Australian Comparison

Many historians have made comparisons between the South Island gold rushes of the 1860’s and the Victorian gold rush which had begun in the early 1850’s. Both of these rushes influenced their respective countries in a variety of ways, but there is debate about the size of the impact that the South Island rushes had compared to the larger Victorian rushes.

When discussing the New Zealand god rushes, it is important to remember that there was far less actual gold here than there was in Victoria. Keith Sinclair argues that their “impact on New Zealand life was much less than in Victoria or Australia in general.” He believes that in New Zealand, the impact of the gold rushes was restricted to the local communities near the gold itself, rather than spreading to the whole country. Sinclair argues that this was partly due to the fact that gold mining did not establish itself in the minds and imaginations of the whole nation. He says that this is because there was no “Californian anarchy” or “Victorian revolt”, and therefore gold mining didn’t enter New Zealand folklore. For these reasons, Sinclair believes that gold mining here in New Zealand was far less important than it had previously been in other places, such as Australia.[1]

Tom Brooking tends to agree with Sinclair, as he states that “The gold rushes were not as important to New Zealand as they were to either Victoria or California”. He has the statistics to back this up, as New Zealand exports contributed 4% of the world’s gold between 1850 and 1900, compared to Australia’s 27%. Brooking also states that the New Zealand gold rushes combined managed to produce 17 million ounces over 50 years, while Victoria alone produced 28 million ounces in just 10 years. He also points out that the difficulty of crossing the Southern Alps may have resulted in the West Coast gold rushes benefiting Sydney and Melbourne more than they benefited Canterbury. These facts show that the NZ rushes were small by international standards, but Brooking does remind us that broad comparisons can conceal the impact they had on a small colony of 100,000 people.[2]

The New Zealand gold rushes produced less gold, and perhaps haven’t left a lasting mark on our imagination in the same way foreign gold rushes did. This was possibly because here in New Zealand, many of the problems encountered overseas were avoided. In Australia, for example, they had outbreaks of violence (such as the Eureka Stockade) and bushrangers such as Ned Kelly. These sorts of events and characters have lived long in the memories of Australians, and here in New Zealand we didn’t really have the same sort of societal impact.[3]

Euraka Stockade

A depiction of the Eureka Stockade

“Although the gold discoveries were not on the scale of those in California and Victoria, they contributed greatly to the wealth and population of the South Island”.[4] The gold found in the Otago and the West Coast resulted in money and people being brought to previously small or non-existent communities in the South Island. Despite the relatively small amount of gold found here compared to Australia, New Zealand was also a much smaller colony which would have magnified the impacts. This means that simple statistical comparisons between New Zealand and Australia are perhaps too broad, and that the impact of the Kiwi gold rushes was much closer than the stats indicate. There is no doubt that the gold rushes of the 1860’s greatly influenced the development of the South Island, even if they produced less than their Australian counterparts.

[1] Sinclair, Pages  108-110

[2] Brooking, Pages 74-77

[3] Olssen and Stenson, Pages 166-177

[4] Olssen and Stenson, ibid.


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