Hundreds of Tasmanians up and left when gold was first struck in the Victorian goldfields in 1851 – men of every stripe and occupation, suddenly making an exodus from the island, crossing the strait to try their luck in looking for colour.
It was yet another economic setback for Tassie, although some on the north-west coast made good selling shingles and laths for the booming populations to shelter themselves in ramshackle accommodations all across the goldfields.
In February 1852 a pioneer farmer from the north-west named James Fenton left his family and took off for Melbourne on the Sea Witch. Some of his fellow-passengers, he noted, were successful diggers who had come back to Tasmania in order to make purchases or retrieve possessions, such as horses, to bring back to the goldfields. Fenton, a Congregationalist and teetotaller, frowned upon their roughness and the lack of class with which they were employing their newfound wealth. Their conversations were lubricated with rum, and they argued the merits or otherwise of prospective gold sites in Victoria. Tempers flared without warning. One ruffian started a fistfight with another fellow after taking offence to the style of his hat.
Some had come back to Tasmania to reunite with lovers and bring them to the diggings. Fenton recorded one such mistress, “one of the most hideous-looking women that ever escaped strangulation in those days of the hempen noose”. She had been draped in expensive fabrics and laden with jewellery. Her cheeks, too, glowed red with the influence of an intoxicant.
Good luck to that blessèd couple, perhaps. A more miserable story of ill-fated romance emerged from the Sea Witch, however. One digger had secreted his paramour in the hold of the ship; she was a convict, and not able to freely transport herself off the island, so her plucky lover was smuggling her in a crate. It was nailed shut, but the fellow had left enough holes in the box for her to breathe, as well as a supply of food and water to last the journey’s duration. Sadly, as further cargo was thrown onto the ship, the case that carried this young prisoner of the Crown was covered with a large quantity of hay. She suffocated, and her body was discovered dead when the ship arrived at Melbourne.
Of course, for every bastard that got lucky and was able to doll up their women and use £5 notes to light those biddies’ cigarettes, there were dozens that stood around up their ’nads in freezing water, sluicing and panning to no avail. A better career path was selling booze to the hordes, or exporting shingles across Bass Strait. James Fenton himself returned after a short while, and went back to the farm.
The story of how a Hawaiian woman ended up living on King Island, in Bass Strait.
← Back to all posts