Richard Broome; Andrew Jakubowicz and Mara Moustafine.
Historian Richard Broome explores the development of democracy on the Victorian goldfields
30 January 2009
source not available
Well when the gold rushes occurred in 1851, people across the world were just set alight by the news of these potential mountains of gold. Certainly the Ballarat and the Bendigo goldfields were as rich as anywhere in the world so they were extremely attractive. Tens of thousands of people – mostly young men – but from all the cities of Europe, North America, Asia, set sail for Victoria and New South Wales.
So once they got here, it was a very interesting cultural situation. They mainly worked in groups of people from their own nationalities but they met so many people on the track, in the mining camps, at the bush inns, that were from other cultures, sometimes they teamed up with people cross-culturally and worked together in mining groups but otherwise they just were exposed to them and the mining experience was a very democratising experience. Everyone was on the one level, whether you were a professional man back in London or whatever you were, on the goldfields you were equal because it was dependent upon how well you could dig, how much muscle you had and how lucky you were.
So it was a very egalitarian experience in that way. Everyone was set down at the same level of being in rough work clothes, digging like crazy trying to find gold. So it was an intercultural experience but there were nodes where you know, you would have the French gathering at a French hotel or the Americans formed their own pubs and sometimes worked in groups of Americans so you had these little cultural clusters but overall there was quite a multicultural atmosphere.
And of course, in the mid-1850s probably 25 to 30% of the diggers were Chinese gold diggers and there were some tensions there but also there were exchanges and engagements with that.
... and about the Italians who came, they were an interesting group, – a lot of them came from Ticino on the Italian-Swiss border, they called themselves, “Swiss-Italians” and they tended to form work teams together on the gold fields. Some of them settled in Daylesford after the gold period and there is a macaroni factory that still exists in Daylesford which was created by them. It has wonderful murals on the wall with a political intent because most of them were from a generation that was political about Italian unity and Italian freedom back home and they carried these ideas. And of course on the goldfields the diggers were discussing their rights – the right to vote, the right not to be taxed without a vote and representation. So they were very political times and many of them shared the same politics and at Eureka you had a great diversity of people: the Americans were there, they were almost aggressive, there was a group of American rifle men who were wanting to defend the Eureka stockade and were prepared to go to battle to defend the diggers rights. And the Irish were very strong in the Eureka stockade as well.
So across the board I think the gold rushes were an extremely liberating experience. The diggers picked up the ideas that were circulating in Europe at the time. The gold rushes were only three years after the revolutions of 1848 and so those ideas were brought here and of course for the English who came they came with the ideas of Chartism in their heads, the biggest political movement of the 1840s. These were the ideas of the right for everyone (meaning men at that time) to be given a vote. So democratic rights.
I think the central drive was coming from those with the experience of Chartism in England but they were all adding to it and so there was an Australianness if you like because the Australian colonies, once they’re given the right for responsible government in the 1850s and told to make their own constitutions, quickly make them democratic. They were in fact, a generation ahead of Europe, so that there is an Australian flavour to that democratic impulse and I think that catches up all the ethnicities and nationalities and their aspirations.