We Swear by the Southern Cross – Eureka Stockade Day

Today, 3 December 2022 marks the 168th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade Rebellion.

On 30 November 1854 miners from the Victorian town of Ballarat, disgruntled with the way the colonial government had been administering the goldfields, swore allegiance to the Southern Cross flag at Bakery Hill and built a stockade at the nearby Eureka diggings. Early on the morning of Sunday 3 December 1854, when the stockade was only lightly guarded, government troops attacked. At least 22 diggers and six soldiers were killed. The rebellion of miners at Eureka Stockade is a key event in the development of Australia’s representational structures and attitudes towards democracy and egalitarianism.

In the early 1850s gold was discovered in Victoria. Thousands of people moved to the state to search for treasure. The state soon made laws that the gold diggers felt were unfair to them. For instance, all diggers had to buy a mining license to dig for gold. Diggers often fought with the police when the police checked these licenses and collected fees. The diggers were also upset about not being able to vote.

Starting in 1853, miners began to gather in ‘monster’ meetings to voice their complaints. Delegations presented their concerns to Governor La Trobe, but he was unreceptive to the requests. Many of the diggers were politically engaged – some had participated in the Chartist movement for political reform in Britain during the 1830s and 1840s while others had been involved in the anti-authoritarian revolutions that spread across Europe in 1848. The situation on the goldfields was tense as police regularly ran ‘licence hunts’ to track down diggers who hadn’t paid their fees. The miners claimed the police were extorting money, accepting bribes and imprisoning people without due process.

When Charles Hotham became the new lieutenant governor of Victoria, he made the police check mining licenses twice a week instead of once a month. Conflicts between the police and the diggers became more frequent. On 6 October 1854 the Scottish miner James Scobie was killed in an altercation at the Eureka Hotel in Ballarat. The proprietor, JF Bentley, was accused of the killing. A court of inquiry was held and Bentley was quickly exonerated. The diggers sensed a miscarriage of justice; not a difficult conclusion since one of the court members, John D’Ewes, was a police magistrate well known to have taken bribes from Bentley. On the 17 October 1854 about 5,000 men and women gathered to discuss the case. They decided to appeal the decision, but after the dispersal of the crowd, a small group decided to set fire to the Eureka Hotel. Having done so, they were arrested by police.

Over the next weeks the miners met and elected delegates who, on 27 November 1854, approached the new Victorian Governor, Charles Hotham. They demanded the release of the men who burned down Bentley’s hotel but the governor took offence to having demands made of him and dismissed their grievances. He then despatched 150 British soldiers of the 40th Regiment of Foot to Ballarat to reinforce the police and soldiers already stationed there. Sensing a change in atmosphere, the diggers held another mass meeting on 29 November 1854 at Bakery Hill. It was here the newly created Eureka flag was unfurled.

The police were unsettled by the hostility building among the diggers and decided to implement a licence hunt the next day. That morning, as the police moved through the miners’ tents, the diggers decided they had had enough, they gathered and marched to Bakery Hill. At this meeting the charismatic Irishman Peter Lalor became the leader of the protest. Lalor led the miners to the Eureka diggings, where the men and women joined him in an oath:

We swear by the Southern Cross, to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties’.

Then the company gathered timber from the nearby mineshafts and created a stockade.

Over the next two days, the men and women remained in and around the stockade, many performing military drills in preparation for possible conflict. This was too much for the Commissioner of the Ballarat goldfields, Robert Rede. He called for the police and army to destroy the stockade at first light on Sunday 3 December 1854.

That morning almost 300 mounted and foot troopers, and police attacked the stockade. The assault was over in 15 minutes, with at least 22 diggers (including one woman) and six soldiers losing their lives.

The police arrested and detained 113 of the miners. Eventually 13 were taken to Melbourne to stand trial. Governor Hotham called for a Goldfields Commission of Enquiry on 7 December 1854, but the citizens of Victoria were opposed to what the government had done in Ballarat and one by one the 13 leaders of the rebellion were tried by jury and released. The Eureka Stockade rising accelerated the enactment of reforms, which followed in 1855.

The battle at the Eureka Stockade near Ballarat in 1854 changed Australia forever. It has come to represent popular struggle and has been called the birthplace of Australian democracy. The Eureka Stockade became a legend, not only because it was the birth of Australian Democracy, but because of the courage, and determination of the diggers and their willingness to defend their rights.

In 1888, the Bulletin launched a campaign to change the date of Australia Day from 26th January (the day Convicts were landed) to 3rd December, the date of the rebellion. In its own words,

Australia began her political history as a crouching serf kept in subjection by the whip of a ruffian gaoler, and her progress, so far, consists merely in a change of masters. Instead of a foreign slave-driver, she has a foreign admiral; the loud-mouthed tyrant has given place to the suave hireling in uniform; but when the day comes to claim their independence the new ruler will probably prove more dangerous and more formidable that the old.’ Rather than ‘the day we were lagged’, Australia’s national day should be December 3, the anniversary of the Eureka rebellion, ‘the day that Australia set her teeth in the face of the British Lion”.

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