AS dawn approached on the Ballarat goldfields on Sunday December 3, 1854, a makeshift stockade, hastily built by diggers at Eureka, was overrun by government troops. The Battle of Eureka Stockade was brutally short, but defeat would rapidly turn into victory for the diggers and, many believe, democracy for a young Australia. Mining has been a central figure in the fight for national identity and political equality in Australia’s history. The Eureka Rebellion, a revolt by Victorian diggers against heavy taxation and regulation by the colonial authorities, remains a powerful political symbol even today. As one of the only armed insurrections in Australia’s short history post-European settlement, it has taken on a mythology far greater, and longer lasting, than the actual battle. In 1851, gold was discovered across central Victoria, triggering a chaotic wave of immigration. The immense gold decade of 1851 to 1861 trebled Australia’s population from about 400,000 to more than 1.1 million, forcing the Victorian Government to establish a Gold Commission empowered to administer the goldfields. Gold Commissioner Robert Rede had absolute control over the diggings, supported by police and a military garrison. A number of issues and events would culminate in the insurrection at Eureka. The Government collected revenue chiefly through a miner’s licence, which entitled the holder to work a single 3.6sqm claim: the licence fee being payable regardless of how much or little gold was recovered. Licence hunts were a regular and hated occurrence. On October 6, 1854, James Bentley, owner of the Eureka Hotel, was controversially acquitted of the murder of miner James Scobie. Relations between the Government and the diggers had reached boiling point, and the pub was burnt to the ground a week later by a mob of angry diggers who had gathered to question why Bentley had not been charged. The Government’s response was to arrest those involved and enforce a stifling police presence around the diggings. On October 22 the Ballarat Reform League was formed when an estimated 10,000 diggers met at Bakery Hill to air their grievances. The moderate leadership, led by JB Humffray, wanted to negotiate with Commissioner Rede on a range of issues. Their proposals included the right for all goldfield residents to be able to stand for Parliament and vote in elections, the abolition of the Gold Commission and the elimination of the digger’s licence tax. Until this point, the goldfield communities had been unrepresented in Parliament and had, they believed, been subjected to ill-conceived and unjust laws.
Reports indicate that the authorities refused to entertain the demands of a digger deputation. In fact, their response was to send 296 extra soldiers and police to Ballarat. These military reinforcements were set upon by a mob as they arrived in Eureka from Melbourne on November 28, and in the resulting melee a number were injured and a young drummer boy reportedly killed. Despite this, Commissioner Rede now had a strong contingent of 435 men at the camp.
The League met again on November 29, at Bakery Hill, where Humffray’s inability to bring about change saw his diplomatic approach lose standing with the majority of the diggers. At this meeting, near-mythical leader Peter Lalor came forward for the first time.
“Peter Lalor, our commander-in-chief, was on the stump, holding with his left hand the muzzle of his rifle, whose butt-end rested on his foot. A gesture of his right hand signified what he meant when he said, ‘It is my duty now to swear you in and to take with you the oath to be faithful to the Southern Cross’,” eyewitness Caboni Raffaello wrote in his 1855 book The Eureka Stockade.
“Some five hundred armed diggers advanced in real sober earnestness, the captains of each division making the military salute to Lalor, who now knelt down, the head uncovered, and with the right hand pointing to the standard exclaimed in a firm measured tone, ‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties’.”
Licences were burned and the famous Southern Cross flag unfurled. The miners swore allegiance to it, and spent the next few days building makeshift fortifications with shaft support timbers and overturned carts in preparation for clashes with the Government. But when nothing had eventuated by Saturday night, many of those inside the stockade retired to their own tents, leaving only a few hundred men guarding the barriers. This would prove decisive.
At 3am on November 3 1854, 276 police and military personnel under the command of Captain JW Thomas approached the miner’s encampment. Who shot first remains in doubt, but the result was emphatic. Lalor estimated that 22 stockaders were killed and a further 12 wounded, while the Government suffered four deaths and another 12 wounded. As a result, all armed resistance collapsed. Lalor himself was shot in the arm and was smuggled out to avoid capture. However, the Commissioner’s victory was very short-lived. Of the many diggers who were arrested following the Eureka insurrection, 13 were brought to trial in Melbourne as a tide of public indignation condemned the Government for its heavy-handed tactics.
Many saw it as a situation brought about by the action of Government officials and, as a result, the juries would acquit all diggers of any wrongdoing.
A Royal Commission into the goldfields’ problems made several recommendations that were quickly put into effect. These included: the abolition of the licences, which were to be replaced by an annual miner’s right; the replacement of the Gold Commissioner with mining wardens; and a reduction in police numbers at the diggings. The Legislative Council also permitted the democratic representation of the goldfields, which saw Peter Lalor elected for Ballarat. In 12 months, almost all of the League’s demands had been met, with Lalor later elected as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Victoria. The spirit of the Eureka Rebellion lived on in various forms. The trade union movement flourished as diggers banded together as unions
to protect their rights and working conditions. In 1891, a collective of shearers in Barcaldine, Queensland flew the Southern Cross in strikes having formed the Shearers Union in 1886. The Australian Workers Union was born out of the amalgamation of the Shearers Union and the miner’s organisations, and became the most significant and powerful union in Australia. To this day, the Construction,
Forestry, Mining and Energy Union flies the Eureka flag. Meanwhile, the Australian Labor party took shape as a result of the struggles of the unions. While the debate continues regarding the actual impact this small insurrection had on the political and social landscape of a fledgling Australia, the mythology surrounding the miners’ stand at the Eureka Stockade has taken on a life of its own. The miners may have lost the battle but they won the war – ensuring that future generations of workers were afforded fairness and equality.
By Reuben Adams