Sophie Cooper, The Rush for Gold – A Global Quest

Sophie Cooper is a second year PhD student and William McFarlane Scholar at the University of Edinburgh. She is studying Irish communities in Melbourne and Chicago between 1850 and 1890, specifically in relation to situational influences on identity formation and nationalist thought. Sophie tweets using the handle @SophcoCooper and more information can be found on her academia page.

 When you think of the poor migrants who left the United Kingdom during the nineteenth century, it is usual to think of one swift movement. Leaving from the docks of Liverpool or Queenstown/Cobh on a ship (from the ‘coffin ships’ of the Famine years to the sister ships of the Titanic), and hopefully, ending with a new life in New York City or Melbourne or some other port city in the ‘New World’.[i]

Images from The Gangs of New York, in which Irish immigrants were drafted into voting gangs or into the Union Army as they stepped off the boat, join many other portrayals which have helped to create an idea of bewildered immigrants being immediately ushered into tenements and remaining there until they died. However, there is more research being done into the so-called ‘two boat’ migrants of the nineteenth century, those who reached a port city and then continued on their way (via a second boat, train, or cart) to pastures new.[ii] One situation in which the international and internal movements of the nineteenth century can be captured vividly is in research of the gold fields of the 1850s and 1860s.

The first major gold rushes of the nineteenth century occurred in California in around 1849. More riches were found in the ground in Australia in 1851, in New South Wales and then substantial ones in Victoria. The movement to and between these areas led to a transmission of information, ideas, and people, on a much larger scale than civilian movement had previously allowed for. Following the gold was not a one-way stream, once prospectors had got a taste for the possibility of gold, many continued to follow the scent. In 1861, diggers from the California Gold Rush and Victorian Gold Rush moved to New Zealand for the Central Otago rush, and then back to California again. With these men and women went political ideas, songs and stories, and a sense of self that bears close relation to the ‘citizens of the world’ that there is a tendency to think of as a twenty-first century phenomenon.

The movement between the United States and Australia can be read in the diaries and songs of the era. It was also acknowledged in ‘Letters to the Editor’ and other newspaper articles, with citizens of the different regions advertising their choice over others. In 1856 James Mee, a gold miner in California, boasted to the Dublin-based newspaper, the Freemans Journal that:

 ‘The faculties for making money in California are greater than in any other country…The miners in this country possess advantages which those in Australia want…There are hundreds who emigrated from this country at the time of the discovery of gold in Australia, who were glad to get an opportunity of retuning again.’[iii]

In the gold fields of Victoria in 1854, a group of diggers protested against the involvement of British colonial forces in policing the fields and the increase of the digging licence fee. The riot (or battle) became known as the Siege of the Eureka Stockade. A number of diggers were killed in the riot, and 120 diggers were arrested. Thirteen of them were later brought to trial charged with high treason. Whether they were chosen because of their ‘unusual’ backgrounds or not, their nationalities make for interesting reading and became a focal point during the trial. Seven of them were Irish-born, another was born in Sydney (and was the only one who had his charge reduced and therefore didn’t get to trial, it is said this was because an Australian jury would refuse to charge an Australian). Of the remaining five brought to trial, one was the Italian Raffaello Carboni; another was Jacob Sorenson, a Jewish man who hailed from Scotland; and Jan Vennich who was from the Netherlands. James McFie Campbell was a black man from Jamaica, and John Joseph, an African-American from Baltimore, became a cause celebre for being judged not guilty on the first day of the trial, being carried from the courtroom on the shoulders of his supporters. A later newspaper report on the accused concluded that a ‘mongrel crew of German, Italian and negro rebels’ were responsible for the whole event.[iv]

Victoria was not just the British paradise that it was presented as; it was a diverse and international place filled with a transient population who zig zagged across the globe. But it was not just Australian towns that benefitted from the population and economic boom brought about by gold. Cities like San Francisco boomed in the mid-century; its varied and highly mobile population encouraging easier upward mobility and political representation. While the vast majority of migrants from the lower orders did stay in the first or second town that they arrived in, the risk takers who followed the gold should be remembered for their role in spreading ideas, as well as their new-found wealth (to family and friends), across the globe.


Related reading:

Tamara S. Wagner, ‘Victorian Failed Emigration and the Superfluity Debates: Elizabeth Murray’s Ella Norman’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 20:1 (2015), pp101-120

James Smithies, ‘Return Migration and the Mechanical Age: Samuel Butler in New Zealand, 1860-1864’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 12:2 (2007), pp203-224

David Feldman, Alan Lester, Jean Besson, David Killingray, & Catherine Hall, ‘Roundtable: Catherine Hall’s Civilising Subjects’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 9:2 (2010), pp235-258

[i] Image – ‘Irish Emigrants Arrival at Cork – A Scene of the Quay’, Illustrated London News, 10 May 1851.

[ii] David Emmons, Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West 1845-1910 (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma, 2010), p.1.

[iii] Freemans Journal (Dublin), 3 May 1856.

[iv] Sydney Morning Herald, 2 April 1855.

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