Today is 4th December and is the anniversary of an event that laid the foundation for the type of society Australia would become through the last half of the nineteenth century and beyond. It was an event that changed the trajectory of Australia from a class based mirror image of Europe to the more egalitarian nation we would become.
This event is of course the Eureka Rebellion, which occurred on Sunday 4th December 1854. It was the culmination of a series of incidents which led ordinary men to take up arms against the Redcoats of the British Army and a detachment of the goldfields police. But how did it come to this and does this brief battle one hundred and sixty three years ago still have relevance in the Australia of today?
When asked what the Eureka Rebellion was all about, most people would recite what was taught to them at school, i.e. it was about the mining licence. But we all pay for licences of various kinds, be it a driver’s licence, gun licence or a licence to conduct certain trades. We all pay the fee, we may grumble out it, but we don’t build a rough fence on top of a hill and fight the authorities who come to remove us. So there must have been more to it.
This wasn’t about a licence fee, this was about fair and equitable treatment of people regardless of their background. The diggers who swarmed to the goldfields from 1852 onwards came from all walks of life. Some were tradesmen, solicitors, doctors, station hands, store keepers and even members of the colony’s fledgling police force. But regardless of their background, on the gold fields they were all equal and a man’s worth was decided by how hard he worked, not by the accident of his birth or the size of his bank account.
However there was one group in what would soon be the colony of Victoria that didn’t hold to this sense of social equality – the squatters. These were men who had taken up vast tracts of land in the decade or so before gold was discovered and had amassed quite a nice pile of money, thank you very much. But with the discovery of gold, many of the workers required to run their stations had taken off for the lure of making their own fortune. Something had to be done.
It just so happened that many of these wealthy squatters also happened to be on the colony’s administrative council and got to make the rules. They come up with a scheme that they felt would make life on the diggings difficult and thereby ‘encourage’ the workers to return to their rightful place – back under the heels of these very men. The scheme involved the mining licence.
Every person who made a living on the goldfields was required to carry licence and they needed to secure this before they could even begin to start work. They had to renew this licence every month, regardless of whether or not they had actually found any gold. Many couldn’t afford this and so they just didn’t pay it. The authorities soon realised that this was happening, so they instituted a program where the police would go out into the fields and inspect the digger’s licences. If the digger was unable to produce one, they’d be arrested and held until such time as someone paid the fine as well as the licence fee. These inspections became known as licence hunts and the enthusiasm with which the police undertook these hunts created a feeling of resentment among the diggers.
The tension continued to bubble along for a nearly two years, with regular petitions and protests falling on deaf ears in Melbourne. Not only were the miners concerns apparently ignored, there were murmurings of an increase in the fee, and not only were police numbers increased, soldiers were also sent to the area to maintain order. But still there was no feeling of rebellion in the air. It took a murder and a denial of justice to push the diggers to rebellion.
A young Scottish miner named James Scobie was killed on the night of 7 October 1854. It was widely believed that the proprietor of the Eureka Hotel, James Bentley, his wife and members of staff had beaten the young man to death after he demanded entry to the hotel after hours. Despite the testimony of some witnesses, the coronial enquiry found the Bentley’s had no case to answer. The miners felt differently and demanded a full magisterial trial. The man who conducted the trail was Magistrate Dewes and it was understood that he was actually a business partner with Bentley and had invested some substantial monies in the Eureka Hotel. The trial quickly descended into farce, with the Magistrate directly questioning witness himself, and when they adjourned to lunch Dewes headed to his chamber. Bentley quickly followed and rather than being tossed out of the chambers he remained for a full fifteen minutes, after which he re-entered the court looking happy and relaxed.
Needless to say he was found not guilty.
The diggers were now incensed. It appeared that even the basic right to justice for the murder of one of their own was beyond them. A meeting was held to discuss courses of action and after the meeting, acting on some unspoken will, the mob headed to the hotel. Commissioner Rede attempted to placate the masses but narrowly avoided being hit by a flying egg, and soon the Hotel was being torn apart and eventually burnt to the ground. James Bentley was last seen riding for his life on the fastest track out of town, leaving his pregnant wife behind. Not exactly the stuff of heroes.
As a result of this riot three token arrests were made and those three men were sent to Melbourne for trial, and were handed custodial sentences. So just to recap – the accused murderer goes free while three frustrated men venting their anger get locked up. The tension rises.
Into this tense environment an incident involving Johannes Gregorious raises the pressure even further. As the assistant to the local clergyman, Father Smyth, Gregorious isn’t required to have a licence. But that didn’t stop the police from arresting him for failure to produce one. During the course of the arrest the young man is beaten and trampled by the officer’s horse. No action is taken against this officer.
