Short Term Impacts

The discovery of gold in the South Island greatly altered the face of 1860’s New Zealand. During the gold rush period, the whole nation experienced great economic growth, as well as a rapidly increasing population.  New towns appeared, new jobs were created, and the lives of most New Zealanders were impacted upon by the rushes. While the short term effects of the gold are undeniable, there are differing opinions regarding the size of the long term effects. There is debate over how much the gold rushes really influenced modern day New Zealand, and whether or not the gold rushes were vital in terms of the creation of the nation we know today.

During the 1860’s, New Zealand experienced a huge population boom. This was particularly evident in the South Island, and in the areas where gold was found. For example, when gold was discovered in Otago, the population grew from 12,600 to 60,000 within two years.[1] This sudden increase in population had a huge effect on the region, with the South Island quickly becoming the economic centre of the nation. Historian James Belich states that the gold “magnified and transformed Otago”, and boosted the New Zealand’s economy as a whole.[2] This transformation also included a change in the number of migrants from overseas. Between 1861 and 1863, 64000 Australian and 8600 British immigrants arrived in Otago.[3] This population boom went hand-in-hand with a huge economic boom. In the years immediately following the discovery of gold, the precious metal created 50 billion dollars in export receipts for the nation.[4] This greatly increased the wealth of New Zealand during the gold mining period. However, how much this economic burst affected the nation in the long run is a debatable topic.

The discovery of gold on the West Coast had an immediate impact on the region. Prior to the gold rushes, there had been no reason for Europeans to colonise the area and so the Coast had seen no European civilisation. Once gold had been found, however, towns began springing up within the region. Miners explored the country between Greymouth and Hokitika, and mined beach sands along the coast.[5] The discovery of gold basically led to the foundation of societies on the West Coast.
Modern Hokitika

Aerial view of modern Hokitika

The discovery of gold also altered the character of established towns in Otago. People in Dunedin were, at first, reluctant to spread the word that gold had been found nearby. The Calvinist leaders of the town were afraid that a gold rush would destroy their religious settlement by attracting the “rough” mining types.[6] To an extent, they were right, as the population trebled once word of the gold got out. This resulted in increased disease and crowding, as well as the establishment of new pubs, which would bring drunken and disorderly behaviour with them. Soon, Dunedin had turned from an “orderly Wakefieldian village into a wild frontier town.”[7]

Otago - 1862

A photograph of Dunedin taken in 1862

The economic and population booms, coupled with the changing face of the South Island, were the obvious immediate consequences of the discovery of gold. However, there is much more room for debate regarding the long term impacts of the gold rushes.  The amount of influence that the 1860’s has had on the development of modern day New Zealand is a contentious point amongst our nation’s historians.


[1] Sinclair, Page 108.

[2] Belich, James, “Making Peoples”, Penguin Books, 1996, Pages 345-349.

[3] Sinclair, Page 108.

[4] Sinclair, ibid.

[5] Te Ara, Page 4.

[6] Brooking, Page 74.

[7] Brooking, ibid.

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