HISTORY OF THE EUREKA STOCKADE

 

 

 

"We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties".

 (Oath sworn by diggers at Bakery Hill, 29 November 1854)

 

The Eureka uprising took place on 3rd December 1854. It followed years of constant discontent on the Victorian goldfields and has come to be regarded as a `milestone in Australian democracy'. The Eureka flag is closely associated with this struggle for democracy.

 

BEFORE THE REBELLION

In 1851 gold was discovered in the creeks and gullies surrounding the present day site of Ballarat. As much of Victoria was Crown land, gold could not be mined without permission and a system of licences was introduced. Struggling against bankruptcy and believing that many diggers were wealthy, the colonial government doubled the cost of the licence in early 1854 and the police intensified their preoccupation with `licence hunts'. The diggers had to pay their dues on demand and were harassed by officials - yet they had no voice in the administration of the goldfields.

 

THE EUREKA UPRISING IN BALLARAT

A number of important events occurred in the months before the Rebellion. The most dramatic occurred in October 1854 when an angry mob burnt down James Bentley's hotel. On 29th November when a `monster meeting' of some 12,000 Ballarat residents took place at Bakery Hill, licences were burnt and two new developments took place. Hastily devised as a symbol of resistance, the Eureka flag was flown for the first time at the meeting and secondly, a little known Irishman, Peter Lalor (1827-1889) addressed the crowd. He reputedly called on all those present to "salute the Southern Cross as a refuge of all the oppressed from all countries on earth". Lalor and a band of diggers then marched to the Eureka gold lead, the Southern Cross flag flying before them, on 2nd December, 1854. Here they erected a roughly built slab stockade. The goldfields Commissioner Robert Rede believed the police camp to be in danger and sent for reinforcements. By midnight only about one hundred and twenty diggers remained at the barricade. Around 3.30am on Sunday 3rd December, at least two hundred and ninety well-armed troops attacked the Stockade. A brief but bloody battle ensued; - "coarse cries and oaths came from the police, soldiers and rebels alike - cries of fear, of pain; shouts of rage, threats and ... screams of horses, the crackling roar of weapon fire. Men fell, bleeding ...". (Transcript of incidents at Eureka derived from evidence at Eureka trials, February-March 1855 in B. O'Brien, Massacre at Eureka (Melbourne, 1992) p.89). Over thirty diggers and bystanders were killed. It was all over in a matter of minutes.

 

THE AFTERMATH

Thirteen of the diggers tried for treason after the Eureka uprising - `in arms against Her Majesty's Forces' - were found not guilty. Peter Lalor's concern with justice was furthered in 1856 when he entered the Victorian Parliament as a member for Ballarat. A number of important social changes and political improvements arose out of the events at Eureka. These included; Greater democracy for the diggers; The right to vote for political representatives; Abolition of the oppressive licensing fee; A realisation that all colonists had to be treated in a more civilised manner. Australia's political system was strongly influenced by the events at Eureka. Early members of the labour movement sought inspiration in the stand taken by the diggers and striking shearers in Queensland during the 1890s flew the Eureka flag as a gesture of defiance towards police and government. The daily events, the role of the diggers and the uprising have all become a part of Australia's popular culture and mythology. They continue to be commemorated in books, songs, films, plays, poems, and stories.

 

THE EUREKA FLAG

During the attack on the Stockade, the Eureka flag was hauled down from a flagpole by Trooper John King and brought in triumph to the Government Camp. King showed the flag to all those who were curious, allowing small pieces to be torn off as souvenirs. The flag remained in the King family after his death and was eventually presented to the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery in 1895. Raffello Carboni, who published an account of the uprising (R. Carboni, The Eureka Stockade (Melbourne, 1855) ) wrote of the flag; "There is no flag in Europe, or in the civilised world half so beautiful... the flag is silk, blue ground, with a large white cross; no device or arms, but all exceedingly chaste and natural". Restoration carried out on the flag in 1973 revealed it to be made of a fine woolen mohair fabric, possessing a `silky' sheen commented on by Carboni. The stars were constructed of a transparent white `petticoat' lawn. Several different groups and individuals have been suggested as the makers of the flag. A number of diggers attending a meeting before the uprising are reported to have looked at the sky, seen the Southern Cross star formation, acquired material from a tent maker and constructed the flag, possibly with the help of miner's wives. It is also thought that a Canadian digger, `Captain' Ross may have designed the flag and commissioned miner's wives to make it. Although flag makers were common on the goldfields during the 1850s, the irregularly shaped stars and finely woven seams indicates that the flag was more likely to have been sewn by several women.