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‘Aboriginal’ people, ‘race’ and identity in the nineteenth century

Every blog in this series has begun with a challenge – how to make sense of something in a way that does justice not just to what is said but also to explore what is not said. As with the other blogs, I am working through the publications (a journal from 1890 and a book published in 1899) of my Dundee forebear, George Robertson Nicoll. So I want to think about what George chooses to report and why, what he deliberately omits to tell us, and what he takes for granted and does not even notice. This blog explores George’s experiences of ‘race’ and identity – his own and others – from 1848 when he landed in Sydney with his wife Sarah and infant son, George Wallace, and 1901 when he died.

George was a white, male, Scottish, Presbyterian colonist; I am a white, female, Scottish, currently-agnostic academic, living in Scotland – very much an outsider, just as he was. I have visited Australia on three occasions, and during those times, had very little contact with Aboriginal people. In contrast, on three visits to Aotearoa/New Zealand, I was privileged to meet Māori women and men, some of whom I got to know well as they shared stories of their culture and heritage with me.[1] What does this tell us, about very different approaches to the First Nations people of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand? But that is another story, and it’s George’s experience that I want to foreground in this blog.

What comes across in George’s writing is the story of a man who was trying to make sense of the very different situations he found himself in. He was, at heart, ‘Scotch’, deeply proud of ‘bonny Scotland’ (Journal, page 1), its scenery, its music, its dancing, its education, its whisky! He returned here on many occasions during his lifetime and finally chose to live out his last years in Scotland. Beyond this, he liked to think of himself as a ‘good man’, God-fearing, loyal, honest and protective of the weak and vulnerable; this is the George that he wants the reader to see. But he struggles to live up to his self-image, and this produces some dissonance in his accounts of his life and adventures. At times, he comes across as genuinely sympathetic – he understands and accepts that the white man has done real harm to indigenous peoples. Yet at other times, he seems to accept cultural stereotypes without question. Through a close reading of his book and journal, and by placing this in its wider social context, we can uncover something of the complex reality of the contradictions within a white emigrant’s views of ‘race’ and identity.

Situating George’s writing in context

One of the most striking aspects of George’s journal and book is how little he mentions Australia’s First Nations people (widely known, at that time, as ‘Aborigines’ or ‘Aboriginals’).[2] Either they were so common as to not merit attention (extremely unlikely by 1848) or they simply did not feature in his world (a more likely explanation). We hear much more about his encounters with ‘savages’ in the South Seas than we do about his interactions with the indigenous peoples of Australia. And this requires further reflection.

A white man’s interpretation of an encounter with Aboriginals

Estimates vary, but it is suggested that there were between 300,000 and 600,000 indigenous people living in Australia in 1788, at the time when the first transport ships carrying convicts arrived in Sydney Cove.[3] They had lived in Australia for some 30,000 years and were divided into more than 500 tribes, with at least 220 distinct languages. Their numbers had already been massively depleted by 1848. Not only had many been killed by conquerors’ guns, others had died from the imported diseases of pneumonia and consumption, smallpox and syphilis.[4] Tens of thousands had been forced off their traditional lands, as free settlers, assisted migrants and former convicts had cleared ‘the bush’ and destroyed forests to make way for farming. The impact of the ‘pastoral incursion’[5] cannot be overstated, as Macintyre (2009) explains:

‘[…] there was little effort to increase efficiency or conserve resources. Stock quickly ate out native grasses. The cloven hoof hardened the soil and inhibited regrowth. Patches of bare earth round the stockyards, eroded gullies and polluted water-courses marked the presence of the pastoral invader. So did the signs of human loss, the ruined habitats and desolate former gathering places of the Aboriginal inhabitants, the skulls and bones left unburied on the sites of massacres, and the names that because associated with some of them’ (page 59).

