Every side of politics wants to lay claim to being the caretaker of the legacy of the Eureka rebellion.
The Maoist trade unionist movement believes that they have a patent on it because of a narrative involving workers solidarity. The left finds favour in this view because they interpret the events of that day on December 3, 1854, as signifying the genesis of multiracial Australia. The reactionaries find favour in the libertarian aspects of resisting unfair taxes.
Nationalists embrace the Eureka rebellion because it was an insurrection against our colonial masters paving the way for the birth of a unique and independent Australian identity. This is regardless that its ringleaders would eventually be found not guilty of high treason on the basis the jury believed it was a riot and not an organised rebellion; although that was more down to the unity of Victorians with the Diggers and their loathing of the Governor.
As such, the greatest legacy of that day is the Eureka flag, with all it symbolises to whomever. However, certain politicians would see that flag’s use limited to those simpatico to the multiracial narrative.
In the end, it’s all how the story is told, and which aspects are emphasised. For instance, a staunch monarchist might find appeal in the vindication of the governor of Victoria, Sir Charles Hotham. He was after all amenable to the plight of the Diggers, and his task was to bring order to the colony and rescue it from the verge of bankruptcy.
While he achieved the latter, he receives no credit for the former. This was for the fact that the Ballarat Reform League did not trust him. He had attempted to explain that a new Victorian constitution, favourable to the interests of the miners, had been sent to London months before their delegation arrived with their demands. Yet, the League was in no mood to trust a man they saw as having betrayed the faith they had initially shown in him.
In fact, the new Victorian constitution had its passage through parliament delayed by the advent of the Crimean War. Be that as it may, events unfolded.
Likewise, those Maoists who’ve for years believed they are the true inheritors of the Eureka spirit seem to ignore the fact that the miners were not workers in the sense we imagine them. For in truth, they were fortune seekers including goldfield immigrants from all over Europe and the United States. Many Victorians had abandoned their jobs on building sites, in schools and hospitals, to seek their fortune out on the Ballarat goldfields.
Sure, they worked bloody hard, and in the unity of the miners against the despised goldfield commission, there is certainly a legitimate argument for a spiritual lineage to a union of workers. But buying into that account means these Trotskyites and Maoists acknowledging the subsequent Australian union movement was wholly nationalist and dedicated to preserving Australia as a ‘white working man’s paradise’. This might not tally with the tale they’re trying to tell. Nor would the subsequent repositioning of the Southern Cross in the Lambing Flat riots.
As nativists, we hold truck with the nationalist reading of the history. If the story of Eureka is to engender pride in any ideological group it can do no better than from the nationalist perspective.
Firstly, look around today and how often has Eureka day been mentioned? How many references are on the news? You might find there aren’t that many. This shouldn’t surprise the reader since that’s how it is with Australia’s history in general. It is not being taught in our schools or universities, and if it is, it is done so with a slant that impugns white Australia. So, the idea that anyone might be addressing the story at all is positive.
Many Australians themselves think of the Eureka Rebellion as a motley collection of ill-equipped miners with more heart than sense barricaded behind substandard fortifications before being slaughtered by Pommy redcoats in a 20-minute gun battle. To them, it’s all ‘bang-bang’ and the antecedents of the rebellion are reduced to something about an end to taxation without representation.
In truth, the story of the Eureka rebellion is a rip-snorter, rich in elements of historical importance.
Take for argument’s sake, its place in history beside the great Californian gold rush of 1848. The finding of gold at Sutter’s Mill, in Coloma, triggered the rush of 49ers to the American state, so that over 300,000 prospectors descended on the region after the news spread. They came not just from all over the United States, but from Europe, Latin America, China and even Australia.
While unfortunate circumstances were recorded for Native Americans, the gold diggers gave birth to a new state, along with the populating of San Francisco from a tiny town to a thriving city. The creation of the state gave rise to a government with leaders and this has parallels with the Eureka Stockade.
