The Eureka Stockade Ballarat

There is one single event in Australian history that stands out from all others - the Eureka Stockade Ballarat. Rebellion was the result.

There is one single event in Australian history that stands out from all others - the Eureka Stockade. On the early goldfields, a license fee was imposed on the miners and many considered the fee extortionate and unfair. This brief history of the event shows how the miners rebelled.

The Eureka Stockade, 1854

The flame that exploded into open rebellion at Ballarat had been burning for years, for all to see, on the Victorian goldfields.

The diggers - men from all nations who had flocked to Melbourne and taken the dusty road to Ballarat with few possessions other than what they carried - were outraged by the heavy licence fee dictated by the Government, an imposition that few of them could afford and most successfully evaded. Constant raids on miners' camps by the Troopers - the "Traps" or "Joes" - inflamed feelings and brutal treatment of licence evaders were common. The licence system was a gross injustice - most authorities agree about that; and most agree that the presence of so many Irish among the diggers made an act of defiance inevitable.

When a digger was killed by the owner of the Eureka Hotel and the publican - whom many reviled as a confederate of the corrupt Gold Commissioners -escaped punishment, a mob of diggers burned the pub down in revenge in October 1854. From that moment on, events moved swiftly to a climax. Several diggers were arrested. To a protesting mob of their mates, the Commissioner read the Riot Act and called in military detachments.

To force the diggers to pay their license fees the Government decided to use force. While the mass of the diggers began forming groups and rumours of unrest reached Melbourne, the Government ordered two regiments and police reinforcements to Ballarat. On 29 November 1854 nearly 12,000 diggers gathered for a mass meeting on Bakery Hill to decide their action. Here the Irishman Peter Lalor and two equally impassioned companions, the German, Vern, and the Italian, Raffaelo Carboni, called on the men to stand together and resist the Government by force. Under a cloudless blue sky and a blue-and-white flag of their own devising - the Southern Cross - hundreds burned their licences and took an oath to fight for the "Victorian Republic." Arms were handed out.

This was treason. Men called not only for the abolition of fees but for manhood suffrage and short parliaments and none shouted for these more loudly than those who had left oppressive homelands for freedom in Australia. Eureka would become a test case for freedom; a battle fought on behalf of future generations of Australians by foreign-born men.

On 30 November, the military made a move against the Stockade and shots were fired at them - open rebellion had come.

Captain Thomas, commanding the units of the 12th and 40th Regiments and the police troopers -about 276 men - resolved to wait until the morning of Sunday 3 December, hoping that the increasing number of diggers deserting the cause would result in Lalor's bloodless surrender. However, the Southern Cross still flew defiantly over the Stockade and no attempt was made by Lalor's men to parlay or disband.

At dawn on Sunday 3 December the redcoats and troopers moved silently against the Stockade, hoping to take the rebels by surprise. Before they reached the timbers they were swept by musket shots, but the battle was over in fifteen minutes. Storming the defences with fixed bayonets the troops fought briefly without quarter, killing or wounding 34 of the diggers at the cost of fifteen casualties. Peter Lalor, who was wounded in the arm but carried from the scene by companions, maintained that the police, but not the soldiers, continued to shoot down diggers even when the latter had thrown down their crude weapons. The troops jubilantly felled the flagpole and trampled the Southern Cross in the bloodied dirt. Of the 14 diggers whose bodies lay on Bakery Hill, many of them terribly mutilated by musket shot and sword, eight were Irish, two were German, one an Englishman, one Scottish, one Australian-born. Eight more wounded rebels later also died.

Nevertheless, none were hanged for treason. When Lalor - with one arm amputated - and his companions stood for trial before an Irish judge (appropriately on 1 April 1855) all were acquitted. Licence fees were abolished. Though the majority of Victorians had little sympathy with the rebellion, the iniquities of the Government's system had been exposed. If Australia has been free of bloody confrontation between Government and Citizens, much is due to the lessons learned from Eureka.

NB: There is a strong movement in Australia that believes, when we become a Republic, that the Southern Cross, the flag flown over the miners' rebellion, should become Australia's new flag to replace of our existing flag with the Union Flag in the upper left hand canton.

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