Gold-panning history, Paul Moon

Rushing for Gold: Life and Commerce on the Goldfields of New Zealand and Australia
Lloyd Carpenter and Lyndon Fraser (eds)
Otago University Press, $45.00
ISBN 9781877578540

Since 1887, when Vincent Pyke’s History of the Early Gold Discoveries in Otago was published, there has been a steady stream of books and articles dealing with aspects of the gold-rush in that region of the South Island during the 1860s. And in the case of the history of the discovery of gold in Victoria in the preceding decade, the research on the topic is even more voluminous. So can there be enough nuggets of insight remaining to be found by academic prospectors to justify another substantial volume on the gold-rushes in this period? The answer, in Rushing for Gold, is a resounding yes, the 21 authors who have contributed to this book having tapped into several fresh seams of analysis and interpretation.

The editors took some risks when devising this work. Firstly, the ambitious scope of the book and the dimensions of the gold-rushes that are explored in both countries could potentially have resulted in a tangle of chapters, with some material overlapping, and other elements being bypassed. However, Carpenter and Fraser have demonstrated their abilities to corral chapters that collectively are comprehensive in their analysis without being repetitive in their content. This alone is a significant achievement of the book.

The other risk the editors took was in their selection of contributors. Rather than go for the safe option of choosing only fellow academics, they cast their net more widely to include writers beyond the university system. It is a decision that paid dividends, these outsiders revealing not only great expertise in their specialist areas, but also writing styles that are every bit as engaging as the rest of the contributors in the book.

The chapters, grouped into five main sections, provide a panoramic survey of various facets of the gold-rushes in both countries, and manage to tease out an enormous variety of interpretations and insights. The first section – “Trans-Tasman Rushes” – explores the similar economic and social patterns that emerged in the gold-fields in Otago and Victoria, and how gold discoveries in both locations were merely the start of a process that led to often dramatic bouts of regional economic transformation. And not only did an entire social and economic infrastructure follow in the wake of gold discoveries in these areas, but there were also thousands of people moving back and forth between Otago and Victoria from the 1850s to the 1890s. These cycles of immigration and emigration – predicated on whichever of the two locations offered better economic opportunities – led to exchanges in expertise, and the development of secondary industries in Otago and Victoria, as well as the founding of towns and cities. At the same time, there were signs of the emergence of nascent regional and national identities in these regions, in which ethnic, cultural and other similarities between Australia and New Zealand gradually gave way to the forces pushing for more parochial forms of identity. This already intricate process was rendered even more complex by the ways in which the existing order of national identity, class structure, and ethnicity was tossed around and redefined both within Otago and Victoria and between the two regions as gold-rushes imposed new social and economic structures on the societies caught up in them.

From these analyses of the international character of the gold-rushes, the focus swings in the following section to two ethnic groups – Māori and Chinese – which made vital contributions both to the industry itself and the societies which emerged from it. The Chinese role in the gold-rushes has already been well-served in previous studies, but what is offered in this section of Rushing for Gold are three chapters that explore succinctly the vital cultural dimension at the heart of the Chinese approach to the social as well as economic phenomenon of the gold-rush. Attention is also paid to the significance of Chinese in the development of supporting industries (particularly growing food on an industrial scale to feed the communities that grew in and around the gold-rush region in Otago), the opening up of new trade networks, and the cross-cultural exchanges that defy the conventional stereotype of Chinese as being unwelcome in the gold-fields.

As much as the Chinese contribution to the gold-rush in New Zealand has been previously examined, and expanded on in this work, much less well-known is the fact that Māori miners were involved in the gold-rushes, not only in Otago, but also in Victoria (where they numbered in their hundreds at one stage). The influence of Chinese dress on some Māori prospectors is a small example given of the sort of cross-cultural arrangements that occurred, where each group looked to adopt the best from the others around them.

In a similar vein to the section on Māori and Chinese, the third section examines another specific group in the gold-rushes – and one that in popular representations at least tends to be diminished: women. Far from being limited to serving alcohol and offering certain licentious services, women in these gold-rushes organised and provided accommodation, ran public houses, acted as de facto doctors and, in some instances, seemed to take on the rugged spirit of individualism that characterised so many of the men. Any notion of women in these regions in any way being the “lesser sex” is quickly dispensed with in these chapters.

Popular culture has tended to depict the gold-rushes as comprising masses of individual speculators, whose scant time away from prospecting was spent drinking in rough-hewn taverns and sleeping in tents or huts. What “Goldfields Society”,  the penultimate section, reveals, however, is that there was an entire social structure that built itself around this industry, and that long outlived the gold-rushes. Many prospectors later turned to farming or labouring when the gold ran out, while others who remained in the areas became merchants and even bankers. There is also an intriguing chapter on the influx of lawyers – in a way themselves prospectors.

The final section, “Goldfields Heritage”, pulls back the lens to survey some of the wider characteristics of the gold-rushes and their aftermaths in Otago and Victoria, and in doing so, provides some idiosyncratic perspectives. The chapter on tourist-based interpretations, for example, offers a fascinating counterpoint between the detail in the preceding chapters and the way this history is now converted into a tourist commodity. The following chapter, on archaeological work in the Central Otago gold-fields, examines how the physical remains of the gold-rushes informs our understanding of the history of the period, but it is the final chapter in the book which delivers the biggest surprise. Instead of concluding with a staid summary of the themes examined throughout the work, it contains a short play (with the score of two accompanying songs included). It may seem an unorthodox way to conclude any collection of chapters on a historical subject, but it works surprisingly well, and readers who persevere with the play’s script will gain yet another layer of understanding of the gold-rushes.

Rushing for Gold deserves praise for another reason. The publisher has produced a volume that is generously illustrated. Moreover, the choice of pictures is judicious, often revealing, and always relevant to the chapters (something that is not a universal practice in publishing). Readers will also soon see that one of the distinctive additional visual aspects of this book is the use of graphs and tables. These can potentially become a deterrent but, in this book, their careful design makes the data they convey easy to absorb and enhances the accompanying text.

Too many edited books on historical topics end up being irregular in quality, and serve perhaps a small niche of readers. Rushing for Gold, on the other hand, is an enthralling book for the lay reader as much as the specialist, and is precisely the sort of history that the discipline requires: engagingly written; beautifully illustrated; and providing an abundance of new insights into the subject.

Paul Moon is professor of history at Auckland University of Technology.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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