Diggers, hatters & whores

With a title like that you know that Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s latest book is not going to be a staid or plodding historical piece and you’d be right. Eldred-Grigg has always had a knack for bringing distant times to life, whether it be in fiction, or as in this case non-fiction. This morning he delivered a session discussing Diggers, hatters & whores: the story of the New Zealand gold rushes and it was pretty interesting to hear about a period of New Zealand history that has never really been sufficiently investigated before.

The session began with a discussion of gold, which is something I hadn’t expected but Eldred-Grigg thought it worth pointing out that it was not universally cherished and hoarded across cultures.  Certainly the charms of the soft yellow metal have long been known by European cultures but Chinese culture favoured silver, and of course Māori, though aware of the presence of gold in southern rivers, preferred the toughness and cool beauty of pounamu.

From there he traced the beginnings of the gold rush phenomenon, one which never really took root until modern industrial capitalism provided the energetic drive and motivation for large numbers of people to seek, not necessarily riches, but freedom from a life of servitude and drudgery.  Gold could buy this freedom and so many young men followed that dream in gold rushes in all parts of the world including our own corner of it.

There were many things to take away from this session but probably the one that I found most interesting, and that Eldred-Grigg came back to himself a few times was that our notion of who these “diggers” were is quite incorrect.  The romantic image of an old, wizened, “man alone” character is, he says, a fiction.  Diggers generally worked in teams or “parties” and were usually young, energetic men from places like Germany, Scandinavian, Britain and Ireland.  The Chinese came too of course, often in families.  Those diggers that did live alone were the exception rather than the rule, so much so that they were known as “hatters” possibly because their solitude made them a little mad.

And, of course, yes there were whores but also many women preferred to sell grog in the goldfields, sometimes legitimately, sometimes on the sly.

It was an incredibly illuminating session and I’m glad I was able to go to it before I spoke with the author this afternoon.  Check back here on the blog for that interview which I’ll post in the not too distant future.  Um, it’s gold?