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Review of David Hill, Gold!

11 December 2010 2,645 views No Comment

Few Australians release that it was the discovery of gold at Gympie by the semi-literate James Nash in October 1867 that almost certainly saved from bankruptcy the fledgling colony of Queensland, which had only separated from New South Wales in 1859. The reality is that at the time of this spectacular gold rush at Gympie, some 160 kilometres north of Brisbane, the Bank of Queensland had closed its doors, the colony of less than 22,000 settlers was in the grip of a severe depression, most public works had been abandoned, and the unemployed were protesting in the streets of the capital.

Even fewer know that in the 1880s Andrew Fisher, who later became three-times prime minister of Australia, came from Scotland to Queensland aged 22 and soon headed for the gold fields at Gympie. There he lived and worked and joined the miners union. He then successfully stood for Queensland parliament. In December 1899 Fisher became a member of the world’s first Labor-government, headed by Anderson Dawson, who hailed from Charters Towers.

Although David Hill does not mention it in Gold!, the goldfields of Charters Towers were so important for the Queensland economy that, for a while, it boasted Australia’s second largest stock exchange and was widely known as “The World. Yet as gold mining spread further north, diggers and prospectors encountered much more violent resistance from Aboriginal clans that had previously been the case in more heavily populated areas of Victoria and NSW. As Hill explains, in many parts of the north and the far north of Queensland, “the Aboriginal tribes resisted the intruder, and a number of gold-mining sites were abandoned flowing hostile attacks from the local peoples.

In 1873 the prepossessing and aptly named James Venture Mulligan had sparked the Palmer River gold rush when he and his mates had discovered more than 100 ounces of gold deep in the tropical heart of Cape York Peninsula. More than 2000 kilometres north of Brisbane, the Palmer was “one of the wildest, most lawless and dangerous rushes the world has ever seen. And apart from the terrible climate, and impure water, whites on the Palmer goldfields, and also at Cooktown, had to contend with many Chinese diggers as well as dangerous groups of “hostile natives.

Hill is a good storyteller but he is not an expert historian and there are occasional gaps in his narrative. Nevertheless, he makes a strong case that the discovery of payable gold throughout our continent was one of the factors that fundamentally changed Australia. Thus the discovery of gold in western NSW by Edward Hargraves in May 1851 triggered a “rampant gold fever that spread from NSW to Victoria, New Zealand, Queensland, the Northern Territory, Tasmania and Western Australia. Only South Australia failed to experience a major gold rush. Over the next fifty years, until our federation as a single nation in 1901, hardly a year passed when diggers, including hundreds of thousands from overseas, were not scrambling to come to Australia.

Indeed, in the first two years after news of Hargraves’ find at Ophir in 1851 reached Europe, more people landed on our continent than had arrived since the so-called “First Fleet in 1788. And although men dominated the early rushes, it is not sufficiently understood that “eventually women and children would make up about a third of the population of most Australian goldfields.

Hill’s energetic book interweaves a number of fascinating vignettes. Thus we learn that, Lord Robert Cecil, later to become three-times prime minister of Great Britain, was one of the first Europeans to join the Australian goldfields from overseas. Aged 22 on arrival, he kept a detailed diary of his stay on the Victorian diggings. On the other side of the continent, the 24 year old Lord Percy Douglas, the elder brother of Oscar Wilde’s celebrated lover, Lord Alfred (‘Bosie’) Douglas, spent some time unsuccessfully searching for gold in Western Australia. Another 22 year old, Herbert Hoover, who later became the president of the United States, arrived to manage the Sons of Gwalia gold mine in Leonora, Western Australia, where he regularly had to battle the “red dust, black flies and white heat.

Hill tellingly explains that the female-dominated, yet misnamed, “temperance movement flourished during the gold era. Although he doesn’t say so, the aim of anti-booze activists was almost always total abstinence. Yet despite a 7000-strong petition to the NSW Parliament in July 1855 to “check the huge growth in drunkenness, it is unsurprising that in that colony, as elsewhere on the continent, little could be done to contain the diggers’ expansive consumption of alcohol.

Thus in the Great South Land, at least until the 20th century, gold and booze went consistently hand in hand.

David Hill, Gold! William Heinemann, 497pp, $34.95.
Review by Ross Fitzgerald. Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

SPECTRUM, Sydney Morning Herald, December 11-12, 2010