Gold Rush Imperialism: Gold Mining and Global History in the Age of Imperialism, c.1848-1914

Poster, California gold rush, 1849

A conference at the Rothermere American Institute

The transformative power of nineteenth and early twentieth century gold rushes has long been accepted by historians. For successive generations of scholars, the desire to better understand the gold rush phenomenon – its drivers and its effects – has provided a rich field for historical exploration.

If historians have invested considerable effort in reconstructing gold history, however, the majority of studies have remained explicitly national in focus. As a result, global and transnational perspectives have received limited attention.

This conference sets out to address that omission. Hosted by the RAI in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Global History, it seeks to bring to the fore the global, transnational and imperial dimensions of gold rushes. 

From the end of the 1840s to 1914 gold rushes played a key role in shaping the course of global history. They connected regions, nations and empires via complex communications, information and migration networks; financial and trading relationships; and systems of extraction, coercion and imperial expansion. The drive to exploit new discoveries fostered transnational and trans-regional flows of capital, labour, technology, culture and politics. In the gold fields themselves, rushes could initiate profound and complex processes of political, social and economic change. Gold might bring with it a new sense of cosmopolitanism, freedom and economic opportunity. Alternatively it might incite political, social and racial tensions, reinforce systems of coercion, and prompt the imposition of new ones. On the ground lived experiences were vast and varied, but bound together as part of gold rush imperialism.

Focusing primarily on the history of gold discoveries and their subsequent effects across Africa, Australasia, and North America c.1848-1914, this conference will draw together scholars engaged in diverse fields to consider the following themes: 

  • Capital: speculative bubbles, joint stock companies, and the City of London
  • International Engineers and Geologists
  • Global Institutions: consultancies, exploration companies, mining institutes, and technical schools
  • Causes: celebrity, rumour, and romance
  • Colonial Frontiers: Californian ’48ers, the Eureka Stockade, South African Wars
  • Labour: mining culture and technologies, trade unionism, and health
  • Migration and Race Relations.
  • Camp Culture: social organisation, gender and race relations, property rights
  • Law and Order: policing, pass systems, and local power relations
  • Goldfields Environments: impacts of hydraulic mining, river dredging, and the treatment of ‘slimes’
  • After the Rush: from boom town to ghost town

A full programme can be found here.

For any enquiries, please contact

Exhibition in the Vere Harmsworth Library

To accompany the conference, an exhibition of materials relating to gold rushes and gold mining from the collections of the Bodleian Libraries was displayed in the Vere Harmsworth Library.