By 1848, large numbers of ‘Aboriginal’ people had been forced to far-flung mission stations and native reserves for their own ‘protection’ – protection from white settlers who shot and poisoned them and protection from each other, as rival tribes fought over land. The discovery of gold in the 1850’s was another nail in the coffin of the indigenous people of Australia, as gold digging in New South Wales and Victoria placed enormous pressure on the land and on a people whose way of life had depended upon living off, while caring for, the land.[6]

A search of local newspapers in 1848 gives a flavour of how Aboriginal people were presented at that time. In the Sydney Morning Herald, we find them convicted of stealing potatoes and sheep and killing cattle; charged with assault, rape and murder. We also find stories of ‘atrocious outrage’ like this one, as one tribe attacked another at night at Gundagai:

Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Wednesday 26 April 1848, page 3

In contrast, there are positive stories, such as accounts of ‘our sable brethren’ providing ‘great service’ at harvest time. But two strong messages come through again and again in the newspaper coverage. Firstly, we are told that the ‘Aboriginals’ were a ‘backward’ race, ‘incapable of elevation’[7] (all attempts at ‘civilising’ them were bound to be ultimately ineffective). Secondly, we read that they would ‘soon disappear from amongst us’ (the so-called ‘doomed race theory’).[8] Both messages led to the same incontrovertible conclusion: nothing could be done, whether one showed pity for, or hostility towards, Aboriginal peoples. This was the prevailing view that George Robertson Nicoll would have inherited when he landed at Sydney in 1848.

‘Blackfellows’ in Sydney

The first mention of indigenous Australians in George’s writing appears early in his account of his travels and adventures, and it is not a favourable first impression:

‘Next day we came on shore with all our luggage and rented a small two roomed weatherboard house in Sussex Street – a dirty, damp place full of rats and blackfellows living next door nearly always drunk and noisy and singing a song with this chorus: “The world may nag, since I got the bag; for hundreds have got it before me” ‘(Journal, page 39).

This presentation of Aboriginal people as poor and drunk is a familiar one in the newspapers of the day; poverty and alcohol use remain a serious problem in indigenous communities.[9] John Pilger’s (2013) film Utopia is a damning indictment on the conditions in which many First Nations people are forced to live today.

I was unable to find the song that George refers to; it has been lost over time, along with its meaning. What was ‘the bag’ in the song. Was it ‘the sack’ (they had lost their jobs)? Or was it a sexually transmitted infection such as syphilis or gonorrhoea (both were both passed on by white men to Aboriginal women, who in turn, infected their partners).[10] Alternatively, did George misunderstand what he heard; was this actually an Aboriginal word that he was unfamiliar with? We have no way of being sure.

The next mention of Aboriginal people is a few months later, in relation to George’s trip to California as part of the 1848 gold-rush:

‘[…] we made a start. Took two Aboriginals Blacks with us, as they had better eyesight than us and would as we thought be useful to pick up the small gold specks; such was our ignorance of gold finding at the mines’ (Journal, page 47).

This is the one and only mention of these two men. We know that George and his mates failed to find gold and returned to Sydney as soon as they were able to secure their passage. But we have no idea what happened to these men. Did they manage to hitch up with other more successful diggers and make their fortunes, or as seems more likely, did they die of cold and starvation in the snow-bound country they found themselves abandoned in, without money and without support?

Later, George describes the Aboriginal people he sees at the New South Wales goldfields:

‘[…] arrived at Queanbeyan and stayed there with an acquaintance of mates and equipped ourselves with tent, tools, blankets, provisions etc., we arrived in due time and found the country hilly and very cold, well-watered with beautiful spring water on the tops of the tablelands, abundance of grass and potatoes wild, about the size of gooseberries.  We dug them out with knives and boiled them. The blacks come every year for them and live on them while they last, together with kangaroo, Opossums etc., we pitched our tent on one of the hills and made ourselves as comfortable as we could.  Firewood was scarce and the weather extremely cold and the ground damp’ (page 110).

This description fails to indicate that the diggers were making it extremely difficult for the Aboriginal people to live in their traditional ways. Not only were they competing for food, they were also devastating the land, polluting streams and rivers and clearing forests and bushes so that wildlife disappeared.[11] Bruce Pascoe has written a powerful riposte to the conventional presentation of Australia’s First Peoples as hunter-gatherers who lived in an uncultivated land. He argues that they planted, irrigated and harvested; they stored the surplus in sheds; they built dams, houses and villages. But they did so with a larger goal in mind:

‘Earth is the mother. Aboriginal people are born of the earth and individuals within the clan had responsibilities for particular streams, grasslands, trees, crops, animal, and even seasons. The life of the clan was devoted to continuance’ (Pascoe, 2018: 209).

What the First Nations people were faced with was the destruction of their land and culture, as the new ‘Australians’ consolidated their hold on the country. George was inevitably implicated in this process in all his activities, on the gold-fields, in forestry, in farming, and finally, in trading with settlers up and down the rivers of New South Wales. This is not, however, something that he chose to write about.