A couple of days later a meeting was held to discuss a plan to apply pressure to Governor Hotham to release their comrades currently serving time for the Eureka Hotel incident. At that meeting Timothy Hayes convinced many of the diggers to burn their licenses. Rather than taking a hands-off approach to avoid escalating an already volcanic situation, Commissioner Rede ordered his police to arrest anyone not carrying a licence. Some push and shove ensued, with the pushing and shoving getting harder and more serious until the police were being pelted with rocks, sticks and anything else the diggers could get their hands on. The police returned in kind, brandishing bayonets and threatening to shoot. Commissioner Rede read the Riot Act, thereby legalising any police officer who fires their weapon to control the crowd.
Shots are fired. No one is killed. But a couple of diggers are injured.
It becomes obvious that the diggers are not safe and that their man threat comes from those who are supposed to provide the very safety the diggers are denied. They form into a large group, march to the top of a hill on the Eureka diggings and unfurl a flag. IN the absence of any other leader, Peter Lalor takes the stage and delivers his now famous speech. Underneath the flag of the Southern Cross the swear allegiance to each other and vow to defend each other from the authorities.
They decide to build a stockade – a place where any digger fearing for their safety can seek refuge. They form themselves into companies and begin a very rough form of military training. They are armed with whatever they bought with them and whatever they could commandeer.
The Authorities couldn’t take this challenge lying down and were compelled to snuff out any revolutionary feelings before they could take hold. But how to do this? The stockade had thousands of armed men inside. Any attack would be disastrous for the few hundred soldiers and police. But what if there weren’t thousands of them? What if there were only a couple of hundred, like there probably would be on a Sunday when the more devout among them would be preparing for church? The 4th of December 1854 was a Sunday, and that’s when the Government forces struck.
For such a major event in Australian history, the actual battle was over quite quickly. As the soldiers advanced, a lone digger stepped forward, dropped to his knee and fired the first shot, killing a young Redcoat. Nothing could stop it now. Those diggers who carried firearms began shooting and for a moment the advancing line seemed to falter, but Captain John Thomas rallied his men and they surged forward. They reached the ramshackle defences and were soon over and into the Stockade.
The diggers, with only a couple of days training and equipped with rough pikes and other makeshift weapons, met the disciplined and well trained troops coming at them with bayonets fixed. The result was inevitable. The troops quickly established their superiority and when Peter Lalor was shot, a wound which would later require the amputation of his arm, the defenders broke and the main part of the battle was over.
From that first shot to the taking of the stockade the battle lasted a little over twelve minutes. But they were twelve minutes which changed Australia forever. Throughout the Colony of Victoria there had been some lukewarm support for the diggers rights, but once the word got out that the authorities had killed 22 diggers their support for the miners turned to outrage against the authorities. Many of those 22 dead miners were killed after the main fight had been concluded, with some unarmed men, who weren’t even involved, being gunned down by angry troops.
This feeling among the wider community began to grow and eventually led to laws which gave each citizen (or at least every white male) in the colony equal rights to land ownership and voting. It was the genesis of the egalitarian society Australia eventually became, instead of the colonial version of the European aristocracy which the ruling class were striving for.
Is this still relevant today? Half the point of history is to take lessons from the past to view where we are headed in the future. It’s not too difficult to draw comparisons between Ballart of 1854 and Australia today. Back then it was the land holders, the squatters, who had the ear of Governor of the Colony. Today big business, mining giants and corporations are pressuring Governments throughout the country to implement policies which favour them at the expense of the less financial citizens. We hear it every day “the rich are getting richer; the poor are getting poorer.”
The average Australian is having less impact on the decision making of the country. The diggers were denied access to land ownership. Yes, today we all have the right to own our own little piece of land, but that doesn’t mean that we can own our little piece of land. So many working Australians are unable to afford a home. Why? Because the wealthy have worked the laws to allow them to take up all the best land for their own benefit, forcing the majority of people out of the market.
We have a situation where big mining companies can come onto a farmer’s land and set up a coal seam gas well and the farmer gets very little say. The mining company can afford to spend a few hundred thousand to press their claim in court, but the farmer doesn’t have two cents to rub together and so the company wins.
We’re nowhere near the conditions of 1854. But if things continue as they are, then there’s a very real chance that the oppression and the lack of access to proper justice for the average person will be a thing of the past. We know that the last Australian Revolution involved angry workers taking up arms on a small hill outside of Ballarat. Although I don’t think the next one will involve a shooting match, but unless things take a detour and balance is reintroduced into our political system then another revolution is inevitable.