Soldiers fire muskets at the stockade (shot at Sovereign Hill, Ballarat)
“Tell the diggers from me, and tell them carefully, that this Commission
will inquire into everything and everybody, high and low, rich and poor,
and you have only to come forward and state your grievances,
and in what relates to me, they shall be redressed.”
SIR CHARLES HOTHAM
Governor of Victoria
Do these sound like the words of a tyrant? Opinion was divided then, and still is now. The words were spoken by Sir Charles Hotham, the Governor of Victoria at the time of Eureka. The words are recorded in a transcript of a meeting between the Governor and a deputation representing the aggrieved gold-diggers of Ballarat. The Governor, who had arrived only five months earlier, had found a colony in the grip of goldrush madness and on the edge of bankruptcy. He had just set up a Commission of Inquiry that would look at reforming the goldfields administration and the tax/revenue arrangements of the colony.
Protest on the goldfields was in danger of spiralling out of control, especially at Ballarat where a politicised leadership had emerged which wanted more than the removal of the hated gold licence tax. Inspired by the British Chartists and the European revolutions of 1848, the newly formed Ballarat Reform League was also pushing for land reform and the vote. Echoing the American Declaration of Independence, the League’s Charter declared that “taxation without representation is tyranny”.
The deputation from Ballarat met with Hotham on Monday 28th November 1854. It was the last chance for the warring parties to make peace. Hotham was willing but his hands were tied and, as it turned out, he had run out of time. The diggers were divided between those who wanted to pursue change by constitutional means, the so called “moral force” faction, and those who believed the government would only respond to “physical force”.
The latter, in a sense, were right – the government did respond – viciously and decisively in a pre-dawn attack on the diggers’ stockade on Sunday 3 December 1854. It was less than a week after the deputation had visited Hotham and it was the only time in our history that Australians have stood under opposing flags and faced each other on a field of battle.
After the battle, thirteen rebel leaders were charged with high treason. If found guilty, they could hang. Their fate would be in the hands of a jury that had to decide whether the Eureka Stockade was a riot or a revolution.
Eureka is really a story that spans two years, not one day. It is a story book-ended with the dreadful slaughter of 3 December 1854 and the opening of the first elected bicameral parliament of Victoria two years later on 25 November 1856.
‘Riot or Revolution’ looks at the real causes of Eureka and asks what are its meanings and messages for us today. Most of us are familiar with the solemn oath sworn by 500 armed diggers and their leader, Peter Lalor, as they unfurled the rebel flag at Bakery Hill – "We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties". These defiant words, uttered just days before the battle, still have a chilling resonance 150 years later.
The original rebel flag now hangs proudly in the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. It has become a holy relic, housed behind special glass in a darkened chamber. It is the gallery's most popular exhibit. Thousands file past it with an air of solemnity, reinforcing the sense that Eureka is more than a great story, it is a sacred site.
In the battle on the 3 December 1854, the rebel leader Peter Lalor lost his arm and the stockaders lost their fight. But within a year, Lalor proudly took his place in the Victorian parliament and Governor Hotham was dead. This turnaround symbolises the death of the colonial era in Australia and the birth of something new.
Some say Eureka was the birthplace of Australian democracy – certainly it was a defining moment in our history. Perhaps it was a battle between rationalism and romanticism, constitutional reform versus revolution. While debate about Eureka will go on, most would agree about one thing - that Eureka defined how we would resolve our differences, and in that sense, what sort of society we would become.