The Eureka Stockade and the Australian Republic

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This was an address given to a meeting of the Australian Republican Movement, Bakery Hill, 1 December 2007, as part of the Eureka 153 celebrations, by Dr. Anne Beggs Sunter of the University of Ballarat.

THE EUREKA Stockade brought the issue of republicanism and revolution dramatically into the public spotlight. I want to argue that republican ideas were at play in the events leading up to the Stockade, and that the Stockade became a republican symbol because it contained the stirrings of a new sense of Australian nationalism.

The Eureka Stockade incident of 3 December 1854 signalled a bold new era in Australian history. The British Government feared attempts to establish a republic in Australia — a form of government in which the monarch (Queen Victoria) was replaced by the power of the people, vested in elected representatives. On that fateful Sunday morning the British Colonial government ordered a military and police force of around 276 men to attack a party of around 150 malcontent gold diggers who had gathered behind a defensive stockade following their declaration of open resistance to the system of government administration on the goldfields.

The surprise attack by the military, very early on the Sabbath, was aimed at nipping the discontent in the bud before the cancer of  rebelliousness throughout the goldfields became a terminal disease. The operation was quick and effective. In a matter of minutes the Stockade was overrun, and in less than half an hour the miners’ flag of the Southern Cross  was torn down, the stockaders rounded up and marched off to the police camp. The government force suffered light casualties, with five soldiers dying from wounds. At least 22 stockaders died, according to official registration of deaths, although eye-witnesses suggested that more insurgents and by-standers may have died during the rampage by mounted police through the area immediately following the attack.[1]

Why did the Victorian Governor, Sir Charles Hotham, see fit to order two regiments of the British army, cannons and numerous mounted police to Ballarat, and then retrospectively approve the order to attack civilians early on the Sabbath?

Sir Charles Hotham, Governor of Victoria

Hotham had reason to believe that he was dealing with more than simple disaffection with the gold licence system. He saw signs of a rebellion against the Queen’s authority which had democratic and republican aspects. This fear is expressed in his correspondence with his superior Sir George Grey, the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London.

Hotham had a naval background, and he would have been aware of the revolutionary movements in Europe in 1848, a year of popular democratic uprising. Popular revolutions had occurred in Germany and Italy, the French Empire had been shaken, another failed Irish plot was foiled, and in England the government had to move ruthlessly to suppress the huge demonstrations supporting democratic Parliamentary reform organised by the Chartists. When Hotham arrived in gold-fever stricken Victoria in mid 1854, he immediately sensed the presence of republican and democratic sentiments from many nations amid the mass of immigrants arriving in the colony.

His phobia had been inherited from his predecessor, Joseph La Trobe, who had been presented with a monster petition from the goldfields on 1 August 1853, seeking immediate reform of government administration, the right to vote for the unrepresented diggers, and land reform.[2]  The petition - all 13 metres of it containing thousands of signatures collected throughout the Victorian goldfields - was couched in Chartist terms, and caused La Trobe to write to London warning of huge numbers of ‘politically restless’ immigrants who spoke of ‘subverting the Queen’s authority and introducing a different order of things’.[3]  The Victorian goldfields hosted Australia’s first truly multicultural population, with large numbers of Americans, Europeans and Chinese introduced into the previously fairly homogeneous British population.

These same demands were contained in the principles and objectives of the Ballarat Reform League, officially launched at a mass meeting on Bakery Hill on 11 November 1854, when upwards of 10,000 diggers gathered to express their continuing frustration with the system of goldfields administration. The architects of the League were the British Chartists George Black, Henry Holyoake, H.R. Nicholls, Thomas Kennedy and J.B. Humffray, together with the Irishmen Peter Lalor and Timothy Hayes, Canadian Charles Ross, the German Frederick Vern and the Italian Raffaello Carboni.  Their political agenda was expressed in the League’s Charter, a document assented to by the assembled crowd. It demanded the implementation of the Chartist democratic points – full and fair representation, manhood suffrage, payment of members of parliament, no property qualifications for members and short term parliaments. If these reforms were not granted, the Charter contained a threat:-
‘If Queen Victoria continues to act upon the ill advice of dishonest ministers and insists upon indirectly dictating obnoxious laws for the colony, the Reform League will endeavour to supersede such Royal prerogative by asserting that of the people, which is the most royal of all prerogatives, as the people are the only legitimate source of all political power.'’

