The Price of Gold
In the context of the ideas of the 1850’s, the Australian gold rush came as a disruption to pervading agrarian ideologies that saw the new colony as a scene of cultivation, grazing and farming. At the time, most of the colony’s sixty million acres was in the hands of about 1000 squatters, each of whom paid their government twenty pounds a year for the privilege of a land lease. As leaders of the pastoral invasion since the 1830’s, and the occupiers of most of Australia’s land, squatters had a growing political influence over a Government that still recognized the moral significance of agriculture. As Dorothy Thompson explains, "Land ownership, control and cultivation were involved in the politics of all political groups... in every political spectrum."
Dairy farming, Gippsland. Man with horse and cart carrying milk tanks
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
Having already witnessed a productive lead silver development in South Australia, colonial authorities were becoming increasingly more aware of the economic possibilities of mineral wealth. Nevertheless, there were genuine fears that a "gold rush" would cause dramatic social and economic changes that the new colony was not ready to handle. On a symbolic level, the idea of instant and arbitrary wealth was a specter that colonial authorities did not want to contemplate. Convicts made up the majority of Australia’s population, after all, and a gold rush symbolized the horrific potential of a disenfranchised underclass controlling the majority of the colony’s new wealth. Moreover, on a social level, gold represented the wider dangers of soaring labour and commodity prices, and the abandonment of industry to the lure of instant wealth.
Feeding the Rush
Despite several isolated discoveries, the existence of gold was virtually a government secret throughout the 1840’s. Once rumors became confirmed, however, there began an exodus of domestic labor forces migrating to the gold fields. As mining communities expanded into towns, agriculture developed a new significance. As of all industries, agriculture suffered a large-scale abandonment. As David Goodman points out, "The acreage under wheat in Victoria fell from 12 150 hectares in 1851, to 6885 in 1852, and only 3240 hectares in 1853." Gold was the unit of currency in a changing labor economy, but it would not feed the communities that were expanding exponentially around the buzz of a gold rush. Indeed, from 1851–1861, the population of New South Wales doubled, whilst in Victoria, the capitol of the gold mining enterprise, population expanded seven fold. As Mr. Hellicar’s address to the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce illustrates in 1855, what was at stake was a genuine fear of massive food shortages:
"They were at that moment almost entirely dependent upon importation; and if … those importations were to cease, they would be left with their ships laden with gold, to die of starvation."
Despite the fervor, the Australian gold rush precipitated new areas for agricultural growth. Indeed, despite a severe depletion of its work force, the South Australian Government saw an opportunity arise out of the crisis: "When a South Australian absentee adventure bears in mind that every 22 and a half ounces of gold dust... will buy him an eighty-acre freehold property of virgin soil, he will feel... an irresistible motive to return as soon as he has filled his bag with the potential metal." In this way, the immediate development of Australian agriculture was borne, in no small part, to the genuine successes made on its gold fields. Whereas the benefits of gold mining were seen to be transient and uncertain, agriculture was seen to be a renewable source of wealth creation - solid, dependable and compatible with a civilized mode of agrarian living.
Poultry farming. Victoria
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
From gold fields to farm fields: a new credo
Although the gold rush had expanded the population of its colonies, it was a population that needed to be consolidated. Partly, the problem that had to be overcome was a moral imperative: miners were perceived to be beyond the reach of British civility; they were transient creatures, lacking geographical attachments and social responsibilities. Indeed, mining towns had proven themselves to be incapable of supporting the churches, schools and charities that were the fundamental institutions of European civility. For this reason, in moral terms, mining communities were considered to be wholly unsuccessful social experiments. John Sherer’s early account of the gold rush, describes "a community filled with unfortunates whose hopes had been blighted, whose perseverance had been exhausted, and whose tempers had been soured … such individuals are entirely unfitted for a life either of danger or toil. they act rather from impulse than reflection."
Conservatives treated this condition with the language of agrarianism. Fascination for gold was pathologised into a condition, and, in moral terms, land was installed as its panacea. Yet from the gold rush, a new social credo had emerged, which would gradually undermine the certainty of Britain’s hold upon its colony. It was a utilitarian credo, predicated upon the inalienable value of labour. Agriculture was seen to be the vehicle that would articulate this new ideal; it provided a new playing field upon which a new social order could be installed. As Sherer explains,
"It is not what you were, but what you are that is the criterion... your father may have been Lord of England, but... if you cannot (work), you are of no use here. Let him, therefore that has a desire to settle in this land, ponder well his capabilities... for if he cannot work himself... he must infallibly sink in the social scale, as he will everywhere else where physical activity and industry are made the highest standards of a man’s abilities for getting on in the world."
By James Cowie
Robyn Annear, Nothing but Gold: The Diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, 1999.
Douglas Fetherling, The Gold Crusades : A Social History of Gold Rushes, 1849-1929, University of Toronto Press, 1997.
David Goodman, Gold seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s; Agrarianism and Pastoral, Allen & Unwin, 1994.
John Sherer, The Gold-finder of Australia: how he went, how he fared, how he made his fortune, Clarke, Beeton, 1853.