An Australia guided by the spirit of the Eureka Tradition as symbolised by the diggers' flag and oath:
"We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties"

150th Anniversary of Eureka Stockade: R.D.Walshe

Eureka's Great Gains – and Unfinished Business
Eureka 1854-2004: Reappraising an Australian Legend
Public Symposium organised by the Cultural Heritage Unit
Department of History, the University of Melbourne
Wednesday 1 December 2004
Address by R.D.Walshe, Secretary, Sydney Eureka Centenary Committee 1954

Mr Chairman, thank you for inviting me. You know, when I recently picked up a book to get my head back to where it was 50 years ago, the first page told me of Melbournians wildly celebrating – at last! – the separation of Port Phillip District from the 'tyranny of New South Wales'… So, yes, thank you for inviting me.

I want to fill a metaphorical glass and 'toast the days of gold' with Henry Lawson and the many Australians since who've known that the 1850s was the most exciting decade in Australian history – truly 'the Roaring Days' – and Eureka its finest hour!

Ah, then their hearts were bolder,
And if Dame Fortune frowned
Their swags they'd lightly shoulder
And tramp to other ground.
O they were lion-hearted
Who gave our country birth:
O they were of the stoutest sons
From all the lands on earth.

I want to reflect on three themes that have jelled in my mind across the 50 years since I was Secretary of Sydney's 100th Anniversary Committee. I'll call these the Dynamics, the Democracy, the Drama of Eureka – so, here's a 3-D offering. Please realise that to fit into 20 minutes, I've cut what I'd like to say to half.

Have you thought, as I have, that the very word eureka is intriguing? I've asked myself, Why did this incredible event happen on Ballarat's Eureka lead and not on another – say, Black Hill, Canadian Gully or the Gravel Pits? Nothing comes to the tongue more trippingly than Eureka Stockade. Could you imagine for even a moment that we'd be here today celebrating the Gravel Pits Stockade? Or even the Bakery Hill Stockade?

And why, for that matter, did it happen at Ballarat and not at another of a dozen goldfields – Bendigo most obviously, with its long militant record? And these questions have kept me going back to an older puzzlement, back to the land that gave us eureka, to ask, Why Athens? Why did that incredible event, Athenian democracy, blaze up in the Athenian city-state when there were hundreds of other city-states?

Why Greece's Athens, why Victoria's Ballarat, why Ballarat's Eureka?... And how curious that the common denominator in all three is DEMOCRACY… As we shall see.

Dynamic that lies behind the Eureka story

Merely to list the events leading up to Eureka and call them 'Causes of Eureka' is no explanation at all. But that question Why at Ballarat? can carry us to the heart of explanation. So, fortified by William James' advice that 'The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook', I suggest we need look no earlier than September 13, 1854.

That's when the authoritarian British Governor Sir Charles Hotham spurned three years of non-violent appeals for reform of the harsh gold licence tax and the corrupt goldfields policing of the tax and invoked institutionalised violence by ordering twice-a-week instead of once-a-month licence checks – 'digger hunts'! To that point all the goldfields had simmered with resentment. But then, within a month of the harsh new regime, a quite random event focused the discontent on Ballarat – and for the first time brought that word eureka to public notice. I refer of course to the murder of the Scottish digger James Scobie outside the Eureka Hotel on October 7.

In the aftermath, the Government Camp was seen by the Ballarat community to be covering up for the murderer. There followed a big and angry protest meeting; the Hotel was burnt down by an individual act of arson; all the diggers were blamed for the fire; three arbitrary arrests were made – scapegoats; and Commissioner Rede wrote to Melbourne suggesting he should be permitted to teach the diggers' radical movement 'a frightful lesson'. Hotham was secretly in sympathy with Rede's view because – as was only revealed after Hotham's death by his secretary – the British Government had intimated to him when appointing him that drastic enforcement of the licence tax might well be needed.

That mass meeting of 10,000 on October 17 was to be followed by many similar Ballarat meetings – from 5-15,000 diggers at each – an astonishing proportion of Ballarat's population.

Now, these meetings were democracy in action, direct democracy of the kind practised by Athenian citizens at their open-air meetings. And notice that the hard-fought decisions of these many 'monster meetings', as they were called, were all on the side of non-violence, of moral force rather than physical force, right up to the last of the meetings, on November 30.