These words contain strong republican sentiments, with echoes of the American Declaration of Independence.[4] The German Vern, who was prominent at public meetings on Bakery Hill, was described by the Argus, the leading Victorian newspaper of the time, as a ‘red republican’.[5] Henry Seekamp, editor of the newly founded Ballarat Times, editorialised on the role of the League in the 18 November 1854 edition, calling it ‘nothing less than the Germ of Australian Independence’, and for his stirring words he was later charged with seditious libel.[6] The Ballarat historian W.B. Withers refers to a declaration of independence being drafted in Ballarat during November by a group which included the American James McGill, the Italian Carboni, Englishman Alfred Black and Vern and claims that the diggers meant ‘nothing less than revolution and a republic’.[7]  H.R. Nicholls, who shared a tent in Ballarat with Alfred Black, reminisced about this declaration. He recalled that Black composed it and read it out to him, and that it was couched in ‘very flowery, verbose’ language. ‘This declaration was read at night-fall on the Friday, I think, to a number of persons under arms...and was cheered very loudly’.[8] Thus the diggers had committed themselves to independence. The influential American merchant George Francis Train even claimed to have been approached by McGill to become president of ‘our republic’.[9] Certainly there were many Americans in the goldfields, and a number were under arms at Eureka.  Sadly no copy of the declaration has survived, and its existence was subsequently denied by McGill and Carboni.[10]

At the end of November 1854 another monster meeting was called at Bakery Hill, and this time the League’s flag of the Southern Cross was unfurled from a tall mast, a most potent symbol of a new democratic spirit emerging. In describing the Eureka flag  Henry Seekamp declared ‘there is no flag in old Europe half so beautiful as the Southern Cross of the Ballarat miners’. These words were paraphrased by  Carboni in his book The Eureka Stockade, where he attributed the design to the Canadian Charles Ross, who died as a result of wounds sustained at the Stockade. The flag of the Ballarat Reform League was a large one, and must have entailed many hours of careful sewing. With its five white stars of the Southern Cross emblazoned on a blue background, it symbolised a new order in the Southern Hemisphere. Many  contemporaries referred to it as ‘the Australian flag’ including Henry Gyles Turner in Our Own Little Rebellion.[11] Irishman William Kelly wrote of the Reform League as ‘a mad movement for achieving independence from the British yoke’, describing the flag as ‘the standard of the southern hemisphere’, and theorised that the editor of the Argus had been hopeful of presiding over the new republic.[12]  The conservative Englishman George W. Rusden also condemmed ‘foreigners, making common cause with lawless ex-convicts’, who hoped to overturn the government, and described ‘a flag of insurrection’ being hoisted’.[13]

The following day at a further Bakery Hill meeting, the commander Peter Lalor asked his followers to swear an oath:
“We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”[14]

Swiss Canadian artist Charles Doudiet captures this defining moment in  Australian history in his sketch of the Bakery Hill meeting, where  immigrants from many countries swear allegiance to a new flag that unites them as citizens of Australia, beneath the Southern Cross. The flag is the centrepiece of the work, dwarfing the Government Camp in the background, drawing the eye to this new national symbol.[15]

Charles A. Doudiet: 'Swearing allegiance to the Southern Cross', Ballarat Fine Art Gallery

The flag had already acquired special meaning. According to  British historian W.P. Morrell, this combination of hoisting a flag and swearing of oaths constituted the ‘ritual of revolution’.[16]  Robin Gollan saw a state of de facto civil war prevailing.[17]

Governor Hotham, writing to Sir George Grey, described this seminal meeting

‘whereat the Australian flag of independence was solemnly consecrated and vows proffered for its defence' as part of his justification for taking  military action against the diggers.

Captain Thomas, in charge of the government forces at the attack, wrote on 3 December 1854 ‘a large number of ill-disposed persons have been organising with the undisguised object of ...subverting the government’. [18] Later Thomas refers to ‘the revolutionary flag’ flying over the Stockade before the attack,[19] and the government clerk Samuel Douglas Huyghue described it as ‘the symbol of the revolutionary League’. [20]

Among the leaders behind the Stockade were the Irishmen Peter Lalor, John Lynch and James Esmond, the Canadian Charles Ross, the Americans James McGill and Charles Ferguson, the German Frederick Vern and the Italian Raffaello Carboni. In all 17 nationalities are claimed to have been represented.[21]  The Southern Cross was a flag which united them. Although it may not have been foremost in their objectives, as L.G. Churchward summed up in his article in the Historical Studies Eureka Supplement, ‘when the crisis broke, the diggers drew on their revolutionary background’.[22]

