New Zealand's Gold Rush: Background information when reading The Luminaries

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The Luminaries

A Novel

by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2013, 848 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2014, 864 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
New Zealand's Gold Rush

Print Review

The Luminaries is set in the New Zealand town of Hokitika during the nineteenth century gold rush. Hokitika is located on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island, which is one of three areas in the country where gold was found to be in sufficient quantity to mine.

Rumors of gold in a small part of New Zealand's North Island surfaced in the 1820s, but it wasn't until the first substantial discovery in 1852 in the center of the South Island that the search for gold began in earnest. The majority of New Zealand miners were British—coming most recently from the goldmines of the southern Australian state of Victoria. Chinese immigrants participated in the exploration as well as native Maoris.

Mining for gold along beaches Gold mining was a tough endeavor in New Zealand. The weather was often cold, the water sometimes icy, and there were no roads. Miners had to cut their way through thick brush. The gold was scattered over a large geographic area, requiring great amounts of persistence and hard travel in order to accumulate enough gold to ensure a worthwhile payment. Rushes that resulted in no gold were known as "Duffer's Rushes."

In addition to the challenges presented by the environment and the physical demands of the mining process, lawlessness prevailed. Unscrupulous individuals "salted claims," meaning they planted gold to give a false indication of the site's worth. Fights and claim-jumping—having one's claim stolen—and even murder, were common problems.

The town of Hokitika The cumulative total of gold recovered from New Zealand is estimated at just 0.8% of the world total, and yet its discovery made a significant impact on the areas where it was found. Gold attracts people and these people need services, accelerating population growth and economic development. For example, today Hokitika is home to a population of about 3000, but shortly after its founding in 1864 it was one of New Zealand's most populous areas. The Luminaries is set against the backdrop of this high growth time period. Incidentally, Hokitika is a Maori word meaning 'place of return', a name referring to the town's riches in greenstone (pounamu), also known as nephrite jade.

Today, the hills and streams surrounding Hokitika still contain traces of gold and enthusiasts can be found trying their luck in places like Ross, south of the town—the site of the largest nugget ever found in New Zealand — weighing 2.8 kg (a little more than 5 pounds) which is about the size of a man's fist.

Gold mining image from Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Picture of Hokitika from New Zealand's Information Network

Article by Sarah Tomp

This article was originally published in October 2013, and has been updated for the October 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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