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Eureka Stockade

The Eureka Stockade, a rebellion of miners on the Ballarat goldfields in 1854, has become a symbol of democratic protest and national identity.

In October 1854 James Scobie, a Scottish digger, seeking a late drink at Bentley's Hotel in Ballarat, died after being hit on the head with a spade. Bentley was widely suspected, but he was exonerated by local magistrates. After a subsequent protest meeting, some of the crowd rushed the hotel, and it burned down. Three men were picked from the crowd and charged with the burning of the hotel. Governor Hotham ordered Bentley's arrest (he was subsequently found guilty of manslaughter), and set up an inquiry which uncovered evidence of corruption in the administration at Ballarat.

The Chartist-influenced Ballarat Reform League argued that the people at Ballarat had been provoked by maladministration and injustice, and called for manhood suffrage, the abolition of the licence tax, and the opening up of the land to small farming settlement. On 11 November a large public meeting resolved that ‘it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called upon to obey – that taxation without representation is tyranny'. Karl Marx was to observe: ‘It is not difficult to notice that these in reality are the same reasons which led to the declaration of independence of the United States of America.’

On 16 November, Hotham set up a royal commission into the goldfields. A diggers’ delegation to Hotham on 27 November ‘demanded’ the release of the three prisoners. Hotham took objection to the word, and refused. The delegation would not retract: ‘the people … have, in their collective capacity, used that word’. At a meeting on 29 November, the rebel Southern Cross flag was unfurled and licences burned; the next day, Peter Lalor led the rebels to Eureka where they built their stockade. Ballarat was now said to be ‘in a state of open and undisguised rebellion’.

At 4 a.m. on Sunday, 3 December, when most of those inside the stockade were asleep, government troops attacked – about 20 diggers were killed by the soldiers, who lost five dead and 12 seriously wounded. In early 1855, the Eureka rebels were put on trial in Melbourne. Juries refused to convict any of them - despite Judge Redmond Barry's warning, after a thunderstorm, that 'the eye of heaven was upon them'. The royal commission recommended sweeping changes to goldfields administration – an end to the licence system, and the introduction of the miner’s right, which effectively gave diggers the vote – which were soon enacted.

The historiography of Eureka

The first histories of Eureka were those made by contemporaries – both officially, in the parliamentary inquiries and commissions, and as private authors. Of the latter, the most remarkable is Raffaello Carboni's The Eureka Stockade (1855), which offers a vivid and eccentric history by a participant. Later nineteenth-century historians of the event include Henry Gyles Turner.

In the liberal version of Australian history, Eureka was a central part of the story of how the Australian people became citizens through the achievement of representative and responsible government. H.V. Evatt argued that 'Australian democracy was born at Eureka', and Geoffrey Serle in his The Golden Age (1963) endorsed the description of Eureka as a ‘fight for freedom’ and a 'democratic protest against arbitrary government'.

The miners at Eureka struck out against British imperial authority, swore to defend the flag of the Southern Cross as a distinctively Australian symbol, and hinted at the possibility that Australia might reluctantly need to become independent of Britain. Radical nationalist historians – such as R.S. Ross in Eureka: Freedom's Fight of '54 (1914), Robin Gollan in his Radical and Working Class Politics (1960, 1967), and to some extent Manning Clark in A History of Australia (vol.4, 1978) – have produced more heroic versions of Eureka, seeing it as one of the first important statements of Australian nationalism, and as perhaps the first great event in the emergence of the labour movement. An important strand of this interpretation has stressed the Irish presence at Eureka – a theme in C.H. Currey's 1954 The Irish at Eureka and in John Molony's 1984 narrative account, Eureka. Literary writing from the 1880s tended also to reproduce a nostalgic and heroic account of Eureka.

A sceptical left tradition has looked pessimistically on Eureka and its consequences. Brian Fitzpatrick in The Australian People 1788-1945 (1946) argued that the diggers' achievement of political democracy was 'in fact more appearance than reality', while Humphrey McQueen in A New Britannia (1970) saw the effect of gold more generally on the working classes as being to sustain the belief that ‘capitalism was not without promise’. Two decades later, Jan Kociumbas (Oxford History of Australia, vol.2, 1992) argued that the diggers were ‘seduced’ by the prospect of democracy, which was only 'destined to steep them in individual acquisitiveness'.

Conservative revisionists questioned the extent to which Eureka ‘caused’ the democratic reforms in Victoria which came soon after, and argued that the rebellion achieved little that would not have happened anyway. The new Victorian constitution had been sent to London in March 1854, before Eureka. So I.D. Macnaughtan (in Gordon Greenwood, ed., Australia: A Social and Political History, 1955) maintained that the ‘constitutional importance of the affair was slight’ because democratic reform was already assured. A consensus seemed to emerge, however, which recognised that there was a profound change in public opinion in Victoria caused in part by Eureka, which ensured that the democratic provisions of the new constitution were rapidly extended.

The other revisionist thrust was the argument that Eureka needed to be seen, not as a founding moment of organised labour in Australia, but as the protest of independent small capitalist miners against their incipient incorporation into a mining proletariat – Eureka, argued G.V. Portus in the 1933 Cambridge History of the British Empire, was ‘the last picturesque pose of an order that was passing’. R.M. Crawford in Australia (1952) argued that Eureka was a revolt of ‘small capitalists against official authority’. Geoffrey Blainey in The Rush that Never Ended (1963) went further and suggested that that the Eureka rebellion, in achieving reform of restrictive mining regulations and rationalisation of arbitrary authority, itself 'paved the way for the rapid and orderly growth of capitalist mining and the accumulation of large fortunes in few hands'. The 1949 Ealing film, Eureka Stockade, which starred Chips Rafferty, ends with the reincorporation of Peter Lalor into colonial society – we see him buying land at auction, planning to marry and settle down into a life of quiet respectability. Blainey argued that the deep mining at Ballarat brought together a more stable mining population, more likely to support the kind of organisation necessary for serious rebellion; Weston Bate in Lucky City (1978) argued that, on the contrary, the deep mines were generally peaceful, and that explanation needs to be sought even more locally in the relative poverty of the Eureka lead in the weeks before the rebellion.

The Eureka Stockade has importantly been part of a local history. In the 1880s a monument commemorating both soldiers and rebels was erected on the supposed site by public subscription. William Bramwell Withers published The History of Ballarat in 1870. Local historians have also been concerned to establish exactly where the stockade was – Jack Harvey’s 1994 Eureka Rediscovered: In Search of the Site of the Historic Stockade is a recent contribution. Local controversy over the true site of the rebellion has continued in debates over the interpretation to be presented in the museum erected nearby.

Eureka is now a significant tourist asset, as well as a national symbol. At Sovereign Hill pioneer settlement the Eureka story is now enacted nightly in a sound-and-light production, ‘Blood on the Southern Cross’. Ballarat Art Gallery’s most prized exhibit is now the tattered Southern Cross flag. Like the Eureka legend itself, the flag has become a symbol for diverse causes, ranging from the Communist Party’s Eureka Youth League and the Builders Labourers Federation to the National Front and small business organisations. Chris Healy's From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory (1997) examines the transformation of the memory of Eureka from local story to national legend.

David Goodman

Moore, Bruce, Gold! Gold! Gold!: a dictionary of the nineteenth-century Australian gold rushes, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2000. Details