Eureka 150

Bob Walsh

The following is an edited version of a talk given by Bob Walshe at the Eureka 150 celebration, held at The Writers’ Centre, Rozelle, Sydney, on Sunday 5 December, 2004.

Today, on this celebratory occasion, we fill our (metaphorical) glasses and “toast the days of gold” with Henry Lawson and the many Australians since who won’t let us forget that the 1850s was the most exciting decade in Australian history — truly “the Roaring Days” — and Eureka was its finest hour! As Lawson said,

Ah, then their hearts were bolder,
And if Dame Fortune frowned
Their swags they’d lightly shoulder
And tramp to other ground.
O they were lion-hearted
Who gave our country birth:
O they were of the stoutest sons
From all the lands on earth.

I want to reflect on three themes that have jelled in my mind across the 50 years since I was secretary of Sydney’s 100 Anniversary Committee. I’ll call these the Drama, the Democracy, and the Dynamics (or causes) of Eureka. So here’s a 3-D offering.

The Drama of Eureka
It is appropriate first to speak of the Drama of the Eureka story. The fact is that this story is remarkable for its abundance of colourful elements: it’s the best story out of Australia’s epic 1850s goldrush; it’s an entirely true story; and in itself, as a story, it’s outstanding among the many results Eureka precipitated. It grows unstoppably as the Australian legend that is precious to Australians who know there is always a need to defend and enhance freedoms.

Here are just half a dozen of its episodes that deserve to be called high drama:
* A flag. A big meeting on Ballarat’s Bakery Hill, November 29 1854. It protests the Governor’s rejection of reasonable reform proposals and greets a new ‘Southern Cross’ flag of ‘resistance to tyranny’. No ordinary flag this! Though thousands of southern cross flags flutter over tents and stores, this one features a striking broad white cross — “there is no flag in old Europe half so beautiful”, says an eye-witness, and many of us have since said, “nor anywhere else”. It’s Eureka’s most powerful symbol; Australia’s most enduring symbol.
* A bonfire. Furious that three years of ‘moral force’ protest meetings, petitions and deputations have gained next to nothing from the Governor, some of the diggers demonstrate their frustration by means of a ceremonial burning of the hated licence-to-dig. It’s a strong but not illegal statement. Next morning the Ballarat Commissioner, knowing he has the Governor’s backing, stages a police and military ‘digger hunt’ to catch anyone without a licence. The operation is so large-scale, so aggressive that it is condemned throughout Ballarat as official ‘tyranny’.
* A stockade. The response to the military-style ‘digger hunt’ is a spontaneous meeting that resolves to build a defensive place on an acre of high ground on the Eureka lead from which to resist further government raids: As a ‘stockade’ rather than a barrier, barricade or fortress, it appeals to the imagination, though it’s little more than a throwing-together of timber slabs and a few overturned carts.
* An oath. The diggers elect 27 year old Peter Lalor as commander-in-chief. Rifle in hand he mounts a stump and with the ‘Southern Cross’ flying above, pronounces an oath which the diggers – kneeling, right hands raised to the flag – repeat after him: “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties”. In its great simplicity, the oath expresses the historic determination of all oppressed people to resist oppression.
* A battle. Though brief, the battle is dramatic, not least in its one-sidedness: 276 fully equipped troops launch a surprise attack on 150 poorly armed and sleeping diggers. Thirty diggers are killed (and 6 soldiers), many are wounded, the flag is trampled, 120 prisoners are taken, and not a few troops and supporting police act brutally in the area around the stockade.
* A victory. Amazingly, the defeat brings victory to the diggers’ cause! Within days, public opinion across Victoria, and most tellingly in Melbourne, swings overwhelmingly behind the diggers. Eureka has caused a popular movement to crystallise that will not only achieve goldfields reforms and release of all the prisoners but will also confront the Governor and squatting interests with demands for political democracy and ‘unlocking’ of the lands to closer settlement.

Six episodes of high drama! Many others bid for attention. The goldrush had added a ‘new’ – a multi-national – population of vigorous immigrants to the mainly British ‘old’ population, and both streams hit it off reasonably well. The diggers ‘old’ and ‘new’ were fiercely independent in the period before major parties arose. Nearly all tended to be radical, influenced by the heady ideas of mid-nineteenth century radicalism brought from Britain, continental Europe, and North America. And they were served by radical newspapers, the Argus, Age, and Ballarat Times … When the Italian digger Carboni Raffaello called on the 15,000-strong meeting of November 29 to salute the Southern Cross flag, ‘irrespective of nationality, religion and colour’ as the ‘refuge of all the oppressed from all countries on earth’, he was cheered to the echo.

