How does the Ballarat gold rush fit into the story of the State of Victoria? Let’s take a look at the bigger picture.
Aboriginal people began living in what is now called Victoria at least 50,000 years ago (or possibly even longer!). According to their spiritual beliefs, creator-spirits like Bunjil the wedge-tailed eagle made the land and its people, and stories about him have been passed down (without writing) for at least 2,000 generations amongst the people of the Kulin nations (the Wadawurrung, Woiwurrung [Wurundjeri], Bunurong, Taungurong, and Dja Dja Wurrung). When Europeans arrived in Victoria in the 1800s, they found the Aboriginal people of this land had formed approximately 35 nations, all with different languages and cultures. Each nation owned and cared for their Country. The boundaries of each of these nations were carefully protected; however, goods like greenstone axes and brush-tail possum pelts used for making cloaks were traded over them. While some of these Aboriginal nations are traditionally enemies, others continue practising important ceremonies together (like the Kulin nations’ Tanderrum ceremony) to this day.
When Captain Cook claimed possession of what he called ‘New South Wales’ in England’s name in August 1770, he hadn’t set foot on the coast of what is now called Victoria. After England lost its northern hemisphere penal colonies (a place to send convicts) in the American War of Independence in 1783, it was decided that New South Wales, in Australia, was the next best place to send England’s criminals. England wanted to colonise (take over ownership of) the ‘great southern continent’ before the French. So, in 1787 King George II sent Captain Arthur Phillip to New South Wales with what came to be known as the ‘First Fleet’. Phillip’s ships arrived in Botany Bay in early 1788, but decided this was an unsuitable place for a settlement, so they sailed to Sydney Cove, in Port Jackson, and sent the convicts to shore on 26 January. This fleet of English ships only beat the French ships by a few days.
Before any Europeans arrived in Victoria, their contagious diseases spread out from Sydney to kill countless thousands of Aboriginal people across all of Eastern Australia. European diseases like chicken pox, small pox and even the common cold caused large numbers of Aboriginal people to die during this time in history, as their bodies had never been exposed to these germs before. Sadly, we will never know how many Aboriginal people were in Australia before Europeans arrived, and we will never know how many died from these diseases they brought.
Europeans explored the Victorian coast in the hope of developing a second Australian penal settlement and decided to send a small group of soldiers, settlers and convicts from England to set up a camp in Port Phillip Bay (of what later became Melbourne) in 1803. Again, this was an attempt to beat the French in taking over the lands of Australia. During their stay of less than 2 months, they clashed with local Aboriginal people, killing a Wadawurrung leader in Corio Bay in the process, making him the first Victorian Aboriginal person to die at the hands of the European colonisers. The camp failed as they ran out of fresh water, and a number of the convicts escaped before their ships left for Van Diemen’s Land (now called Tasmania – it changed its name in 1856) to establish the second penal settlement there. One of those convicts – William Buckley – lived with the Wadawurrung people for the next 32 years.
The first European sent by the government from Sydney to explore (what came to be) Victoria was Major Thomas Mitchell. He met many Aboriginal people on his journey, but it would appear that, like many European people at the time, he didn’t view them as ‘inhabitants’. He described the view of Victoria from Pyramid Hill (near Echuca) in his diary in June 1836:
… the view was exceedingly beautiful over the surrounding plains. A land so inviting and still without inhabitants! As I stood, the first European intruder on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains, as yet untouched by flocks or herds I felt conscious of being the harbinger of mighty changes; and that our steps would soon be followed by the men and animals for which it seemed to have been prepared. See more Major Mitchell quotes here.
When he explored as far as Portland on the same expedition, he was surprised to discover European whaling ships there, and even a farm owned by the Henty brothers. When he returned to Sydney, he also discovered that John Batman, a Sydney-born free settler (with a reputation in Van Diemen’s Land for hunting and killing Aboriginal people), had signed a treaty with the Aboriginal people of Port Phillip Bay – the Wurundjeri people – in 1835. As a result, the European colonisation of Victoria had already begun; however, it is thought that Major Mitchell’s findings rapidly sped-up the process. You can read more about the ‘Treaty’ of Batman here.
After 1835 and the arrival of thousands of European people, millions of sheep, instead of kangaroos, now fed on the grassy plains of Victoria. This new industry put Melbourne on the map as huge amounts of money were made by selling wool to the new factories in England. These sheep caused one of the most important foods for Victoria’s Aboriginal people – the murnong daisy – to nearly become extinct, and the European fences and guns caused a sudden end to the traditional way of life for the first people of this land. At least 68 massacres of Aboriginal people took place in the first 18 years of Victoria’s colonisation.
The arrival of these European sheep farmers – called squatters – caused a sudden change to Victoria, but that change was nothing in comparison to that brought about by the Victorian gold rushes.
The year 1851 is very significant in Victoria’s history. The Port Phillip District of New South Wales (Victoria’s colonial name before 1851) experienced a devastating series of fires in February called Black Thursday, thought by many to be the largest in known history. These fires killed 12 European people, 1 million sheep and countless native animals. In July, 1851, the Colony of Victoria was first established, named after the queen of the British Empire at this time – Queen Victoria. By August, gold had been found by European people, and newspapers all over the world spread the news – one of the world’s richest surface alluvial goldfields had been discovered in Ballarat (funnily enough at a place called Poverty Point, near to Sovereign Hill today). This new state, or ‘colony’ as it was known until Federation in 1901, would soon become the richest place in the world thanks to a few tonnes of shiny golden rock. That sudden wealth attracted another 500,000 people to the Colony of Victoria in just the first 10 years of the gold rushes (1851-61), which resulted in the speedy development of towns and trade.
The 19th century Victorian gold rushes changed this part of the world in dramatic ways and, to this day, Victoria is still benefitting from its rich gold rush history (and, of course, the echoes of the Eureka Rebellion). Once all of the easy-to-collect surface gold had been taken, mines were dug deep underground. And when they stopped producing ‘payable’ gold, towns and cities created by the Victorian gold rushes either turned their wealth to manufacturing or disappeared.
Today, Victoria has a population of a little over 6 million people (and more than 30,000 of these people identify as being of Aboriginal descent). While it is no longer the richest place in the world, it is still very wealthy, comfortable and safe because of its goldrush history. In the 21st century, Victoria’s most important industries are manufacturing, education, hospitality, tourism and construction, among others. Gold mining continues in Ballarat, although only one gold mine still operates.
Links and References
The European exploration of Australia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_exploration_of_Australia
The adventures of Major Thomas Mitchell: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Mitchell_(explorer)
Victorian Aboriginal massacre map: http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/aboriginal-culture/indigenous-stories-about-war-and-invasion/massacre-map/
The history of Ballarat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballarat
The history of Victoria: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Victoria
A history of Victoria (1700s-1851) timeline: http://guides.slv.vic.gov.au/Victoriasearlyhistory/timeline
The history of Melbourne: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melbourne
The history of Tasmania: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Tasmania
A video explaining the territorial history of post-colonial Australia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pjB8UrHwO4
A video on William Strutt’s famous painting Black Thursday: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKaOtzFBR3Y