Experiencing racism first-hand

An interesting aside is that George himself experienced discrimination in San Francisco in 1848, where he and his mates were greeted with posters bearing the message: ‘NO SYDNEY MIGRANTS HERE’. As he explains:

‘[…] A deal of misery existed at this time. The Sydney people were camped at a place outside the town called Happy Valley, where they pitched their tents and erected portable wooden houses which they brought from Sydney and other parts of the colony. We came across some we knew who had arrived before us and who were at work on the streets, but they were much afraid to speak to us for fear any of the Yankees working alongside would hear we were from Sydney in which case they would be discharged or perhaps something more befall them, so we had all to say we were from New Zealand or Canada’ (page 54).

The posters illustrated the widely-held perception that all Australians were convicts – thieves and murderers – and California did not want them! Nevertheless, George does not comment on the much more widespread anti-Chinese hostility at this time, which reached a head in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting the immigration of all Chinese labourers.

Encounters with ‘savages’, ‘natives’ and ‘cannibals’

Returning from California early in 1849, George was shipwrecked at the Bay of Islands for some months. While he was there, he was helped by a number of locals (white men and black men, women and children), and he writes very forcefully about a ship’s captain’s double-crossing of the ‘natives’ who had rescued them.

Lau Islands, Fiji

George describes his encounters with the South Sea Islanders in great detail. He admired the ‘natives’, whom he describes as big and strong, although sadly lacking in clothes (he saw this as a marker of how ‘civilised’ they were). He was especially relieved to be advised that he and his fellow sailors had been ‘tabooed’ – they were not to be eaten! His account includes the following stories:

‘[…] we were in great suspense, when a native came on board. He was very big man, a regular giant. He said nothing but took up my blanket, which I had saved, and a tommy hawk. He placed the blanket over his shoulders and with the axe in his hand sat in the bow of the boat staring at us and waving the small axe for about two hours. He brought neither coconuts nor anything with him and we were in a sad plight to know what was up. In the meantime we were showing off two rusty red flint guns which were no use as we had no powder but thought they might frighten the savage […] the savage plunged in the sea and swam off with blanket and tommy hawk. Nothing occurred until daylight when a native swam to us with some young coconuts tied around his neck and, as this was a sign of peace, we lifted the kedge and went into the beach with the boat (Journal, pages 62-3).

The story continues:

‘We now spread our clothes out on the grass to dry. As soon as they were laid out however, they were all stolen. I saved nothing but what I had on, a shirt and pair of trousers. The natives now came to us in scores, men, women and children. We had saved a saucepan or two and took possession of an empty hut. The cook caught a sea turtle and made some turtle soup for our dinner. There were two natives here from Tonga who were building a canoe and who had been among the missionaries and were now trying to connect the natives. They came to us and made signs that we were to be tabooed. That is, not to be hurt by the natives’ (Journal, page 64).

He then travelled to another island where he lived for a few weeks with a ‘Yankee’, who had a ‘black wife’ and a ‘black man slave and black woman slave’. George describes his shock at the treatment of the black woman slave:

‘One morning his female slave forgot to put the salt on the table for our eggs, he called his tall man and told him to get the whip and bring the female slave to the door of the kitchen, tie her to the post and whip her on the bare back, for that small offence, or rather mistake, in order to show us what he could do and what power he had over these poor creatures. This cruelty interfered very much with our digestion. We had previous to this learnt from him by conversation that he had been colleged in Salem, South America. His father was a clergyman and owned several slaves and said that there was no more pain in that than whipping a horse. After this he fell very much in our estimation’ (Journal, page 68).

George continues:

‘At this time, a white wishing to settle on any of these islands could buy a male or female servant from the chief for about 10/- of trade, such as a cheap gun. The chief would also build him a Fijian house for the same amount. The few whites who were living on these islands got their wives and servants through the chiefs in this way. The wives and servants do all the work, build the houses, plant yams, catch fish, dig the yams, cook, wash etc. The black men do only as they fancy. They make the canoes and implements of war and do any fancy work etc. as well as go to the wars’ (Journal, page 69).

