After the Eureka Stockade

158 years ago today, Victorian soldiers and police gathered 4:30am at the Mining Exchange in Ballarat, before creeping quietly out of town towards one of the rich gold seams around the town, appropriately named Eureka by its original discoverer.

At Eureka, a group of disaffected miners had built a wooden palisade, the Eureka Stockade.  There were many causes of their disaffection.  Most of them were newish immigrants, and they had brought with them political causes from their homelands.  The Year of Revolutions, 1848, saw rebellions through most of Europe, and when reaction set in, many of these rebels fled.  The gold fields in California (1848) and Victoria (1851) gave the possibility of a new life to unsuccessful revolutionaries from Ireland, Germany and Italy, as well as Chartists from England, where revolution had only just been avoided.

So there was a political dimension to the Eureka story: a month earlier, the diggers had formed the Ballarat Reform League, and produced a list of political reforms they wanted – including annual elections and manhood suffrage – that were largely based on the People’s Charter in England.

There were also more local issues, in particular resentment against a regressive tax on mining claims that was collected indiscriminately by a police force widely suspect of corruption (this was Victoria, after all) and the suspicious death of the owner of a popular hotel.

The Ballarat Reform League commissioned a new flag based on the Southern Cross, and swore and oath ‘under the Southern Cross’ to stay together until their objectives were achieved.

Eureka flag and swearing allegiance to the southern cross

Swearing Allegiance to the southern cross, by Charles Doudiet, 1 December 1854

But on that Sunday morning, most of these brave rebels had headed home for the weekend.  They weren’t expecting trouble – and in fact, for rebels, they were remarkably peaceable.  I’ve always wondered about the logic behind hunkering down behind a defensive wooded palisade, with a flagpole defiantly flying their rebel flag, waiting for the authorities to respond.  (Was their strategy based, I wonder, on the Maori pa, another more sophisticated form of wooden stockade?  Symbolic Maori opposition to British authority often began with a contest of a flagpole, too – the First Maori War began when Hone Heke cut down a flagstaff, and British flag, at Kororareka [now Russell] in the Bay of Islands.)

The soldiers attacked at sunrise, and the affair was short but bloody.  Numbers vary, but roughly 22 diggers, and 6 soldiers and police died at the scene, and other diggers probably died later.  Others were seriously injured: Peter Lalor, an Irishman who was one of the leaders, lost an arm.  This later became a valuable attribute when he was elected to the Victoria Legislative Assembly.

It was all over bar the shouting in a couple of hours – but the legacy of Eureka lives on, and has became something of a Rorschach test for pundits.

In the Sydney Morning Herald, we have Peter Fitzsimons, Australian republican, with a new book to flog, urging us to introduce a new flag based on the Eureka flag.  Meanwhile the Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos released a statement praising ‘the brave Diggers who stood up against the Victorian government for their rights as small business entrepreneurs and miners.’

There is some validity to this argument that Eureka was a tax revolt by small businessmen and miners (the two categories were not then incompatible), but this wasn’t how Karl Marx saw it.  He only mentions Australia once in his writings, and the reference is to the Eureka rebellion, which he described in 1855 as ‘an economic crisis, with the ruling British monopolies trying to shift the burden on to the working people.’

Over the years, the Eureka rebellion has been a troubled legacy, claimed by both left and right.  The Eureka flag was used during World War II by the Fascist Australia First Party, and equally claimed by the left wing Builders Labourers Federation.  You can still occasionally see a Eureka flag flying at building sites.

In 1954, the centenary of Eureka became a problem for Prime Minister Menzies’ conservative government.  It was the middle of the Cold War.  In America, the Macarthy period was in full swing, and in Australia, Menzies had recently tried to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia.  Thwarted by the High Court, he took the issue to a referendum, which failed by a small margin, showing a deeply divided nation.

How then should the nation acknowledge (celebrate is perhaps too strong a word) this iconic moment in Australian history?

The standard – and cheapest – way to do so was the release a centenary stamp.  Anniversaries great and small were regularly marked by the Post Office, but in this case, apparently under Commonwealth Government pressure, no stamp recognizing the Eureka anniversary was released.  In fact there were no official celebrations at all – the issue was just too hot to handle.  (Geoffrey Blainey mentions a small celebration in Melbourne – but only Communists turned up.)

