Potential Eldorado left underexplored
The Gold Rush 7.30pm, SBS
THIS two- part documentary on the California gold rush that began in 1848 demonstrates the extraordinary ability of Ken Burns.
Not that the creator of television histories, notably of jazz, the American Civil War, baseball and the Brooklyn Bridge, worked on this small series. But the people who did used his style of social history, just not very well.
As in a Burns production, The Gold Rush explains the era by describing the lives of a cross- section of people. There are readings from their letters, historical photographs and music from the time.
But where Burns pulls it all together, putting key characters in context, the researchers and writers on The Gold Rush are swamped by the scope of their story, almost all the elements of which are fascinating. Even in these ordinary hands this is a spectacular saga, simultaneously foreign and familiar for Australians.
One of the central themes of The Gold Rush is the way it reshaped American attitudes.
Well into the 19th century, the culture of American capitalism was Calvinist. Prosperity based on years of hard work, thrift and caution was a sign of God’s grace.
But the discovery of gold in California created the idea that everybody has the right to grow rich, through luck as well as hard work. Despite our own gold rushes and minerals and energy booms, this idea of a landscape that offers up an easy abundance to all- comers is not as familiar in Australian experience.
One thing that is recognisable is the way the California gold rush rewarded settlers and dispossessed the original inhabitants.
As in Australia, the big
of California were the indigenous people, whose land was defiled by mining and who were sold into slavery if they got in the way. ( The Mexican graziers of California, living in a precapitalist economy, fared little better.)
Other losers, again as in Australia, included Chinese immigrants, although they seemed to fare better in the long term in California.
But the single strongest comparison between gold rushes on both sides of the Pacific is the way immigrants turned their social assumptions into a political culture.
In the 19th century the ideals of Australian and Californian frontier societies were intensely egalitarian, at least for people who were white and preferably spoke English. And both frontier communities believed in democracy, at least for everybody who was not too foreign.
The Gold Rush is interesting when it could have been fascinating, but it is worth watching for the way it explains the sense of abundance as birthright that California exported first to the rest of the US, and then the world.
Connections: Australians identify with the gold boom of the 19th century