But notice too that while the diggers were publicly and democratically formulating their policies, the authorities were operating quite differently. They – the Governor, Executive Council, Ballarat Goldfields Commission, and Military Command, with ample funds, troops, police, weapons and ammunition – they were operating secretly, furtively. They instituted a secret code between Melbourne and Ballarat, they had shorthand writers take notes at digger meetings, they sent spies to mingle with the diggers, and on December 1 and 2 they plumbed the depths of the contemptible by sending agents provocateurs among the diggers inciting them to attack the Government Camp so that the diggers would be wrongfooted as initiators of violence. All this is evidence that the authorities were intent on a powerful attack on the diggers' movement. And as if that weren't enough, Hotham would write soon after the Stockade asking the British Colonial Office for special funds to set up a secret police network to enter community organisations in search of sedition (a request London to its credit turned down).

An act of official provocation was what pushed the diggers to move from years of non-violent protest to armed defence and defiance… A big public meeting on Bakery Hill, November 29, 10-15,000 present, with the Southern Cross flag flying for the first time, heard the report of a diggers' deputation that two days before had urged Governor Hotham to release the three diggers who'd been scapegoated. When the meeting heard that Hotham had again said NO, anger rose to fury. Little wonder a radical motion of the meeting received strong support – Let's burn the hated licences! Defiant that, but not illegal, and a number of licences were publicly burnt. The police and the shorthand writers around the meeting retired to their Camp without finding cause to make an arrest. BUT their superiors at the Camp were now irritated, perplexed – frustrated by the diggers' non-violence!

At that point of a tension-filled stand-off on the night of November 29, if Hotham had taken no provocative action, just as previous Governor Charles La Trobe had not reacted violently a year before to a powerful protest by the Bendigo diggers, the Bakery Hill protest movement – as yet, remember, adhering scrupulously to non-violence – would likely have scattered without incident.

Now, I want to observe that everything that had happened at Ballarat to this point (the afternoon of November 29) was not different in kind from the protest-and-response happenings on other goldfields.

The difference came in a decision made that evening at the Government Camp – by Commissioner Rede and two military officers, Thomas and Pasley, all three knowing they had Hotham's backing – a decision to stage a military-style sweep of the goldfield next day by soldiers and cavalry, foot and mounted police, the biggest digger-hunt ever, no doubt to catch diggers who had burnt their licences, BUT, more importantly, to show who was in charge… Which was what duly happened next morning, 11 o'clock, Thursday November 30.

The aggressiveness of the operation outraged Ballarat. On many lips was that other Greek word 'tyranny' (from tyrannikos), and quite spontaneously hundreds of diggers began moving to the customary meeting place on Bakery Hill.

For all the spontaneity, they were certainly not a rabble. They were men who'd been well-informed by the many mass meetings of the previous seven weeks, democratic meetings, Athens-style, where every man had equal power to attend, speak, vote – direct democracy. And it had sunk in that the newchum Governor was a British autocrat, that his local officials were corrupt, that his unjust licence system was staying, and that now he had refused to release the three scapegoated diggers.

The mass meetings had made Ballarat a remarkably well-informed community with, I suggest, a higher rate of active participation than has been seen in any protracted Victorian campaign since – seven weeks of meetings when Ballarat was Athens in the Antipodes!

Think of the mind-set as those diggers streamed in their hundreds to Bakery Hill. They were now keenly aware that the years of law-abiding protest had been trampled. They'd followed 'moral force' non-violent leaders and there was nothing to show – things had got worse. In the angry meeting that afternoon, the mood was overwhelmingly for taking up arms in defence and building a barricade in defence behind which they could take refuge from the intensified digger-hunts – in other words they felt they'd been forced to threaten force against official force which was being asserted unjustly, tyrannically. How else were they to cope with digger-hunts of this accelerated kind?

What a moment that was! Here was an extreme decision, made at an open meeting. It was a critical moment in history like others before it when great events impend and attention rivets on a leadership, as we need to do in trying to answer the questions Why Ballarat? and Why the Stockade at Eureka?