Historians took a different view.  At the University of Melbourne, the journal Historical Studies (now Australian Historical Studies) published a special issue, the Historical Studies Eureka Supplement (1954, and republished 1965).

Eureka Stockade postage stamp

Eureka stamp for the 150th anniversary in 2004

And 25 years later, under the coalition government of Malcolm Fraser, the Post Office released a Eureka stamp to mark the 125th anniversary of the event.  There have since been a stamp marking the 150th  anniversary as well.  Better late than never.

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6 responses to “After the Eureka Stockade

  1. Graeme Parsons

    Thank-you. Another thoughtful look at an issue. I always enjoy your consideration of different perspectives on an event through time. (Have a quick look at the number typo at the start – 158 years, I think).

  2. Kevin Brewer

    Marx mentioned Australia more than once in his works. I capital there is a very interesting analysis of the Wakefield scheme and an amusing analysis of the Swan River settlement, and he talks about the gold discoveries. My take on Eureka is that it has grown more in the retailing now than in the reality at the time. It had little long term influence in Victoria, and none in the other colonies. The Chartists and other revolutionaries were at the time more interested in their money making than remaking the world, although their activities as gold diggers was remaking the world-without them unless they struck it rich-and any talk of a rifle, section of land and manhood suffrage was nonsense then and is now, even though they got the vote in 1857. The real influence on the colony was the 30 years of political instability subsequent to getting the vote, when the ramshackle House of Assembly hardly functioned, and certainly rarely in the interests of the people who voted for it because many of the politicians were as corrupt, as their electorate expected and colluded.

    • Thanks Kevin – I’d agree with pretty much all of this. My only quibble is – did a rifle play a big role in their aspirations? This sounds more American than Australian to me (though some WERE American, or influenced by their Californian experiences). But I think land and the vote were more important – and the rhetoric is more about the wrongs of the police force (true, but also an Irish trope) than the right to bear arms.

      • Kevin Brewer

        They seem to have acted a bit like bower birds and collected a lot of shiny bits of rhetoric from all over the place. The rifle did come from the US, but then some of our Constitution as is came from there too. You might remember Arthur Calwell saying of Bob Menzies that while Menzies’ ancestors were stealing cattle in the Highlands of Scotland Calwell’s were signing the American Declaration of Independence. I have in more recent times come to the conclusion that there is a lot in the idea that the Eureka pudding has been oversauced. In the same way Ned Kelly, who was nothing but a thief and murderer, has been made more of than he is worth. The Irish trope is always backwards, because those Irish who got here were far better off than they had been before emigration, and that applies across all classes because the cousinage and Anglo-Irish all came out to push their fortunes.

  3. Thanks Kevin. Yes, I like the bower bird image (Australian, too!) – they were certainly picking up ideas from all over. And yes, most Irish did pretty well here. It’s often the next, Australian born generation that picked up the sense of grievance – Ned Kelly being an excellent example. Cheers, Marion
    PS This must be one of the most strung out of conversations – December to April to September!

    • Kevin Brewer

      These things bring up itches that need to be scratched occasionally. The state of our historiography makes me irritable and prone to grumpiness. This itch was first felt when you mentioned brave rebels. I would have described them with less flattery, and I think it is interesting that most went home after building the barricades. I would suspect a certain amount of drunkenness in those that remained, hence the incompetence of the watch and the ease with which the army took the hill. I think iconic is the wrong word to use for such an insurrection. It is interesting to compare it with the Irish exiles sent to VDL after the 1848 kerfuffle. They were welcomed into VDL society, flirted with their daughters, rode their horses, ate fine dinners and had a general good time. When they left VDL one went to the US and ended up in the south, two of his sons were killed in the Civil War fighting against the Union, one of whose generals had been companion in exile in VDL. The southerner had become a proponent of slavery. We read backwards to construct it as iconic, rather like the change TAA made to our notions of the centre of the continent in the 1950s when they wanted to shift passengers. They reconstructed our notion of the centre from around Lake Eyre-the dead heart-to Uluru/Ayers Rock. Lake Eyre didn’t cut it as a visitable feature of the centre as it is incredibly shiny and rarely filled with water. So Lake Eyre had been iconic of the centre until that characteristic shifted north and west to a large lump of rock. Now we think it was ever thus, hence the backwards reading.

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