Monday, April 11, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“RUSHING FOR GOLD – Life and Commerce in the Goldfields of New Zealand and Australia” Edited by Lloyd Carpenter and Lyndon Fraser (Otago University Press, $NZ45)

I have always found it difficult reviewing collections of academic essays written by many hands. Each essay will be so dense with information and meaning that it really requires a “close reading” – or perhaps a detailed counter-argument, if it is on a topic about which I know something. And yet any review which gave a “close reading” to all the contributions in such a collection would become unwieldy and over-long. This problem rears its head again as I look at this heavy (nearly 400 closely-printed pages) collection of twenty essays written by 23 people. [There are two contributions written in collaboration.]
Rushing for Gold has been jointly edited by Lloyd Carpenter (Lincoln University) and Lyndon Fraser (Otago University) and looks at New Zealand’s nineteenth century gold rushes with special – but not exclusive – reference to the trans-Tasman connection. These gold rushes were as much Australasian affairs as solely New Zealand ones. This fact was noted in Stefan Eldrid-Grigg’s racy and populist history of New Zealand’s gold rushes Diggers, Hatters and Whores (2008) and has also been glanced at in such recent works of fiction as Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town (2006) and of course Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013). I have noticed that in the last decade there has been a growing interest in the gold-rush era of our history, by writers of fiction as much as by historians. Perhaps it is because our gold rushes can be framed as the nearest things in our history to the “wild frontier” phase of American history.
Rushing for Gold is not a “wild frontier” book or a piece of mythologising. Its sets of essays are grouped thematically into five parts.
The four essays of Part One are the ones which deal specifically with the Australian connection. Chris McConville, Keir Reeves and Andrew Reeves collaborate to chew over the issue of how much gold rushes in Otago and in the Australian colony of Victoria produced similar societies and mentalities. In his essay, Daniel Davy takes the more direct path of chronicling exactly how many Australians rushed to Otago and what social impact they had. “Victorian capital and commerce flooded into the province with a rapidity that stunned Otago colonists,” he notes, adding that the rushes “pulled Otago closer to Melbourne.” (p.45) In a dense demographic reading, Terry Hearn shows how the Tuapeka rush produced as much disillusioned movement of miners away from New Zealand as influx into the province. Finally, John Angus explains why, despite their populism and their desire to participate in politics, the influx of miners into Otago did not set off the type of political clashes that had happened in Ballarat in the 1850s. As one would expect, the figure of Vincent Pyke looms large in this chapter.
The next four essays deal with two ethnic groups who were involved in New Zealand gold rushes. One of these groups has been amply documented in relation to the gold rushes, and made the subject of films, TV documentaries and so forth. These were the Chinese, who are commemorated in three essays by James Ng, Joanna Boileau and Paul Macgregor. Ng is mainly concerned with the physical conditions under which the Chinese miners worked. He writes:
When the Chinese miners arrived in Otago, European miners held the best claims and water rights, so newcomers got the rest, including worked-over and abandoned ground. In poor-yielding land, the work had to be methodical, and the Chinese miners excelled at this by working in cooperative parties. They readily took up poorer auriferous ground, which was apparently plentiful and mostly free when they first arrived, a practice which minimised competition and irritation between Europeans and Chinese.”( p.107)
Joanna Boileau talks about how the Chinese provisioned themselves and established a local tradition by producing both their own food and food for trade in market gardening. Paul Macgregor takes a broader picture on the social impact of Chinese in the area. This is a particularly nuanced essay, as Macgregor does touch on some Pakeha antagonism towards the Chinese, but also notes how well Chinese were able to establish themselves in local business and indeed how various the Pakeha response to them was. On the whole, the law protected the Chinese from the type of racially-inspired attacks to which they were sometimes subject.
The other and, oddly, less-often-discussed ethnic group involved in New Zealand gold rushes were the Maori, the subject of an essay by Lloyd Carpenter. Among other things, Carpenter makes what should be the obvious point (but is often overlooked) that Maori were aware of some of the local gold deposits before the gold rushes began. He also documents some of the Maori diggers involved in the rush, and the fact that a very few Maori goldminers made it to overseas rushes in such places as the Yukon.