He also writes very critically about missionaries and the harm they had done in the South Sea Islands. His observations are telling:

‘As far as I have seen and heard, it is my opinion that the white missionary has a splendid time of it and may come home to England in less than twenty years with a handsome fortune. However, if they would only send home true reports about the grand life they have they could be forgiven as it is a great shame that the poor people in England and throughout the British Empire should be induced to give so much of their hard earnings away under the cloak of converting the poor heathen. It is all a great mistake for the “poor heathen” in the South Sea Islands are far better fed that the British poor with the advantage of having no work to do, as a rule they are far happier before the missionaries come among them, for they afterwards know the use of money, strong drink, tobacco and vice of which they were innocent before. The money however that is collected for the poor heathen never reaches them, the missionaries agents, presidents, secretaries and other officials, eat it all up in grand style but the “poor heathen” does not want it, they themselves say – feed your own poor in your own country, for missionary eat it all (Journal, pages 72-3).

It is noteworthy that George does not describe the mission stations and native reserves in Australia in the same way; it seems he had no contact with them. Nor does he comment on the notoriously racist Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, which was first passed in Queensland in 1897, and followed in Western Australia in 1905, Northern Territory in 1910 and South Australia in 1911.[13]

George finishes the account of his shipwreck by introducing another story of an inter-racial marriage:

‘Among the whites was a Scotch chap from Montrose, who had the share of a small boat. He had a black wife and black slave, had a family of children and some goats and fowl. I asked him if he would not like to leave the island. He said no, never. I am happy, get a good living, am my own master and can do as I like, with no rent, taxes or wages to pay, with plenty to eat and drink. We also bade adieu to our host and black Nancy, his wife, as well as the other whites and darkeys who were so kind to us. We felt as if we were parting from friends’ (Journal, pages 77-8).

This is the George he wants us to see – open, accepting, non-racist.

Later years

There is no other mention of black or First Nations people at any point in the rest of George’s narrative of his life and adventures in Australia. In his final years, he travelled the world as a tourist almost non-stop, and he provides vivid accounts of his trips to mosques, temples and churches, to museums and burial sites, to shops and schools. He also visited World Fairs on three occasions, in Paris in 1889, in 1893 and 1895 in Chicago, where he would have seen displays of First Nations’ peoples, seen at the time as educational, not controversial in any way.[14]

World’s Fair, Chicago, 1893

In all this writing, George comes across as someone who was interested in how other people lived their lives, open to difference, with a curiosity and lively intelligence. He was not obviously racist in any way.  But maybe that is not the point. George benefited from the privilege of his own gender, ‘race’ and culture. As Satnam Virdee (2019) points out, racism works through ‘multiple routes’; it is ‘incremental’ and ‘relentless’:

‘It is only through concretisation that we can demonstrate the interplay among causal mechanisms, idiosyncratic events as well as powerful contingencies. In that process, we can illuminate what work racism accomplished across time and place as well as for whom and why’.[15]

George Robertson Nicoll was a man of his’ time and place’. His story is both unique and, at the same time, symptomatic of this wider reality. He was, at the end of the day, a British coloniser, complicit in the imperial project. Two of his sons went on to become prominent politicians: George Wallace Nicoll at local level as an Alderman in Canterbury, Sydney and Bruce Baird Nicoll at state level as the Protectionist member for Richmond on the New South Wales Legislative Assembly (M.L.A.) between 1889 and 1894. Both men were ‘Federationists’, proud Australians who supported the coming-together of the six self-governing colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia into the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Bruce was also a Protectionist, and as such, would have been sympathetic to the ‘white Australia’ policy as outlined in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which outlawed the immigration of non-Europeans, specifically Chinese people and Pacific Islanders.

As George’s descendant and a British person, I have benefited both from his individual achievements and from the imperial colonising project in general, just as I currently benefit from my own privileges of class and ‘race’ every day of my life.

Viviene Cree

20th January 2020

Primary Sources

Nicoll, George Robertson (1890). The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll, unpublished journal.

Nicoll, George Robertson (1899.) Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. London: self-published.


Cree, Viviene E. (ed.) (2013). Becoming a Social Worker, Global Narratives. London: Routledge. ISBN 978 0 4156 6694 7

Macintyre, Stuart (2009). A Concise History of Australia. 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pascoe, Bruce (2018). Dark Emu. London: Scribe Publications UK Ltd.

Ritchie, John (1975). Australia As Once We Were. Melbourne: Heinemann.

