The gold fields were Australia’s first experience of a truly diverse population. The largely British population expanded to include people from all over the world, creating a diverse mix of language and culture.
Polish digger Seweryn Korzelinski wrote in his memoirs "a happy-go-lucky German tailor, a brawny English smith, a slightly-built French cook, a Polish Jew, an American or Dutch sailor, watchmaker, confectioner, a Swiss hat-maker, an impoverished Spanish hidalgo, gather near a mound of earth and one can see amongst them here and there a black Negro head, a brown Hindu face or the olive countenance with slanting eyes of a ‘child of the sun’. Elsewhere in a group a Swedish sailor away from his whaling ship, a Norwegian reindeer herdsman, a gaucho from La Plata, a Creole from Malabar or Mozambique and many others sit together. They amuse themselves with conversation about their countries of origin and its habits and describe events they have experienced, because every one crossed many lands and many a sea before arriving in Australia".
The diggers’ life
Most of these migrants lived harmoniously on the gold fields. Korzelinski attributed this harmony to the unvarying lifestyle of gold digging. He suggested that diggers discarded all remnants of their former lives and were united in the pursuit of gold.
"This very large society comprises men from all parts of the world, all countries and religions, varying dispositions and education, all types of artisans, artists, literary men, priests, pastors and soldiers, sailors, wild tribesmen with tattoo markings and those deported for crimes – all mixed into one society, all dressed similarly, all forced to forget their previous habits, learnings, customs, manners and occupations. All forced to follow their new occupation and to live the monotonous lives of the miners."
The migrants may have discarded customs and cultures but they kept the prejudices of their homeland. Korzelinski recounts an interesting conversation another Polish miner had with a bushranger when travelling through the Black Forest. The friend met a stranger "who proposed that they walk together. After a few miles and prolonged conversation, the stranger asked:
‘Where do you come from?’
‘Why didn’t you tell me that before?’ Was the dismayed rejoinder.
‘Why should you be so interested in it?’
‘Because if I knew, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time on you. It’s well known that you Poles never have anything.’"
The Germans were also the subjects of disdain. Korzelinski was sinking a hole near an English miner who had already dug 30 feet deep. To save himself wasted effort if the ground turned out to be barren of gold, Korzelinski asked the English miner how his shaft was going.
"The report I received was very encouraging so I went on energetically digging my shaft. During a break a compatriot of mine passing by stopped for a chat. My English neighbour was listening in and came up to me later asking in what language I was conversing. ‘My native Polish’ I replied. Apparently national animosities exist as strongly on the fields as anywhere else, because my neighbour explained with a great deal of embarrassment that his test hadn’t shown any trace of gold and that he had misled me because he thought I was a German."
By Suzie Hoban
Seweryn Korzelinski, (translated and edited by Stanley Robe) Life on the goldfields; Memoirs of a Polish migrant; 1850s in Victoria, Mentone Educational Centre, 1994.