It is a misperception that Indigenous Australians were simply bewildered spectators of the gold rush. Many worked on the sheep stations, provided their expertise of the land to gold hungry diggers, engaged in trade with the miners or were members of the Native Police Corps.
Plenty of paid work
The appeal of gold was the opportunity to join the ranks of the nouveau riche. It proved irresistible to many European station hands and they left their jobs in large numbers. For many Aboriginal people the gold rushes were an opportunity to gain employment on pastoral runs and gain skills in station work.
At Challicum station all the station hands deserted to join the Clunes rush of 1851, and had it not been for the aid of Aboriginal people, lambing would not have been completed. Colin Campbell in 1852 employed Aboriginal people on his Buangor station because the price of European labour had skyrocketed since the advent of the gold rush. That year, Aboriginal men who were paid 12 shillings per week, and continued working until the end of shearing washed 40,000 sheep. Two or three were receiving a pound a week as bullock drivers. James Richardson at Gorrinn, near Ararat, used Aboriginal labour extensively throughout the 1850s, for jobs such as lambing, sheep washing, ploughing, dam construction, and a variety of lighter tasks.
Rug trading and fish markets
Aboriginal people moved quickly to grasp the economic opportunities presented to them by the miners flooding to the gold diggings. Aboriginal people traded and sold possum skin cloaks, fish, and game such as possum. The Djadjawurrung farmers at Mount Franklin capitalised on the nearby gold fields by selling excess produce from their farms.
In his memoirs, miner G.H. Wathen spoke highly of an "opossum-rug" he purchased from some Aborigines: "I was soon asleep on the ground, by the fire, under an overbowering banksia, wrapped in the warm folds of my opossum-rug. For a night bivouac, there is nothing comparable to the opossum-rug; and it is perhaps the only good thing the white man has borrowed from the blacks".
Upon meeting some Aboriginal people on the Broken River, Polish digger Seweryn Korzelinski and his digging companions asked for some fish. One of the men obliged by diving into the river and coming out with a "tasty foot-long fish". Korzelinski’s party again encountered some Aboriginal people en route to the diggings who offered to sell them some possum they had caught.
For the Aboriginal farming families near Mount Franklin, the goldfields offered them an avenue to sell their farm produce. Some Djadjawurrung families made their living selling produce from their 21-acre farm they founded in 1852. They built residences, and cultivated and reaped several crops.
Aboriginal bushcraft could yield gold
In the historic record, there are numerous instances of Aboriginal people discovering and prospecting for gold. Joseph Parker, the son of Assistant Protector Edward Parker claimed that an Aborigine found gold in the Loddon valley in 1849.
"The first gold in the district was discovered… by an aboriginal boy in picking up what he supposed to be a stone to throw at a wounded parrot, but it turned out be a nugget of gold! A European shepherd secured it and kept it a secret for two years."
At the Linton diggings, Charles Ferguson met a large number of the "Wardy yallock" Aboriginal people. A member of this tribe offered to show him a place where there was plenty of gold. Ferguson organised a party who on returning they reported they found gold but "it was the last place ever made and they would not stop there if they could make a pound weight of gold a day". The site was Ararat which became a rich gold field a few years later.
F. McKenzie Clarke recalled that members of the Native Police Corps were prospectors at Golden Gully (Bendigo). McClelland, a drill instructor with the Corps, was stationed briefly on Bendigo Creek in 1851-52.
"Sergeant McL. Paid us a visit with a party of black police on patrol and after camping, he took the black boys up the gully and they immediately began picking up gold on the surface in considerable quantities and by night, with the assistance of the dish and shovel we lent him, he and the black boys obtained over two pounds weight of gold and this he greatly augmented during the two succeeding days. Then, greatly disgusted at the necessity that obliged him to resume his duties… he entered into negotiations with our party to purchase his claim."
Aboriginal guides sometimes accompanied miners and on occasion, they were the actual discoverers of new gold deposits. In a letter to the Geelong Advertiser, Paul Gooch, a miner in the Canadian and Prince Regent gullies reported in September 1852:
"The way in which the Eureka diggings were discovered was on the occasion of my sending out a blackfellow to search for a horse who picked up a nugget on the surface. Afterwards I sent out a party to explore who proved that gold was really to be found in abundance."
Many miners used Aboriginal bush craft, food and knowledge on the gold fields. Lord Robert Cecil who made a visit to the Kyneton diggings in 1852, recalled how the diggers at Specimen Gully "showed me what the natives call ‘blackfellows’ sugar’. It is a species of manna falling plentifully from the white-gum. It tastes very much like the second layer in a wedding cake". Those who didn’t have tents built "mia mias" or "gunyas" and Aboriginal people were often used by miners as guides to the fields.
Text adapted from Dr Ian D. Clark and Fred Cahir, A critique of ‘forgetfulness’ and exclusivity: the neglect of Aboriginal themes in goldfields tourism in Victoria, University of Ballarat, 2001