By Christine Salins
PS News Books
Gold! The Fever That Forever Changed Australia
By David Hill (Random House, $34.95, softcover, 497 pages)
In a country where the vast majority of people could not name our first prime minister, you’ve got to applaud authors like Peter FitzSimons and David Hill who are taking key events in the country’s history and turning them into popular works.
Hill, the bestselling author of 1788: The Brutal Truth Of The First Fleet, has most recently turned his attention to Gold!, focusing on the gold rushes of the mid- to late-1800s that produced tremendous wealth and ensured the survival of the struggling Australian colonies.
In the 1840s, Victoria’s population was less than 80,000, with just 23,000 living in Melbourne.
It’s hard to believe that within a decade of the gold finds, Victoria’s population was more than half a million. Melbourne overtook Sydney to become Australia’s biggest city for more than 50 years.
Drawing on diaries, journals, books, letters, official reports, Parliamentary enquiries and newspaper reports, Hill shows how the gold rushes became a monumental turning point in the country’s history, tripling its population, driving the last nail in the coffin for convict transportation and subverting the hierarchical British class system.
They laid the foundations of the egalitarian ethos that characterises our Australian way of life, and stimulated the ideas that led to the establishment of a democratic Australian federation.
Hill weaves a story that begins with Edward Hargaves’ discovery of gold in western New South Wales in 1851 – and there’s quite a story there too, as it wasn’t just a chance find.
It was a calculated mission to claim a reward that the Government had promised, and his right to claim the reward was hotly contested for many years after.
The story continues to Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory, before heading down to Tasmania and across to Western Australia. As Hill vividly describes the goldfields, they were some of the coldest, hottest, wettest and driest places, populated by fortune hunters who were often wild and dangerous.
There’s a full chapter on the Eureka Rebellion, of course, and much mention of bushrangers and conflict over the large number of Chinese prospectors who flocked to the diggings.
The final chapter is on the ill-fated adventures of Harold Lassiter and his famous “Lost Reef” of gold. It ends with a poignant entry from Lassiter’s journal, written as he lay dying in the desert.
At times, Hill’s writing is a little awkward, particularly in his use of the word ‘said’ in statements that could be verified or which are strongly supported by the evidence.
Is it really necessary to include the word ‘said’ in a sentence such as: “In 1832, at the age of 17, Hargraves said he found himself in Australia...”?
There are many more examples like this throughout the book. But overall, it’s an easy read, interesting and informative, and best of all, printed in big type which is perfect for those with ailing eyesight.
It’s a thick book with a massive rear section devoted to references and indexes, and 16 pages of illustrations in the middle that help bring the story to life.
To find out more about Christine Salins click here.