Here’s a question I’m asking of academic historians: Can you think of any other event in Australian history that rivals the drama and symbolism of Eureka? For that matter, can you think of any single event in world history that presents more of such riches than does Eureka Stockade?

Eureka and Democracy
No doubt, then, of the drama of Eureka! But when we turn to the Democracy that surrounds Eureka, we are dealing with the most carelessly used word in the English language. It’s no wonder we find that controversy abounds — is why Eureka 150 comes as a great reminder to us to reflect on the state of the Australian parliamentary system and to ask, ‘How democratic is it?’

Has it struck you as odd that while the term ‘Australian Democracy’ is continually bandied about, it is never accompanied by a definition? Or that no historian thinks to say here is the date — the year, the occasion — when Australia achieved democracy? Or that no school curriculum ventures to tell students when or if we got it?… Curious! There’s something here that should be investigated. Let us start with a definition.

We all know that when the Greeks gave us the word they put together demos, the common people, with cracy (kratos), rule or power, hence ‘power of the people’ or ‘government by the people themselves’. Peter Hall in his big book Cities in Civilisation observes that Athens gave the world ‘democracy in a form… a good deal purer than has been achieved anywhere else afterwards’. That form was the direct democracy of all free citizens. (We must accept that in that cultural era 2,500 years ago the freedom did not extend to women, foreign workers or slaves.) Its essence is what matters to us — and that essence was equal voting power, the power to attend, speak and vote entirely equally with other citizens at large open-air meetings.

In the light of that, where did matters stand in 1854? There’d been the convict era — no democracy there! Then the Squatting Rush of the 1820s, 30s, 40s — no democracy there! Then the Gold Rush began in the 1850s… How incredible it was — in just a single decade the population of Australia almost trebled. Today that would mean jumping our 20 million in just ten years to 54 million — how would Phillip Ruddock have handled that?

The squatters and the wealthy urban interests were deeply troubled by the shiploads of gold seekers who flooded in — in fact, ‘troubled’ is too mild a word. They were deeply afraid, and what they were afraid of was democracy.

The diggers were middle- and working-class people who were very much influenced by the liberal and democratic ideas of the countries they’d come from. The squatters were worried because they knew these ‘new’ radicals would be joined by elements of the ‘old’ population who had been scattered and ineffective up to that time, elements that were angry at the way the squatters had grabbed and, as they put it, ‘locked up’ the land.

So the squatters and the urban wealthy became people in a hurry. As soon as they could they drew up an extremely conservative constitution — the pro-squatter Attorney-General William Foster Stawell led the drafting for Victoria, which was then growing much faster than New South Wales. In NSW the squatter William Charles Wentworth did a similar job.

Britain was ready to endorse both those constitutions. She’d learned from the loss of her American colonies not to reject high-handedly colonial calls for self-government. When a rebellion broke out in Canada in 1837, she came up with a strategy for conceding what she called responsible-self-government-within-the-Empire — and accordingly endorsed a conservative constitution in 1848. Its basis, as historians have since observed, was the securing of the collaboration of a conservative colonial elite which would be given power under the constitution, would uphold the British connection, and would repel the demands of the lower classes for democratic reforms. This was the strategy Britain followed for Victoria and New South Wales. She was ready to say ‘yes’ to the key clauses that were about to entrench an intensely conservative Upper House and a Lower House elected on a narrow property-owner franchise. The Australian elite of squatters and wealthy urban interests were delighted.

But Eureka spoiled the party. It happened midway between the sending off of the draft constitution in March 1854 and receiving it back with the stamp of approval in October 1855. Eureka was the principal agency in arousing a powerful movement that agitated for drastic democratic changes to the new Constitution. Here’s how it happened.

Suppression of the Stockade on December 3rd 1854 had caused the epicentre of Victorian dissidence to shift from Ballarat to Melbourne, where two big public meetings of the 5th and 6th spectacularly revealed unanimity against the gold-licence system, sympathy for the fallen Stockaders, hostility to the squatters, and determination to reform the conservative new Constitution. Historian Geoffrey Serle says of the meeting on the 6th that it ‘marked the emergence at last and in strength of the popular democratic movement, and in the long run made capitulation to the diggers’ demands almost certain’ (The Golden Age, p.170).

