Published in The Australian, 1 December 2004, p. 15 without ‘The Eureka Stockade:’ in the title.
For 150 years, ambivalence, disagreement and controversy have marked debate about the Eureka Stockade. Even today, not all the facts are agreed on: causes, casualties, consequences. This week’s celebrations in Victoria are an opportunity to reflect on the significance of what happened on December 3, 1854, and why it remains relevant today.
Prime Minister Howard’s failure to attend the commemorations in Ballarat is a reminder that Australian conservatives are uneasy about celebrating what many regard as riot and armed insurrection. To be sure, the appropriation in the 1930s of the Eureka legend by the local Stalinists (who called their communist youth wing the Eureka Youth League) and in the ’70s by the Builders’ Labourers Federation Maoists (who adopted the Rebels’ Eureka flag as their emblem) has caused some conservatives and other democrats to wonder warily about the history of those times. On the Labor side, the rebellion is celebrated as the beginning of the labour movement.
Both interpretations, in their simplicity, obscure the truth. There is much in what happened at Eureka to warm the hearts of liberals, conservatives, libertarians and Laborites. Perhaps with understanding and perspective, the event might be better honoured.
So what happened?
In the glow of a full moon, before dawn on December 3, 1854, police and troops advanced on a stockade set up by rebellious miners. It was all over in less than an hour. About 30 diggers many of whom succumbed to their wounds) died, along with five members of the police force. The numbers are uncertain. Of the 120 arrested, 13 were put on trial for treason; all were acquitted by juries of their peers.
A license charge of 30 shillings a month was imposed by the crown on any man choosing to dig for his fortune. The government needed the funds. Avoidance was rife. Ill-trained police hunted the mining fields, incarcerating delinquent prospectors.
Things came to a head in October to early December of that year. A Ballarat Reform League was organised by the diggers, the aims of which were:
- Full and fair representation;
- Manhood suffrage;
- No property qualification for members of the Legislative Council;
- Payment of members of parliament;
- Short duration of parliament (that is, extending parliamentary sittings).
The immediate objectives were “an immediate management of the gold fields by disbanding the commissioners” and “the total abolition of the diggers’ and storekeepers’ ‘license tax’.”
By 1854, the days of easy won opulence were over. The methods of “tin dish wash”, “puddle” and “cradle” in separating the gold ore from the clay were giving way to more industrialised processes. Many miners were desperate and broke, hoping for a fast fortune, illegally prospecting.
The rebels’ leader, Peter Lalor, reflected in The Argus newspaper in April 1855: “With the burning sense of an injured man, I climbed the stump and declared ‘Liberty’. I called for volunteers to come forward and enrol themselves, and hundreds responded to the call.” Those simple words summed up the fight, the call that all are equal under the Southern Cross.
In the aftermath, public sentiment favoured the rebels. Their leaders emphasised that their revolt was against unconstitutional use of force. The crown failed in the courts to convict those arrested; the public recognised an injustice. Within a year, adult male suffrage was granted (without a property qualification), the license tax was repealed (substituted by a gold export tax) and the worse was over.
Some of the consequences are still with us. Controversially, the gold export tax was a victory for protectionists over free traders. Liberalism in the classic 19th century sense of removing the hindrances to fairness got a boost. A model of collective action began to be extolled in the fledging labour movement.
Perhaps the greatest impact was in the psyche of the population and the emerging leadership across the political spectrum – to support a fair go and to avoid staining the wattle with blood. In their various forms, a consensus developed consistent with liberalism, conservatism and social democracy.
In his book Following the Equator Mark Twain, recounting his journeys in 1895 in Australia (including Ballarat) captured the myth of Eureka: “By and by there was a result; and I think it may be called the finest thing in Australasian history. It was a revolution – small in size, but great politically. It was a strike for liberty, a struggle for a principle, a stand against injustice and oppression. It was the Barons and John, over again; it was Hampden and ship-money; it was Concord and Lexington; small beginnings all of them, but all of them great in political results, all of them epoch-making. It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle.” That last sentence is evocative of a typical Australian story, in defeat and death – victory.
There is something for everyone in the telling of the Eureka Stockade. If history is the story of the struggle for liberty, part of the Eureka story is that constitutional democracy was extended and arbitrary state power curbed. Out of a disaster came moderate change. That is another Australian tradition. Conservatives as well as Labor supporters should recognise their colours in the cloth and thread of the Eureka flag.
I wrote this before seeing “Eureka”, a musical staged in Melbourne in October 2004. It had a short-run. A friend, Steve Jermyn, had invested in the production and asked if I had any ideas about publicising the performance. My insights were of meagre value. But I thought an article on Eureka, arguing that the events were worth commemorating, might be worth writing about.
In his Ph.D., Fredman (2009) cites my observation about the importance of Eureka to the “fledging labour movement” as “a model of collective action”. He noted that the analysis was concerned with emphasising that the Eureka stockade is something that could “warm the hearts of liberals, conservatives, libertarians and Laborites” alike, because of which, “Liberalism in the classic 19th century sense of removing the hindrances to fairness got a boost”. He saw the democratic outcome as that of a “consensus developed consistent with liberalism, conservatism and social democracy”. (Nicholas John Fredman, ‘Nation, Class and the Australian Left, 2003–2007’, Ph.D. at Southern Cross University, 2009, pp. 179-180.