As to Eureka, the leaders decided that because Bakery Hill was within view of the Government Camp, the barricade should be sited on safer ground; so from Ballarat's thousands of acres a single acre of high ground was chosen on the Eureka lead – not far, by the way, from the charred ruins of the hotel. The move was made and thus Eureka just made it, by three days, before the clinching event, and by doing so the Eureka lead narrowly avoided being remembered only for a murder, an arson, and three arbitrary arrests!

As to the larger question Why Ballarat? let's keep in mind the specific Ballarat relevance of the morning's provocative digger-hunt and the specific relevance too of Ballarat's seven intense weeks of mass meetings. Now let's add the specific relevance of the leaders of the Ballarat diggers. Some were remarkable men. They'd been sorted out by the long period of public meetings – so different from leaders of later times imposed from above by party machines. These leaders were all independents!

They shared many convictions, but they could also differ sharply, as about 'moral force' versus 'physical force'. When the moral force men who'd led till then were at last brushed aside on that angry afternoon, they remained sympathetic as observers only or they helped at the margins. Overall, this had been a leadership that generated creativity and flair – think of the flag, the oath, the stockade and, back of those, the democratic program of the Ballarat Reform League. Even so, the leaders, with the Stockade in construction, turned first to negotiation; they appointed a deputation of three on that crowded evening of November 30 in a bid to get talks going with Commissioner Rede – and he totally rebuffed them, just as Hotham had rebuffed a similar deputation four days earlier!

Well, as we know, the clincher came with the dawn of Sunday, December 3 in that furtive assault on the Stockade by some 300 fully equipped soldiers and police. They were of course victorious over the Stockade's 150 sleeping men who'd scratched together perhaps eighty assorted muskets and pistols, a few rounds of ammunition for each, and pike-heads tied to poles.

Mr Chairman, in summary, I've sought the answer to the question Why Ballarat? in four Ballarat-specific acts of Governor-instigated aggression and four Ballarat-specific digger responses to that aggression.

The four aggressions that rode roughshod over the diggers' non-violent protests were:
  1. The 8-fold acceleration of digger-hunts, September 13.
  2. The scapegoating arrests of the three diggers, October 21.
  3. The provocative military-style digger-hunt, November 30.
  4. The full-scale military assault on the Stockade, December 3.

Contrast that with at least four responses to those aggressions:
  1. The 7-weeks of frequent, democratic public meetings.
  2. A leadership able to refine the values of the diggers with a program of non-violent resistance.
  3. Respect won by leaders that brought Lalor unchallenged to that stump on November 30.
  4. The final near-consensus that defensive arming had been thrust upon them.

Democracy that surrounds the Eureka story

Turning from the DYNAMICS behind the Eureka story to the DEMOCRACY that surrounds it – we're dealing with the most carelessly used word in the English language. Without a definition, how can you or I decide whether what we call democracy was 'born at Eureka', was 'on its way before Eureka', 'was delivered later by a Eureka-initiated movement', or 'was something significantly less than Athens' direct democracy'?
I've found that no one who's spoken of 'Australian democracy' has troubled to say, 'Here's the date – the occasion – on which Australia has achieved it'. Not a single school curriculum tells the young.

In my written paper, I'll start with a definition – drawn from Athenian direct democracy: its essence was the EQUAL VOTING POWER of all free citizens, the power to attend, speak and vote entirely equally with other citizens at large open-air meetings.

I'll trace the scattered and ineffectual state of the radical/liberal/democratic elements in Victoria and New South Wales right up to the 1850s – which enabled Governor, squatters and the urban wealthy to rule the roost. BUT when shiploads of gold-seekers began flooding in, this elite became deeply afraid, and what they were afraid of was DEMOCRACY!

So they rushed a calculatedly anti-democratic Constitution to Britain for assent. They were conforming with Britain's strategy of responsible-self-government-within-the-Empire, devised after the 1837 Canadian Rebellion to prevent loss of another North American colony… Essentially how? By 'securing the collaboration of a colonial elite in the perpetuation of imperial rule' (Phillip A.Bruckner). Such an Australian elite was acceptable to Britain by 1852 in the form not only of the squatters but also of a now rapidly growing urban upper class of merchants, bankers and other wealthy elements.

