Contributor OF THE WEEK
Violence, Murder, and Dispossession – The Human Cost of the Australian Gold Rush – By Outback Family History reader Jenni Hodge
Rushing for gold makes a few individual fortunes, and breaks the hearts and lives of many more. While it is undoubtedly true that, on a larger level, the Australian gold rush greatly aided the Australian economy and helped Australia grow from a backwater convict-dump to a player of some note on the world stage, on a personal level it was devastating to many of the families who were involved. At the first whiff of gold, the adult male population of Australia deserted homes, families, businesses, and all other responsibilities in order to flock, en masse, to the goldfields. As the Migration Heritage Centre Point out, “Ship crews deserted, leaving vessels stranded in port, shepherds left their flocks, government officials, clerks, teachers and policemen left their jobs in the excitement. Soon they were joined by thousands of immigrants from Europe, America, China and New Zealand keen to try their luck.”
This caused heartache and devastation among the people they left behind – and it was often not much better for the prospectors themselves. Many laboured for weeks, months, years in appalling conditions yet had to return home with empty hands and broken spirits – if they made it back at all. Perhaps worst of all was the situation met with by the Aboriginal peoples of the goldfields, who were evicted unceremoniously and often violently from their ancestral lands. While the gold rush undoubtedly had positive economic and even (in the long term) societal effects, its human cost should not be forgotten. Many of our ancestors suffered great hardships in the pursuit of this shiny rock, and the emotional scars the experiences left behind would reverberate throughout their families for generations.
Conditions on the goldfields during the height of the gold rush were appalling. Impoverished and desperate prospectors lived in cramped, squalid camps. Every day, their hopes would be dashed and their frustrations rise – with devastating results. While many have extolled the virtuous nature of life on the Australian goldfields in comparison to that of the Californian goldfields, evidence is beginning to emerge that the life of the Australian gold prospector was not as clean, calm, and sober as contemporary commentators were keen to portray it. Violence against the Aboriginal people in particular was extreme and often sadistic, revealing a cesspool of frustration and resentment bubbling beneath the surface of unsuccessful prospectors, and breaking out into ostensibly racially motivated violence. Immigrant gold miners, too, suffered greatly in this manner – yet such acts of xenophobic violence tended to go unreported.
Indeed, it seems that much of the illusion of peaceful prospecting camps has come about simply because prospectors had become so used to violence, brutality, and the breakdown of law and order that they ceased to notice it. As Fred Cahill says in his book ‘Black Gold’, “Testimony of how ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ life at the goldfields could be is underscored by how inured miners and other commentators became to what would now be termed horrific murders and, equally, to industrial accidents.” These young men had uprooted themselves from the familiar structures of law, order, and society which they had been trained from birth to adhere to, and taken themselves to a highly competitive, squalid environment in which nobody was a friend, and death and mutilation were the norm. For this, they would suffer the psychological consequences. Initially, they were often shocked and even traumatised by what they witnessed in the camps – but they swiftly became ‘numbed’ to the violence.
They drank, they cursed, they gambled and fought. Violence broke out swiftly and easily – many lived with their nerves on a knife edge and fists would fly at the slightest provocation. Doubtless, had the gold rush come today, many returning prospectors would be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as defined by psychguides.com, given their tendency to sudden, inexplicable violence, their propensity to turn to substances, and their emotional numbness. Many of these young men were irrevocably damaged by their experiences in the goldfields, and the families to whom they returned would suffer the consequences. Domestic violence rose sharply in the gold rush years, and many Australian children would grow up in abject fear of their fathers.
It was by the Aboriginal peoples, however, that the worst effects of the gold rush were felt. Quite apart from the horrific violence, racial abuse, and sexual abuse that they suffered, they lost the lands which had nurtured their families for centuries. Many were driven off by the fists and guns of prospectors. Others were forced to leave because mining had rendered the environment unable to sustain their traditional way of life. Yet more became embroiled in the lives of the camps and as such became introduced to European vices which would wreak havoc upon their societies. As modern historians have pointed out, Indigenous Australians were not mere helpless victims of the gold rush, but actively participated in it and thus, like the white prospectors, were in some degree engineers of their own fate. “Many worked on the sheep stations, provided their expertise of the land to gold hungry diggers, engaged in trade with the miners or were members of the Native Police Corps”.
Such close contact with Europeans and white Australians would have devastating consequences for Aboriginal societal structure. Proximity to white miners also meant proximity to white diseases like smallpox, to which the Aboriginal population had little to no resistance. With more long lasting effects, however, was their lack of resistance to alcohol. Alcohol traded with white Australians was already beginning its damaging sweep through the Aboriginal tribes by the start of the gold rush, and the sudden proximity of booze-swilling miners made it all the more easily available.
The Human Cost of Gold
The positive effects of the Australian gold rush should never be denied. In many ways, the discovery of the goldfields made Australia the nation it is today. However, this came at great personal cost for many. Plenty of our ancestors sacrificed their families, their sanity, their societal structures, and even their lives for the gold-formed nation we live in today. Such sacrifices should not be forgotten.