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Understanding Eureka and the metal that made us

By Helen Dehn - posted Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Bartlett’s history of the Australian gold rush reads like a novel. It is direct, and its style is ‘flowing’. He often makes statements without reference to supportive material and he intersperses these with imaginative portrayals of characters and general conditions on the diggings.

Bartlett also introduces elements of gold rush history not usually emphasised, in particular, the influence of America and Americans. The early part of the book deals in some detail with reactions to goldfields there, and it outlines some of the remedies employed to control or halt excesses – many of which involved Australians. We do not arrive in Ballarat until the last few chapters of the book, and when we do, it is through tracing the travels of seasoned diggers, and changes in the way new goldfields were administered.

Bartlett gives a convincing account of circumstances surrounding the murder of a digger that occurred just prior to the insurrection at Eureka, and which fanned the diggers’ legitimate grievances. Feelings ran higher still when the accused were not seen to be justly dealt with. The reader is thus given a broader appreciation of the many factors lying behind the erection of the Eureka Stockade, and it seems to have been quite a lot more than burdensome licence fees. Bartlett also gives a balanced portrayal of government officials and police officers, and his strategy of describing related events in other places, conveys how ‘gold fever’ was observed to affect working and unemployed men, equally.


Eureka is the climax of Bartlett’s history, notwithstanding its ‘smallness’ as an event. The dénouement describes improvements made to the licensing system, and how these improvements brought order to the diggings, in  contrast to the old system, which was seemingly designed to stop ‘too many’ men from going to the diggings in the first place.

The history was extremely readable. It was clearly expressed and the reader’s interest was maintained throughout. Characters and events were described objectively, yet not without ‘colour’ in terms of the author’s prose:

The cry was a signal for action. A boy hurled a stone which smashed a lamp over the doorway. Glass fell on the broad hindquarters of a police horse, and puffs of dust rose as the restless animal pawed the loose, dry earth under the eaves. A rising volume of stones and clods of earth began to clatter and thud against the weatherboards, and the crowd pushed forward against the sweating, wheeling horses of the troopers..

The accuracy of passages such as the one above is not well authenticated, nor does the author use footnotes to support direct statements. This has the effect of making the work more readable, yet perhaps less historically accurate. At the same time, the reader does not doubt the validity of direct statements made by the author because most of them are able to be checked against primary and secondary documents should the reader wish to do so. The documents most often mentioned are newspaper accounts and works by participants such as Rafaello Carboni, as well as crown witness accounts. In themselves, these documents may be biased but Bartlett ensures that known biases are made clear. There are quotations in the body of the work but they are usually confined to colloquial dialogue in support of the author’s more descriptive passages. A variety of sources are mentioned where appropriate, but no directions are given as to how or where these sources may be located and/or checked.

The bibliography is extensive and includes official sources as well as Australian and British newspapers and periodicals, together with sixty-four different books and articles from which information was drawn. The titles are well focused on the subject matter and include works about Australian gold rushes already familiar to this reviewer. This was viewed as a ‘plus’ inasmuch as authors such as Geoffrey Serle and Geoffrey Blainey are much admired for the painstaking thoroughness that characterises their writings. The only criticism I have is the lack of an index to terms. It does not detract from the work itself but an index is handy if one wishes to refer to particular passages at a later date. Perhaps Bartlett saw his own work as a story based on history rather than a history or a reference work in its own right. However his story appears to be a factual account of past events in all the ways that matter.

In summation, the work was enlightening, enjoyable to read and apparently well researched. In comparison to other works on the subject of gold rushes in general, and Eureka in particular, Bartlett gave more attention than, say, Carboni, to peripheral events and relationships, and was able to show clearly how they converged in the display of disconcerted action now known as the Eureka Stockade.

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This is a review of The Gold Seekers:  The Story of the Australian Gold Rush, Norman Bartlett. (London: Readers Book Club, by arrangement with Jarrolds, 1965).

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About the Author

Helen W. Dehn is a member of the Liberal Party and a historian with a long term interest in public affairs.

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