 Further reading

Attwood, Bain (1989). The Making of Aborigines. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Docker, John and Fischer, Gerhard (eds) (2000). Race, Colour & Identity in Australia and New Zealand. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Elkin, A.P. (1945). The Australian Aborigines. How to Understand Them. Sydney and London: Angus and Robertson Ltd.

Evans, Raymond, Saunders, Kay and Cronin, Kathryn (1988). Race Relations in Colonial Queensland: A History of Exclusion, Exploitation and Extermination (Second edition) Brisbane: University of Queensland Press.

Evans, Raymond (1999). Fighting Words. Writing about Race. St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

Kidd, Rosalind (1997). The Way We Civilise: Aboriginal Affairs – The Untold Story, St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

Loos, Noel (1982). Invasion and Resistance: Aboriginal-European Relations on the North Queensland Frontier, 1861–1897, Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Macmillan, David S. (1967). Scotland and Australia 1788-1850. Emigration, Commerce and Investment. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Richards, Eric, Reid, Richard and Fitzpatrick, David (1989). Visible immigrants, Neglected Sources for the history of Australian Immigration. Canberra: Dept. of History and Centre for Immigration and Multicultural Studies, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies. Research and Indigenous People. Dunedin: University of Otago Press and Zed Books.


[1] For more information, see chapters written by Moana Eruera and Gaylene Stevens in Cree (ed.) (2013).

[2] To find out more about the various terms given to Australia’s First Nations people, see

[3] Ritchie, 1975 page 26; Macintyre, 2009 page 61.

[4] See Campbell, Judy (2002). Invisible invaders: smallpox and other diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1780-1880. Carlton South, Vic: Melbourne University Press.

[5] Sheep numbers increased from 100,000 in 1820 to 1 million in 1830, and while the production of other livestock and cereal crops also increased sharply, it was sheep that were ‘the shock troops of land seizure’ (Macintyre, 2009: 58). New South Wales flocks numbered 4 million in 1840 and 13 million in 1850.

[6] See my previous blog for a fuller t of the negative impacts of gold digging.

[7] See Westgarth, William (1948). Australia Felix, Historical and Descriptive Account of Port Philip, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.

[8] See McGregor, Russell (1997). Imagined Destinies. Aboriginal Australians and the Doomed Race Theory, 1880-1939. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. It was this idea that led to the conclusion that aboriginal children should be taken from their mothers (both so-called ‘half-castes’ and ‘full-blooded’ children) and placed with white families for their own ‘protection’; they have been called the ‘stolen generation’. See

[9] Study reported in the Guardian newspaper, 20th February 2015. See For more recent research, see Lee, K.K., Conigrave, J.H., Wilson, S. et al. (2019). Patterns of drinking in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as self-reported on the Grog Survey App: a stratified sample. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 19, 180. doi: 10.1186/s12911-019-0879-8

[10] See Dowling, Peter J. (1997). ‘A Great Deal of Sickness’: Introduced Diseases among the Aboriginal People of Colonial Southeast Australia. Unpublished PhD thesis, Australian National University, Canberra.

[11] See my previous blog for a fuller account of the negative impacts of gold digging.

[12] Although cannibalism was practised in a number of the islands at this time, white people (and missionaries) were treated as ‘taboo’ (ref).

[13] This legislation established reserves to which Aboriginal people could be forcibly taken and removed their civil rights, treating them as dependents rather than citizens. The Act was strengthened by subsequent amendments.

[14] Such displays were a common feature at the fairs. There has been much debate about how far this was degrading and exploitative, and to what degree Native Americans, for example, were able to use these displays as an opportunity to represent themselves in an authentic way. See Beck, David R.M. (2019). Unfair Labor?: American Indians and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[15] Satnam Virdee, Unthinking Sociology and Overcoming its History Deficit, The Sociological Review Annual Lecture, 18th August 2019, available on Youtube:


Nothing but Gold

‘In 1852, Australia became the talk of the world. It was the moment in our history when there was nothing but gold.’ So writes Robyn Annear, as she tells the story of her great-great-grandmother’s experience of life as the wife of a gold-digger in Victoria in the early 1850’s.

167 years later, I visited the Victorian goldfields, retracing the steps of my own ancestor, Dundonian George Robertson Nicoll, who took part in gold rushes in California, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria over a period of 12 years, on and off, from 1849 to 1861. His story – of failure as well as success – is the story of many gold-diggers of this period. Just as importantly, the repercussions of the gold rushes on both the landscape and the culture of both countries are still being felt today.

