Save for sparse and sporadic failed convict rebellions and escapees who stole arms and turned them on their British overlords, prisoners and Aborigines had been the foremost human recipients of firearm discharges prior to the Australian gold rush. Free settlers and freed convicts were able to arm themselves; however, this was for culling native animals and humans, not specifically for self-defense. The gold rush changed this.
Gold had been found in Australia prior to 1851, but it was Edward Hargraves’ discovery at Ophir in western New South Wales which, following the American gold rush, sparked the powder that blew Australia into becoming a destination for entrepreneurs. Charles Fitzroy the Governor of Australia, in his first dispatch to London about the Sydney gold rush said it was ‘unhinging the minds of all classes of society’. And in a society where wealth is exceptionally disproportionately distributed, the idea of literally digging wealth from the raw earth is appealing to all who can conceivably dig.
The more sycophantic entrepreneurs saw their advancement in capital not in simply heading straight to the goldfields but in supplying the fevered masses as well. Men who had come from the American goldfields to dig in Australia brought with them the arms they’d needed to protect their property on those fields; and many brought extra arms, knowing that the Australian market would have a limited supply and that the demand would be enormous.
Samuel Colt, an American gun maker, had organised a display of his firearms at the Great Exhibition of 1851 held at Hyde Park in London. Along with several fortune-seekers about to embark to Australia, Colt also sold Colt Navy revolvers to officers who were sailing to engage in military service in the colony. Thus began the import of Colt firearms to Australia. Colt Navy revolvers were an ideal military side arm. Reliable, easy to clean and maintain, and repairable in a way no other firearm was.
In fact, the Colt firearm represented an aspect of mass production and compatibility which would influence engineering manufacturing across many fields. Each revolver was made identically, allowing any piece of a particular model to be fitted on any matching revolver. Research has uncovered examples of this replacement of parts having occurred on Colt revolvers in the Museum’s collection.
As well as being an epitomised military and police firearm, Colt revolvers were sought after by those digging in the goldfields. They were expensive though – indeed, a Colt sold for US$20 on the East Coast of America where they were manufactured could sell for US$200 on the Californian goldfields – putting them out of reach of many of the men on Australian diggings. The pepperbox revolver, an early version of what would become the revolver more recognisable today, was much cheaper firearm. The revolving characteristic of the pepperbox was multiple barrels, which would turn after each barrel was fired. These weapons were small and affordable, but not very reliable, and there were so many varieties that compatibility was not an option for parts. They could also be a danger to the person firing due to numerous mechanical malfunctions. Regardless, they were very popular during the gold rush, and many have found a place in the Museum’s collection.
Civilians were armed quite well in Australia from the 1850s. On the goldfields, one could not trust the police to engender peace and fairness. Miners were required to hold a licence in order to dig, and being caught without one resulted in a sizable fine – half of which would go to the police officer who had caught the miner. There was little incentive to police any other behaviour.
With so much voracity engulfing the society, and such a glut of people digging in the goldfields, some folks saw that there was a much more expedient way to beat poverty; and by arming themselves they ensured others would hand over their material wealth. The rise of the bushranger.
Escaped convicts had stolen arms prior to the gold rush; however, by-and-large the arms were stolen for fundamental survival, not to assist larceny of capital. John Caesar, a West Indian born convict who was transported to Australia on the First Fleet stole a Brown Bess musket, which was pried from his rigour mortis stiffened hand after he was shot at what is now Strathfield in Sydney’s west.
The post-gold rush bushranger was undeniably motivated by paucity, but mere survival was coupled with rapaciousness. Ben Hall was involved in several armed hold ups, and although he never killed anyone, was shot dead by police at Junee in New South Wales in 1865. Hall had armed himself with a quite elegant weapon, a shotgun made by Bartholemeo Pedrotta.
The Kelly gang have of course become an icon for anti-establishment and rebellion. Moreover, Edward Kelly in particular has become a doyen of Australiana. The first motion picture made in Australia was ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’; and Rolling Stones‘ front man Mick Jagger’s sophomore acting attempt was 1970’s ‘Ned Kelly’. The rifle which Jagger used in the film – representing a carbine Kelly appropriated after it was dropped by a police officer, is held in the Museum’s collection.
Gold mining became industrialised and corporatised as alluvial gold became more and more difficult to discover. And although much more gradually, arms have also become again the purview of our overlords.
Written by Damian McDonald, Curator