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Victorian Gold Rush

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Victorian Gold Rush
The first popular gold rush of the 19th century, was the California gold rush which started with the discovery of gold in Coloma, California in 1848. Close on the heels of California gold rush came the Australian version, the Victorian gold rush. Comparable to the California gold rush in many ways and the extent of its cultural and economic influence, the Victorian gold rush started in 1851 with the announcement of the discovery of gold in Victoria. Among the very first of these discoveries was made by a hut keeper at a location now known as the Specimen Gully. Soon enough, gold was discovered in other locations, including in Ballarat, and Bendigo, both in Victoria. These discoveries led to a gold rush, where more than 500,000 Australians, Europeans and Chinese rushed to Victoria to stake their claim to a fortune built on gold.

Australia before the Gold Rush
The first major settlement of Australia was made in 1788 when a fleet of 11 ships with 1,400 British people, including about 800 convicts, arrived in Sydney Cove near present day Sydney, and claimed Australia for the crown. This proclamation of the British sovereignty over the Eastern seaboard of Australia is celebrated as Australia Day even in the present day. With time, different colonies were found in Australia, as the British settled in the other parts. New South Wales was founded in 1788, Tasmania in 1825, Western Australia in 1830 and South Australia in 1836. Victoria was founded as a separate colony in 1851, just around the time the Victorian gold rush began. Even before the gold rush began in 1851, gold was discovered and mined all across Australia. This may seem strange - the finding of gold in an unclaimed land with no subsequent rush of others to stake claims - but many findings of gold were ignored due to various factors. Usually it had to do with publicity and the size of the find -some finds were not large enough to arouse interest, whereas knowledge about others was suppressed. For example, a geologist found gold in a creek near Lithgow, New South Wales, but kept quiet about it under pressure from the Governor of the colony, who feared that announcement of the discovery may attract criminals. Even before that, in 1823, James McBrien found some traces of the yellow metal near Bathurst, NSW. Again, information about this discovery was suppressed for fear it would lead to chaos.

Gold Rush of Australia
The Victorian gold rush is also known as the Australian gold rush because it was the first major gold rush of Australia. A major find was first announced on 12 February, 1851, when prospector Edward Hargraves claimed to have discovered a goldfield in Bathurst, New South Wales. The New South Wales government awarded Edward Hargraves with $10,000 for this find. This finding of gold was soon surpassed by the size and extent of gold mines discovered in the towns of Ballarat and Bendigo. Both these towns are located within 150 km of Melbourne. With the discovery of gold in these towns, the Victorian gold rush, or the Australian gold rush, had started in earnest.

In 1850, the population of Victoria was about 76,000. Within 10 years, it had increased seven fold to 540,000. This statistic alone should give a hint about the extent and popularity of the gold rush, and about the number of prospectors, adventurers, miners and workers it attracted to the colony in a short period of time. People came to Victoria from far and wide -one of the first Chinatowns in Australia, and the second in the whole western world, was found in Melbourne by the many Chinese who came to Victoria with the gold rush. Thousands of British and Europeans prospectors too headed for Victoria in the gold rush -it has been estimated that up to 2% of the population of the United Kingdom moved to Victoria in the 1850s. The total population of Australia increased threefold from 430,000 in 1851 to 1.7 million in 1871. The gold rush heavily influenced the city of Melbourne too. As the capital of Victoria, and the major city closest to the mining towns, Melbourne's population increased exponentially with the gold rush. Within months of the discovery of gold in Victoria, Melbourne's population grew from 25,000 to 40,000 inhabitants, and by 1865 Melbourne had overtaken Sydney as the largest and richest Australian city. Melbourne continued to grow exponentially for the next 4 decades and later too, and by 1880, it was the largest and the richest city in the British Empire after London. These numbers of growth for Australia, Victoria and Melbourne give a hint of the extent of the Victorian gold rush - unsurprisingly, many estimate it to be the largest gold rush in history.

The Gold Miners of Victoria, and their Mines
Locations that were previously forlorn developed townships overnight as miners in search for fortune came from Sydney and Melbourne. Beechworth, Ballarat and Bendigo were the most prominent miners' towns. Miners trekked on horseback or on coach to reach these towns, and from there to their goldfields. They pitched their tents, which they bought with them, and lived a hard life in the open. It was especially bad when it rained, or when it was cold in the winter. There was no facility of sewerage, and people had to use toilets that were little more than holes dug in ground. Apart from tents, many built huts and other types of tenements from wood and other materials they could lay their hands on. Usually the men who came to work there came alone, but as towns developed many also brought their wives and family with them. These men were the ones who first built sturdier homes in the mining towns.

