Eureka rebellion brought to life


Eureka: An Unfinished Revolution
Peter FitzSimons
William Heinsmann Press, 2012

“And so I call you, all my fellow diggers, irrespective of nationality, religion, and colour, to salute the ‘Southern Cross’ as the refuge of all the oppressed from all countries on Earth.” So said Raffaello Carboni at the Eureka Stockade, Bakery Hill, on November 29 in 1854.

With these words, Carboni and the diggers on the Victorian goldfields raised the Eureka flag and launched their rebellion against the unjust licence fees imposed on miners by the Victorian government.

A few days later, on the morning of December 3, the Victorian government sent in 276 troops and police to launch a surprise attack on the stockades. The miners in their ramshackle stockade stood no chance and were routed within 30 minutes, with 22 miners and eight soldiers killed.

However, the military defeat turned into a political victory for the miners and struck an important blow for democratic rights in Australia, the impact of which we still feel today.

Peter FitzSimons, a prominent Australian historian and sportswriter, traces the events leading up to, during and after the Stockade through the eyes of protagonists from both sides.

In 1851, gold was discovered in New South Wales, soon afterwards it was also discovered in Victoria. The news attracted people from all over the world wanting to seek their fortunes.

These immigrants included English Chartists (who fought a militant struggle for workers’ political rights in the 1830s and '40s), Irish freedom fighters, exiles from the unsuccessful European revolutions of 1848 and for whom the legacy of the American revolution was still fresh.

Among these was the brother of the Irish republican Fintan Lalor, Peter, and Italian revolutionary Rafaello Carboni. All these people would play an important role in the Eureka Stockade.

The impact of the gold rush was tremendous aas all types of labourers, artisans, shopkeepers and tradesmen left their employment, homes and families to head to the diggings to try their luck; fortunes were made and lost overnight.

Conditions on the goldfields were hard, but created a sense of egalitarianism and democratic spirit with the feeling that “Jack could be as good as his master”.

Commenting on the earlier discovery of gold in California in 1848, Karl Marx noted that the discovery of gold would create new markets for capitalism, make many working-class men rich, and many rich men who were now denied working-class labour would go broke.

This happened at the same time as the oppressed class were starting to demand rights long denied them. This created the potential to attack the old order, even colonial Australia.

This possibility was feared by the Victorian colonial establishment, which was controlled by the big landowners known as the Squatters. This led lieutenant-governor Charles La Trobe to impose a £1 a month licence fee on miners for the right to mine for gold on crown land.

This led to the first monster protest meeting in August 1851 in Hiscocks Gulf calling for the abolition of the fee, and the right to vote and buy land. A further monster protest meeting in December 1851 led the government to scrap plans to raise the fee to £3.

Despite this backdown, diggers on the goldfields still suffered from oppressive licence fee hunts and restrictive liquor laws. Things didn’t improve after Sir Charles Hotham became lieutenant-governor in early 1854.

On October 6 in 1854, Scottish miner James Scobie was murdered at the Eureka Hotel. After hotel owner James Bentley, suspected of murdering Scobie, was acquitted by a corrupt magistrate, a crowd of 10,000 gathered outside his hotel, which was burnt down and he and his wife were forced to flee.

Soon afterwards, in November, the Ballarat Reform League was formed under the leadership of former Chartist John Hummfray. He believed in the idea of “moral force” -- using entirely legal means and persuasive argument to make governments concede their demand.

However, rising anger at the treatment of diggers led to a more militant faction arguing for “physical force” taking over. This faction was led by Peter Lalor and Rafaello Carboni.

Licence bills were burnt, the stockade erected along with the Eureka flag, which deliberately excluded the union jack as an act of defiance. An oath taken by Lalor and the diggers affirmed: “We stand by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and defend our rights and liberties.”

After their defeat, 120 miners were imprisoned and 13 of the leaders, including Carboni, put on trial for treason. However, due to the overwhelming sympathy for their cause, every one of them was acquitted, including black Jamaican James Macphie Campbell and John Joseph, an African American.

Marx reported on the events from exile in London for German newspaper Neue Oder-Zeitung and cited it as example of workers rising against their oppressors.

By 1855, the government was forced to concede the demands of the miners. The hated licence fees were replaced with a £1 per year miners’ rights certificate, the right for miners to vote and buy land.

In 1856, the Victorian government introduced a new electoral law that granted universal adult male suffrage for the Victorian lower house, the first time anywhere in Australia. Peter Lalor, who lost an arm in the battle and was forced into hiding afterwards, was able to buy land and was elected to Victorian parliament in 1855. Sadly, he was to play a conservative role in parliament.

In 1895, Mark Twain visited the goldfields and called the Eureka Stockade a revolution, small in size, but a blow for political liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against oppression and injustice.

In recent years, the Eureka flag has become a symbol of the union movement in protecting workers rights. On the 150th anniversary of Eureka, the anti-union prime minister John Howard refused to allow the flag to fly from parliament house.

FitzSimons’ book is a great account that gives a vivid picture of the struggle against the oppression of Howard’s squatter predecessors, creating inspiration for struggles today.