"The journey was not easy. The horses were used to English words of command, which we did not know, and so did not respond to our Polish"
Seweryn Korzelinski, a Polish patriot was born in 1804. He took part in the Polish insurrection in 1830 and then in the Hungarian insurrection in 1848. However, nothing could prepare him for the hardships of life on the Australian gold fields. With little English, communication was difficult and the need to be near fellow Poles was constant for his own piece of mind and comfort in a strange land.
Arriving in 1852 the Polish immigrants were immediately faced with the exorbitant prices of Melbourne: "our group could not afford to take excursions or live in rooms". Having little money they were forced to stay in the tent they had brought with them and initially they imagined a "poetic scene".
"It will be nice and romantic to live in a tent erected between evergreen trees in this permanent Spring weather. The thought that there could be a storm, which might blow the tent down, or that rain might penetrate the tent doesn’t enter our heads."
Korzelinkski angles his story to the Polish reader and describes the strange exotic conditions of the hardly-known place in his book, Memoirs of gold-digging in Australia. His descriptions of Australia are evocative and the strangeness to him and his companions is apparent:
"Even today Australia is a queer mixture, on the one hand the dark skinned natives camping in the forests, giving a stamp of wilderness to the Country, and on the other the drive to get rich, to penetrate the mystery of the land, to taste adventure which brings in a variety of people from nearly all parts of the world, people of different temperaments, talents and aims."
Bush Scene - Port Stephens
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
Korzelinsky’s fascination with Australian Aborigines is also clear in his frequent accounts of them and his encounters with them. He tells a story of a missing person being found by an Aboriginal tracker who could see the body-fat of the deceased body floating on the water of a pond, although invisible to the investigating police. "They have remarkably well developed hearing and eyesight."
A multi-cultural land
Korzelinski often wrote of the multi-cultural nature of the gold fields. Once at the diggings the discrimination felt due to their lack of funds in Melbourne was tossed aside as the true nature of the gold fields was discovered.
"As they dig shafts next to one another, their outward appearance does not signify their previous importance, worth or mental attainments. A colonel pulls up the earth for a sailor; a lawyer wields not a pen but a spade; a priest lends a match to a Negro’s pipe; a doctor rests on the same heap of earth with a China man; many a baron or count has a drink with a Hindu, and all of them hirstute, dusty, and muddy, so that their own mothers would not be able to recognise them."
Although the different nationalities all work along side one another, and often band together to survive, Korzelinki soon discovers, "national animosities exist as strongly on the fields as anywhere else". He reaches this conclusion after arriving at a new digging site where English diggers mislead him after mistaking his accent for that of a German. Upon discovering that Seweryn is in fact Polish they apologise profusely for their mistake and admit their earlier falsehoods.
Korzelinsky’s party once again faced discrimination due to their small finances on the gold fields, this time though, it was a positive experience. Bushrangers, after discovering the party were Polish, left the group alone. As said by one bushranger, "it is well known that you Poles never have anything".
Danger abounds: "Shooting and murders seem to be quite common."
Although safe from the bushrangers when the party arrived, Korzelinsky soon discovered that the gold fields were a dangerous place. There were constant fights where stray bullets often killed diggers in their beds at night, one came so close to Seweryn that he heard it "whisper" past his ear and "suddenly the sound ceased as the bullet hit the ground". Even the dogs the diggers used to guard their tents were little protection against bullets.
The daily grind: "hard work and primitive life"
Korzelinski details the daily events and work required at the diggings throughout his book. He gives the reader a sense of what it was truly like to be there.
"All week the miners dig, wash gold and work like bullocks, Saturday afternoon they usually remain home, but even then they have a variety of tasks. Wood has to be collected for the following week. There is also the task of washing clothes. Those without a wife or housekeeper do it themselves."
Eventually the daily grind wears on Korzelinski. He thinks of Poland often.
"This hard life made each year seem overlong, particularly when the unknown future indicated a possibility that my stay in the bush might last for a long long time. When I thought with longing about snow and frost in my homeland and realised that I might be laughed at for such sentiments, I had a ready answer: Go to Australia, spend a year in the mines and then judge.
By Lisa Breen
Seweryn Korzelinski, Memoirs of Gold-digging in Australia translated and edited by Stanley Kobe.