Canoona Gold Rush 1858

Canoona 1858 original text

Report from the Canoona Goldfields

(manually translated from original scan 10 Feb 2013, Andrew Thompson)

The following historical article from The Argus, Melbourne, 1 November 1858, follows the story of a ‘roving reporter’ who is visiting the Canoona Goldfields, north of Rockhampton.

A richly detailed piece, his manner is quite relaxed and he seems to have genuine empathy for the local Aboriginals as well as the gold diggers hoping to strike it rich. It is rather deep and darkly truthful in places, putting a new focus on aspects of our bloody history – white and black alike – that no reporter would dare discuss in public today.

In context to gold, bear in mind that this Victorian reporter is used to the rushes of Ballarat etc, and also that the Canoona Goldrush occurred two decades before the massive discoveries at Mt Morgan. At this point in history, Rockhampton itself is barely 3 years old and still part of New South Wales.

There is something captivating about this style of reporting that we don’t see anymore in mainstream media, and the reader easily finds themselves transported back in time to the Canoona gold fields.

If you enjoy this type of article, you can find more on the Central Queensland History page. Feel free to leave any related comments at the end of this page.

Andrew Thompson, editor | historian

Miners and Aborigines at Canoona gold fields
Miners and Aborigines at Canoona gold fields

Manual Translation:

The Fitzroy Diggings

From our special correspondent
Rockhampton, Oct 21

The Argus, Melbourne, 1 November 1858

While awaiting at Pheasant Place the arrival of M. T.’s cart, I borrowed a gun and walked up the river, in hopes of seeing an alligator, as I was told that one had been seen just above the junction of the creek that morning.

But I was disappointed, and I may as well at once confess that I have not seen a single alligator upon the Fitzroy, though I have frequently been on the watch for them. There is no doubt that they exist, but they are certainly not numerous. I have seen people that have seen alligators, but that has been as near as I could get to the reptiles.

On returning to M. T.’s tent I found that his horse and cart had just come in in charge of a strapping cornstalk, who, hearing I was from Melbourne, questioned me concerning one Hills, a butcher, who had gone thither 18 months ago. Not to know Hills, cornstalk seemed to think argued myself unknown, but I gave him to understand that Melbourne was a place so far exceeding Sydney in size and beauty as to afford cover, no doubt, to many eminent butchers whose names might not be recorded in song or story outside their own immediate districts.

Indeed I drew a little upon my imagination as to the magnitude and splendours of the Victorian metropolis, and tried to humiliate Cornstalk by placing Sydney in a most insignificant comparative place. But I could not shake his faith in Sydney.

He could believe that our parvenu town might be the larger and the richer, “Still Sydney will always keep the sway, like, as the capital,” he said. “Decorum est pro patria” – to bounce.

Finding after some delay that it was exceedingly doubtful whether my French friend would reach the diggings that night, I resolved not to wait for him, the more espeoially as a spring-cart was about leaving for Canoona, and with the driver I negotiated for a passage. With-out much delay we set out.

The driver was a young gentleman who had been sent into the North country to acquire “colonial experience,” but the experiment did not appear to have been very successful, and he seemed hardly up to the duties of his new speculation – that of plying a spring-cart between the river and the diggings. There were two other passengers, and some luggage.

The horse was sufficiently feeble and the road sufficiently bad for some distance, however, to necessitate walking over the greater part of the way, although had we taken the best road, we should have encountered scarcely any difficulties.

After travelling about seven miles, having made a slight detour to pick up some luggage, we reached Ramsay’s head station, consisting of a few scattered slab buildings and a stockyard erected near a fresh water logoon.

Several parties upward and downward bound, were halting here but we only stayed for a few minutes while one of our passengers had a word with the overseer, and “got a pot of tea.” At Ramsay’s I first saw some of the aborigines of the Fitzroy district, a considerable number of them, chiefly young boys, being about the place.

They were favourable specimens of the Australian blackfellow, and indeed, belong to a far finer and more warlike race than the unfortunate people now rapidly becoming extinct in the south. Those that I saw were, I believe, to some extent attached to the station.