This was the time of the Victorian age, and at that time, children were thought of as little more than short adults. If they were physically capable, and the family circumstances were not good, even children were expected to work; and the ones in the mining towns of Australia did just that. By 1852, there were about 12,000 children in the mines of Victoria, most of them helping their parents in their digs. But even so, as conditions improved, schools sprung up in canvas tents. These schools catered to hundred to children whose parents were working in the gold fields.

Initially, much of the gold that was mined was of the alluvial kind -this is the gold that is found in river beds and creeks. The action of moving water washes away rocks and other substances containing the gold until the remaining rock or soil is rich in gold. Alluvial gold was separated from the ore by panning. Panning is one of the oldest gold mining processes; it works on the idea of the higher specific gravity of the metal. To pan for gold, the deposit or ore is placed in a pan and mixed with water. On agitating this mix, gold, with other heavier materials, will settle in the bottom because it is heavier than soil or plain rock. In the initial days of the gold rush, the soil at some places was so rich that there have been reports of miners scooping as much as 96 ounces of gold from a single pan in a single day! That is worth as much as $100,000 in today's prices.

But these alluvial deposits did not last long -soon, miners had to dig for buried gold. This was done by finding the richer deposits, called seams, and following the leads of gold minerals by digging shafts after it. Leads referred to the gold bearing deposits, and following them meant that the miners would get relatively gold-rich ores from that shaft. The shafts were dug as deep as 30 meters; for deeper shafts, the miners used heavier machinery.

The Miners' Rebellions
The diggers, as the miners were also known as, were expected to buy a miners license, to be renewed every month, for 30 shilling each. This was a large sum in those times, and many tried to evade paying this fee. Taxes like these and other such governmental restrictions, coupled with the hard living that the miners had to make, led to many rebellions and protests from the miners. One such rebellion was the Eureka Rebellion, which remains as the only violent conflict or rebellion in the history of Australia till date.

The miners were especially incensed at the license hunts - when the police and other officials would blockade an area, and search for people who did not have a license. Miners in Ballarat first tried civil disobedience against such unsavory techniques of the officials, but not making any headway with it conditions were ripe for a violent outburst. This happened in December 1854, when miners from the Reform League, a miners group, organized themselves and formed a stockade. 22 miners and 6 soldiers were killed in the resulting military actions against the miners by the state authorities. Though they were suppressed at the time, the flag raised by those miners, the Eureka Flag, is today remembered as an icon of democracy and protest, and the rebellion itself remembered as an important part of Australian history.

The Legacy of the Victorian Gold Rush
Before the Victorian gold rush, Australia was little more than an outpost of the Empire where convicts were sent to resettle the colonies. But with the gold rush, a lot of people rushed into Australia and made it their home. For example, within 10 years of 1951, more immigrants arrived in Australia than the total number of convicts sent to Australia over the previous 70 years. In fact, many have observed that the discovery of gold in Victoria accelerated the end to the transportation of prisoners to Australia. This followed from the reasoning that sending convicts to Australia was not a punishment now; rather it was the ticket to a gold digging fortune.

With the coming of more immigrants, and the economic activity that came with so much of gold being produced, cities in Victoria and even in other parts of Australia prospered. Even today, the architecture of these cities is influenced by the boom in construction at that time -the architectural styles that were used in that time are still visible in these cities.

The gold rush also promoted the idea of mateship among Australians. Mateship is an especially Australian idea - one that stands not just for friendship, but also for shared experience and unconditional assistance. A comparable use of the word might be the word comrade used by the socialists. In the tents and the mines of Australia, men and women worked side by side under the idea of equality and fraternity. The mining towns were also a cultural melting pot - more than 30,000 Chinese, mostly men, were attracted to the Victorian gold rush within a few years. The percentage of the Chinese population as a total of Australian population has never been surpassed after that decade, when it stood at about 3% in the 1850s. This real world application of fraternity and equality has had a lasting effect on Australian culture - the way two Australian strangers calling each other mate today may be said to echo the way two miners may have called each other by the same appellation during the Victorian gold rush. This spirit of matehood or brotherhood has been seen in various points of Australian history. Russel Ward, a prominent Australian historian argued in his famed The Australian Legend (1958) that the Australian national character owed much to the traditions of living together in the harsh conditions of the bush. The miners who came for the gold, and worked together in comparable harsh conditions, further developed this tradition of mateship.

If you want to take a peek into the lives of the miners and pioneers who participated in the Victorian Gold Rush of the 1850s, you can visit Sovereign Hill, the outdoor gold museum in Ballarat, Australia. Even as they may be separated by more than a century and a half, more than 450,000 visitors go there annually to see the times and lives of the Victorian gold rush.

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