Travel: Australia – A Brief History

The settlement of Australia dates practically from the discovery of gold in the year 1851. In both Victoria and in New South Wales the precious metal was found in the same year, in such remarkable quantities and so easily accessible that there was a great rush to the new Eldorado, equal to that which poured into California two or three years earlier. The announcerment that gold had been discovered in the Plenty Ranges, near Melbourne, was first made in the columns of a local paper, early in June of 1851. In the same month the precious metal was found in other localities also. The news spread like wildfire, and hundreds were soon eagerly searching for gold in a11 settled districts. Almost simultaneously magnificent prospects were opened in many places. It seemed that nature had kindly made her richest deposits near the surface, and that but little more was required than to go and pick up untold riches. At the richest diggings men congregated by thousands. The cities were deserted, as were the rural districts and the cattle stations. Even the public service was left to take care of itself, and male and female domestics joined the rushing throngs. The position of the governor of the colonies is said to have been. exceedingly embarrassing, for he saw himself deserted, the public offices vacant, and the officials fleeing. Strange to say, many of the most sanguine hopes were more than realized. Six months after the discovery, ten tons of gold had already been obtained from the mines of Victoria.

When this news reached Europe and America, a stream of people set in for Australia that for the time nearly swamped the new colonies. As vessels reached their destination, they were deserted not only by passengers but by sailors as well, for the charms of the rolling waves were not sufficiently strong to keep the men on board when a fortune was in sight for picking it up. For ten years the yield of gold was enormous. In the second year of the excitement not less than sixty-two million dollars worth of it was found in Victoria. Many of the great prizes were dug in the early days. Here are some of them: One nugget weighed 1620 ounces, another 2217, and still another weighing 2280 ounces was found, worth about $45,000. At Golden Point, in Ballarat, men made from fifteen hundred to two thousand dollars a day. Governor Latrobe tells us that he saw eight pounds weight of gold washed from two dishes of dirt. But not all were so successful, for many less fortunate ones not only failed to procure wealth, but lost the little they had.

Soon the criminal element appeared, coming principally from Tasmania, then called Van Dieman’s Land, where was a large colony of deported convicts, some of whom managed to escape and cross Bass Straits. These became desperadoes, robbing gold trains, and in one instance extending their depredations even to the warship “Nelson,” which was lying in the harbor, from which they succeeded in getting gold dust to the value of $120,000. Gradually the surface diggings have been exhausted, so that at the present time gold mining is mostly carried on in deep mines of rock, with the aid of expensive machinery. But with the exploration of West Australia new discoveries of gold are rivaling those of the early days.

The value of the gold mined in New South Wales from 1851 to 1890, was over 37,600,000 pounds sterling, or $188,000,000, while in Victoria, during the same period, there was obtained 57,000,000 Ounces, valued at 227,357,436 pounds sterling, or over eleven hundred million dollars.

Immense fortunes have thus been amassed, but many more have been squandered, and where this money has made one man happy and useful to his fellow-men, it has doubtless ruined a score. Its ultimate effects upon the country have not been altogether good. It has tended to the formation of false ideas of the value of money as well as to a lavish expenditure in non-productive buildings and public works. It has caused the development of the agricultural resources to be greatly neglected. Other industries essential to the permanent prosperity of the country have been slighted, leaving the colonies to stand upon an uncertain basis. When the mines no longer yielded their fabulous revenues, the extravagant expenditure of public money was continued by borrowing money in the London market, and for years it seemed as though the credit of the colonies was beyond question or limit.

Under these circumstances, two colossal cities were built which tower above the country in enormous proportions when compared with the very sparsely settled and poorly developed country upon which they must, in some measure at least, depend for support. In 1890, one third of the population of Victoria was in Melbourne, and in New South Wales and Sydney we find almost similar disproportions. Up to this point, for some years an almost universal spirit of speculation prevailed. The price of land situated in or near the cities was run up to fabulous figures. Syndicates and private parties combined to ” boom ” real estate. Then, in the height of this fictitious prosperity, several unfortunate labor strikes occurred. This had the effect to disturb the minds of English creditors, when it was discovered that the debt of Victoria amounted to over forty-three and a half million pounds sterling, or almost two hundred dollars to every man, woman, and child in the colony, while that of New South, Wales was even greater.