Mark McKenna in The Captive Republic denies the republican tendencies of the stockaders, arguing that they were seeking constitutional redress of their grievances, rather than political independence.[23] However he does not discuss the significance of the flag and the oath that the diggers swore to defend it, and underestimates the seriousness of the Ballarat Reform League’s threat to assert the rights of the people. McKenna argues that ‘only afterwards did the Eureka Stockade become an expression of Australian nationalism’.[24]

Certainly after the rout of 3 December 1854, Governor Hotham was still fearful of revolution and wrote to the Governor of Tasmania requesting military assistance in case the insurgents ‘mainly foreigners’ might reassemble.[25] He issued proclamations calling on the citizens to assist in preserving social order, had martial law proclaimed in Ballarat, and posted reward notices for the rebel leaders who had escaped.  In January 1855 he wrote a secret and confidential dispatch to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, seeking money for a secret service to stem the agitation to overthrow the government and reassure loyal and well-disposed people.[26] The Secretary of State did not share Hotham’s views, and refused the request.

There were very clear signs of a revolutionary movement growing in Melbourne after the crushing of the Stockade. At the public meeting on 5 December 1854, called by the Mayor  to condemn the diggers, the meeting was taken over by radicals, who called another meeting the following day to condemn the government. At this meeting of 6,000 people, a republican constitution for Victoria was circulated.[27] Rusden speculated that staff from the Age were the authors and that the radical activist Dr. Owens hoped to be president.[28] Interestingly another contemporary in William Kelly thought the editor of the Argus hoped to be president![29]  In 1913 Henry Gyles Turner published the document as an appendix to Our Own Little Rebellion, and the following year the socialist R.S. Ross refers to it as a ‘remarkable leaflet, delineatory of the democratic impulses of the 50s’.[30]  The radical Age newspaper wrote editorials espousing a new republic, influenced by the Rev. J.D.Lang - Scottish Presbyterian turned Australian nationalist - who drafted  his own Declaration of Independence for the ‘sovereign people of Victoria’.[31]

John Dunsmore Lang

At the Eureka trials held in Melbourne early in 1855, when 13 prisoners were charged with treason, the issue of taking of oaths to a flag which was not the flag of Great Britain became a point of legal argument. The Eureka flag was produced as a key exhibit. Timothy Hayes was charged with acting under a rebellious flag which was treasonable to Queen Victoria. His defence lawyer Henry Chapman pointed out that the prosecutor, William Foster Stawell, Attorney-General of the Colony of Victoria, had also acted under a flag that did not owe homage to Queen Victoria, that flag being  the Anti-Transportation League banner flown in Melbourne in 1851.[32] This piece of legal argument helped secure the acquittal of  Hayes. Juries refused to convict any of the accused, a mark of the public sympathy for the diggers’ cause.

Later in 1855, Peter Lalor and the moral-force Chartist J.B. Humffray were elected to the Victorian Parliament as the representatives of the miners of the Ballarat district, relishing their first taste of parliamentary democracy thanks to those who fought at the Stockade. Thus Lalor, who had a price of 200 pounds for treason on his head at the beginning of 1855, ended the year as a member of the Legislative Council!

As the years passed, a powerful tradition of radicalism attached itself to the story of the Eureka Stockade. In 1888, when Australians were celebrating the centenary of white settlement of Australia,  the Bulletin of 21 January 1888, in its ‘Centennial Oration’ called for Eureka Day to be the national holiday, ‘the day that Australia set her teeth in the face of the British Lion’, instead of 26 January, ‘the anniversary of a loathsome tyranny’. Another who recalled Eureka in 1888 was William Lane, who declared that Australians ‘shall not be truly safe until we realise the aspiration that found a voice at Eureka and hoist the starry cross above a free and united Australia’.[33]

By the 1890s, with an emerging  sense of Australian nationalism, the  Eureka flag was revived again as a symbol of independence and protest.  Eureka flags appeared at a Yarra Bank meeting in Melbourne on 29 August 1890, and again at Barcaldine, Queensland in 1891, when it was flown by the striking shearers.[34]

In 1895 the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery acquired the Eureka flag from the widow of Trooper John King who had torn it from its mast at the Stockade and subsequently kept it as a souvenir after the Treason Trials of 1855. The Gallery’s founding President, James Oddie, who had  been a supporter of the ideals of the Ballarat Reform League,  recognised the torn and much abused flag as a treasured national icon.

