A revolt that pioneered a tradition of militant struggle
That a flag used by gold miners during a revolt in 1854 is still seen today as a symbol of struggle says something about the significance of the Eureka rebellion. While the establishment has often tried to downplay the importance of the revolt, there is no doubt that what unfolded on the goldfields of Ballarat helped shape events in Australia for decades to come.
The Eureka rebellion helped pave the way for the development of the labour and trade union movements, and subsequently many advances for working class people. The bold stance taken by the gold miners – or “diggers” as they were known at the time – helped imbue the working class movement with a sense of militancy and determination.
In part this helped Australian workers pioneer struggles ahead of their counterparts internationally on many occasions, for example the fight for shorter working hours and for independent political representation. The Eureka rebellion itself saw universal male suffrage granted in the new Australian colonial parliaments decades before it was enacted in Britain.
In the lead up to the 1850s the wool trade dominated the Australian economy. At that time huge swathes of land were occupied by squatters, mostly British officers and wealthy “free settlers” who took up land after colonisation and then gained usage rights. Many squatters used the land for large-scale sheep grazing and the wool produced serviced the textile industry in Britain.
But in 1851 gold was discovered at Bathurst in New South Wales and at Ballarat in Victoria. This added an entirely new dynamic to the Australian economy and politics. It gave the economy a huge boost and workers flooded to the gold “diggings”, leaving jobs in the towns and on sheep stations in the hope of striking it rich and escaping the drudgery of wage labour.
Reports of gold being found in Australia reached the far corners of the globe and as a result thousands more immigrated hoping to get in on the action. In turn the colony of Victoria expanded very rapidly. In the decade after gold was found Victoria’s population had multiplied by ten!
Victoria was only declared a separate colony from New South Wales in 1850 and initially it was governed by a combination of unelected colonial officials and rich squatters. It was an extremely undemocratic set up. Ordinary people were excluded from participating in what was snidely known as the “squatter parliament”, as only those with property qualifications were eligible.
Self government of Victoria wasn’t achieved until 1855, so between 1850 and 1855 people debated about what type of representation was needed. The Eureka rebellion took place in the midst of this debate, which sharpened against the backdrop of a rapidly expanding population. The squatters were intent on maintaining their dominance, while the diggers, and the emerging working and middle classes, wanted more say and a bigger slice of the economic pie.
The diggers themselves could not yet be classified as workers. They operated more as independent producers or in small co-ops of about half a dozen. This was a time when the goldfields were in a period of transition. Capitalist enterprise had not yet taken hold of the sector and with this being the case, miners were not yet directly employed by bosses. In time a few diggers did go on to become capitalists, but the vast bulk of them were integrated into the working class. As more and more diggers became wage labourers, trade unions also developed a base on the goldfields.
Tensions and harassment
At the time of the Eureka rebellion the goldfields were administered by commissioners appointed by the parliament. Their authority was supported by the police. The state raised revenue by charging a mining license fee of 30 shillings a month to the diggers. Essentially the fee was an excessive tax on the diggers’ labour and it was used as a form of control. The cost of the fee, and the repressive way it was collected by the police, came to be the main issues that led to the revolt.
While a few diggers did manage to strike it rich, most lived a very meagre existence. They lived in tents and owned little more than a shovel and a pan. They were incensed that the police would carry out what became known as “digger hunts”, where police officers would enter the diggings at least once a month to round up miners and demand to inspect their licenses.
Those who could not produce a valid license were arrested, fined and often humiliated. Many had no way of paying the fines and were subsequently put in jail. Police harassment went hand in hand with corruption amongst the commissioners, who used their positions to enrich themselves. This alongside the hard conditions of life fed widespread discontent amongst the diggers.
Pressure built up over a period of time and from 1853 a movement against the license fee took hold. Diggers organised mass meetings, petitions and protests – and some reductions in the fee were granted. This however was not enough to satisfy them. Boycotts of fees were organised. In response the government arrogantly increased the “digger hunts” to twice a week. This infuriated the miners and tensions increased.
Matters were made worse when alongside the extreme police harassment there were further examples of corruption within the state. A miner by the name of James Scobie was found dead near the Eureka Hotel in early October 1854 and witnesses said that he died after getting into a fight with the publican James Bentley. Bentley was put on trial for murder, but acquitted.
A mass meeting of miners was called to discuss the injustice, and anger boiled over. A riot broke out and thousands of miners burnt the Eureka Hotel to the ground. In an attempt to calm the situation Bentley was rearrested, but three diggers were also arrested and jailed for the arson attack. The miners launched a campaign for their release and organised more mass meetings and protests.
