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  ― 18 ―

2. Chapter II. Gold Digging Days.

THE discovery of gold in Australia not only brought a rush of very fine immigrants, but put Labor in a position not contemplated by Edward Gibbon Wakefield. There was no life more free and independent than that of the gold digger. He was no wage slave, but a free man, with all those high qualities only developed under free conditions. His influence counted for much in our early history. He was a democrat. He believed in law and order of the true kind—that which considers the interests of the mass as of first consideration—not that of the kind we hear so much of in late years, in which the mass and their wishes are to be suppressed for the gratification of the ignorant and selfish ideas of a few. No force was required in those days, as the digger recognised that he was a citizen interested in putting down anything calculated to work against the common good of all. Thieves were promptly dealt with by the diggers, and made to feel that honesty would pay best. No injustice was done. Freedom begets justice. If a dispute arose over a claim, as a mining property was called, the Commissioner rode on to the ground, heard both sides as he sat on his horse, and settled the matter at once. There was no delay, no lawyers nor other humbug, as is the case to-day.

Other and more important matters were not handled satisfactorily, however. The Government


  ― 19 ―
was autocratic. A Legislative Council and a Lieutenant Governor did as they liked. The Council was all the Parliament they had, and was practically nominated and appointed by the Crown. It imposed a license fee of thirty shillings per month for the right to dig for gold. This covered each calendar month only, no matter what date it was taken out on. If a digger had just arrived on the field on the morning of the last day, and had not started work at all, he was haled up and fined if he failed to show a license. If he took one out he would have to take out a new one next day. The police force of the time were a pretty bad lot. Many of them were ticket-of-leave men from Tasmania, who played the petty tyrant when they got a chance. These were paid—footmen 2s. 9d. per day, mounted men 3s. In addition the force was made up of black-fellows, who were paid 1½d. per day. In December, 1851, the license fee was doubled; £3 per month was demanded, or 30s. if the license was taken out after the 15th of the month. Diggers were only allowed to take up a claim of eight feet square for one man, or eight by sixteen for a party. They were not permitted to dig for gold within half-a-mile of any homestead. Big squads of mounted men would ride around arresting all who had no license, and doing so in the most offensive and brutal way. Commissioners' boundaries were ill defined, and hence the ground was often gone over more than once in the same day under different Commissioners. Digger hunting became a pastime for Commissioners and police. The taxation was unreasonable, the manner of collection unendurable, and those who had to pay


  ― 20 ―
had no say in government. No body of intelligent men would justifiably stand such treatment.

The only injustice came from the Crown—from authority—and it was so great as to lead to our first great strike, known as the Eureka Stockade, or Ballarat Riot. I well remember the excitement of that period, as, though not present on the spot, I heard the firing and saw the digger hunting, etc., that led up to it. I saw diggers under arrest made to follow on foot the mounted police for the greater part of the day, and then saw them tied up to a tree at night in the open cold air. The law was unjust, its enforcement was cruel, and the democracy refused to stand it. The stand made led to lasting changes. Several circumstances combined to bring about the final attack by the soldiers on the diggers on Sunday morning, December 3, 1854. Fortunately there were but a small number within the enclosure wrongly termed a stockade. These resisted bravely enough, and 20 lost their lives. Of the military, Captain Wise and five soldiers were killed during the brief combat. The subsequent trial of the men arrested and the exposure of tyrannical government led to government by the people, so that though the diggers were beaten in the fight at Eureka they won politically.

Digging days could not last. The shallow leads ran under the basalt and into deep wet ground, and soon led to the days of big mining companies, and the free, independent digger became a worker for wages. In the opening up of the deep quartz mines it was the same. Towns and cities grew up, and so we soon had the civilization of the old land


  ― 21 ―
set up in the new, with all its evils and disadvantages, modified as to degree, but there all the same.

The idea of Wakefield was put into force, and land sold at £1 per acre quite irrespective of its real value. The object sought was gained; we had a land-owning class; rent and interest added to profits for the moneyed class, who also took over the law making. Gradually manufacturing was introduced, more especially in the cities, and sweating—long hours and low wages—came to the workers. In a broad, general way the history of Labor and Capital in England during the past century would describe their history in Australia. Details vary, but the fight is the same. Hundreds of artisans came to Australia who were trades unionists before they left the motherland, and they were naturally the first to apply union methods to industrial conditions in Australia so soon as circumstances gave rise to the need for them. That strikes should eventuate was inevitable. Commercialism should not complain of strikes, as all buying and selling is built on such a system. One man offers another an article at a price; the article is refused at that price, even though the person wishes to buy. That is a strike. Any one man has the right to refuse to work under conditions offered to him. A thousand have the same right, and when they agree and do so it is denounced as a wicked thing by the very class who uphold the existing competitive system of trading. Strikes are never sought by the worker. Almost invariably every effort is made to avoid the extreme step, but when employers absolutely refuse even to meet the representatives of Labor, no course


  ― 22 ―
is open but to strike, as that is the workers' only weapon. It is common for the pretended friends of Labor, as many of the clergy are, to tell the workers in a patronising sort of way, that they sympathise with them and believe in unionism so long as it does not go too far—so long as they do not strike. Practically this means that Labor shall give way to the employers every time. But few of the leaders of high moral and religious teaching and thought denounce the social system and conditions which are responsible for all strikes and all forms of injustice, industrial war, and misery.

Australia is a country of rapid development. In a very few years we have the extremes of great riches and dire poverty. Fortunes have been made in a quarter of a century or less, and a rich and idle class dwell in the suburbs of our cities who assume airs of superiority characteristic of the small mind and ignorant worshippers of gold. They have been aptly termed the “wealthy lower orders.” For admission to their caste possession of riches is all that is needed; moral character does not count. They rule the social life to a large extent, and until recently dominated political life. As they sneer at the poor as persons dependent upon the capitalist, and because poor, consequently inferior, so they decline in any way to recognise the right of a worker to have a voice as to the conditions he should be permitted to work under. The capitalist provided the employment, and knew best how to manage his business; therefore he ought to fix the terms. He believed in freedom of contract. The worker could leave if he did not like it; but he, as the employer


  ― 23 ―
and the benefactor of the whole community, must not be dictated to as to how he should manage his business. This tone amongst employers, together with the rapid change from individual to company, inevitably led to friction. Though forced to earn his living by working for another man, the Australian worker never lost his independence of spirit. He would not cringe to anyone. The employer was to him nothing more than a man—certainly no better than himself. Strong objection was early taken to the terms “master” and “servant,” and in our later Acts of Parliament the terms “employer” and “employee” are adopted to express the industrial relationship; while in our electoral franchise for the Commonwealth Parliament, as also for the Assembly in the States, there is no recognition of property, but merely of manhood and womanhood in adult suffrage.

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