Whilst most accounts of the frenetic Gold Rush days are portrayed in a positive light, there is one area in which the discovery of gold played a most destructive role – its impact on the Australian environment.
The gold rush brought huge environmental changes in the Australian landscape in a relatively small amount of time. Features of the land millions of years in the making were all but decimated in just a few decades. Prior to the 1850’s the Australian continent was relatively pristine – the Indigenous communities had lived in harmony with the land for centuries, and since European settlement had only been minorly disturbed. For the first time in the continent’s history, the advent of the gold rush disrupted and rapidly destroyed ecosystems, and put mounting pressure on the native flora and fauna.
Research into this area is still quite young and difficult to obtain, as very little information relating to the environment was recorded prior to the 1850’s. The renowned botanist, Ferdinand Von Mueller, was made president of the Melbourne Botanical Gardens in 1857, and few written records providing extensive information on the Australian native flora and fauna are available before then. The camera had not yet become popular in Australia at the time, so few accurate visual representations of the environmental destruction exist, except for paintings and drawings. But it is thought that many of these are even tainted by artistic licence – many paintings may have been produced with publication in mind, and of an idealised view, leaving out the less appealing realities.
The fact is that very little consideration was given to environmental impact in the 1800’s – it simply was not a concern. Some writers/explorers such as William Howitt, who lamented the destruction of the idyllic Victorian countryside, provided valuable environmental observations.
"...we had quietness and greenness, and the most deliciously cool water, sweet and clear. But this quietness and greenness cannot last. Prospectors will quickly follow us. We foresee that all these bushy banks of the creek will be rapidly and violently invaded. The hop-scrubs will be burnt, the bushes in and on the creek cleared away, the trees on the slope felled, and the ground torn up for miles around. The crystalline water will be made thick and foul with gold-washing; and the whole will be converted into a scene of desolation and discomfort".
But for the most part, Australia was a place to exploit, reap the harvest and ignore the consequences, so few bothered to make observations about the environmental impact. Newcomers were far too occupied with the race for gold to entertain any thoughts that they may be having a negative impact on the landscape. William Howitt was one of the few to realise "...we diggers are horribly destructive of the picturesque".
As the Australian population boomed from 1851 onwards – more than 600,000 immigrants arrived in Australia between 1851-60, many of whom headed for Victoria, boosting it’s population from 30,000 to 540,000 by 1861 – a plethora of environmental problems arose – soil erosion, salinity, water quality decline, growth of noxious weeds and extinction of native animals, just to name a few. Observers at the time commented on the way diggers ravaged the landscape, upturning and razing the land, then when it was rendered barren, moving on to the next site to repeat the process.
On the other hand, new townships built on gold sprung up throughout the country, cities like Melbourne flourished – adorned with beautifully designed English-style buildings and gardens. Eventually the agricultural industry took off, spurred by the population growth and the resulting demand for fresh produce. The subsequent intense expansion of the agricultural industry further changed the landscape out of all recognition.
"We might call it devastation; they called it pioneering" writes Geoffrey Blainey. What we see today as blatant misappropriation of our countries natural riches, settlers at the time saw as progress, a path to a new cultured, civilised nation. Undoubtedly the gold rush provoked intensive alteration of the Australian environment and massive ecological upheaval, but it also brought 19th century urban culture to the Southern Hemisphere and was the protagonist in moulding Australia into the place it is today.
By Yvette Height
Robyn Annear, Nothing But Gold: The Diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, 1999.
Don Garden, Catalyst or Cataclysm? Gold Mining and the Environment, Victorian Historical Journal Vol 72, No 1-2, September 2001.
William Howitt, Land, labour, and gold: or two years in Victoria with visits to Sydney and Van Dieman’s Land, Sydney University Press, 1972.
J.Lennon, Case Study of the Cultural Landscapes of the Central Victorian Goldfields, Jane Lennon and Associates; Australia; State of the Environment Technical Paper Series (Natural and Cultural Heritage) Environment Australia; 1997