If the Californian gold rush was a cataclysmic reaction with profound unforeseen circumstances, imagine how it was for the colony of Victoria dealing with the phenomenon of a gold rush. The situation was chaos, and it had to be both governed and managed. Consider that in three years of the gold rush, the population of Victoria mushroomed from a humble 80,000 to 300,000. Yet, understand too, the atmosphere in which it occurred.
Revolutions had swept throughout Europe which led to disillusioned migrants sailing to the colony in the promise of a new hope “without being weighted-down by the shackles of Europe”. Know, too, that many of those were coming from Ireland following the Irish famine and the nationalist Young Ireland Rebellion which had at its heart dissolving the 1800 Acts of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. The uprising was crushed and its leaders transported to Van Diemen’s Land in chains.
Among those who made off of their own free will was Peter Lalor, considered the leader of the Eureka Rebellion. In actuality, the camp was split between those already under the influence of the Welshman John Humffray, the leader of the Ballarat Reform League, and Irishman Timothy Hayes, its chairman. Humffray was an advocate for peace at Bakery Hill meetings. Contrarily, the firebrand Hayes was resolute about confrontation.
At the last mass meeting held on Bakery Hill on Nov 29, Hayes whipped the crowd into such a frenzy with his cries “Your liberties you will die for!” that the miners began burning their licenses. Meanwhile, Humffray would be called a traitor for turning his back on the movement. He had entreated the miners to have faith in Hotham, and it would’ve been an interesting turn if they had, given the passage of the Victorian constitution through parliament was only months away.
Lalor stepped into history on Nov 29, when without the usual leaders, he stood atop a box and swore the oath to the Southern Cross. The memorable passage went, “We swear, by the flag of the Southern Cross, to stand truly by each other and fight to fend our rights and liberties.”
At that moment, a militia was born and Lalor was truly in his element. Lalor was a devout Catholic and his family were dyed in the wool Irish nationalists. His brother had fought at the failed Young Ireland Rebellion, and his father had been an outspoken opponent of land taxes back in the old sod. For a man as disdainful of the cruelty of British rule as he, his place in the first armed uprising against the British on this soil was appropriate under the circumstances.
And those circumstances were volatile and had been all along. The Goldfields were thronging with miners from all parts of the world. A large contingent of Californians had followed on after failing to strike it lucky back in the United States. There was the odd dark fellow present too, and this has long been an argument by the left regarding the ‘multiracial’ nature of the Eureka Rebellion as they see it. But rather, such fortune-seeking drew an eclectic crowd, and while a Jamaican and an American Negro fought at the stockade this in no way automatically translates into a homily about the brotherhood of man.
The legislator of Victoria was controlled by greedy squatters and merchants who had opposed the idea of export duty on gold. An air of anarchy abounded with sailors abandoning ships which sat empty in the Port of Melbourne. At the same time, a feared invasion by Russia had led to the shipment of troops to Australia.
The burgeoning goldfields, in which many a miner lost their life, was becoming a hectic camp environment. It was a wild place, rife with what one witness described as, “Rapidly occurring incidents”. Hardships abounded, although the pioneering spirit was almost at a romantic pitch. Yet, the realities of subsisting needed to be met and the miners were aggrieved at the steep taxes from their licenses providing no services and infrastructure.
There was no way to, as it happened, since the Gold Commission, which sat atop a high ridge sternly overlooking the river valley swarming with Diggers below, was staffed with salaried toffs. The taxes from the licenses barely covered the cost of these regally attired aristocrats with their perfumed bodies and airs of contempt for the snivelling rabble grovelling about in the dirt below.
So, in the midst of this bedlam, the spectre of class bigotry had raised its arrogant jawbone, offending the miners. After all, who were these gentrified stiffs to come among them shaking them down for unjust taxes? The worldview was conflicted between those feudalists and the free-spirited capitalist prospectors. Something had to give.
