From the first nugget found in a Bathurst Creek to the 370,000 immigrants who arrived in Australian during 1852, every step of the gold rush changed this nation. Before the 1850’s, Australia was a lawless unknown, a prison colony meant as a punishment and threat to any who would commit a crime in the kingdom of England.
However, just fifty years after the beginning of the Australian gold rush, Australia became an independent country. From a wilderness inhabited by convicts to a free and federated nation in less than half a century. Such a huge shift has rarely been seen anywhere in the world.
So, what has the power to do that to a country?
Gold attracted hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Australia. During the 1850’s alone, Australia’s population grew from just 400,000 settlers to over 1 million. These new colonists came from all over the world.
The majority were British but many came from Germany, Italy, France and even America. This created a rich multicultural cooking pot that gave us many of our fine cuisines and would forever forge a highly diverse population.
Many of these adventurers and exiles came looking for riches and a chance to escape the ‘old world’ politics of Europe. They had lived downtrodden lives under the upper classes in England and France and saw the gold diggings as a form of ‘lottery’.
A man could become incredibly wealthy on the gold fields overnight and gold veins certainly rewarded those who worked harder. It gave the new colonists a feeling of control over their fate. Low classed travellers could wring as much gold from the earth as high class families who had been wealthy for centuries. This gave the diggers a sense of equality that was rarer in Europe at the time.
Much of the way Australian’s see themselves was forged from these circumstances. The idea of a ‘fair go’ can be tracked directly back to that equality the diggers saw on the gold fields. Anybody had an equal chance to succeed as long as they put the work in. Today these ideas are still real. Many Aussies are happy to help or tip their hat to someone who works hard and defend those who are unfairly treated.
The effects of the mate-ship bonds they formed working their small mining claims are also very alive today. This was seen again during the World Wars where Australian soldiers were nicknamed ‘diggers’ after their prospecting ancestors. Aussie troops were well known for caring for their own and working together.
The word ‘mate’ has also become synonymous with Australians and Australian culture. The simple slang greeting ‘G’day mate’ has forever been engraved into the way other nations view Australian language.
Australians, in general, view themselves as battlers against the odds and (perhaps more importantly) rebels against authority. As mentioned before, many of the colonists who arrived at our ports came from hard backgrounds and were tired of serving under ruling classes that made all the laws serve a few. They had left their countries looking for a fresh start.
These people were ready to fight for new ideas and changes. The Eureka Stockade was a famous event that was one of the stepping stones towards a democratic Australian government. The dispute was mainly over expensive miners licenses that had to be paid by a digger to work a mining claim, even if he didn’t find any gold.
Police would occasionally descend onto a gold field for ‘license hunts’. If they found a miner without one there was a fine, if the same miner was caught again the fine doubled. The harsh way police conducted these ‘hunts’ as well as local corruption were more fuel to fan the going rebellion.
A number of rebel miners in Ballarat formed a group known as the Ballarat Reform League under the leadership of Chartist John Basson Humffray. Many joined due to the recent death of a local miner and suspected fowl play among the police and suspected killer, however, the group’s aims and ambitions quickly turned political.
The miners wanted the chance to vote in elections, more opportunities to purchase land (which then was under the control of wealthy merchants and nobles) and the complete reform of the gold field administration.
At the climax of the rebellion, 1,500 miners met at Bakery Hill on Friday the 31st of November 1854. These miners then marched to Eureka where they erected the famous stockade and Eureka flag. However the number of rebels decreased dramatically on the days leading up to the battle due to lack of food and organisation.
On the following Sunday, the 3rd of December, the Gold Commissioner launched a surprise attack on the remaining 120 – 200 rebels. At 3 o’clock that morning, around 300 police stormed the make-shift barricade. Despite fierce resistance by the miners, the battle was a massacre. The police went into a frenzy stabbing the wounded and destroying tents. In the aftermath 22 miners were killed and 12 were wounded.
120 of the rebels were arrested and 13 were charged with high treason. However, the juries in Melbourne refused to convict them and not a single man was found guilty. This watershed event in Victorian law is thought by many to be the birthplace of Australian democracy.
The gold rush brought roads, rail and the first telegraph. Much of the rest of the country, including Western Australia and Queensland were mapped and settled in the name of gold exploration and prospecting. The huge amount of wealth that flowed from central Victoria and later southern Western Australia would pay for the industrialisation and modernisation of the entire country.
By the early 1900’s Australia was a single unified nation under federated democratic governance. And now over a hundred years later this country still bears many marks of its glittering heritage even if many no longer remember why.
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