China is the world’s largest producer of, and market for, gold.”

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