As Karl Marx reported from London at the time: “…A certain Bentley, owner of the Eureka Hotel at the Ballarat goldfields, had got into all sorts of conflicts with the gold diggers. A murder which occurred at his house increased the hatred of him. At the coroner’s inquest Bentley was discharged as innocent. Ten of the twelve jurymen, who functioned at the inquest, however, published a protest against the partiality of the coroner, who had attempted to suppress witnesses’ evidence disadvantageous to the prisoner. At the demand of the people a second inquest was held. Bentley was again discharged despite very suspicious evidence by some witnesses. It became known, however, that one of the judges had financial interests in the hotel. Many earlier and later complaints show the dubious character of the government officials of the Ballarat district…”
These events represented an important turning point. They confirmed that corruption within the administration was widespread and that no justice could be achieved in the biased colonial courts. The diggers subsequently concluded that a much more vigorous course of action would be required.
The riot also gave the diggers a sense of their collective strength. They had pushed back against the harassment and the corruption that existed and the authorities had been forced to make some concessions. If steps forward could be made spontaneously, much more could be achieved if the diggers were properly organised.
Ballarat Reform League
In November 1854 the miners did organise themselves in the Ballarat Reform League. The League itself was heavily influenced by the British Chartist movement. The key demands of the organisation were for the abolition of the miner’s license and for the jailed miners to be released, but on top of that the League also strove to achieve “digger” representation in the parliament.
They put forward a series of political demands including: manhood suffrage, the abolition of the property qualifications for members of parliament, payment of members of parliament, voting by secret ballot, short term parliaments, equal electoral districts, reform of administration of the goldfields and revision of the laws relating to Crown land. The aim of the final demand was to secure small plots of land for farming from the squatters.
The diggers spoke about liberty, which in essence meant economic justice, political representation and social reform. While many were influenced by Chartism others had been involved in republican movements in Ireland. There were also miners from other parts of Europe as well as California, Canada and elsewhere. While not a majority, a significant number of radicals from all sorts of backgrounds had been attracted to the goldfields and they brought with them their ideas and a spirit of defiance.
The League’s program was adopted at perhaps the most significant mass meeting to take place at the time. A meeting of 10,000 miners was held at Bakery Hill on November 11, and from that day on the League became the organisation that represented the bulk of the miners in the region.
A delegation from the League was sent to meet with the Governor, but he refused to seriously consider their demands. This was reported back to another mass meeting on November 29 and the then leaders of the League advised the members to give the Governor more time. This was unacceptable to the vast bulk of the miners and it was at this stage that new leaders came forward.
The original leaders of the League were democrats who believed in applying “moral force”, but with little progress being made people became much more open to the need for a leadership with a more militant strategy – up to and including using “physical force”. Many saw the days of pleading and petitioning as over. An increasing number knew that they had to take decisive action or their demands would never be realised. It was at this stage that the League was taken over by people like Peter Lalor who, while not a revolutionary, was prepared to lead the diggers in an armed revolt.
Another militant, Vern, successfully moved a motion at the November 29 meeting to conduct a mass burning of mining licenses. The police responded provocatively by conducting another “digger hunt” the next morning. They were expecting a riot and they fired some shots before reading the Riot Act. Refusing to be intimidated the diggers began the process of collecting arms, forming squads and conducting drills. Peter Lalor was elected Commander-in-Chief of what was in reality a crude paramilitary force.
The diggers flew a flag portraying the Southern Cross and swore an oath “by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties”. There was a sense of internationalism within the movement with one prominent digger, Raffaello Carboni, calling on all miners “irrespective of nationality, religion or colour to salute the Southern Cross as a refuge of all the oppressed from all countries on Earth.”
Under this flag a crude stockade was thrown up, mainly consisting of overturned carts and discarded timber logs. While the diggers were still unsure exactly how the state would react, they were preparing for an armed confrontation. For two days the conditions in Ballarat resembled those of a low level civil war. Drills took place behind the stockade and patrols were sent out to survey the area and alert the diggers of any approaches by the police. At its peak around 1500 miners were stationed at the stockade.
While there is no doubt that the leaders of the rebellion were extremely brave and defiant, they did lack a certain amount of political clarity and direction. While preparing for a military confrontation they were limited in the sense that they did not have plans for the overthrow of the colonial regime. An all-out confrontation puts the question of political power on the agenda and those rebelling against the existing order either have to be prepared to take power or risk being crushed.
While an armed revolt may be necessary, much more important is a political plan that can facilitate the overthrow of the existing regime. For a rebellion to have the best chance of success it needs to appeal to, and mobilise, all those with similar class interests. It is necessary to undermine the social base on which the old regime rests by using the latent economic power of the masses against them.
The formation of new democratic bodies is required in order to provide an alternative power structure to old regime’s state. By utilising the economic strength of the masses power could be transferred to these bodies and they could then form the basis of a new way of running society – a society where the interests of the majority are prioritised.
The strategists of the colonial state were more conscious of the diggers’ weaknesses than the diggers were themselves. They waited them out for a few days and in this time the lack of political direction saw the mood of defiance dissipate somewhat. Facing a superior military force without a sufficient political plan meant that some people began to question whether or not it was correct to proceed with an armed revolt.