And the movement proceeded to win substantial reforms in the early years of the new (1856) Parliament (e.g. secret ballot, 1856; manhood suffrage, 1857; triennial parliaments, 1859; and a degree of success in opening the land to small-scale settlement), but the conservative forces fought back ruthlessly in the decades that followed, operating especially from their power base, the Upper House. The reformers, had achieved a great deal, but they were far from feeling they had achieved ‘Australian democracy’.

The shift of centre to Melbourne was a shift from the direct democracy exhibited at the diggers’ open-air meetings on Ballarat and other fields, to a need to devise a system of representative parliamentarism for all of Victoria that might be worthy of the name ‘democracy’. The shift greatly reduced the influence of the radical diggers; they were out in the regions, remote from the centre of governmental power, while the Eureka-invigorated liberal and democratic movement in Melbourne was on the spot and able to make its presence felt with the Governor and the new MPs.

The issue of representation was to be continually in the forefront of issues in the decades ahead. And it hasn’t ever gone away. How could anything like Athens’ equal voting power of all citizens be achieved by a representative parliament?… That question is a caution for anyone who wishes to speak of ‘Australian democracy’. It is safer to say we have a system of representative parliamentarism — and that, from the first, a struggle to improve the quality of that representation has been ongoing. From the post-Eureka struggles to the present-day there have been voices of dissent calling attention to limits on a citizen’s equality of voting power. Here is a sampling of the complaints:

  • politicians, once elected, tend to serve personal or party interests;
  • economic inequality puts unequal power in the hands of the wealthy;
  • the opinion-forming media are in the hands of the very wealthy;
  • the major parties, not the people, run the political agenda;
  • each major party is controlled by a conservative faction;
  • big-party power is thrown against independents and small parties;
  • small memberships make the big parties unrepresentative;
  • developers enjoy privileged influence on parties through donations;
  • cabinet, not parliament or people, has the real power;
  • reform is urgent in the way Upper Houses are elected.

Eureka 150 is a time for reflecting on the state of our representative parliamentary system, on its claims to be a ‘democracy’, and on what Athens and Ballarat can teach about the meaning of that carelessly used word

The Dynamics of Eureka
I’ve left till last two questions about the CAUSES of Eureka: Why did this remarkable event happen at Ballarat and not at another of a dozen Victorian goldfields, Bendigo most obviously, which had consistently been more militant than Ballarat; and why on Ballarat’s Eureka lead when there were so many others, like Black Hill, Canadian Gully or the Gravel Pits?
Eureka Stockade comes so easily to the tongue. Can you imagine we’d be here today celebrating, say, the Gravel Pits Stockade or the Black Hill Stockade? Not likely, I’d say.

For an answer to both questions, I don’t think we need go any further back than September — that is, just three months before the Stockade. Up till then, Ballarat shared the general resentment felt throughout the goldfields for the licence tax and the method of its enforcement. And even when the new Governor Sir Charles Hotham, only a few months in the job, spurned three years of non-violent appeals to reform the licence system, and instead ordered twice-a-week rather than once-a-month ‘digger hunts’. Even then Ballarat was no more resentful than all the other goldfields. At this point chance makes its erratic contribution to the historical process. It was a random event that pushed Ballarat and the name Eureka to the forefront. The murder of the Scottish digger James Scobie outside the Eureka Hotel on October 7th started a sequence of events that escalated from purely local to Ballarat.

Word spread around the Ballarat community that the murderer was almost certainly the Hotel proprietor, James Bentley. Then it became clear that officials of the Government Camp were protecting Bentley from justice. Thousands of diggers turned up to a protest meeting outside the Eureka Hotel on October 17th. Police and military from the Camp were looking on. The meeting was angry but peaceful. A fire broke out and the Hotel was burnt down — not by decision of the meeting or any of its leaders but as an act of undisciplined arson, whether by stone-throwing that smashed a lamp or by a deliberate act, no one is sure. In what followed, three diggers were arrested and charged and all Ballarat knew that these three were simply scapegoats. It was later revealed that the Goldfields Commissioner, Robert Rede, wrote to Melbourne advising further arrests and saying it was time the diggers should be taught “a frightful lesson” – and the sooner the better. This was advice to which Governor Hotham was secretly sympathetic because — as was only revealed after Hotham’s death by his secretary Captain Kay — the British Colonial Office had intimated to Hotham when appointing him that drastic enforcement of the hated licence system might well be needed.

