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Tuesday, 17-Jun-2003 04:47:52 AUS Eastern Standard Time

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Eureka Stockade


The torn Eureka Flag

The torn Eureka Flag
Courtesy of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery and Australian Museums & Galleries Online

The Eureka rebellion, often referred to as the 'Eureka Stockade', is the only armed rebellion in Australia's history and a key event in the development of Australian democracy.

The rebellion arose because of widespread opposition on the part of goldfield workers (known as 'diggers') to the issuing and enforcement by the government of miner's licences. The licences provided a simple mechanism by which the government could tax the diggers. Licence fees were payable regardless of whether a digger's claim resulted in the finding of any gold, and were a major financial burden for the less successful diggers.

1854 - the year of the rebellion
In 1854, the Ballarat goldfields were home to about 25,000 diggers. Order on the goldfields was enforced by the Gold Commission's police force, later to be reinforced by a garrison of soldiers.

The Social Order Notice
The Social Order Notice
Courtesy of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery and Australian Museums & Galleries Online

Licences had always caused dissent amongst diggers, but it was only after Governor Hotham came to power in June 1854 that tensions began to boil over. Governor Hotham instituted twice-weekly licence checks and zealously enforced the licensing laws.

Official corruption was another concern for the diggers. This issue came to a head after the beating to death of a drunken Scottish digger by a group of men including local publican James Bentley. Bentley was a friend of the local magistrate and, along with three other men, escaped prosecution. This incident led to diggers meeting on 17 October to attempt to bring the men to justice and after the meeting a crowd of diggers burnt Bentley's hotel to the ground. The arrest of three diggers for the arson came soon after.

On 11 November, 10,000 diggers met to demand the release of the three diggers, abolition of the licence and the vote for all males, and so the Ballarat Reform League was formed. This was followed by an even larger meeting on 29 November at which the decision to burn the mining licences was made, and at which the famous Southern Cross flag was displayed. In response, the Gold Commissioner ordered a licence hunt for the following day.

The Eureka Stockade
On 30 November another mass burning of licences took place at a meeting on Bakery Hill. Under the leadership of Peter Lalor, the diggers then marched to the Eureka diggings (named after the 'Eureka lead', a 'deep lead' of gold being mined by the diggers) where they constructed the famous stockade.

The stockade itself was a makeshift wooden barricade enclosing about an acre of the goldfields. Inside the stockade some 500 diggers took an oath upon the Southern Cross flag, and over the following two days gathered firearms and forged pikes for defence of the stockade.

Early in the morning of Sunday 3 December the authorities launched an attack on the stockade. Some weeks earlier the government had ordered the 12th and 40th Regiments to the goldfields to support the existing numbers of police troopers, and the battle was over in twenty minutes, with twenty-two diggers and five troops killed. The Southern Cross flag was pulled from the flagpole and souvenired by the victors. Peter Lalor escaped with an injured arm that was later amputated.

On the 6 December martial law was declared and a Commission into the goldfields appointed on 7 December. In the days following thirteen diggers were committed for trial, but all were acquitted during the trial in February the following year. Peter Lalor avoided capture. Only Henry Seekamp, editor of the Ballarat Times, was imprisoned (for seditious libel).

In March 1855 the Gold Fields Commission handed down its report, and the government adopted all of its recommendations. The Commission resulted in all the demands of the diggers being met. A bill was passed in 1854 to extend the franchise (the vote) to diggers possessing a minder's right costing one pound, whereas previously a six months residency and an eight pound yearly mining licence were required before a digger could register to vote. The hated Gold Commission was replaced by a system of mining wardens.

Peter Lalor later became the first MLC (Member of the Legislative Council) for the seat of Ballarat, elected in 1855. The Ballarat miners were given eight representatives on the Legislative Council.

The Eureka legacy
As the only Australian example of armed rebellion leading to reform of unfair laws, the Eureka rebellion is considered by some historians to be the birthplace of Australian democracy. The Southern Cross flag has been used as a symbol of protest by organisations and individuals at both ends of the political spectrum.

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