Into this explosive mix when the police began recruiting from the ranks of former convicts from Van Diemen’s land. Those from what would become Tasmania were not well-liked by the Diggers, to begin with. But by imbuing this scum with power, they were asking for trouble, especially since the opportunity for graft had presented itself given the police got half of every fine that they extracted from the miners.
Subsequently, police corruption was widespread. A miner, who had left his license in his tent rather than have it all muddied down in the pit, might not be permitted to return to his tent to retrieve it. Instead, he was clapped in irons and taken off until a friend or someone came up with his fine. The police inspections, or more accurately raids, were referred to as “digger hunts” by the police. The cops would swoop down on horseback and demand to see the miners’ licenses.
These licenses had risen in price until they reached a sum of five pounds. Where initially they were administered yearly, as the new governor exerted austerity measures, they came to be charged every three months. Many miners didn’t even bother applying and took their chances when the police launched their raids. This was, after all, a shameless tax on the miners’ labour.
The inciting incident for the rebellion occurred on Oct 7, 1954, with the murder of one miner and the assault of another.
Jamies Scobie and Peter Martin were two old friends who’d caught up that night and celebrated times past by getting on the grog. When their ‘sly grog’ hole closed, Scobie was still thirsty and approached The Eureka Hotel. The hotel was owned by a man named James Bentley, who was a nasty piece of work, and deep in with the corrupt police and officials who frequented his establishment.
After trying to gain entry to the hotel, and meeting objections from those persons inside, Scobie and Martin walked away “150 yards” to Scobie’s tent when they were set upon by some men and a woman. Martin was beaten down and Scobie hit with what Martin mistook for a battle-axe, but may have been a shovel. Martin ran to fetch a doctor but by the time they returned Scobie was dead.
That afternoon an inquest was held and witnesses identified Bentley as the attacker. Nevertheless, the presiding magistrate was a crony of Bentley’s and had sold him his hotelier’s license. He found Bentley not guilty much to the vocal disgust of the Diggers filling the courtroom.
Outraged miners gathered outside the Eureka Hotel on the 17th of October. Peter Lalor was there nominated one of the leaders as the miners vowed to find the means to have the case brought before more competent authorities. A collection was then taken so that a reward could be offered to whoever came forward to identify the killer (Bentley).
But the crowd was far from placated, and someone threw a rock at a lamp, which impelled the angry mob.
Consequently, Bentley’s pub was ransacked and burnt to the ground as troops led by Robert Reed just stood by without reacting. This had the effect of emboldening the miners. It also humiliated Reed who felt as though he had lost face. This too would have consequences.
Hotham realised that he might have a full-scale rebellion on his hands, and wishing to defuse the situation, set up a commission to look into all aspects of the administration of the goldfields. He ordered a new trial for Bentley and three of the riot’s ringleaders taken into custody as well. Bentley was given three years’ hard labour while the ringleaders were sentenced to between three and six months for their part in the burning of the hotel.
This outcome did not hold well with the miners who would demand the release of the ringleaders.
A meeting was held on Bakery Hill and the Ballarat Reform League was formally constituted. It arranged for a delegation to meet with the new Victorian governor bearing a list of their grievances and demands. These included access to the squatters’ farmland and the right to vote.
The naïve miners did not consider that what they were carrying to Hotham was tantamount to a threat of a republican revolution. After meeting with the delegation on Nov 27, he resolutely refused to give in. Imagine how his reputation would suffer back in England if he had collapsed before the mob!
As the delegation left, Hotham called for reinforcements, which arrived at dusk on November 28.
Robert Reed, seeking to regain face, decided to test the mood of the camp dwellers, and ordered an impromptu license inspection. This was like taking a lit match and throwing it into an open powder keg. Shots were fired, Diggers arrested, and an air of static electricity settled over the valley.