Indeed otherwise they would hardly have ventured near it; for without knowing anything of the system pursued by Mr. Ramsay and his men, I am unfortunately safe in saying that the ordinary relation between the black and white races in this part of Australia is that of war to the knife.

The atrocities of this warfare on both sides are perfectly horrible, and I do not believe the Government makes any effort to stop the slaughter of the aborigines. A native police force is, indeed, actively engaged, but exclusively against the blacks, who are shot down by their bloodthirsty brethren at every opportunity.

I believe the blacks retaliate whenever they can, and never lose a chance of murdering white man, woman, or child, Insomuch that I learned upon very good authority, that of the first settlers of this district, about one fifth fell in two years. The number of blacks killed it is impossible to estimate.

They are being killed officially by police and unofficially by settlers and diggers every day, nor are women and children by any means universally spared when murders are being revenged by the whites.

One case of peculiar atrocity on both sides occured not long since, if I may believe the facts as they were told to me at different times by credible persons. The owner of a station on the Dawson was away from home, when the blacks attacked his house and killed every one in it except one young boy, who managed to conceal himself.

Editor’s note: He is referring to the Hornet Bank Massacre of 1857

There were women in the family, and their murder was preceded by other horrors. That the head of the family should have been driven half mad by these things is not to bo wondered at, but I was shocked to find many apparently humane men more or less palliating the vow he took, and kept, to shoot every black he encountered in the district.

How many dozens of lives he has to answer for he knows best. On one occasion he came upon a small party, consisting almost exclusively of women with children in their arms – of women so far civilised as to be able to appeal to him in broken English against the deed he was about to do. He had two revolvers with him, and kept his vow to the letter. Of course, I tell all this upon hearsay, and therefore I have forborne to mention names, but the circumstance seemed to be perfectly well known in the district.

One gentleman, to whom I was subsequently speaking upon the subject – a gentleman deservedly enjoying a large measure of public respect, and who, I am sure, would be much more scrupulous than the majority of white men here – had no more to say upon the subject than “Well, of course it’s impossible to justify what —— did, and it’s a very good thing that he has left the district.”

This same gentleman told me that if he fell in with a strange party of blacks in the bush he should ride straight at them with his revolver, and shoot right and left; and this not in any vengeful or blood-thirsty spirit, but because the state of warfare between the races is so virulent that if he showed hesitation about attacking them they would be sure to attack him, and thus it would become a mere point of tactics to strike the first blow.

I have here heard other men, kindly and good natured in ordinary relations, make use of such expressions as “I should think no more of shooting a black than a crow.”

I have travelled over a large part of Australia, and have in another colony spent months on, and beyond, the extreme verge of white settlement; I have also heard a good deal of what has been done on the Darling, and during the early overlanding days; but I believe the border warfare about the Fitzroy, the Dawson, and the adjacent districts, to be as savage at this day as any war with the aborigines that in any part of Australia ever darkened with disgraceful incidents the history of our progress.

Let me get back, however, from this sad subject to the spring-cart and my travelling companions. One of them turned out to have been a mate of the driver’s at the first outbreak of the Canoona diggings, and was a very intelligent, energetic kind of man-an old artilleryman, as I subsequently discovered – and with him I walked ahead the greater part of the way, leaving poor G. to toil after us with his spring-cart, in the acquisition of colonial experience, and a little not unwelcome “ready.”

My artilleryman – I don’t suppose he’s shy so I may as well call him by his name Hall, at once, and spare the multiplication of initials – Hall, I say, gave me some information about the diggings, as to the ultimate prospects of which he was very hopeful, although just then all the ground that was known to be good had been altogether worked out.

He and his party had, he said, done very well; but when I came to figures, it certainly did not appear that what he had done would have been considered at all remarkably fortunate on the Victorian side of the country. He estimated the total yield at Canoona at 2,500 ounces. Several prospecting parties were out, and all finding gold, though not in remunerative quantities.