It was on the 24th January 1848 that gold was first discovered in John Sutter’s mill-race on the Sacramento River in California. Reaction to this momentous event was initially slow, but as news spread, what has been called the California gold rush began. By the middle of 1848, San Francisco was half empty, with three-quarters of the men off to the mines, shops closed, newspapers suspended and ships in the harbour deserted by their crews (Holliday, 1981: 35). The consequences of the California gold rush were ‘vast and far-reaching’ (Rohrbough, 1997: 1), felt not only across America, but also across the world, including 10,000 miles away, in what was then the Australian colony of New South Wales (NSW), where George Robertson Nicoll was living with his wife Sarah and young son George Wallace Nicoll. In his book of his travels, George describes the impact of the California gold rush on Sydney in late 1848:

‘In Sydney, hundreds sold off their household furniture, and also their houses, for what they could get. Those who could not dispose of theirs, borrowed money on the security of the title-deeds, if they could raise as much as would pay for their passage. Property could be bought at this time for a mere song, so great was the excitement’ (1899: 5).

George tells us that there were no steamers fit to make the journey to California, so small coasting vessels were used instead, and he was kept busy making gun-cartridges and other fittings; the boats were being armed against pirates! George also made wooden tent poles and wooden portable houses to be shipped to San Francisco for people on the goldfields. By late December 1849, he himself ‘caught the gold-fever’ (1899: 6) and was persuaded to buy a share in the Sea Gull, a schooner that he had fitted out for the journey to San Francisco. The 25 shareholders hatched a plan, that half of them would go to the goldfields, while the rest would sail and trade on the Sacramento River. They would meet up in two years’ time and divide the profits or losses.

As things turned out, neither part of the plan succeeded. By the time they arrived (at the end of February 1850), the goldfields were swamped with diggers: most of the rivers and their tributaries had already been claimed and the gold-finds themselves were greatly reduced. Thousands of miners were giving up and heading for home (Holliday, 1981: 300). There was also, however, a more pressing problem, and that was the weather. Heavy snow meant that George and his mates were unable to even reach the goldfields, let alone dig for gold.

Downtown Grass Valley, California

They were also unable to sell their carefully accumulated supply of fresh fruit, vegetables and provisions, because when they arrived, their boat was impounded by the Customs’ Authorities and all the produce confiscated.[1] George and his shipmates were forced to seek work where they could get it, some discharging ships in the harbour and others working on the roads. With his money rapidly dwindling, George signed up as an able-bodied seaman on a brig, the Lady Howden, bound for Sydney. Following shipwreck and various near disasters (including encounters with cannibals!), he finally returned to Sydney on a small man-of-war, the Bramble, in the middle of 1850. He had been away for eight months and had ‘saved nothing but what clothes I had on, viz shirt, trousers and hat’ (journal, page 82).

George’s experience was shared by many who clamoured to the California gold rush, then and later. Even when gold was discovered, the people who made most out of gold were not the diggers themselves, but the people who supplied them. Writing about the Scots who went to the Californian goldfields, Jenni Calder states that much of the gold acquired ‘was quickly spent. Wherever there were miners, there were those who supplied their needs – provisions, equipment and entertainment. Most of the supplies came via San Francisco, and none of them came cheap’ (2009: 106). This point is echoed by economic historians, Clay and Jones, who state that economic outcomes were ‘generally small or even zero for miners, but were positive and large for non-miners’ (2008: 997). George was lucky. When he got home, Sarah had saved enough to allow him to start work as a shipwright again, and he rebuilt his business, later supplying diggers with tents poles and pick-axes after gold was discovered in NSW. But the lure of gold was too strong, and by August 1851, he headed off in a party of 10 shipwrights, again determined to make his fortune.