With the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 an Australian flag was adopted, featuring a more exact depiction of the Southern Cross, although because the new Commonwealth was based on Imperial federation, the flag still featured the Union Flag

The Eureka flag continued to appear, especially from the 1930s when it was adopted by the radical left wing of the labour movement. Later the flag became the emblem of trade union groups such as the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation. Interestingly right-wing groups such as the National Front have also adopted it as their standard. In 1972 it emerged as the favoured choice  in a poll for a new national flag.[35] Michael Williss outlines many uses of the Eureka flag during the 1970s as a symbol of independence and new nationalism, for example by the Marxist student organisation, the Australian Independence Movement, which waved Eureka flags outside Parliament House on 11 November 1975 at the sacking of  Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.[36] Donald Horne recalled that this was the first time he wore a political badge -‘Independence for Australia’ - and he subsequently became a leader in a re-invigorated republican movement.[37]

Eureka has continued to cast a potent spell over historians, politicians and creative artists, generating scholarly papers, novels, plays, poems, films and art works. It has proved a difficult story to interpret to the public, though Sovereign Hill Museums has succeeded admirably in telling the story of the events in Ballarat during 1854 in its sound and light show “Blood on the Southern Cross”, which has been running continuously to packed houses every night since its inception in early 1993. This exciting experience does not however open up questions of enduring significance.

These larger questions are supposed to be probed at the Eureka Stockade centre in Ballarat, opened in March 1998, built in the immediate vicinity of the Stockade.  The aim of the Centre is to present the story of Eureka so that visitors can come to their own interpretation of its meaning. Historian Geoffrey Blainey was invited by the City of Ballarat to chair a committee which prepared the text of the exhibition. Blainey’s interpretation of Eureka had been to see it as a revolt of small capitalists,[38]  but in his 1984 history of Victoria, Our Side of the Country, he referred to the “republican flag” of the diggers in his description of events at Ballarat[39].

One of the key meanings of the Eureka Stockade revolves around national political significance. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the issue of republicanism is again high on the political  agenda, as Federation was a century ago, and as republicanism was in Victoria around the time of the Eureka Stockade.

Prime Minister Ben Chifley

In 1948 Prime Minister Ben Chifley gave his interpretation of  Eureka’s place in Australian history when he wrote:

“The permanency of Eureka  in its impact on our development was that it was the first real affirmation of our determination to be the masters of our own political  destiny.” [40]

On 3 December 1973, at the unveiling of the restored Eureka flag, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam said ‘the importance of an historical event lies not in what happened but in what later generations believe to have happened.’ He spoke of the centrality of the events of Eureka in forming a sense of national consciousness.  Most historians of republican thought would agree with Whitlam. Mark McKenna, in his history of republican ideas in Australia,  came to the conclusion that ‘although Eureka was not a republican rebellion, its subsequent function as a symbol of independence is what makes it important'.’[41] Stephen Alomes comes to more or less the same conclusion in A Nation at Last,[42] as does Tom Kenneally in his 1993  preface to  Carboni’s Eureka Stockade.

Whilst the people of Ballarat claim Eureka as their own, its symbolism is too powerful to be contained by one local community. Thanks to writers and artists of the left, it has been rescued from parochialism, and, as Chris Healy aptly puts it,  ‘incorporated into the meta-narrative of Laborism and nationalism’.[43]

In conclusion, I return again to Doudiet’s powerful image of the Bakery Hill meeting. It captures the birth of Australian nationalism, the germ of the Australian republic. The Eureka flag, the Ballarat Reform League Charter, and the Eureka oath have become the birth certificates of our nation.

[1]Wickham, Dorothy "Killed in action - Eureka" The Genealogist, March 1996, p. 209-10. 27 deaths were registered by the Ballarat Registrar on 20 June 1855. See also Ian MacFarlane's Eureka from the official records , Public Record Office of Victoria, 1995 p. 96-112

[2]Serle, Geoffrey The Golden Age, Melbourne University Press,  1968, p. 108

[3]Hotham to Grey, quoted MacFarlane, p. 4

[4] Armitage, David,  The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, Harvard University Press, 2007. Armitage was a keynote speaker at the 2006 Australian Historical Association conference in Canberra. His address was on declarations of Independence, and at question time I asked him would he accept the Ballarat Reform League charter as a declaration of independence. He was not aware of it, and I subsequently gave him details from my thesis. I am delighted to see that the Ballarat Reform League now features in his new book.

