Board game called ‘Race to the Gold Diggings’ around 1855.
Board game called ‘Race to the Gold Diggings’ around 1855. National Museum of Australia

The Ticinese and the Australian Gold Rush

In August 1854, Giovanni Antonio Palla from Cevio and Tommaso Pozzi from Coglio returned to Ticino after securing a fortune through mining in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria. News of their arrival spread like a wildfire, spurring a wave of migration. Around 2000 Ticinese participated in the Australian Gold Rush of the 1850s, and left an indelible imprint upon the country.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a world historian, Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia, writer, and PR specialist, who has taught as a professor in Europe and North America.

Life was tough in 19th-century Ticino. Long-standing economic and political tensions between Switzerland and Austria impacted trade between the Ticinese and their neighbors in northern Italy, forcing Ticinese workers to return home without work or compensation. Poverty rose rapidly. The slow pace of the Industrial Revolution did little to mitigate the needs of a growing population. Inclement weather caused crop failures and food shortages, adding further misery. Ticinese newspapers had reported on the Australian Gold Rush in Victoria as early as 1853. Thereafter, travel agents from the Romandy and German-speaking Switzerland reiterated stories of how successful other prospectors had been in such a short time. The discoveries at Bathurst in New South Wales, and later on in Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria, were indeed spectacular. In Bendigo, during the first year of the Gold Rush in 1851, 2,3 kilograms of gold were extracted from only a single bucket of dirt. Tent villages soon covered the sunburnt landscape as men from around the world poured into Australia eager to test their luck in the pursuit of riches. To many poor, illiterate Ticinese men from the mountains, the option to strike it rich by mining for gold in Australia was an opportunity that they could ill afford to miss.
Tents from Mount Alexander gold diggings, Sketch from R. S. Anderson, 1852.
Tents from the Mount Alexander gold diggings, a sketch by R. S. Anderson, 1852. State Library Victoria
'Swiss tunnel' at Jim-Crow diggings, around 1858.
'Swiss tunnel' at Jim-Crow diggings, around 1858. State Library Victoria
Map of Australia from 1879.
Map of Australia from 1879. Wikimedia
Gold nugget from Bendigo, Victoria.
Gold nugget from Bendigo, Victoria. Wikimedia
Travel agents, dubious moneylenders, and local politicians all attempted to take a share of potential profits by lending money to Ticinese men interested in booking passage to Australia. Their practices were predatory in the extreme. Composed in often illegible German or French, contracts stipulated that travel agents or moneylenders were entitled to a share in their customers’ expected fortunes. Grotesque interest rates were additionally routine. Even more egregious was the intentional practice of booking passengers on ships sailing from Hamburg or Antwerp to Sydney rather than to Melbourne, which lay far closer to the Jim Crow Goldfields. On occasion, those tickets sold failed to make mention of a specific destination or the estimated duration at sea. Most of the Ticinese prospectors who arrived in Australia between 1854 and 1858 did so without any knowledge of English; many were often ill and malnourished as well. The destitution of the Ticinese shocked ordinary Australians, British officials, as well as Swiss expatriates and diplomats. The Swiss expatriate community – mostly composed of Romand vintners and Swiss Germans involved in the production of butter and cheese – did their best to assist their countrymen. Louis Chapalay, Switzerland's honorary consul to Australia, placed emotive notices in major Australian publications, highlighting the plight of the Ticinese. The luck of a few Ticinese changed for the better – in the leafy Sydney suburb of Hunter’s Hill, those Ticinese skilled in stonemasonry found immediate, lucrative employment. Ticinese stonemasons constructed public buildings, private homes, churches, and offices, many of which still stand. Many Australians opened their hearts to the beleaguered Ticinese too, offering them employment as shiphands, construction workers, and railway foremen across New South Wales and Victoria.

…We've golden soil and wealth for toil; Our home is girt by sea; Our land abounds in nature's gifts; Of beauty rich and rare…

Selected lyrics from the Australian National Anthem

Working in the Fields of Gold

For the Ticinese who continued onwards to the goldfields, located outside the environs of Melbourne, a laborious and dangerous process awaited them. Most prospectors used four primitive tools in their quest for mineral wealth: the miner’s lamp, the panning dish, the sluice, and the pick ax. The panning dish helped gold miners swill water, while the sluice functioned akin to a trough, which would flush out water but allow gold nuggets to remain. Gold panning was the more popular method during the Australian Gold Rush of the 1850s because it was easier to handle. Basic pickaxes helped miners split rocks and soil, while the miner’s lamp assisted miners in underground operations.
Alluvial gold washing, John Skinner Prout, London, 1874-1876.
Alluvial gold washing, John Skinner Prout, London, 1874-1876. State Library Victoria
Ticinese miners wore thick hats and durable pants, which helped protect them from the intensity of the Australian sun in addition to poisonous wildlife. Blowflies, in particular, annoyed Ticinese miners as they ruined food and infested anything made from wool.

I could not sleep that night, nor for many nights after in that tent. I had never come across such a thing. I was cold and the worst of it was the hunger, the number of fleas and lice that crawled all over me, and the mice at my neck and ears all night long.

Excerpt from the diary of Beniamino Casarotti
Aside from scarce rations, consumption and dysentery were rampant, and horrendous accidents occurred with alarming regularity. Competition from other migrants was fierce as well. Historians estimate that over 500,000 came to Australia as 'diggers' in the first years of the gold rush. The majority were British or Irish, but over 40,000 Chinese miners – a figure twenty times larger than that of the number of Ticinese – also arrived too. Violence too was an unavoidable part of everyday life in the tent villages. One notable insurrection took place in Eureka, just outside of Ballarat in 1854, in which miners revolted against the high license fees needed for access to the gold fields. Australian soldiers and police attempted to quell the riot, killing about 30 miners in the process. Although the Ticinese tended to band together and organize labor among themselves, only a handful became rich from mining.
Eureka Stockade riot, Ballarat, John Black Henderson, 1854.
Eureka Stockade riot, Ballarat, John Black Henderson, 1854. State Library New South Wales

Impact and Legacy

Far away from home and lacking fluency in English, many Ticinese returned to Ticino by the late 1850s and early 1860s. Those who decided to stay in Australia often went into farming thanks to liberal property laws. They intermarried with Catholic Irish and Italian immigrants, and so Ticinese surnames can be found across Victoria today. Some Ticinese earned enough capital to finance the emigration of their families to Australia. Others, still hungry for gold and adventure, moved farther afield to stake their claims in the goldfields of California, New Zealand, and Canada. Some Ticinese gravitated towards the commercial opportunities in 'Marvellous Melbourne', which would emerge as Australia’s industrial and financial capital as a result of the enormous wealth generated by the Jim Crow Goldfields. Formerly considered wastelands, the Ticinese miners’ tent settlements would blossom into cities and thriving towns. Ticinese participation in the Australian Gold Rush of the 1850s helped increase Australia’s population, strengthen its economy, and lead to the emergence of a distinct Australian national identity. The Ticinese thus played a small, but still pivotal and meaningful role in shaping the fortunes of South Australia.
In the community of Hepburn Springs in Victoria, the Ticinese influences are still present: not only in an annual 'Swiss-Italian Festa', but also in the name of the 'Locarno Springs'.
In the community of Hepburn Springs in Victoria, the Ticinese influences are still present – not only in an annual 'Swiss-Italian Festa', but also in the name of the 'Locarno Springs'. Wikimedia
A house called 'Locarno' in Yandoit, 1989.
A house called 'Locarno' in Yandoit, 1989. State Library Victoria / John T. Collins

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