5. Globalization Begins – A Worldwide Rush for Gold

The Gold Rush in California marks the beginning of globalization. For the first time in human history, transportation and communications had advanced to such a state that people from all over the world could come to one location to work and compete with one another. The immensity of the California gold discovery provided the irresistible incentive to come.

From Europe came the British, Spanish and French. Chileans and Peruvians arrived from South America. Australians joined the Gold Rush. Hawaiians took part. And of course, Americans from the eastern part of the United States as well as Sonorans from Mexico came. Adventurers from the largest continent of all, Asia, also joined the gold rush.

A number of Asian countries could have sent adventurers. Japan was the closest to the west coast of America. Korea was a little further away to the north of Japan. China lay in between those two countries and the countries of Thailand, Philippines, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia. India was just a little further west.

Yet except for the citizens of one country, China, no Asians from any country in Asia joined in the California gold rush. More interesting still is that of the many regions of China, only the citizens of one province, Guangdong, made the trip across the Pacific. It would be up to the Cantonese, with their tradition of adventure and rebellion, to represent Asia in the greatest gold rush in history.

In the mid 19th century, the western powers were completing their domination of the world. Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and later even the United States were colonizing the less developed countries of Asia and Africa. Mystical powers were ascribed to the mighty westerners. Militarily, economically, and culturally, the western powers had no rivals. As a result, in that era, no group of people from a less developed country had ever freely migrated to a western country.

But the California Gold Rush was unique. Not only for the amount of the gold that had been discovered but much like the Internet today, the gold was free. When gold was discovered, California was in transition from Mexican rule to becoming a state of the United States. Land ownership was uncertain and in flux. A governmental structure had not been set up to enforce property rights. Gold was literally “free for the taking.”

When word came from across the Pacific that gold had been discovered, the Cantonese knew exactly what that meant. Ever since China lost the Opium War, the Cantonese were looking for just such an event. It represented an opportunity to further their hopes to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. The gold meant money to finance a revolution; travel to a western country would help the modernization of China.

Once in California, the Chinese found a surprisingly egalitarian society. California was almost unsettled at the beginning of the gold rush so everyone that found their way there was a pioneer with the pioneer’s spirit of treating everyone by what they could contribute to building a new society to form.

In the gold fields, the Chinese quickly saw that they could compete with the westerners. For a start, they had superior food and medicine. Boiling water for the tea they drank kept them much healthier than the western miners. Where the western miners seldom mined in partnerships of more than two or three, the Chinese, through clan or Tong affiliations, could form partnerships of twenty or thirty. These large partnerships allowed the Chinese to profitably mine claims that the individual western miners had given up on. By using their skills in the control of water, the Chinese built wing dams that diverted the course of the streams and rivers where the gold was. Guangdong had a silver mining industry and a number of Cantonese silver miners joined the gold rush and used their expertise to extract gold from the hills.

The opportunity that the Cantonese had waited more than two hundred years for had finally arrived. The gold rush gave the Cantonese the chance to accumulate ideas and capital to further their political ambitions. The long process to “overthrow the Qing” had begun.

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