After waiting a few days the police, backed up by the military, decided to attack the stockade early on the morning of December 3. At that stage there were only about 150 miners present and it is estimated that they were outnumbered by troops two to one. Nevertheless a battle took place for a bit less than half an hour. Many diggers put up a brave fight in very difficult circumstances, but unfortunately the miners were overpowered by the vicious colonial troops.
From all reports the troops brutally killed and injured people indiscriminately – including bystanders and those who were trying to retreat. It’s estimated that around 30 miners were killed alongside about 5 troops. After the battle the troops removed the Eureka flag and burnt down the stockade and surrounding tents. They were intent on sending a strong message to those who dared to rise up.
Around 120 miners were rounded up and imprisoned while 13 of the leaders of the rebellion were put on trial for treason. There was however huge sympathy for the diggers cause. News of the events shook the colony and in the days after the revolt mass meetings took place in major centres like Melbourne and Bendigo.
Another mass meeting was also held in Ballarat in the days to follow and it restated the League’s demands. While the rebellion itself was unsuccessful, it had focused the attention of the mass of the population on the issues the diggers had raised. In response to the developing mood the government was forced to set up a Royal Commission to investigate the diggers’ issues and the events surrounding the rebellion.
In an attempt to placate the growing numbers who were in sympathy with the diggers, significant reforms were introduced. The miners’ license was abolished and men were afforded the right to vote. The corrupt goldfield commissioners were replaced by locally elected courts and some advances towards opening up land for small scale farming were made.
The first ringleader put on trial was a black New Yorker, John Joseph, who the government thought would be easy to hang. Instead, he was freed, and the crowd outside the courtroom carried him on a chair through the streets in triumph. All of the miners charged with treason were acquitted. There is no doubt that public pressure had a huge impact on the court’s decision.
While the armed uprising had been unsuccessful, the struggle of the Ballarat diggers was by no means in vain. As well as winning a series of important reforms the rebellion had widespread influence on other struggles within the colony and beyond.
As the gold rush ebbed much of the wealth accumulated was invested in the cities and towns. Many of the diggers returned to the urban centres and they brought their experiences of struggle with them. Despite its weaknesses, the Eureka rebellion had shown that collective action and militancy are the best ways to win gains.
These lessons were absorbed by the emerging working class that was taking shape in the cities. As economic activity in the urban areas increased workers began to organise themselves into formal trade unions and they demanded improvements to their rights and living conditions. Most importantly they demanded shorter working hours.
Influenced by the spirit of Eureka, Victorian building workers were the first in the world to win the eight hour day in 1856. By 1858, a decade before the demand was raised by American workers, it had become a generally recognised standard in the Victorian building industry.
As capitalism developed in the rural areas, those who decided to stay in the mining sector, and those who worked on sheep and cattle stations, also began to unionise and fight for improved conditions. The tradition of militant struggle that was pioneered at Eureka played a key role in shaping the emerging labour movement in both the cities and rural areas.
While there were elements of a revolutionary mood present at Eureka, the leaders of the rebellion were not far sighted revolutionaries and as such the struggle was kept within certain limits. The main aspirations of the diggers were for improved democratic rights and economic justice. The issue however was that while reforms can be won through struggle, they will always be of a limited nature within the confines of a class based society.
Nevertheless the glorious defeat of Eureka represented a huge step forward from the point of view of working class people. Upon the reforms that were won a new debate began to emerge within the labour movement about the limits of parliamentary democracy, the inability of capitalism to provide real economic justice and the need for the socialist transformation of society to achieve genuine liberty for the masses. A debate about the need for independent working class political representation also began to take shape.
There is no doubt that the Eureka rebellion marked a watershed moment in Australian history and for that the diggers of Ballarat should be remembered for their heroic stand.
By Anthony Main
Many people noted the significance of the Eureka rebellion including the American writer Mark Twain. He visited Ballarat in 1895 and wrote the following:
“The Ballarat miners protested, petitioned, complained – it was of no use; the government held its ground, and went on collecting the tax. And not by pleasant methods, but by ways which must have been very galling to free people. The rumblings of a coming storm began to be audible.
“By and by there was a result; and I think it may be called the finest thing in Australasian history. It was a revolution – small in size; but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for a principle, a stand against injustice and oppression. It was the Barons and John, over again; it was Hampden and Ship-Money; it was Concord and Lexington; small beginnings, all of them, but all of them great in political results, all of them epoch-making. It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle.”
The events of the Eureka rebellion influenced many in the Australian labour movement for decades to follow. One famous example is the poem ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’ written by Henry Lawson about the 1891 shearers’ strike. In part it reads:
“So we must fly a rebel flag,
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
O’ those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle!”
The “Rebel flag” referred to is the Eureka Flag, proudly flown above the shearers’ strike camp in 1891 and carried on the first Australian May Day march in Barcaldine the same year. Despite being opportunistically adopted by oblivious right-wing sects in recent decades, rebels of two-dozen nations fought beneath it, and it became the flag of the most militant parts of the union movement. Throughout the 20th century, and to this day, it continues to be associated with militant struggle and the fight for democratic rights.
By Socialist Party reporters