True, a good share of it was invested in railways, but these could hardly pay expenses, consequently the Lombard-street rnoney-lenders made up their minds that it was time to draw up their purse strings. The next consequence was that the banks refused further credits, and called in their over-drafts. Government works were stopped, and a terrible crash in financial matters at once took place. Men were turned out of employment, business was paralyzed, and for several years the prospect looked very dark and gloomy. All this was the result of false ideas of prosperity, of building castles without a good foundation. The crash that came, involved not only thepoor, but those who were supposed to be wealthy. The country had not yet recovered from the effects of this smash when it found itself in the grasp of a terrible drouth. This continued with an intensity which varied in different districts, for a period of several years. Each year there was a shortage in the rainfall, and gradually the ground became dry and barren. In the interior districts every vestige of verdure disappeared except the leaves on the trees, and many of the trees perished, or were cut down to supply food for starving stock. The suffering inflicted upon people and domestic animals created an awful spectacle. The damage done was almost incalculable. But the recuperative power of the country is great, and with a normal rainfall prosperity will soon be restored. No very perceptible impression has, however, been made upon the average Australian by these things, for his determination to enjoy himself seems to be as strong as ever.,

Of all the days in the Melbourne calendar, Cup-day is the most memorable. This time of festivity also enjoys a broader name as Cup-week, for the sports embraced in the period cover a week. The word ” cup ” refers to a trophy which is offered as the nominal prize for a horse-race which forms the central one of several similar games celebrated during the week. Cup-day is usually the first Tuesday in November. It is early summer then. Not only the city, but the whole country apparently, is abandoned to the sole idea of enjoying the sport. The races are run over a beautifully rounded course in Flemington, one of the suburbs of Melbourne. They are often witnessed by one hundred thousand people. Sometimes as much as seventy-five thousand dollars is added as a private purse to the Melbourne cup, which is bestowed upon the winning horse. But even this great sum is but a modicum of the money involved, for every man and woman who ever engages in betting, ventures some money on the Melbourne cup. In a few minutes the race is over, the question is decided, some are made wealthy, others are ruined by the result. In attendance upon the grand event are the governors of the different colonies, together with their staffs and families, it is also graced by the attendance of the officers of the army and navy, and many small fortunes are lavished in dress and outfits for the occasion. It is a carnival of sin, pride, and folly which far outranks, in proportion to the country, the celebrated Derby races of England.

Next to this season of sport comes Christmas-tide. Christmas itself is quite religiously observed, no work or business being performed on the day, but the sobriety of that day is expected to offset a great deal of folly on the next. The next day after Christmas is called Boxing-day, on account of the universal custom of giving Christmas-boxes. However, there is very seldom any box about it, it more frequently means a small. gift of money to those who bring your mail, sweep your sidewalk, carry away your garbage, or serve you in any capacity, while upon your part you may expect that your grocer, milkman, baker, etc., will turn the compliment by giving you some little recognition of your patronage, and these little mementoes are called Christmas-boxes. The custom is an English one, and although it may be losing its hold upon colonial people, its name has been inseparably connected with the day mentioned. It has to the Australian a greater signification than giving or receiving paltry presents. It means fun and frolic to his heart’s content. Coming, as it does, in midsummer, the entertainments of the day do not have to be confined indoors. During the week intervening between Christmas and New Year’s, but little business is done. It takes about ten days to celebrate Christmas “properly.”

In autumn comes Easter. Lent is religiously observed by a great many people, at least after a manner, Good Friday is a melancholy day on which the people generally refrain from work, even if they have to work on Sunday to make up for the loss. Easter Sunday is celebrated in the usual cheerful manner, but on Easter Monday all the religiousness of Lent and Good Friday is let out, as through a safety valve.

In speaking thus of the pleasure-loving instincts of the people, it should not be understood that the remarks have anything more than a general application. The people of Australia in general have great respect for the Bible, and many of them are persons of deep piety and conscientious devotion. About twenty-five per cent of the people are Roman Catholics, another fourth of them are Episcopalians, while Presbyterians and Methodists make up another fourth, and in the remaining fourth nearly every known sect and denomination is represented, with a mixture of those who acknowledge neither God nor the Bible.