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In mid-1850’s, the news of gold finds brought thousands of fortune seekers to Victorian gold-fields from all over the world.
In a few short years, the population increased considerably. Historian and award-winning author Dr Clare Wright, says “at the beginning it was really a rush and people have to understand the pace of change, in 1851 Victoria had a population of about 25.000, by 1861 that figure had ballooned to over 600.000. It’s a society in flux and the government was terrified about that”.
With the drastic increase of the population, the government felt the need to regulate the goldfields and they introduced a license fee on mining. “People hated it” says Dr Clare “because it was a poll tax, it was a tax on their presence, it wasn’t about their earnings, it wasn’t an income tax, it was a head tax. People really resented it”.
Victoria was a British colony at the time and didn’t have a democratic government and “miners didn’t have any means to change the rules were governing their lives. They had no representation in the parliament” says Dr Clare.
By late 1854 surface alluvial gold had finished and to find gold miners had to dig deep underground. It was costlier and time-consuming work with no guarantees of finding any gold. Yet miners still had to pay their fees, and this ultimately led to the confrontation over the issue of license fees.
With the gold-rush, thousands of migrants settled in Victoria from around the world: from Europe to Asia. Clare Wright says “the gold-rush is a migrant story. The Ballarat diggers were made up of people from all over the world. There was a large contingent of Irish and often they got all the publicity. But there were Germans, French and Americans and people from all over the world. That’s why diggers made their own flag, which we now call the Eureka Flag, but at the time they called it the Australian Flag and supposed to represent all these nations”.
A handful of Armenians also migrated to the Victorian goldfields. Unfortunately, not much is known about them: their real names or from which country they migrated. However, two of them left their marks on the goldfields history.
At the time, Armenia didn’t exist as a nation it was divided between the Ottoman and Russian Empires. In mid-1850’s there was an Armenian settlement in India and a small settlement in Singapore. It’s possible the Armenian gold diggers came from the Armenian settlements closer to Australia.
One of the Armenian miners was Anastasia. Ralph Birrell in his book A New Bendigo The Story of the Gold & Silver Mines of St. Arnaud writes “Armenian Gully was named after Anastasia, an Armenian.” However, Yvonne Palmer in his book Track of The Years The Story of St. Arnaud writes “During the winter (1855), a new patch of alluvial ground was also discovered by a Greek prospector, named Anastasia. Though a native of a small Ionian island, he was paradoxically known as the “Armenian”. The gully became known as “Armenian Gully”, and the reef from which it was fed, “Armenian Reef”.
Both place-names are still in use today. Most probably the only “Armenian” place-names in Australia.
The second prospector was, Johannes Gregorius, the Armenian servant of the Irish catholic priest Father Patrick Smyth. He accidentally became part of the Eureka Stockade legend, when he was set upon by constable James Lord on October 10, 1854.
The late Rev. Father Aramais Mirzaian in his book The Wandering Armenian writes “It would be more than appropriate to recall here the debate that took place during the eighteen-fifties between the well-known Armenian intellectual and educationalist, Mesrob David Taghiataian (Մեսրոպ Դաւիթ Թաղիադեանց VK) and Grigor David Galstian (Գրիգոր Դաւիթ Գալստանեան VK) of Singapore. Taghiatian, who was the editor of the Armenian periodical Azkaser Araratian in those years, was extremely critical of Galstian who, through the pages of Usumnaser had been striving to generate interest among the Armenians living in the Near and Far Eastern countries, so that they would avail themselves of the excellent opportunities awaiting settlers in this country and emigrate en masse to Australia. This historic movement led by Galstian and his followers failed dismally, and the Armenian press lost all interest in the controversy”.
Galstian had regular segments about the gold findings in Victoria.
One of the Armenians that came to Victoria for prospecting in 1853 was Malcolm Manuk (Մէլքում Մանուկ). He was featured in several reports in the Usumnaser bi-weekly of Singapore.
What is the prevailing opinion of the historians about the legacy of Eureka Stockade? According to Dr Clare, some historians argue that Eureka is the birthplace of Australian democracy, while others say that changes were already happening Eureka had no effect whatsoever. There are a lot of contrasting views and many ways to interpret Eureka”.