Author: Jacob Hill
The Eureka Stockade is often hailed as the ‘birth of democracy’ in Australia. But is this really the case? Yes, substantial reforms followed the rebellion, but can we actually attribute these to Peter Lalor’s uprising? What is the significance of Eureka? After all, there must be a reason we talk about it!
EUREKA POLITICAL CHANGES
I’ll just come out and say it: The Eureka Stockade had no bearing on the development of democracy in Australia. It didn’t tip the scales towards democracy – democracy had already won. Eureka wasn’t cited as a reason or inspiration for any of the changes that came after it.
But this flies in the face of the popular conception of Eureka! How can I say something so brazen?
Yes, reforms did come after Eureka, but just because one thing follows another doesn’t mean one caused the other. These reforms had been in the works before the Stockade incident.
The Chartists movement (a working-class political reform movement) during the 1830s and 1840s and the 1848 anti-authoritarian riots across Europe made establishing responsible government a high priority for the wise – either do it willingly or by force. The Victorian Legislative Council had been working on crafting a constitution from its inception, over three years before Eureka. It took a lot of arguing and bickering, but the Constitution was approved and sent to London for them to bicker over…in March 1854. Eureka happened in December 1854.
Crucially, it contains articles which establish responsible government and manhood suffrage. This was sorted out under Lt. Gov. la Trobe. The changes were already in motion. Democracy was coming whether Eureka happened or not.
Nor did Eureka spur government to act on miner’s grievances – Lt. Gov. Hotham had established a Royal Commission into the goldfields before the rebellion, which shows acknowledgement of an issue and the willingness to change and address grievances.
So why did Hotham reject the BRL’s demands if he was ultimately on their side? I argue it had to do with not interfering with the process, given he was a navy captain (the military loves the chain of command!). The Victorian Constitution, which included the political rights the miners were agitating for, was waiting royal assent – Hotham wouldn’t dare upstage the Queen! Furthermore, his Royal Commission, comprised of people sympathetic to the miners, would bring back recommendations to relieve conflict.
And when the recommendations were presented to him – Replacing the gold licence with a £1 per year Miner’s Right and export duty, replacing the corrupt Gold Commissioners with a single warden, firing the police found guilty of corrupt practices etc. – they were adopted. These changes would’ve been adopted if Eureka didn’t happen.
It’s also important to remember that the rebellion was not a declaration of independence. There was anger at the government, but no revolutionary settlement on the goldfields, even with all those Americans and Germans. The Stockade was a culmination of frustration over perceived inaction and the BRL itself stated that there was no desire to separate from the colony or from the empire.
This is evidenced by Peter Lalor, the rebel leader, serving in the Victorian Parliament for over thirty years. He constantly regretted that he was ‘forced’ to take up arms against the government. The rebels, Lalor included, were seen as misguided by contemporaries, despite having noble intentions. He downplayed the significance of the event (perhaps for political purposes) and was happy to see that changes being demanded were installed.
EUREKA CULTURAL CHANGES: PLENTY
The first monuments dedicated to Eureka appeared in the Old Ballarat Cemetery. Many of the rebels killed were buried in a mass grave and a memorial was built on top in 1856 to commemorate them. Not far away is the grave for the soldiers killed in the battle. It says:
“In this place […] were buried the remains […]who fell dead or fatally wounded at the Eureka Stockade in brave devotion to duty on Sunday 3rd December 1854 whilst attacking a band of aggrieved diggers in arms against what they regarded as a tyrannous administration.
“Not far west from this spot lie the remains of some of the diggers who fell in their courageous but misdirected endeavour to secure the freedom which soon afterwards came in the form of manhood suffrage and constitutional government.” [my emphasis]
The end part implies a causal link between the freedoms and the rebellion, but as seen already, freedoms were already being established well before Eureka. It’s important to note the language used on this monument reflects the attitude at the time: That the Eureka stockade’s intentions were noble and laudable, but not the right way to go about it. And ultimately, that is the correct attitude to hold towards Eureka.
The area the battle occurred became a public reserve in 1870, but mining had changed the landscape so much that it was impossible for veterans to pinpoint exactly where the battle occurred. Nonetheless, an obelisk was erected in 1884 in the approximate location.
The names of the known dead were added to the obelisk forty years later, placing both rebel and military names on equal footing. Both were seen to be doing their duty, and there was no right side or wrong side – just people doing what they believed was right. It was seen as a regrettable and avoidable conflict, but there were no hard feelings.
By the 20th century, however, the event took on more extreme connotations, especially the Eureka flag, used to signal defiance of authority. Workers on strike would fly it high, perhaps signalling the consequences of ignoring their demands. It was especially associated with ‘left-wing’ radicalism: The Builders Labourers Federation workers’ union adopted it as their own flag, whose leader was not only a communist, he was an actual Maoist! Speaking of Mao, the Communist Party of Australia used the flag as part of its logo.
In 1949, a film was made about the Eureka Stockade incident. Although it’s hagiographic and not good, it shows the event was becoming the subject of mainstream analysis by the 1950s. I believe this is because the centenary of the Victorian Goldrush was approaching, which is a defining moment in Victorian and Australian history and gave birth to so many towns, including Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine, Ararat and St. Arnaud.
And so, as people looked back through a hundred years of their communities’ histories, they found stories of protests and demands for freedom. And Ballarat had the Eureka Stockade, an explosive event that supposedly birthed democracy in Australia and mobilised national consciousness. Is it any surprise that the Eureka flag is everywhere in Ballarat?
Since the mythologising of Eureka, the Flag has lost its radical connotations and has become a universal Australian symbol for freedom, democracy, autonomy and the ‘fair-go’. It also represents standing against tyranny and oppression, somewhat like the Gadsden flag in the United States.
It’s still synonymous with the trade union movement, but everyone has used it to express that the ideals being promoting are (supposedly) in line with the Australian Spirit. This includes environmentalists, republicans, communists, civic nationalists, nazis, anti-taxation advocates, monarchists, anti-war activists, veteran groups, Aboriginal interest groups, anarchists, anti-police movements, pro-police movements, bikies and everyone in between.
Eureka contributed to the tradition of supporting the underdog in Australia. Australians love a good David and Goliath story, especially where somebody sticks it to ‘the Man’ against impossible odds. In many ways, we’re just like the diggers at Eureka – We just want to live our lives without the government interfering needlessly and making it a living hell (ironic coming from a Melburnian, I know!).
Eureka has taken a prominent place in Australian mythology and it certainly deserves its place (unlike Ned Kelly and his gang). The flag in particular is an enduring Australian symbol of standing up for what you believe is right, even if you’re doomed to fail, and rejecting tyranny and oppression.
But we must be careful to stick to the facts. Eureka, while spectacular, was simply an expression of anger that reaffirmed the negative sentiment in the Goldfields, proving that the changes the government was already pursuing were necessary. It didn’t spur any action or inspire any legislation. Eureka didn’t affect the outcome of political change in Victoria.
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