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.
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).
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.