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Mining Aboriginal lands

Bush Scene - Port Stephens
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

The gold rush was a second wave of dispossession for Australian Aborigines, many of whom had already been forced from their land by pastoralists. The massive influx of diggers onto their land and the ensuing environmental destruction had a lasting impact.

A culture upturned and despoiled

"For the whites of the colony it was in every sense a ‘golden age’. For the Aborigines, who saw their former lands upturned and despoiled, it was a period of continued social dislocation and almost complete government neglect," says historian Michael Christie. The deterioration of the Aboriginal way of life sharply contrasts with the good fortunes of the diggers. While some tribes managed to blend traditional hunting and gathering with work on the pastoral stations, many Indigenous communities fought a losing battle to save their culture.

"In the more settled areas where gold was first found, the Aborigines’ battle to retain their traditional culture was already lost. In those areas the remnants of tribes (often depleted family units) would fix camp on a squatter’s run or on the outskirts of the diggings and eke out a living by doing odd jobs, trading fish, game, or Aboriginal implements and by begging and prostitution. It was a precarious existence and its effects showed in the pot-bellied appearance of the undernourished children."

Edward Wilson, owner and editor of the Argus was critical of government neglect of the Aboriginal people of Victoria. He highlighted that in the few years that Victoria had been a colony, the government had sold Aboriginal land worth 4,500,000, gold to the value of 35,000,000 sterling had been taken from that land, and that millions more had been made from the sale of beef, mutton and wool. In return, the government had appropriated the contemptible sum of 1,750 for the benefit of Aboriginal people. Wilson concluded by pleading that the few remaining Aboriginal people in Victoria be compensated as fully as possible, no matter what the cost.

Despite the social disruption wrought by the discovery of gold and the influx of new immigrants, Aboriginal culture persisted. Elizabeth Laye wrote of meeting the Avoca tribe during a visit to Avoca in the 1850s. Her description of their habitations and of the weapons that she bought from them confirms that despite the gold rushes they were still attempting to live by ‘traditional’ means. Surveyor Walter Woodbury who was surveying in the Buninyong district wrote to his mother in June 1853.

"We have had a tribe of the native Blacks camped near us for the last week so that we have an excellent opportunity of seeing how they live. They construct what they call miamias, consisting of two forked sticks placed in the ground with one stick running across the top of them, they then rest large pieces of bark or branches of trees on these which gives them a shelter from the wind. They lie all around their fires at night and all the covering they wear is a possum rug or a blanket thrown around them. Their principle food is the opossum which they find out by knocking on the trees and where they find a hollow sound they cut open the tree and so catch the opossum. They also kill turkeys, pigeons and parrots with the boomerang which they are very expert at throwing. When they are very hungry and can get nothing else they will pick up the spiders, beetles, cockroaches and ants and eat them."

Some Aboriginal people asserted their right to work and live on their land. In 1852 when asked to show their licenses, a group of Aboriginal diggers at Forest Creek replied to the mounted police that the gold and the land were theirs by right so why should they pay money to the Queen.

The spectacle of drunkeness

Alcohol abuse became a characteristic feature of Aboriginal life from the 1850s. Alcohol had certainly been available on squatting runs and with the advent of mining settlements, it became more accessible. Some people at the diggings were believed to take pleasure in inducing Aboriginal people to drink liquor.

James Bonwick met a party of drunken Aboriginal men and women, who had been treated for fun by some of the rougher diggers. The following day he came upon a "blackfellow", lying groaning upon the turf. He lifted his ragged shirt and showed his bowels protruding through a gashed wound. Shivering with cold and groaning in pain, he told Bonwick that "Long Tom, him do it, him drunk".

John Bulmer, who was at the Bet Bet diggings in 1854, noted that many diggers found it amusing to get Aboriginal people drunk and watch the fights that ensued. "On one occasion two men fastened on each other and with mouth and hand tried to injure themselves. One man I noticed had his lower lip bitten off, and this was a scene that made the crowd laugh."

A high mortality rate

A correspondent in the Gold Diggers’ Monthly Magazine of 1853 wrote:

"The poor aborigines are sadly neglected and degraded. By begging or bark cutting they obtain money at the mines, and wretches are always found ready to take their cash and give them fire-water. Cases of intemperance abound in their tribes. Their revelries and quarrels disturb the camp at night, and disease, misery, violence and even murder follow in the train. We were horrified at the sight of an expiring blackfellow – the victim of the preceding night’s drunken fracas."

Correspondents to the 1858 Select Committee of the Victorian Legislative Council on the Aborigines confirmed that the mortality amongst the Aboriginal populations of their districts had been remarkable, especially since the discovery of gold, attributable primarily to venereal diseases, intemperance and influenza.

There are also recorded cases where Aborigines were murdered. Thomas Gillman shot two people after following them to their camp near Wangaratta in the winter of 1853, and in August 1856, James McGrath killed an Aboriginal woman in a camp "argument". Both men were acquitted.


Text adapted from Dr Ian D. Clark and Fred Cahir, A critique of ‘forgetfulness’ and exclusivity: the neglect of Aboriginal themes in goldfields tourism in Victoria, University of Ballarat, 2001


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