[5]The Argus, 7  November 1854, quoted in Historical Studies: Eureka Supplement 1965, p. 75

[6]MacFarlane, p. 159

[7]Withers, W.B. History of Ballarat, 2nd Edition, Niven,1887,  p. 102.

[8]Nicholls, H.R. "Reminiscences of the Eureka Stockade" in Centennial Magazine, V.2, No. 10, May 1890, p. 746

[9]Clive Turnbull 'Bonanza; the story of George Francis Train'  Australian Lives, Melbourne, Cheshire, 1965, p. 85

[10]Potts, D. and A. "American republicanism and the Victorian goldfields" Historical Studies, V.13, No. 50, April 1968, p. 155

[11]Turner, Henry Gyles Our Own Little Rebellion, Whitcombe &Tombs, 1913, p. 58

[12]William Kelly  Life in Victoria, 1858, p. 107-8, 115

[13]G.W. Rusden  History of Australia, 1883, V. 2, p. 677

[14]Carboni, Raffaello The Eureka Stockade, facsimile of 1855 edition, Melbourne University Press, 1975, p. 68

[15]Doudiet, Charles A. Australian Sketches 1852-1855,  Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. Doudiet's sketchbook came to light in 1996, having  been forgotten in a Canadian attic for 140 years. It was purchased by the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery thanks to a public appeal for funds. A facsimile of the sketchbook was published in a limited edition in 1997 by the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

[16]Morrell, W.P. The Gold Rushes, Black, 1940,  p. 243

[17]Robin Gollan  Radical and Working Class Politics, 1967, p. 30

[18]Ibid, p. 111

[19]Ibid, p. 112

[20]Ibid,  p. 19

[21]Eureka's Children is an organisation of descendants of those who fought at Eureka,

formed in 1987. From the Eureka Research Directory the range of nationalities can be gauged.

[22]Churchward, L.G. "Americans and other foreigners at Eureka" Historical Studies

Eureka Supplement, 1965, p. 86

[23]McKenna, Mark The Captive Republic; a history of Republicanism in Australia 1788-1996, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 100.

[24]Ibid, p. 102

[25]MacFarlane,  p. 31

[26]Hotham, 27 January 1855, to Sec. of State for Colonies. in Australian Joint Copying Project, Handbook, Part 8, Miscellaneous Series, 3rd ed., Canberra, 1988, Hotham Papers, M2655.

[27]Geoffrey Serle  The Golden Age Carlton, MUP, 1963, p. 169ff.

[28]Rusden  A History of Victoria, V. 2, p. 696

[29]Kelly  Life in Victoria, p. 115

[30]Turner, Henry, and R.S. Ross Eureka; Freedom's Fight of '54,  Fraser & Jenkinson, 1914, p. 130

[31]Serle, G. p. 178-9; Lang had earlier written a republican treatise in Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia, London, Longman, 1852.

[32]Eureka Treason Trials; Queen v. Joseph, p. 43ff (transcript in the Supreme Court Library, Melbourne):  Patricia Fitzgerald Ratcliff (ed.) John West's Union of the Colonies, Launceston, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, 2000, p. 9-11

[33]Moore, Andrew 'A Nordenfelt at every woolshed' in Staining the Wattle, McPhee Gribble, 1988, p. 49

[34]Fox, Len The Eureka Flag, 1992,  p. 33

[35]Grassby, Al. "Echoes of Eureka: in Gold, G. (ed.) Eureka; Rebellion beneath the Southern Cross,  Rigby, 1977, p. 86

[36]Williss, Michael and Geoffrey Gold 'The Heritage of Eureka' in  Gold, G. (ed.) Eureka; Rebellion beneath the Southern Cross,  Rigby, 1977, p. 91-108.

[37]Donald Horne  Death of the Lucky Country, Melbourne, 1976, p. 74; Nation Review, 18 June, 1976, p. 875

[38]Geoffrey Blainey  The Rush that never ended, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 1978, p. 50-58

[39]Geoffrey Blainey Our Side of the Country, North Ryde, Methuen, 1984, p. 45, 134

[40]Foreword to Leslie Haylan's play Blood on the Wattle,  Angus and Robertson, 1948

[41] McKenna,  The Captive Republic, p. 97.

[42]Alomes, Stephen A Nation at Last? Angus & Robertson, 1988, p. 13

[43]Healy, Chris "Battle memories" in  From the ruins of Colonialism; history as social memory. Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 154.  
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