Listen: Ben Mountford in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
We think of globalisation as something that came about fairly recently but a new book argues that it has been going on for generations having first started with the great gold rushes of the 19th century that saw millions of people move around the world hoping to make their fortune as new gold fields were discovered around the world.
A new look at Australian history
Every Australian school child is raised on a version of gold rush history filled with plucky pioneers and heroic Eureka rebels building the Australian nation. But the narrow lens of nationalist history hides much of what we can learn from this period of our history and a new book casts a wider light on our history, revealing lessons for a globalising world.
A Global History of Gold Rushes, edited by Benjamin Mountford and Stephen Tuffnell, re-examines the histories that have been told in the United States, Africa, Australasia, and the Pacific to provide a new international perspective on old stories.
50 years that changed the world
The book is a collection of essays that brings together historians of the United States, Africa, Australasia, and the Pacific World to tell the rich story of these nineteenth century gold rushes from a global perspective.
Gold was central to the growth of capitalism: it whetted the appetites of empire builders, mobilized the integration of global markets and economies, profoundly affected the environment, and transformed large-scale migration patterns. Together the essays tell the story of fifty years that changed the world.
Gold rushes a model for today’s issues
Dr Mountford, an historian at Australian Catholic University, said the history of the gold rushes was important to understand contemporary globalisation.
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“We talk about globalisation as if it’s a new phenomenon but it really took off in the 19th Century. The gold rushes give us a model for issues that are very live today: mass migration, dramatic changes in communications, new levels of diversity in populations.
“Gold rushes changed the world. They were not independent discrete events. Many of those who rushed were serial migrants and labour, capital and technology followed the gold, spreading more quickly than it ever had before. Understanding that helps us understand our world today.”
Affected the course of human history
Between the discovery of gold in California 1848 and the rush to Alaska fifty years later, the global rush to find and extract the precious metal from the earth in previously unimaginable quantities inspired a dramatic burst of movement and energy, affecting the course of world history.
The search for the precious yellow metal accelerated worldwide circulations of people, goods, capital, and technologies.
Booms and busts
In California, and then across the Pacific Rim and parts of Africa, gold discoveries and the rushes that followed birthed new territories and states; triggered short-term booms and busts; provoked violent conflict with local indigenous and other resident communities; sparked entrepreneurship of all kinds; reordered production, trade, and labor;
This new history of gold rushes has also punctured the myth of the gold miner as always male, white or heroic and prompts us to consider migration differently.
Myth-busting the image of gold miners
“Chinese miners alone constituted more than 25 percent of global gold rush migration. There were women on the gold fields, there were Indigenous people and there were people from many different nations, all brought together by the contagion of gold fever,” said Dr Mountford.
Australians the unwanted migrants
Australians were seen as unwanted migrants during the Californian gold rush. A gang of Australian ex-convicts called the Sydney Ducks terrorised San Francisco and was probably responsible for lighting the notorious 1851 fire which devastated the city, destroying about 1500 buildings and killing and injuring dozens of people.
“There was tremendous hostility to Australians. They were all seen as convicts, although in fact some of those coming from Australia had sojourned there only briefly. In California it was Australians who were the unwanted boat people – which is interesting when you think of Australian attitudes to ‘stopping the boats’ today.”
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