The Eureka Flag is an enduring symbol of Australian democracy and social empowerment. It has been adopted by movements and groups of all persuasions, though until recently the exact appearance of the ‘Starry Cross’ and the authenticity of the banner held by the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery since 1895, has been a subject of contention.
The flag seen here was first raised in public at the ‘Monster Meeting’ on Bakery Hill on 29 November 1854. Made as a banner for the Ballarat Reform League, it was beneath this Southern Cross that rebel leader Peter Lalor swore the first oath on Autralian soil to a non-British flag:
We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.
Following the meeting, the flag was taken back to Eureka where it flew above the stockade during the subsequent battle. Following the fall of the Stockade, the rebels’ standard was cut down by Trooper John King and taken back to the government camp, where it provided a number of souvenirs. Having been used as evidence in the unsuccessful prosecution of the Eureka leaders, the damaged flag was eventually returned to King.
In 1895, James Oddie, the President of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery negotiated the loan of the original Eureka Flag from King’s widow. King’s earlier attempts to sell the flag to the Museum in Melbourne had failed because no one, including Peter Lalor, could testify to its authenticity. An alternative version of the flag was used for the cover illustration of Raffaello Carboni’s account of Eureka, which only created more uncertainty about its true appearance. It later emerged that the cover art was simply an approximation based on Carboni’s descriptions.
The flag remained at the Gallery and was subject to fluctuations in the attention it received both in terms of interest and conservation. Attempts were made to authenticate the King flag using pieces known to have been souvenired from the original flag, though uncertainty prevailed until 1996. When a series of watercolours painted by Swiss/Canadian digger Charles Doudiet emerged from a Canadian attic, they revealed at their centre, a white southern cross on a blue background flying above the diggers’ camp. The Gallery’s flag finally had contemporary visual documentation of the Eureka banner to authenticate its ‘Starry Cross.’.
Now on permanent display in the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, the flag continues to be reunited with segments removed at various stages during its history.