He was kind enough to ask me to pass the night in his tent, an invitation which I was glad to accept, as I should not have known where else to go, except to the Government camp, whereto, indeed, I had a kind of demi-semi invitation, but one I scarcely cared to act upon.

After travelling altogether about 13 or 14 miles, we reached Canoona at about half-past 7 o’clock. Though we had been gradually approaching hilly country, we had made scarcely any perceptible ascent, the Canoona diggings being at the base of some of the outer spurs of the great range. It was already dark, but by the light of the moon we saw the tents of the diggers standing in considerable numbers, and presenting all the outward appearance of a Victorian goldfield ; nothing but the gold was wanting to make the illusion complete.

Mr. Hall’s tent was at the far end of the diggings, to that we had a fair view of the transitory canvas town as we went along. Everything looked cheerful enough: the fires were burning brightly and the men were moving about, talking and laughing, and enjoying their after-Sunday-supper pipes.

There were a good many women to be seen too, but I can-not say that they added much to the pleasant appearance of the scene. A diggings rush is certainly not “woman’s sphere,” as Mrs. Ellis, of the “Mothers of England,” would say.

So I thought, more particularly when, being ushered into one of the two tents that formed the encampment of Hall’s party, my eye fell on the figure of a poor woman, the wife of one of one of his “mates,” lying sick in bed. Her husband was evidently anxious about her safety, though not very clear as to what was the matter. With mutual apologies we quitted the tent and went into the other, where we recruited ourselves after our walk with beef and tea and damper.

Our circle was speedily joined by G., the driver of the spring-cart, by John, the sick woman’s husband, and subsequently by Mr. Chapel, a celebrity of these days, he having been the discoverer of the Canoona goldfields. He was a short thick Hebraic looking man, with long black ringlets, a very “loud” waistcoat, and a yet “louder” chain festooning over its embroidery.

It was very evident that he conceived the eyes of the world to be, rather than otherwise, upon him. I afterwards learned that he possessed some practical experience in mining in England as well as in gold-digging in New South Wales, and he had been employed by Captain O’Connell, the Commissioner of Crown Lands for the district, to “prospect” it during some months.

I believe he was very indefatigable in this work; but, unfortunately, since greatness has been thrust upon him by the Canoona discoveries he has deemed it incumbent upon him to aspire to be a kind of Fitzroy River Lyell, and is for ever “Chattering stony names – Horn blend, and shale, and rag, and trap, and tuff,” in a way that would make Mr. Selwyn’s hair stand on end. However, he declares that he knows where plenty more gold is to be found, and only waits assurance that he will be paid for pointing it out to do so.

His prominent position has not been without its attendant dangers, as divers of the disappointed diggers chose to resent against Chapel their own precipitate folly in starting upon the gigantic wild goose chase of the Port Curtis rush, and had threatened to take his life for leading them astray.

From him I learned that a new discovery had been made public that day of a supposed now gold-field some 15 miles off, in a northerly direction, where it was said that about half a dozen miners had been quietly doing well for a week or so. A considerable number of diggers proposed starting in the morning to test the truth of the rumour. Having amongst us disposed of a bottle of “old tom,” which I was permitted to furnish towards the general entertainment, we turned in.

Of course I was again a pauper as to blankets, but I had fallen among Good Samaritans, and was well cared for. The only hindrance to sleep which I experienced arose from a neighbouring tent, where a party of revellers, Shakespearian, or rather G. V. Brookian, as to taste, and exceedingly drunk as to condition, were shouting and guzzling through the greater part of the night. If I fell asleep I was sure soon to be awakened by some peculiarly impassioned passage, interrupted by occasional notes and parentheses not to be found in the authorised copies, as thus: “Before my body I throw my warlike shield. Lay hon Macduff, and damned be he that fust cries ‘old enough.’ “And us the pannikin, old man.”