George’s second attempt at gold-digging was more successful than his first. His book of his travels details how ill-prepared they were for what lay ahead of them; for example, they took far too much equipment and lost a great deal of it on the way. The weather was cold and some members of the party soon lost heart and returned to Sydney. It was, as George describes, an uncertain and difficult life:

‘One moonlight night, about twelve o’clock, there was a rush of people tramping past our tent up the Turon [river], going to a new place just discovered. I rose, hastily got on my clothes, and followed them. They were going off to a place called Golden Point, about six miles farther up. I took a meal and my billy with me and went too, but did not get a claim. They were all taken, and the holders were waiting for the commissioner to come and give them the necessary documents before they could begin. Some of the men were lying on the ground, taking hold of the long grass with their hands, while others – rival claimants – hauled them off, swearing and fighting. I was too late for Golden Point, but fortunate enough to get a claim on the next point on the river – Maitland Point. I marked it out and left it in charge of one of my acquaintances while I returned for my mate and tent etc.’ (1899: 39).

Men digging for gold, by Edwin Stocqueler. With thanks to National Library of Australia

George spent four months at the digging, before returning to Sydney where another son, Bruce Baird Nicoll, had been born. This time he did the journey unencumbered by horses or equipment; he and his mate walked barefoot for five days (130 miles) carrying only a blanket each, later picking up a stagecoach at Parramatta. (There were no railways at this time.) George had earlier sent his gold pickings by government escort; this was a much safer (though expensive) way of taking gold back to Sydney. He then returned to the Turon, where he heard about gold being discovered at Mount Alexander,[2] 80 miles north of Melbourne. So he and his mate sold their claim and headed back to Sydney on foot again, before booking passages on a brig, the Thomas and Henry, bound for Melbourne.

Map of the Victorian Goldfields, 1851-52 (Annear, 1999)

After checking out that the goldfields seemed profitable, George went home to collect Sarah and the three children, and they all travelled together to Golden Gully at Mount Alexander, where George built a two-roomed tarpaulin house in a wooden frame, with one room for his family, and the other for his mates. It was now 1852.

George and his mates did find gold at Golden Gully; his share amounted to 17 pounds of gold, a substantial sum, then and now. The family returned to Sydney, where he bought a shop and dwelling houses, before the tug of gold caught him again, and he headed off for the Ovens diggings, travelling 400 miles on foot, and then another 300 miles in order to reach Mount Alexander again. George worked alone for a time, before teaming up with a man from Northern Ireland. In his book, he describes both the hard work and the risks attached to the digging process:

‘… we made a clearance and a start. We got out the washing stuff. The first tub washed out about two ounces. We went home rather cheery at our venture, and returned next day, commencing in the tunnels. In about three weeks’ work we got about three hundred pounds’ worth of gold out of it. We now all of a sudden got out of it, and tried another old tunnel. I was fossicating with my knife one day when I heard a cracking noise. I was lying at full length, with the candle lit, working in a crevice of the rock. The cracking continued, and I moved out as quickly as possible. All at once tons of earth and stones came crashing down, which buried pannikin, candle, knife and pick, and all but caught me. This was the last of these claims for me. They might be lucky, but they were also unlucky, and we thought it was time for us to clear out of it’ (1899: 53-54).

George returned to Sydney, following a letter from Sarah (another child was born), then went back again, this time to the Forest Creek goldfields at Mount Alexander, where he teamed up with another old friend and, going over old ground, they ‘did very well together’ (1899: 55) for a time. He then reverted to Sydney, where he bought a general store along with stock near Burwood, on the outskirts of the city.  He did not return to the goldfields until 1859/1860, after a disastrous attempt at farming in Shoalhaven, which precipitated him taking Sarah and their five children back to Dundee. This time, he headed for the Snowy River goldfields in NSW, where he and his mates struggled for six weeks in heavy snow before he accepted a position at the Mitchell’s Creek quartz mine near Bathurst, working for the Glasgow company on wages, doing carpentry work and erecting engines and stampers. George subsequently had one final attempt at digging a claim for himself, but finding it unsuccessful, he sold it. In 1861, he worked his passage on the Oliver Cromwell, heading for London, to meet up with Sarah and the children again in Dundee.

So, what conclusions can be drawn from George’s experience of gold digging, and what evidence is there of the gold rush today?

Perhaps the most striking aspect of George’s account is how haphazard it all seems to have been. George was forever on the move, teaming up with different ‘mates’ at different times and in different locations, but always travelling. With little in the way of public transport, much of his journeying was done on foot. Life must have been hard, physically and emotionally, as diggers fought each other and the environment to gain rewards that were, for the most part, disappointing. Diggers had to pay the British government 30 shillings a month for the privilege of working a claim whether or not they found gold, and this meant that many lost what little they gained.

