Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Manipulating History - The Eureka Stockade

Manipulating History - The Eureka Stockade

On the 3rd of December 1854, a very minor event in world history, but a very big one in Australian history, occurred. That event 160 years ago was the Eureka Stockade. What I would like to do is to first give you an outline of the Eureka Stockade and then to talk about how it has been manipulated to show history in a particular way.

The Colony of Victoria was settled by the British in 1836, in 1851 gold was discovered starting the gold rush. In 1850 Victoria's white population was roughly 50,000, by 1860 it was 500,000. Nearly all of that increase was because of the gold rush. When gold was first discovered some people just picked it up off the ground, but of course as time went on it got harder to find. And as more people pored in it created all kinds of trouble. In Melbourne, the Colonies capital and chief port, men left in large numbers for the gold diggings. Ships bringing settlers and goods to the colony were deserted as sailors, sometimes even the captain, left to go find gold. They came from Britain, from Europe, a number having fought in the Revolutions of 1848, they came from America, many straight from the gold fields of California, they came from the other Australian colonies and they came from China. 

However the economy was collapsing, because so many people were abandoning their jobs, and the Government had to find a way to restore it. It decided on a gold license. To dig for gold you needed to buy a license and it didn't matter if you found gold or not you needed a license. To enforce this police were sent to the gold diggings, but in the early Australian colonies many of the police were ex-convicts. Men used to being treated rough and in treating others rough. In short they were uniformed, armed bullies and the Government did not discourage that in any way. When a miner didn't have his license on him, because he hadn't bought one or because it was his tent or for any reason, he would be arrested. The Police would go on "license hunts" through the diggings looking for men without a license and they were very rough. This continued for months with the Government desperate to bring the miners under control and desperate to get the normal economy working again. But instead things spun out of control as the brutality of the Police created first a movement and then armed resistance. The Eureka Stockade.

The man who came to lead the Eureka Stockade was an Irishman by the name of Peter Lalor, the last of 11 sons from a prominent Irish Catholic family. His father had been a Member of the British Parliament, his oldest brother James was a leading Irish Nationalist and another brother also became a Member of the British Parliament, Three other brothers fought in the American Civil War, on both sides. Lalor, a trained civil engineer, was a leading light in the anti-licensing movement and when things turned violent he was voted to lead it. 

A flag was created, a white cross on a blue background with 5 white stars, one at each end of the cross and one in the centre, the stars represent the southern cross. This flag is now known as the Eureka flag. Under this flag took place a famous oath taking, the men manning the Stockade took this oath "We swear by the Southern Cross to stand  truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties. Amen".

In the days leading up to the 3rd of December, a rumour was spread that the Government was sending cannons to destroy the Stockade. A large number of men went off to capture these cannons. But the rumour had been started by the commander of the British troops in the Colony and instead of sending cannon he force marched a force of 276 soldiers, police and Royal Navy sailors to Ballarat, the site of the Eureka Stockade. At dawn on the 3rd, he attacked and within 15 minutes the Stockade was taken. Only around 150 men were present to defend the Stockade and they were taken by surprise, 22 miners and 6 soldiers were killed.

Peter Lalor was shot in the arm and escaped, a wanted man with a 400pound reward for his capture. But 13 others captured at Eureka were charged with treason and in 1855 they were tried in Melbourne. 7 Irishmen, 1 Italian Revolutionary, 1 Scottish Jew, 1 Dutchmen, 1 Australian and two black men, one from Jamaica, the other from the United States. The trial didn't turn out the way the Government expected as the population were nearly all on the side of the miners and they blamed the Government for provoking the situation in the first place. To the shock of the Government, all the accused were acquitted. 

Even though the Eureka Stockade was a failure it is regarded as a turning point in Australian history as before the Governors of each Colony were in charge and afterwards the courts and Parliament were. In 1856 Victoria gained a Parliament and elected to that Parliament was Peter Lalor, now pardoned. 

Up to now the account is pretty standard, although maybe a little too neutral. The Eureka Stockade was about the license system, the cost of buying a license and the brutality used to enforce it. But that is not how many have seen it. For Irish Nationalists it has been seen (more in Australia than Ireland) as an Irish rebellion, for Republicans it was about creating an Australian Republic, for Communists it was about class struggle, the beginning of an Australian Revolution and for Australian Nationalists it became about fighting for an Australian nation against British rule. 

But if that's true any fighting spirit was very short lived as Australia has seen no other rebellion or revolution since. In fact what is remarkable is how bizarrely out of step the Eureka Stockade is with the rest of Australian history. Of course there has been violence in Australia's history, but very rarely is that organised violence. And that is why this event has been seized upon, because their isn't much else for these radical causes to grab hold off. But grab hold they have. The Communist youth movement was named the Eureka Youth, Trade Unionists carry the Eureka flag when protesting, some even wear it on their work clothes. Eureka is seen as a radical cause and so the symbols of Eureka are used to support radical causes.

But what that means is pieces of the real history must be ignored. A famous part of the Eureka story is the oath, but hardly any accounts will tell you that two oaths were sworn that day, not one. All of the miners at the Stockade swore the first oath "We swear by the Southern Cross to stand  truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties. Amen". But directly after that a second oath was sworn by those who were British subjects, including the Australians, including the Irish and including Peter Lalor. And that oath? It was the loyalty oath to the Monarch, Queen Victoria. In time honoured tradition they swore an oath that they were rebelling not against the Monarchy but against bad government. 

Peter Lalor is famous in Australia. In fact I grew up in the suburb of Lalor and went to a school that bore his name and had the Eureka flag as the schools emblem. But the school was not at all radical, nor was the suburb. But apart from being taught he lead the Eureka Stockade I wasn't taught much about him at all. Nor are most Australians, a man we have all heard of but know next to nothing about. But I think that's on purpose. You see Eureka is seen as a radical cause and obviously the leader was a radical as well. Only he wasn't.

In fact apart from the Eureka Stockade Peter Lalor had a very successful life as a member of Victoria's elite. I said earlier he was elected to Parliament in 1856, well he stayed there for decades and became the Speaker of the House. He was even accused of being a hypocrite because he wasn't a radical. One thing that has been held against him is he voted against universal white male suffrage. Now that isn't the thing the hero of the Eureka Stockade is supposed to do is it. It turned out that Peter Lalor wasn't a radical at all, but a Conservative. To prove it let me quote part of a speech he made in the first month of his long Parliamentary career.

"I would ask these gentlemen what they mean by the term 'democracy'. Do they mean Chartism, or Communism or Republicanism? If so, I never was, I am not now, nor do I ever intend to be a democrat. But if a democrat means opposition to a tyrannical press, a tyrannical people, or a tyrannical government, then I have been, I still am, and will ever remain a democrat." 

At the Eureka Stockade there were men who supported all of those things, and many other ideas as well. But that wasn't why the Stockade was created, it was created because of much more immediate concerns. But the myth lives on and I for one do not think the myth is better than the reality. 

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  1. This was definitely one of your better posts, Mark.

    It's a bit of a shame that Ballarat and Bendigo have such rich histories, when the present doesn't live up to them.

  2. Dear Rob

    I'm glad you liked it!