Earlier this year I went to a book talk in which Clare Wright was part of the panel. I tried for the best part of an hour not to like her – she was hugely articulate, funny, intelligent and attractive. [Gahhhh!] I couldn’t sustain any genuine dislike though, she was just too darn charismatic. I resolved then to read her award-winning account of the Eureka Rebellion: The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. It’s a tome, but the most entertaining tome I’ve read in ages.
I’ve fleeting memories of classroom lessons on the Eureka Stockade: an historically momentous clash between gold miners and colonial troopers in Ballarat, Victoria in 1854. Perhaps if my high school pals and I had the opportunity to read even one chapter of Wright’s book our adolescent attention could have been captured and our imagination ignited.
This book is as close to a page-turner as a non-fiction historical treatise can get – Wright successfully brings to life the turmoil, hardship, euphoria, filth and the nonsense of the gold rush in a hugely compelling way. I’m surprising myself as I write this but: this is genuinely a fun book to read.
Wright’s objective with this book is to dismantle the “myth of the Australian goldfields as an exclusively masculine domain”. Through quotes and observations from primary sources, she creates a sophisticated and colourful tapestry of women’s participation in the social, economic and cultural life of the goldfields. Contrary to the dominant imagery, women were not only present on the goldfields, they played a vital role in shaping the lives of the miners and their families – whether as a publican, newspaper publisher, theatre proprietor, storekeeper, poetess or whistleblower. This book presents fascinating detail on many women who helped forge Australian history, but who’ve been ignored by historians up until now (fancy that!).
Over its 500 meticulously researched pages, this book starts at the beginning of the gold rush story, exploring the reasons why people from around the globe flocked to the Victorian goldfields – right through to the fateful night of the Eureka Rebellion itself, showing in the process why this was such a pivotal moment for democracy in Australian history. The book balances the personal stories of those seeking their fortune, making real their misery and their anger, with the much larger, cataclysmic consequences of such massive human movement on the landscape, indigenous inhabitants and the nascent colonial political structures.
It’s easy to see why this book won so many accolades, including the Stella Prize in 2014. It’s not a dull history lesson. There’s almost a surfeit of human drama in these pages. As a casual reader I let a lot of the detail wash over me; there was simply too much to absorb. However, the key themes and essential arguments have made an impact on me; I’m reassessing (again) my understanding of history and just how much power there is in being part of the elite lucky enough to write it.
If you’re into history, and in particular “new histories” that challenge prevailing mythologies, there’s an awful lot to love about this book.