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The Eureka Stockade was a miners' revolt in 1854 in Victoria, Australia against the officials supervising the gold-mining region of Ballarat. It is often regarded as being an event of equal significance to Australian history as the storming of the Bastille was to French history or the Battle of the Alamo to the history of the United States, but almost equally often dismissed as an event of little long-term consequence. Although the revolt failed, it was a watershed event in Australian politics, and is often characterised–incorrectly–as the "Birth of Australian Democracy".
The Australian colony of Victoria was declared separate from New South Wales on 1 July, 1851, and for the first three years of its existence was a peaceful and sparsely populated region of farmers and graziers. This tranquility was irrevocably disrupted in 1850 with the discovery of substantial gold fields all across the colony. The result was a rapid and massive influx of fortune-hunting immigrants.
The roots of the Eureka Stockade uprising lay in the inability of a fledgling colonial government to cope with the new demographics of the colony. From being the administrative body of the "squattocracy" the government suddenly found itself unprepared to take charge of a large and unruly population of itinerants. Its response was to impose an unofficial martial law, enforced by the hurriedly assembled and quasi-military "Gold Commission." That many of the newly-arrived miners regarded the Victorian authorities as close associates of the "English" authorities was the first portent of conflict.
Within a short time, the easy surface gold had been exhausted, and gold could be found only by digging for the deep lead — the veins of gold buried beneath metres of clay and rock. By 1854, the fields of Ballarat were occupied by 25,000 or more miners, mostly from Ireland, but also from Britain, other parts of Europe, China and North America (many had come to Australia from the California gold rush). The hills for miles around were soon entirely denuded of trees in order to provide timber for the deep shafts being dug — an environmental disaster from which the area has never fully recovered.
Authority in the camps was held by the Resident Gold Commissioner, Robert Rede, and enforced by a military garrison. The main mechanism of government revenue was the "Miner's Licence," a short term lease of a "claim," a 3.6 square metre plot of land. The monthly fee for this licence was 30 shillings — a huge fee for the time — and was payable whether or not any gold had actually been found. This raised the ire of the miners, as did the weekly "licence hunts" where the military police searched for and arrested anyone lacking proof of a licence.
In September 1854, prompted primarily by budget shortfalls resulting chiefly from the cost of maintaining a private army, the Governor of Victoria, Sir Charles Hotham, ordered the frequency of the licence hunts increased to twice weekly. With dissent simmering, this and two further events drove the miners to violence:
- The first incident was the arbitrary arrest of a crippled, non-English speaking Armenian, wrongfully charged with assaulting an officer. This angered the miners for two reasons. First it was seen as racial victimisation (though not expressed in such 20th-century terms). This alone would probably not have been enough to motivate the miners (not renowned for their racial tolerance), but they did identify with the Armenian as a fellow "digger," a term used by the miners to describe their lack of privilege. More importantly, the man arrested was also the servant of a Roman Catholic priest, Father Smyth, and this was interpreted as a religious affront by the large Irish Catholic component of the miner population, who already held deep resentments against the British for religious and economic oppression.
- The second incident was the acquittal of inn owner James Bentley, who had been charged with the murder of a miner, James Scobie. An angry mob, interpreting the acquittal as unjust, burnt Bentley's hotel to the ground.
Protests, Chartism and the Ballarat Reform League
- Tuesday, 17 October, 1854: At the spot where James Scobie was killed 10,000 diggers gathered to protest the acquittal of the prime suspect, James Bentley, the owner of the Eureka Hotel. Bentley fled for his life as the Hotel was burnt down.
- Sunday, 22 October, 1854: Ballarat Catholics met to protest the treatment of Father Smyth's servant.
- Monday, 23 October, 1854: A mass meeting to protest the selective arrest of McIntyre and Fletcher for burning down Bentley's Eureka Hotel attracted 10,000 miners and supporters. It was decided to form a Digger's Right Society, to maintain their rights.
- Tuesday, 1 November, 1854: 3000 diggers met once again at Bakery Hill. They were addressed by Kennedy, Holyoake, Black and Ross. The diggers were further incensed by the arrest of another seven of their number, for the burning down of the Eureka Hotel.
- Saturday, 11 November, 1854: A crowd estimated at more than 10,000 miners gathered at Bakery Hill, directly opposite the government encampment. At this meeting the "Ballarat Reform League" was created, under the chairmanship of Chartist J.B. Humfrey. Several other Reform League leaders including Thomas Kennedy and Henry Holyoake had been involved with the Chartist movement in England. Many of the miners had past involvement in the Chartist movement and social upheavals in England, Ireland and Europe during the 1840s.
The Ballarat Reform League used the British Chartist movement's principles to set their goals. The meeting passed a resolution "that it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called on to obey that taxation without representation is tyranny". The meeting also decided to secede from Britain if the situation did not improve.
The demands of the Ballarat Reform League encompassed:
- Universal suffrage
- Abolition of the property qualifications for members of parliament
- Payment of members of parliament
- Voting by ballot
- Short term parliaments
- Equal electoral districts
- Abolition of diggers and storekeepers licenses
- reform of administration of the gold fields
- revision of laws relating to Crown land.
Throughout the following weeks, the League sought to negotiate with Commissioner Rede and Governor Hotham, both on the specific matters relating to Bentley and the men being tried for the burning of the Eureka hotel, and on the broader issues of abolition of the licence, universal suffrage and democratic representation of the gold fields, and disbanding of the Gold Commission.
Commissioner Rede's response to these disputes was perhaps an ill-judged one, but stemmed from his military background and has been attributed by many historians (most notably Manning Clark) to his belief in his right to exert authority over the "rabble." Rather than hear the grievances, Rede increased the police presence in the gold fields and summoned reinforcements from Melbourne.
