Po­ten­tial El­do­rado left un­der­ex­plored

The Gold Rush 7.30pm, SBS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

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

losers

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.

Stephen Matchett

Con­nec­tions: Aus­tralians iden­tify with the gold boom of the 19th cen­tury

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