Eureka spoiled the party! It erupted midway between the sending off of the draft Constitution (March 1854) and receiving it back (October 1855). Eureka precipitated a movement that would clamour for drastic liberal and democratic changes to the new Constitution. You'll know that the two big Melbourne meetings two and three days after the Stockade really, historically speaking, turned the Eureka defeat into a victory. As Geoffrey Serle says of the meeting on the December 6: it "marked the emergence at last and in strength of the popular democratic movement, and in the long run made capitulation to the diggers' movement almost certain".

I will show that the shift of epicentre of Victorian dissidence from Ballarat to Melbourne was a shift from the direct democracy of the diggers' open-air meetings to the need to devise a system of representative parliamentarism for all Victoria that might be worthy of the name 'democracy'.

The problem of representation would be at the forefront of issues in the decades ahead. And it hasn't gone away. How could something like Athens' EQUAL VOTING POWER OF ALL CITIZENS be achieved by a representative parliament? That question is a caution, a challenge, to anyone who would speak glibly of 'Australian democracy'. Better we speak of a system of representative parliamentarism because, from Eureka to today, there have been voices of dissent calling attention to limits on a citizen's equality of voting power, limits such as

  Politicians, once elected, tend to serve personal or party interests;
  Economic inequality puts unequal power in the hands of the wealthy;
  The opinion-forming media are in the hands of the very wealthy;
  The major parties, not the people, run the political agenda;
  Developers enjoy privileged influence on parties through donations.

You will, I'm sure, think of others.

Drama that lights up the Eureka story

Finally, on the DRAMA that lights up the Eureka story… Eureka is remarkable for its abundant colourful elements – a major reason why it grows unstoppably as an Australian legend precious to Australians who know there is always a need to defend and enhance freedoms. Among its elements of high drama:

A flag… stunningly beautiful: Eureka's most graphic symbol, Australia's most enduring symbol.

A bonfire… not Bentley's Hotel, but the ceremonial burning of the hated licences.

A stockade… not just a barrier or barricade, but a stockade – which captures the imagination.

An oath… brilliantly chosen words that express the historic resolve of all oppressed peoples.

A battle… one-sided, yet dramatic: uniformed imperial power against men in working clothes.

A victory… amazingly, a defeat which within days turned into a victory as a popular movement took up the diggers' cause.

Can you think of any other event in Australian history that rivals the drama and symbolism of Eureka?

In conclusion. I hope you'll judge my three themes well-chosen:

The DYNAMIC that lies behind the Eureka story shows that institutional arrogance and repeated violence were on the Government side, while the majority of the diggers' leaders were 'moral force' men right up to the calculated provocation by Government on November 30.

The DEMOCRACY that surrounds the Eureka story shows the democratic ideal through the direct democracy of the diggers' mass meetings, and shows the Stockade served to launch the democratic movement aimed at improvement of representative parliamentarism which continues to this day.

The DRAMA that lights up the Eureka story claims more dramatic elements than any other single event in Australian history.

150th Anniversary of Eureka Stockade: Nation-wide Celebrations

'Starry blue-and-white banners were flown. Songs of freedom were sung. Wreaths of remembrance were laid. And old arguments were reactivated as academics and anarchists, unionists and bosses, conservatives and radicals, the righteous and the ratbags all gathered to have their say.
' Indeed, for a people who are said to display little interest in their history, Australians yesterday commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade in considerable numbers and with surprising passion.
'The Southern Cross flag under which some 30 diggers and six soldiers fought and died on the morning of December 3, 1854, was raised above parliaments and town halls across the nation.' – John Huxley, 'New generation raises rebels' starry banner', Sydney Morning Herald, December 4-5, 2004.

'The magnificent Eureka flag flew everywhere yesterday, even in Canberra, the political citadel of our monarchist Prime Minister. It marched in blue and white twin lines of 50 and 60 down the two great avenues, Commonwealth and Kings, that radiate north, across Lake Burley Griffin, from the nation's Parliament. All over our federal capital, it seemed, Eureka fluttered, on a hot, inland Australian day.' – Alan Ramsey, Sydney Morning Herald, December 4-5, 2004.