And yet on the more positive side, gold was the prize that encouraged George to test himself in new and often challenging situations. It also brought him into contact with people from all over the world – from across Europe and North America and from as far away as China. It also brought him face-to-face with the Aboriginal people whose lands and livelihoods were decimated by the destructive effects of gold on their land and livelihoods; this subject will be picked up again in Blog 10.

I have said that George was one of the lucky ones. It is estimated that 10% of diggers became very wealthy, 10% made enough to set up in small business or farm, the other 80% made nothing, or were worse off than if they had never left home. George was in the second group. His gold spoils allowed him to set up two businesses and, on another occasion, to buy a farm. None of this money lasted, however, and it was not until 1862 that George’s new career as a produce agent brought him the stability and prosperity that he was searching for.

Looking ahead, the kind of gold-digging that George and his mates engaged in (in both California and Australia) was soon overtaken by big companies and massive machinery that could dig much deeper and further than the itinerant diggers had ever achieved. And while the early diggers had felled thousands of trees (often for firewood, sometimes for building mine shafts and houses) and cleared vast areas of native bush, now large companies also polluted rivers and streams in the dash for profits from gold. The story of the devastation wrought by gold is still being played out today in South Africa, Nevada, Indonesia, Western Australia, Peru, the United States, Canada, Papa New Guinea, Japan and China.[3] Meanwhile, Mount Alexander today is a pleasant place to ramble; nature seems to have recovered from at least some of the damage done by the nineteenth century diggers.

Golden Gully at Mount Alexander goldfields, November 2019

Garden (2001) is less certain. He writes:

‘In the bush around gold towns […], vegetation grows on the uneven clumps of clay and stone which cover the landscape. It might be mistaken for harsh natural bushland, but in reality, these are disrupted and degraded ecosystems, devoid of any of the range of species of flora and fauna which once were present. Apart from possums, the small mammals are almost universally gone’ (page 35).

He concludes:

‘Ironically, the scenes of these environmental cataclysms have in recent years become valuable sites in our cultural heritage. […] Environmental issues and repercussions are generally not yet included in our study of or interest in gold mining, but their time must come if we are to learn to live more sensitively in this fragile world ’ (page 43).

This is a hugely important point to end on.

Viviene Cree

21st December 2019


Primary Sources

Nicoll, George Robertson (1890). The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll, unpublished journal.

Nicoll, George Robertson (1899.) Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. London: self-published.



Annear, Robyn (1999). Nothing but Gold. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company.

Calder, Jenni (2009). Frontier Scots. The Scots who Won the West. Edinburgh: Luath Press Limited.

Clay, Karen and Jones, Randall (2008). Migrating to Riches? Evidence from the California Gold Rush. The Journal of Economic History 68(4): 997-1027.

Garden, Don (2001). Catalyst or cataclysm? Gold mining and the environment. Victorian Historical Journal 72(1&2) Special Issue Celebrating 150 Years of Goldmining in Victoria: 28-44.

Holliday, J.S. (1981). The World Rushed In. The California Gold Rush Experience. New York: Touchstone.

Rohrburgh, Malcolm J. (1997). Days of Gold. The California Gold Rush and the American Nation. Berkeley, LA: University of California Press.


Further reading

Clarke, Percy (1889). Three Diggers. A Tale of the Australian Fifties. London: Faudel Phillips & Sons.

Flett, James (1970). The History of Gold Discovery in Victoria. Melbourne: The Hawthorn Press.

Hocking, Geoff (2007). Castlemaine. From Camp to City. A Pictorial History of Forest Creek & the Mount Alexander Goldfields 1835-1900, 2nd edition. Castlemaine: New Chum Press.

Korzelinski, Seweryn (1979). Memoirs of Gold-digging in Australia. Translated and edited by Stanley Robe. St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

Ritchie, John (1975). Australia: As Once We Were. Melbourne: Heinemann

Victorian Historical Journal 72(1&2), September 2001, Special Issue Celebrating 150 Years of Goldmining in Victoria.



[1] In his journal, George explains that British vessels were not allowed to trade on the American coast or on any of its rivers (1890: 50).

[2] Mount Alexander was the name originally given to all the goldfields around present-day Castlemaine, as far as Bendigo in the north (Annear, 1999).

[3] The world’s 10 most prolific goldfields are described in 2011 in an online article (see I have added China to this list, because the gold-mining industry here is currently undergoing massive expansion (see


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