This defiance to Macduff was a special favourite, perhaps as being nearly as good as swearing on one’s own account. At all events, Macbeth made the still night air ring with it, at least half a dozen times before I began thankfully to perceive that speech was failing the inebriated varlets, and presently afterwards I judged by the sounds that reached my ear that they were disposing of themselves for the night by tumbling among the tent-ropes. As they fell so I suppose they lay; at all events, they let us go to sleep in peace, and they troubled us no more.

The next morning (Monday, the 18th) I was out early among the tents and washing-places. The Canoona flat, where the diggers were, covers some 40 or 50 acres, I suppose, and round it on three sides lightly timbered slopes rise toward hills of no great elevation, but which screen far higher mountains, especially towards the north and west. A small creek runs down the middle of the flat, and into it again ran smaller tributaries, though the word run, indeed, is hardly applicable, except in rainy weather.

There was at the time of my visit no water in the creek, except what was poured into it from the washing wells, of which I will speak presently. The covering of soil over the greater part of the flat was very thin, with a good deal of burnt quartz cropping up here and there among the stunted herbage.

A number of small palm trees, interspersed with grass trees, gave a somewhat tropical appearance to the scene, which was otherwise very Victorian in appearance. The palms were not very flourishing in their appearance their broad fan-like leaves spreading but a little way from the parent stem, and presenting a very poor appearance, in comparison with the fern-trees of the gully in the Dandenong ranges, which M. Guerrard has so beautifully painted, though to those plants they bore some superficial resemblance.

Among the leaves, which sprout out exclusively from the tops of the stems, grow clusters of green fruit, the kernel of which is a round white nut, about the size of a large cherry, and very eatable when cooked.

In the subsidiary creeks there were occasional small groups of languid prospectors, rather than diggers, scratching about the surface, and all getting the “colour of gold,” but in homoeopathic doses. The chief scene of activity was the main creek, and the adjacent flat for a little distance on either side. Here there were many wells, whips, and wind-lasses, and cradles and washing-dishes were being actively worked.

The wells of which I spoke, and the heaps of dirt alongside of them, made me at first suppose that this place was where the gold was being got. I soon found, however, that the wells were merely sunk to furnish supplies of water, which was procurable in good quantity and quality, both for domestic use and cradling, at a depth of about 20 to 25 feet.

The washing-stuff was carted down to those wells from a distance of half a mile to a mile on an average, and at the cost when I was there of about 4s. per load. The first tin dish I saw washed yielded about a pennyweight and a half, the produce of about eight buckets of washing stuff puddled and cradled.

The stuff was got on the surface, and the man who was washing it said that any man could make his rations, and some made a good deal more. He was very civil, and ready to show me what he was doing, as indeed, both at Canoona and elsewhere, I have generally found diggers to be, if civilly and rationally questioned.

Occasionally one meets with more or less insulting rebuffs in pursuing knowledge in this way, but of course one must expect this now and then, and it does not occur sufficiently often to be a serious impediment to one’s inquiries. In the course of my walk I spoke to a good many diggers, and the general accounts I received corroborated the first account I received.

After breakfast I went on to the Government Camp, where I found my fellow-voyager on board the Pancake, in much trouble about the non-arrival of his goods. Here, also, I was glad to make the acquaintance of Captain O’Connell, the Commissioner of Crown Lands, who had just come in from a tour of inspection, and who was about returning via Rockhampton to his headquarters at Gladstone.

His own view of the auriferous prospects of the district was very hopeful, although he was somewhat alarmed for the immediate consequences of so absurdly extensive a rush as had occurred, and was still in progress – a rush for which the old residents in the district were, naturally, altogether unprepared, and utterly unable to account.

Captain O’Connell estimated the quantity of gold that had been procured at about 2,000 ounces. He showed me a parcel of about 20 ounces, which had been placed in his charge that morning, and which presented the peculiar black and granular appearance characteristic of almost all the gold that has yet been dug upon the Fitzroy.