An hour later the miners held their final meeting on Bakery Hill. The Southern Cross was hoisted, oaths sworn, and the organising for rebellion began. It was a hasty, ill-considered affair. The Diggers, while full of courage, were clueless. By Sat, Dec 2 1500 armed men were in the stockade. But for some reason, during the night, the majority deserted leaving a skeleton force of around 150. It was believed this was most likely due to the Catholic priests’ implorations for peace, as well as most refusing to believe that troops would attack during the Sabbath. They were wrong.
Assembled loosely behind the slipshod fortifications of the stockade, which Lalor in his own words admitted, “was nothing more than an enclosure to keep our own men together, and was never erected with an eye to military defence” the last hardy oath-takers milled about. On Sunday, 3 December, the first shots were fired, catching the Diggers largely off guard.
In the first instance, unsure of how many Diggers were manning the barricades, the coalition of Ballarat police with soldiers from the 12th (Suffolk) Regiment of Foot and 2nd (Somersetshire) Regiment of Foot hesitated. It was only a moment’s faltering though, and then they charged.
What followed was a slaughter: and the troops, much jeered at previously by the miners, and subject to insult took their revenge.
Musket fire rang out, as their flashes rent the sky. Glinting steel sabres cut through the dawn light, reflecting the orange flames from the fires they set as they burned down every dwelling they came across. No mercy was shown; innocent and guilty were cut down alike. Shouting was heard, screams from women, the crying of children. After 20-minutes it was all over, and the cost began to be counted.
In the end, (and there are no reliable figures) it is estimated 30 diggers were killed, with more wounded. Of the troops, five were killed, while 12 were wounded. Peter Lalor himself had been shot by policeman Michael Lawler in the shoulder. It was a serious wound and resulted in the amputation of his arm. Yet, in what must have been agonising pain, he managed to slip away and was hidden at the Young Queen Hotel in South Geelong by his supporters.
Out of the 120 prisoners taken into custody, most were released. A demonstration by 6000 Melbournians outside St Paul’s cathedral expressed the ill-favour the colony felt towards Governor Hotham. Other protests arose around Victoria.
Hotham, not to be deterred by fear nor favour, pressed ahead with charges of high treason against 13 of the ringleaders. Of these, the first to be put on trial was Italian nationalist Rafael Carboni. He defended himself by arguing that he was not revolting against Her Majesty but was opposing those oppressing the people. The jury found him, and all of those accused, not guilty. Eventually, those in hiding were granted amnesty and allowed to return.
In 1855, Hotham’s commission of inquiry into the goldfields released its findings. As a result, the license was scrapped in favour of a certificate of miner’s rights costing just one pound and renewable yearly, and the abolition of the goldfields commission. Not long after, the Victorian constitution was officially proclaimed in parliament and an interim government formed.
This was the moment the Diggers were waiting for and they leapt at the chance to elect John Humffray, the pacifist Welshman who had been forced into hiding, and Peter Lalor, who was shorter by one arm. Lalor and Humffray were elected to the Victorian Legislative Council, beginning life in politics for both. It must have been odd for these men to find themselves now in gowns and rubbing shoulders with those who they’d only so recently challenged and Lalor had faced with armed opposition.
Hotham, meanwhile, applied to be relieved of his position owing to ill health. He felt embittered by his experience and believed that his successes had been overshadowed by the rebellion. He told himself he had achieved his appointed task and rescued the colony from bankruptcy, but in doing so, he had become a villain to the colonials. He died in 1856.
Meanwhile, the lippy Italian Carboni cashed in on his experiences by publishing his account of being a leading figure in the rebellion. However, he returned to Ballarat to find his tent had been raided and his things stolen.
Carboni provided one of the most comprehensive eyewitness accounts of the rebellion from his effusive point of view. He eventually returned to Italy.
Victoria was born anew, and the shackles of Europe torn away by these men. Even though the Eureka Rebellion was a military disaster, it was a moral victory, and changed the course of the colony.