Frequently in the weeks after the public meeting outside the Eureka Hotel other very large meetings were held — from 5-15,000 diggers, an astonishingly high proportion of Ballarat’s population of probably 20,000 diggers.

Ballarat was showing democracy in action – direct democracy of the kind practised by the originators of democracy, the Athenian citizens at their open-air meetings. Please notice that the decisions made at these meetings were all on the side of non-violence, of ‘moral force’, to use the term of the time, over ‘physical force’, right up to the last of the meetings, on November 30th

But notice too that while the diggers were openly and democratically formulating their policies and announcing them publicly, the authorities were operating quite differently. They — the Governor, his Executive Council, his Ballarat Goldfields Commission, and his Military Command, with ample funds, troops, police, weapons and ammunition — were operating secretly, even furtively. They instituted a secret code between Melbourne and Ballarat, they had shorthand writers take notes at digger meetings, they sent spies to mingle with the diggers, and on December 1st and 2nd they plumbed the depths of the contemptible by sending agents provocateurs among the diggers inciting them to attack the Government Camp so that the diggers would be wrong-footed as initiators of violence. All this is evidence that the authorities were intent on a powerful attack on the digger movement. And as if that were not enough, Hotham would write soon after the Stockade asking the British Colonial Office for special funds to set up a secret police network to enter community organisations in search of sedition — a request that London – to its credit – turned down.

It was to be an act of official provocation that would at last push the diggers’ tolerance to breaking point. A big public meeting on Bakery Hill on November 29th variously estimated at 10-15,000, with the Southern Cross flag flying above for the first time, heard the report of a diggers’ deputation that two days before had urged Governor Hotham to release the three diggers who’d obviously been scapegoated for burning the Eureka Hotel. The meeting heard that Hotham had once again said no to a deputation that had unanimous digger backing. Anger rose to white heat. Little wonder that a motion of the meeting received strong support; it said, ‘Let’s make a demonstration, let’s burn the hated licences!’ Defiant that, but not illegal, and a number of licences were publicly burnt. The police and the shorthand writers around the meeting retired to their Camp without finding cause to make an arrest. But their superiors at the Camp were now irritated, perplexed — frustrated by the diggers’ non-violence!

At that point – the tension-filled stand-off on the night of November 29th – if Hotham had taken no provocative action, just as previous Governor Charles La Trobe had not reacted violently a year before to a powerful protest by the Bendigo diggers, the Bakery Hill protest movement — as yet, remember, adhering scrupulously to non-violence — would likely have passed without incident. Options other than a violent reaction were open to Hotham. Now, I want to observe that everything that had happened at Ballarat up to this point (the afternoon of November 29th) was not different in kind from the protest-and-response happenings on other goldfields.

What was different was a decision made that evening at the Government Camp — by Commissioner Rede and two military officers, Thomas and Pasley, all three knowing they had Hotham’s backing — a decision to stage a military-style sweep of the goldfield next day by soldiers, cavalry, and foot and mounted police, the biggest digger-hunt ever, to catch diggers who had burnt their licences and, more importantly, to show who was in charge… Which is was what duly happened at 11 o’clock on Thursday morning of November 30th.

The scale and aggressiveness of the operation outraged Ballarat. On many lips was that other Greek word tyranny (from tyrannikos), and quite spontaneously hundreds of diggers began moving to the customary meeting place on Bakery Hill.

For all the spontaneity, this was not a rabble. These were men who’d been well-informed by the many mass meetings of the previous seven weeks, democratic meetings, Athens-style, where every man had equal right to attend, speak, and vote; that is, direct democracy. And it had sunk in that the newchum Governor was a British autocrat, that his local officials were corrupt, that his unjust licence system was staying, and that now he had refused to release the three diggers scapegoated for burning the hotel.

The mass meetings had made Ballarat a remarkably well-informed community with, I suggest, probably a higher rate of active participation than has been seen in any protracted Victorian campaign since. The frequency of the meetings too was greater than is known of those in Athens — seven weeks of meetings when Ballarat was Athens in the Antipodes!