As a proof of the very general dissemination of gold, although in small quantities, throughout the district, Captain O’Connell showed me a paper containing nearly half a pennyweight that had been got by an aboriginal boy, who was a hanger-on of Captain O’Connell’s party, and who was persuaded to go off and imitate the white men’s proceedings with a tin dish.

In the evening the boy brought back his little packet; but he was not to be induced to go again by any proposals to barter clothes and tobacco for what he got.

He preferred the following occupation, in which I saw him engaged – Whether accidentally or designedly procured, he had a small raw place upon his left knee; and on this place, as “Pickwick” sat upon the ground, very nearly “in the simple majesty of nature,” the flies continually clustered.

Pickwick had furnished himself with a quantity of the sharp-pointed blades of the grass tree, and his sport was to fillip these along his thigh, among the flies. Whenever he succeeded in impaling one, he put the blade of grass, with the fly upon it, carefully on one side, and when I saw him he had by him about a dozen of these evidences of his skill.

This occupation was one that suited his genius much better than gold digging, and I dare say he kept on for hours, contentedly sporting over the curious game preserve he had established upon his leg.

Captain O’Connell’s account of the climate of the district was very favourable, and he said it was rarely distressingly hot. He spoke particularly of Gladstone, where had long been resident, but he had been at Canoona as late in the season as the end of November, when it was not materially hotter than at present. It is, of course, characteristic of a tropical climate that the annual range of the thermometer should be much less than in higher latitudes.

I may mention here that, during my stay on the Fitzroy, the thermometer never rose above 85 degrees in the shade, in the hottest part of the day, while the nights were invariably cool and pleasant. A great advantage which this part of Australia enjoys is, that it is almost entirely out of the range of the hot winds.

What traces of them are felt come from the southward, and the fires of the central deserts have not the power much more than to take the chill off the cool breezes that come up across the Southern Ocean, while airs that have been already heated in the tropics before being exposed to the action of the sands of the interior, are soon raised to the blast-furnace pitch with which dwellers in the South are so uncomfortably familiar.

Having seen all I could of doings on the Canoona Flat, I walked with Mr. Hale a little way “up the gully” to Chinaman’s Gully and Golden Point, and the other small but famous spots of Canoona’s brief and departed day of golden glory. There were a good many diggers at work here, indeed, as well as higher up the gully. But they were but gleaners after the harvest.

The great yield of gold was in a thin stratum of soil, rarely above a foot deep, overlying the bed rock, of what Mr. Chapel and the diggers generally called serpentine, but which I understand not to be true serpentine, but slate resembling it. The almost perpendicular dip of this slate appears to render all search for a second bottom at the place where gold was found so abundantly within a few inches of the surface, hopeless.

Here and there in fissures in the bed rock there have been attempts at deeper sinking, but I could not leam that these were successful. But a good many gleaners were at work scraping away the remaining earth from the surface of the rock where most gold had been got, and a living was apparently to be secured in this way, while others preferred devoting themselves to places where the soil, if less rich, could be more readily pro-cured.

The man, who gave the best account of what he was earning on new ground, said he was getting half an ounce to the load. Hall’s claim, upon which, however, at this time only one of his party was at work, was yielding about six pennyweights he told me. This was, however, decidedly better than the average.

The general impression left upon my mind by all I could gather was, as I have said before, that a man was very exceptionably unlucky if he could not make his rations, and exceptionably lucky if he made 10s. per day, though some were doing better. Of course what I say only applies to those who actually work, and they constitute a very small percentage of those who come.

Perhaps up to this time half of those who have come have turned back in Keppel Bay, and half of the remainder at Rockhampton, while of those who have reached Canoona, I should doubt if one in five has really dug in earnest. Of course such figures pretend to no accuracy; but I mean that there has been very little real digging in the Fitzroy district as yet – so little, that it would be quite rash to base an opinion upon it.

We must await the discoveries of the numerous prospecting parties now out, and about to go out, but it certainly seems to me improbable that in a country where gold is found in minute quantities, almost wherever sought, over a large area, it should turn out that the little patch near Canoona was the only rich spot extant.

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