If the broad picture of the international nature of the gold rushes, and the various ethnicities involved, are dealt with in the first two sections, then Part Three turns to the matter of gender, without which no respectable modern socio-history can appear. Specifically, there are three essays on women in the goldfields of Otago and the West Coast. Sandra Quick takes on the large topic of how women were involved as hoteliers and illegal purveyors of liquor for the whole of the late nineteenth century. Julia Bradshaw’s contribution, entitled “Forgetting Their Place”, is one of the most nuanced in the collection. Discussing women of “abandoned character”, Bradshaw comes close to refuting the view that the goldfields swarmed with prostitutes. Many women thus labelled, she argues, were women who lived unconventionally (not married to their male partners, for example) but who were not necessarily career prostitutes. This is an interesting chapter as much about perception as about the objective facts of the case. As Bradshaw notes: “The courts and public opinion were relatively unforgiving if women stepped out of the sphere of what was seen as acceptable behaviour for women at the time.”(p.167). She instances the case of a hotelier’s wife being fined by a magistrate for using foul language as she attempted to eject forcibly a drunken customer. The magistrate suggested that her actions would have been perfectly acceptable had they been performed by her husband. On quite a different tack, Lyndon Fraser, who has twice published volumes about the early Irish in New Zealand, combines the themes of gender and ethnicity with an essay on Irish women in the West Coast rush, a sober account of how these deracinated women made careers in all spheres of life.
If I have been able to tick off the Aussie connection, ethnicity and gender as being the subjects of the first three parts of Rushing for Gold, it is harder to characterise the five essays of the fourth part. Part Four is headed “Goldfields Society”, but this seems to refer to the matter of social class and profession. Professor Tom Brooking’s essay “Harsh Environment, Softer Sociology” looks at the whole story of goldmining in the Dunstan area of Otago, from the first rush through the long period when an established gold-mining “industry” was operating there. Brooking laments the lack of real sociological analysis of people involved. Rosemary Marryatt observes what was, for one social class, the negative impact of the gold rushes. She tells the story of the run-holder (large-scale pastoralist) William Rees and his family, whose way of life was disrupted by the arrival of all the diggers. Lloyd Carpenter considers the number of businesses that were set up, either to support and provision gold-diggers or to “grubstake” them and finance them with loans. But he concludes that those who prospered on the back of miners’ toil were not a class apart – generally the goldfields’ merchants and bankers were no wealthier than the toilers in the goldfields themselves.
Remarks Carpenter: “Although a divide existed between miners and merchants on the goldfields, the divide was not one of wealth or even of the degree to which earnings were hard-won. The divide was simply along the nature of urban resident and mining-cottage dweller, of business-owner and miner. The nature of their respective operations produced a naturally dichotomised society, but the relationship between each was more symbiotic than adversarial.”(Carpenter, p.239)
Jeremy Finn considers the careers of fifteen lawyers who practised in the goldfields while Andre Brett analyses the impact of the gold rushes upon the rise (and later fall) of the New Zealand provincial system, and especially upon the development of railways in Otago and Southland.
When an historical process passes out of living memory, it enters the realm of legend. This is very much what the fifth and final part of Rushing for Gold deals with. Warwick Frost’s unexpected contribution considers the way tourists are encouraged to interpret and “act out” a mythologised version of the American Old West and of Australian colonialism in the USA and Oz, and what principles underlie such presentations. Implicitly, these principles could be applied to the Otago goldfields. Neville Ritchie’s chapter is the most matter-of-fact: a methodical survey of archaeological sites in Otago related to goldfields. And at the other end of the creative spectrum, the final chapter is the playscript of a musical entertainment devised by Fiona Farrell, concerning a group of entertainers who toured the goldfields putting on shows for miners. Their chief is Charles Thatcher, an historical figure from the goldfields, noted for his ability to whip up satirical songs for all occasions. Some of Thatcher’s songs are quoted in earlier chapters in this book.
You have got to the end of this review probably as exasperated as I am. Given the variety of its contents, Rushing for Gold has led me to do what is a very bad habit of mine. I have listed conscientiously and name-checked diligently the various contents of this volume like a good bibliographer but a bad reviewer. You see, I have barely passed reasoned judgment on the volume at all. I have simply told you what is in it.
Time to ‘fess up. Some of the essays really held my attention for the human stories they told and the vivid accounts they gave of living and working conditions a century-and-a-half ago. Others are more in the nature of academic exercises. From that point of view, Rushing for Gold is a mixed bag. As always in a well-illustrated book, the many images are fascinating. I am always intrigued by the way outdoors photographs taken in the nineteenth century, because of the primitive nature of early cameras, wash out backgrounds so that panoramic shots of towns and settlements leave them floating in blank-space, like revenants. Thus it is with the photo of the boomtown of Naseby in the 1860s. I am sorry that the front cover presents us with a rather cluttered design. But apart from that gripe Rushing for Gold succeeds in its aim of being the highly informative tome it is.

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