On Monday November 27 1854 a delegation from the Ballarat Reform League: John Humfrey, George Black and Thomas Kennedy; met with Governor Hotham. They attempted to negotiate the release of the miners arrested after the attack on Eureka Hotel, and presented the demands for universal suffrage as well as abolition of the miners and storekeepers licenses. The only concession Hotham was willing to make was one digger's representative elected to the Legislative Council. The delegation rejected this, and returned to Ballarat empty handed.
The results of the meeting with Governor Hotham were reported back to a meeting of about 12,000 'diggers' on November 29 at Bakery Hill. A confrontation appeared unavoidable.
On 28 November, the reinforcements marching from Melbourne were attacked by a mob. A number were injured and a drummer boy was allegedly killed. At a meeting the following day (29 November) the Reform League relayed to the miners its failure to achieve any success in negotiations with the authorities. The miners resolved to openly resist the authorities and burn the hated licences.
Most notably the Eureka Flag, a blue flag designed by a Canadian miner, "Captain" Henry Ross, and bearing nothing but the Southern Cross, was flown for the first (recorded) time. As a gesture of defiance, it deliberately excluded the British Union Flag, which appears on the official flag of Australia. This flag is now housed at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.
Rede responded by ordering a large contingent of police to conduct a licence search on 20 November. Although eight defaulters were arrested, most of the military resources available had to be summoned to extricate the arresting officers from the angry mob that had assembled.
This raid prompted a breakdown in the leadership of the Reform League, and in the rising tide of anger and resentment amongst the miners a more militant leader, Peter Lalor, took control. In swift fashion a military structure was assembled. Brigades were formed and captains were appointed. Licences were burned, the rebel "Eureka" flag was unfurled and oaths of allegiance were sworn. An encampment at the Eureka Flat was set up and by Friday, 1 December, a stockade had been hastily constructed from timber and overturned carts. The miners vowed to defend themselves from licence hunts and harassment by the authorities.
Although the scene was set for a military engagement, Rede did nothing, and as a result the passion and vehemence of many of the miners faded. By late in the evening of Saturday, 2 December, a number of miners had returned to their personal camps and were getting on with the business of mining or traditional Saturday night carousing. A small contingent of two or three hundred miners remained at the stockade.
Rede's inaction thus far did not reflect his true intent, and at 3 am on Sunday, 3 December, 1854, a party of 276 police and military personnel under the command of Captain J.W. Thomas approached the Eureka Stockade and a battle ensued.
There is no agreement as to which side fired first, but what was clear was that the battle was fierce, brief, and terribly one-sided. The ramshackle army of miners was hopelessly outclassed by a military regiment and was quickly routed. According to Lalor's report, fourteen miners died inside the stockade and an additional eight died later from injuries they sustained. A further dozen were wounded but recovered. Among the soldiers and military police, records indicate six were killed, including one Captain Wise. Many miners fled, and a substantial number of survivors were arrested. Martial law was imposed, and all armed resistance collapsed.
For a few weeks it appeared that the status quo had been restored, and Rede ruled the camps with an iron fist. However, in Melbourne, and to a lesser extent Sydney, there was tremendous public outcry over the military actions. Newspapers characterised it as a brutal overuse of force in a situation brought about by the actions of government officials in the first place, and public condemnation became insurmountable. Thirteen miners were tried for treason early in 1855 under the auspices of Victorian Chief Justice Redmond Barry, but all were rapidly acquitted to great public acclaim. Rede himself was quietly removed from the camps and reassigned to an insignificant position in rural Victoria.
A Commission of Enquiry into the affair was organised, and was scathing in its assessment of all aspects of the administration of the gold fields, and particularly the Eureka Stockade affair. The gold licences were abolished, and replaced by an inexpensive annual miner's licence and an export fee based on the value of the gold. Mining wardens replaced the gold commissioners, and police numbers were cut drastically. The pace of reform was so rapid that within a year, the rebel leader Peter Lalor was representing Ballarat in the new Legislative Council, and a few years later was elected Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Victoria .
Over the next thirty years, press interest in the events which took place at the Eureka Stockade dwindled, but Eureka was kept alive at the campfires and in the pubs. As well, key figures such as Lalor and Humfrey were still around and in the public eye. Eureka had not been forgotten - it was readily remembered at the 1891 Queensland shearer's strike and in the poetry of Henry Lawson. Because the materials used to build the stockade were rapidly removed to be used for the mines and the entire area itself was so extensively worked that the original landscape was unrecognisable, the exact location of the stockade was quickly lost track of. However the event itself returned to the national consciousness and became a rallying cry as the call for federation and nationhood gained momentum in the 1880s.
The Eureka Stockade (or more accurately, the driving force of public opinion that followed) has been characterised as the "Birth of Democracy" within Australia. Its actual significance is uncertain; it has been variously mythologised by particular interest groups as a revolt of free men against imperial tyranny, of independent free enterprise against burdensome taxation, of labour against a privileged ruling class, or as an expression of multicultural republicanism, and so on. The affair continues to raise echos in Australian politics to the present day, and from time to time one group or another calls for the existing Australian flag to be replaced by the Eureka Flag.
The Eureka Stockade was certainly the most prominent rebellion in Australia's history and, depending on how one defines rebellion, can be regarded as the only such event. (But see also Rum Rebellion.) The significance of the rebellion, however, remains debatable. Some historians believe that the undoubted prominence of the event in the public record has come about because Australian history does not include a major armed rebellion phase equivalent to the French Revolution, the English Civil War, or the American War of Independence: in consequence (according to this view) the Eureka story tends to be inflated well beyond its real significance. Others, however, maintain that Eureka was a seminal event and that it marked a major change in the course of Australian history. The debate remains active and may well remain so as long as Eureka is remembered.
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