Bright fine gold, Peter Calder

Diggers, Hatters and Whores: The Story of the New Zealand Gold Rushes
Stevan Eldred-Grigg
Random House, $55.00,
ISBN 9781869419257

In the closing pages of this comprehensive, even magisterial, historical survey, the author quotes the observation by Joan Stevens in The New Zealand Novel (1966) that novelists had “not yet made fine literature out of the diggings”. Noting “skilful” exceptions, from Elsie Locke’s The Runaway Settlers in the 1960s to Rose Tremain’s The Colour in 2003, Eldred-Grigg remarks that Stevens’ words are “true to this day”.

Well, if writers of imaginative fiction have been held back because they lacked a single, compact, authoritative source of historical detail, they no longer have that excuse. Whatever else may be said about it, this book, in part produced under one of the generous CLL Writers’ Awards, seems unlikely to be eclipsed as a historical compendium. Material has been culled from a wide variety of sources to make a definitive record and practically every page yields the bones of a fascinating plotline for a historical fiction.

But I’m not sure that Eldred-Grigg himself has managed always to dress those bones with sufficient narrative flesh to make them come to life. In fairness, I should note that other reviewers have specifically made the contrary observation: “lively”, “big, rollicking” and “immensely readable” are the epithets reported in reviews quoted on the author’s website. But this reader found that, at times, the writer becomes bogged down in the historian’s duties and the readability suffers.

In opting for an academic approach, heavily annotated and referenced, Eldred-Grigg is plainly conscious of debts to his sources and to posterity. No one can sensibly fault him for that. But, particularly in the book’s first half, a survey of the history of gold fever in general and the various New Zealand rushes in particular, the precise and scholarly style makes for anything but a racy read.

At times, citation seems to exist for citation’s sake: “Gold! Gold!” wrote a clergyman, we are told, but quite why or where he wrote it, much less what else he had to say – for presumably he did say more – remains a mystery. Likewise, the fact that one newspaper “shrieked” “NEW DIGGINGS”, or another reported “Surface gold, in minute quantities”; the citations seem pointless other than as sources. If another contemporary report records that “Buildings are going up every day and the sound of the hammering is heard until a late hour in the night”, this seems rich material for the writer to build on, rather than simply to quote.

As a writer, too – perhaps because he has become distracted by his researches – Eldred-Grigg might have benefited from a firmer editorial hand: too often he resorts to jarring archaism (“Nor were well-to-do folks the only ones …”) or cliché (diggers-turned-soldiers take “the Queen’s shilling” so often they must have made a pound at least). Likewise the use of “might” and “would” before verbs describing actions on which he is speculating holds us at arm’s length from events. We long so much for direct contact with the history that when he occasionally, perhaps unconsciously, relents and says that “crowds of miners thronged the streets paying for, or gawping at, what was being sold”, the page is freshened as by a breeze.

It is difficult to understand in our ruthlessly individualist age how men who lived in the daily hope of unimaginable wealth somehow considered themselves part of a grand shared enterprise. Perhaps it is a measure of the sense of boundless possibility that drove the goldseeker, perhaps of the impossibility of keeping good news quiet for long, but a successful prospect was always quickly reported. Gabriel Read, whose 1861 strike north of Lawrence changed the course of the Otago rush, was famous for his sense of altruism and his determination that greed should not drive men to desperation. Yet what he did when he struck it big still seems remarkable.

He had, he wrote years later, “arrived at a beautiful soft slate and saw the gold shining like the stars of Orion on a dark frosty night.” Having dug for a day in what would soon become known as Gabriels Gully, he gave a gift of gold to the wives of the local shepherd and local farmer, both of whom had shown him hospitality. But he lost no time in writing to the provincial superintendent, “taking the liberty of troubling” him with a report of his find and his “certainty that men with the proper tools would be munificently remunerated.”

No plainer demonstration can be imagined of the fact that the goldrush community was a country within a country, in which more united than separated its people. It was a subculture with its own mores which saw itself as having common enemies (the land-use clash between wool-growing gentry and the miners is a recurring theme in the book).

Eldred-Grigg makes the point early that gold fever was an instrument by which this country, among many, was settled. Auckland newspaper the Southern Cross commented that it was “idle to rail against the madness of gold digging [because it was] the instrument by which population shall be conferred on the Southern Hemisphere.” And as instruments go, it was an extraordinarily efficient one: only two years after the beginning of the Otago rushes, the province was home to more white settlers than the whole of the North Island.

Not that they would have seen themselves as settlers, if that required a sense of oneself as settling down. The history of the rushes is a story of grass always looking greener in another province: the cry “Rush, ho!” echoing through the diggings was enough to prompt diggers to down tools, pack up and head off for the newest field.

We are reminded of the hard truth that, though some made fortunes, far more made nothing, went bust or spent their meagre gains in drinking, whoring and reprovisioning. Their language betrayed the sense of transience they felt: a gold find was referred to, in the terminology of the gambling table, as “winnings” – by definition something that could be lost as quickly as it had been gained.

And transient the diggers were, not just as individuals but as a historical moment. Even in the short European history of these islands, the rushes are a flicker; barely a dozen years separate Gabriel Read’s strike and the end of the massive stamper batteries in Thames. Apart from some sporadic and not very lucrative finds in Westland into the 1870s, the rush was over almost as soon as it began.

The pace of the narrative lifts considerably in the book’s second half in chapters with tantalising names like “Who were the Diggers?” and “Life and Death on the Diggings”. It is here that we begin to get the sense of camps teeming with life – and stalked by death – and where individual stories peer out from beneath the welter of statistics.

And it is here that the classlessness of the subculture is most apparent. Early on in the rushes, rich landholders tried to quash news of nuggets not because they wanted the gold but because they saw it “rightly, as a threat to their flocks, their landholdings, their wealth and their dignity”. But Eldred-Grigg’s story shows that the rushes were the birthplace of mateship, the beginning of a society in which, as a contemporary song had it, “there’s no masters here to oppress a poor devil”.

The writer paints an often vivid picture of life in the camps whether in “dusty drought” or “sloppy mud and ponds of stagnant water”. The 21st-century camper might sympathise with the digger “covered with blood drawn by [sandflies] and driven nearly mad”, but the harshness of daily life is otherwise hard to imagine. Many more men died on the goldfields – drownings in swollen rivers were a daily occurrence – than in all the land wars.

And the book also engages in some useful and plausible speculations about sex on the goldfields – a necessity since there is scarcely a word in the documentary record about heterosexual activity and not a syllable committed to print about diggers’ dealings with each other.

Eldred-Grigg – somewhat ungrammatically – calls the gold rushes “the biggest single event in the history of colonial New Zealand”, and it is indeed remarkable that it has not attracted the attention of a popular historian before now. Notwithstanding the misgivings mentioned above, he has done an excellent job. This is a handsome book, well-priced, considering the quality of its production and the very many illustrations that break up the text. The index is often unhelpful, but in that regard this book is far from uniquely at fault. And whatever its blemishes, it is an important addition to the shelves of anyone with an interest in this country.

Peter Calder is an Auckland writer and critic.