Think of the mind-set as the diggers streamed in their hundreds to Bakery Hill. They were now keenly aware that years of law-abiding protest had been trampled. They’d followed ‘moral force’ non-violent leaders and there was nothing to show — things had got worse. In the angry meeting that afternoon, the mood was overwhelmingly for taking up arms in defence and building a barricade in defence behind which they could take refuge from the intensified digger-hunts — in other words they felt they’d been forced to threaten force against official force which was being asserted unjustly, tyrannically. They felt too that this military-style digger-hunt would become the regular thing.

What a moment that was! Here was an extreme decision, made at an open meeting. It was a critical moment in history like others before it when great events impend and attention rivets on a leadership, as we must do in trying to answer the questions Why Ballarat? and Why the Stockade at Eureka?

As to Eureka, the leaders decided that because Bakery Hill was within view of the Government’s fortified Camp, the barricade should be sited on safer ground, so from Ballarat’s thousands of acres a single acre on the Eureka lead was chosen, high ground — not far, by the way, from the charred ruins of the hotel. Eureka had just made it, by three days, ahead of the clinching event: otherwise Eureka would have been remembered only for a murder, a fire, and three arbitrary arrests!

As to the larger question Why Ballarat?, we are keeping in mind the specific Ballarat relevance of the morning’s provocative digger-hunt and the specific relevance too of Ballarat’s seven intense weeks of mass meetings. Now we must add the specific relevance of the leaders of the Ballarat diggers. They included some remarkable men. They’d been sorted out by a long period of public meetings, they were well-known to the community, they were different from leaders of later times imposed from above by party machines — political parties had not yet emerged, which we might consider a blessing worth examining… These leaders were all independents!

They shared many convictions — they were against licences, digger-hunts, squatters, crooked officials, taxation-without-representation — but they could also differ sharply, as about ‘moral force’ versus ‘physical force’. When the moral force men who had led till then were at last brushed aside on that angry afternoon, they remained sympathetic as observers only or they helped at the margins. Overall, this had been a leadership that generated creativity and flair — think of the flag, the oath, the stockade, and behind those a persuasive democratic program of the Ballarat Reform League — to mention only elements that contributed spectacularly to Eureka’s dramatic uniqueness. Even so, these leaders, with the Stockade in construction, turned first to negotiation; they appointed a deputation of three in a bid to get talks going with Commissioner Rede — and he totally rebuffed them, just as Hotham had rebuffed a similar deputation four days earlier.

Well, as we know, the clincher came with a misty dawn on Sunday, December 3rd in that furtive assault on the Stockade by 176 fully equipped professional soldiers, 30 cavalry, 70 mounted police, and further backing by foot police (moreover 800 more troops, with four cannon, were already marching up the road from Melbourne). They were of course victorious over the Stockade’s 150 sleeping men who’d scratched together perhaps eighty assorted muskets and pistols, a few rounds of ammunition for each, and pike- spikes tied onto poles.

In summary, I’ve sought the answer to the question Why Ballarat? In four Ballarat-specific acts of Governor-instigated aggression and four Ballarat-specific digger responses to that aggression. The four aggressions that rode roughshod over the diggers’ non-violent protests were:

  1. The 8-fold acceleration of digger-hunts, from September 13th.
  2. The scapegoating arrests of three diggers for arson, October 21st.
  3. The provocative military-style digger-hunt, of November 30th.
  4. The full-scales military assault on the Stockade, December 3rd.

At least four of the responses by the diggers to those aggressions were:

  1. The 7-weeks of intense, frequent, democratic public meetings.
  2. A leadership able to refine the jumbled values of the led with program and symbols.
  3. Respect won by leaders that brought Lalor unchallenged to that stump on November 30th.
  4. The final near-consensus decision that defensive arming had been thrust upon them.Well, there you have my three Eureka themes — Ihope you’ll judge they’ve been well chosen…
  • The dynamic behind the Eureka story shows that repeated violence and steady arrogance was on the Government side, while the majority of diggers’ leaders were ‘moral force’ men right up to the final provocation by Government o’ November 30th.
  • The democracy that surrounds the Eureka story shows us the democratic ideal through the direct democracy of the diggers’ mass meetings, and shows that Eureka served to launch the democratic movement aimed at improvement of representative parliamentarism that continues to this day.
  • And the drama that lights up the Eureka story can claim more dramatic elements than any other single event in Australian history.