Water, Waste, and Race: Environmental Politics during the Nineteenth Century Gold Rushes

Mae Ngai, Columbia University

This paper draws from my book, The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics(2021), which examined the rise of anti-Chinese racial politics in the anglophone settler colonies in context of the nineteenth-century gold rushes and the rise of the Great Britain and the U.S.as global economic hegemons. Gold mining not only generated untold riches for individuals and companies (as well as losses). It also did great harm to the environment. Contemporaries described a vast landscape of pitted earth and mountains of detritus, polluted streams, and flooded agricultural land. Chinese and Euro-American gold diggers had seemingly different approaches to handling water and waste on the goldfields, which sometimes contributed to group conflict. I suggest that differences in mining practices were in part cultural and in part situational. For example, while Euro-Americans left messy mounds of tailings, Chinese worked over these dregs for small yields of gold and neatly stacked tailings in low walls that can still be seen today. On the other hand, Europeans alleged that Chinese, who adapted irrigation farming methods from southern China to mining, wasted water. And when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed hydraulic mining, Chinese continued the practice in small-scale operations. It may be that there is no method of gold mining that does not harm the environment. I am curious about how different subject positions may have influenced different practices—Euro-American individual prospectors; large capital intensive mining companies; small Chinese gold mining companies.

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