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troublemag | September 28, 2023

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Stralian Stories by Neil Boyack

Stralian Stories by Neil Boyack

I speak as a novice on the world of mining, yet I know that mining is a heated, daily discussion in numerous political, professional, community and social media circles. Mining affects communities and individuals in many basic ways. It affects the ground they walk on – or plant in – the water they drink, the air they breathe, their economic standing, and in some instances community survival.

There are also new horizons in terms of coal seam gas exploration, which adopts mining technology and labour as a “way forward”, and is touted as a new power source for all of us. Thus mining interests claim an importance that is flavoured with a “public good” issue-legitimacy on one hand, and the private sector, that run the on business plans and investor rewards, on the other.  In between left and right machinations the Marxist elephant-in-the-room sits bleeding and unattended. The ownership of the means of production (trucks, infrastructure, dynamite, cranes) versus ownership of the resource itself (the place we call Australia), married in with the labour that drives the means of production is all still being sewn together by government, the industry and citizens, the latter not having much of a say.  We saw this manifest itself partly in Kevin Rudd’s demise, we are seeing it the Labor party’s current death-by-a-million-leaks-demise, and we are seeing it in Coalition eyes-wide-open, tasting their new reign.

Only a couple of years back an expensive, mining-company-driven advertising campaign fooled some into thinking that the mining industry itself was a “hard working Aussie” that delivered benefits to everyone.  Through evocative language and nostalgic notes, this campaign succeeded for a while in making itself a vote worthy issue; at its height creating a never-to-be-repeated “protest” of the super-rich claiming a “fair go”. Certainly, the mining industry’s legitimacy dressed in a “common good” costume is not necessarily justified, especially if the damage to environment is permanent, and the benefits of profits don’t travel back to the community in wealth, services and/or wellbeing.  Fred Cahir’s book Black Gold: Aboriginal People on the Victorian Goldfields 1850-1870 looks at a time when these same issues were at play, only a hundred and fifty years back.

When the mining industry was in its genesis in Australia it brought about a “fever”.  It was possible to pick up gold nuggets from the ground and put them in your pocket, and in the process start a “new rush”.  It was possible to become a winner in life and join the upper crust with a moment of fortune.  Families and individuals dropped everything and sailed, walked, rode, hitched, hopped and rolled to goldfields everywhere and in the process spent any money they had on picks, shovels, tents, and then started digging.

This created its own cultural episode in Australian history that has had a lasting impact on towns like Bendigo and Ballarat as well as many others, whose street scapes still reflect gold rush days and the wealth that was created.

Aboriginal people had already weathered the first damaging invasion of sheep and squatters, which had left them with diminished traditional resources, cutting into culture deeply. Gold brought a fresh, more diverse, and numerous, wave of humanity that was possibly more tawdry and “desperate” than the previous.  Aboriginal people quickly found that they themselves played a critical role in the sustainability and in some cases survival, of those who came looking for gold.  In towns where businesses were established, and on farms, employees deserted their employers for gold, leaving a labour-vacuum for Aboriginal people to fill, if they so chose.  Prospectors closer to roads less travelled needed guides, yet there were limits to this from an Aboriginal perspective, especially when faced with the prospect of entering another clan’s territory, or traversing a sacred site, demonstrating to all that cultural ties maintained strength and sway even when under extreme pressure.

Cahir suggests that the Wathawurrung people “avoided the dark forests west of Mt Blackwood” because of this very reason.  Aboriginal skills and knowledge were demonstrated in many ways. Bush tucker procuring, hunting, tracking techniques, physical strength and know-how created an environment where Aboriginal people could quote for services, and negotiate conditions of employment. Other elements, such as keenness of eyesight allowed Aboriginal people to find much gold in the tailings of mines. This is eluded to many times throughout the evidence in Cahir’s book.

Of course many other unfortunate human trappings and traits followed the dirty business of procuring gold from the ground.  Booze, disease, water quality, theft, prostitution were but a few in a context of wanton racism for Aboriginal people.  Separating people from their money was one another mode, still a common occurrence in the modern world.  Scams were everywhere and an unfounded superiority complex led many Europeans to believe that Aboriginal people would give up their secret gold sources. One story in particular describes an Aboriginal man>  being wined and dined and finally, at the last pub (in Newstead), being asked where he procured his gold from. The Aboriginal man promptly declared that he was not an idiot. Cahir does point out that Aboriginal guides, and people, were at times instrumental in actually founding diggings here and there, yet weren’t mentioned in the records of this. Some prospectors were in partnership with Aboriginal miners recognising their skills, knowledge, and reciprocity early on.

With descriptions of Aboriginal people possessing agency and controlling the way they lived, reacted, and at times, avoided the vagaries of the goldfields, this book flies in the face of some traditional academic, anthropological assumptions still alive and well in mainstream Australia, painting Aboriginal people as eternal victims; as a people not capable of adapting and morphing.  Cahir talks about the history of history in his introduction, possibly referring to the point just made, but particularly with reference to the agency that Aboriginal people clearly provided the early Australian mining industry. Cahir sites Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey and one of his earlier overarching texts where Blainey “neglected to synthesise any broad acknowledgement of their part in the saga of Australian mining”.  Australian history in many ways is written in a tense that promotes Aboriginal people as victims, who are simply incongruent with a middle class aesthetic.  This myth is still a powerful driver for the barriers of contemporary class and culture in the mainstream, and as Noel Pearson may suggest, for some Aboriginal people themselves. Gary Foley may suggest that this myth is rolled out to “reassert the same colonialist mythology when the natives get restless”.

Cahir’s book shows a time in history where Aboriginal people were transitioning from untrammelled autonomy to survival and sustainability.  Connected to this, Cahir suggests that the dominant narrative contained within Victorian history is that “the Aboriginal presence is still predominantly held within frontier violence” and goes further to state that Aboriginal people have been removed or “excised” from Australian gold history.  Cahir suggests that whilst “aboriginal people suffered racial vilification and sustained oppression on the goldfields, this did not prevent their active resistance nor their active engagement with the industry”.

This book is not a paternalistic, dry academic text, but more a record of evidence that shows aboriginal agency, activity and resourcefulness, in a time where ultra- racism, death and destruction were daily considerations for Aboriginal people.  The blood, lust, betrayal, death, sex, rape, and fortune contained within this book has all the makings of a master narrative … wait … maybe that is the mining industry.  Cahir states that Aboriginal people across Victorian goldfields continued to declare their title and insist upon formal acknowledgement of what was rightfully theirs. Burial sites were found, as were bodies in hollow logs, reminding miners of whose land they were really mining.

This recognition inhabits my life today when I see a canoe tree, a carved tree, or one of the many totems of the Aboriginal country I live upon (Jaara): black cockatoo, crow, eagle, bat.  If you live in traditional goldfields areas you may well be able to find a sense of yourself, your home, and your community in this book, such are the familiar geographical references. Fred Cahir’s research and text I would suggest actually gives these places a new, positive energy, and a deeper significance as cultural markers for Aboriginal culture. Whilst Aboriginal academic, Doctor, activist and artist, Gary Foley would argue that “there can be no one preferred way of knowing the past” the descriptions of Aboriginal agency, autonomy, activity and life from goldrush days tantalise the imagination, giving strong, meaningful pictures that act as powerful material for personal reflection on where we live, and on whose earth we are standing. Cahir’s book also acts as a learning opportunity for everyone who is interested in finding the knackers to stop BBQs when the story that’s being told needs to be corrected.

Neil Boyack