Opinion: Your reaction to Goldfields’ World Heritage bid

Readers have shared their thoughts on the article from last week’s Mail regarding the current World Heritage bid for the Central Victorian Goldfields.

Good questions raised
Philip Ingamells, North Melbourne (former local resident)

Brian Walters raises some good questions about a proposed World Heritage bid for the region’s historic goldfields. While it might be possible to workshop an application to narrowly squeeze into compliance with UNESCO’s criteria for such a bid, it wouldn’t fit the vibe of the key criteria. For culture, that’s something associated with traditions or works of “human creative genius” or “outstanding universal significance”. For the environment, it’s “areas of exceptional natural beauty”.World Heritage bids are very public events on the world stage. In this day and age, do we really want to be seen making such a claim for an event that had catastrophic impact on the natural environment, and a similar impact on the culture of the area’s Traditional Owners. The goldfields were a tumultuous and often lawless event that produced many winners and losers and, yes, some fine neo-classical buildings. But the clear-eyed, unromanticised history of that fascinating period is yet to be written. 

Disappointed by criticism
David Murray-Smith, Castlemaine

I was disappointed to read the criticism of the bid for Unesco World Heritage status for the Central Victorian Goldfields, as reported in the Castlemaine Mail on January 6. If we downplay the historic importance of the goldfields – and their contribution to today’s Australia – we might as well as dismiss all post-European settlement of this country (tempting as that might seem to some).

We all applauded the addition of Budj Bim in Western Victoria to the Unesco register in 2019, a belated recognition of a unique part of our Indigenous heritage. But while of a different scale, the remains of the Victorian goldfields are also an extraordinary cultural treasure. For anyone with the slightest interest in the development of our nation, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the 19th century gold rushes. And what is perhaps most remarkable about our local goldfields is the vast extent of what survives. It is easy to lose sight of the value of this legacy when we are, effectively, immersed in it; but wandering through the ‘degraded’ bushland of the ‘dry diggings’ it is simply astonishing how much remains intact from over 150 years ago.

The objections cited in the article – including the tortured distinction between ‘heritage’ and ‘history’ – amount to pseudo-legalistic (dare I suggest ‘woke’?) nitpicking. It is of course indisputable that the gold rushes had devastating impacts on the Indigenous inhabitants and the environment which they nurtured, as emphasised in the article. However, parallel concerns could be raised against virtually every historic monument on the globe, let alone on the World Heritage Register.

That is what history is; virtually never one-sided and usually contested. We preserve our heritage to recognise, to remember, and to reflect on the consequences – negative and positive.

We might as well ‘cancel’ Versailles while we’re at it, we know too well about the horrors of the Ancient Regime. The Opera House and Exhibition Building hardly withstand scrutiny: whitefella desecration of Aboriginal land. The creators of the megaliths on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) destroyed their environment to such an extent that they were forced to abandon the island (or simply died out). Strike them off the list. Aztec and Maya sites are steeped in the blood of the human sacrifices practised by those civilizations. To invoke perhaps the most extreme example possible, from recent history at any rate, even Auschwitz-Birkenau was added to the World Heritage register in 1979.

This is not to suggest equivalence; just to note the complexities than can underly a Unesco listing. I would certainly contend that the goldfields represent a more nuanced story than the Shoah, and that the diggings reveal much more than the “Legacy of Shame” portrayed in your article. Others are free to disagree. The point is that much has survived that bears witness to this savage and tragic but arguably also heroic and to some extent wondrous era – and which allows us to continue the debate “IRL”. It’s important not to gloss over the long-term damage, but that’s only part of the story.

We are blessed to be surrounded by the diggings in the condition they are in; even if we are inclined to take them for granted. Their cultural significance is immeasurable; the lessons they can teach us are vast and they resist simplistic characterisation. Their preservation is urgent and without question globally important. Unesco status will not necessarily change any of that, but it can help focus attention on the resources required to save, maintain and, yes, to interpret this legacy. This will inevitably follow the fashions du jour.

Shameful heritage
Margaret Rasa, Castlemaine

I was somewhat bemused by the campaign by two former Premiers for World Heritage listing for the Central Victorian Goldfields, thinking at first that it was just a desperate case of relevance deprivation syndrome. Then I realised that the bid could be an opportunity that could really benefit the community and the region. 

Brian Walters is right when he warns us not to confuse heritage with history. The history of our area has many dark and shameful aspects characterised by greed, depredation and exploitation, racism and romanticism that have left a heritage of damage and shame that continues to this day. 

Perhaps the Premiers would be better to shift their focus and campaign alongside the community groups trying to fix the effects of mining on the environment and use their influence to get decent funding for landcare and forest regeneration? Or maybe lead Local Governments in their efforts to improve damaged waterways and mitigate flooding? Or drive the EPA in finding solutions for the still remaining toxic waste across the landscape? Or work with government and community to address the continuing legacy of the White Australia Policy which was born out of the goldfields.

Let’s broaden the conversation
Eliza Tree, Castlemaine

Excellent to see Brian Walters article (Castlemaine Mail, January 6) questioning the virtues and intention of World Heritage Listing for our region, with Gold as the central focus.

As well as the immeasurable damage and destruction of nature, forests, waterways, and soils, it overlooks the many greater features of our communities and region, that are worthy of celebration.

It overlooks and denies the enormous Indigenous cultural richness, as well as natural wonders and natural environment of our region, albeit requiring care and rehabilitation.

If we are to apply for World Heritage listing, let it be focused on important values and a wider story, not just ascribing ‘mining techniques’ and ‘immigration patterns’ as the predominant events and features to highlight to attract visitors, but focus on culture and nature as our tourism and heritage focus.

If we are so proud of our ‘mining past’ why is it that the blackberries, gorse and weeds infest so many of the sites, as they slowly decay into disrepair.

Let’s broaden the conversation and apply for heritage listing that is worthy of recognition, celebrating Culture and nature, for locals and visitors alike.


Read more comments from Chewton historian Patricia Healy here.

Castlemaine Mail
Your source of independent local news in the Mount Alexander Shire.