3rd December 1854 The Eureka Stockade

Eureka Insurgents swear allegiance to the Southern Cross

The history of Australia shares many key similarities with America – colonialisation, multi-cultural settlement and genocidal atrocities meted out on its indigenous peoples. But colonial Australia, unlike America, was not distinguished by legendary rebellions and revolution. In fact, the event we recall today – the Eureka Stockade or Rebellion of 1854 – was Australia’s first and only armed insurrection against colonial tyranny. Considered the Down Under equivalent of the Boston Tea Party, this relatively small uprising of disgruntled gold miners protesting against crippling taxes enforced by over-zealous police prompted Mark Twain, whilst visiting in 1895, to describe the Eureka Stockade as: “The finest thing in Australia’s history. It was a revolution small in size, but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression… it is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle.” With no further spirited acts of rebellion to capture the imagination of modern Australians in the 100-years-plus since Twain’s glowing endorsement, Republican lobbyists have revived the Eureka Stockade as the ancestral embodiment of their movement in an effort to bolster national identity, with calls for the insurgents’ Southern Cross flag – famously hand-crafted by the miners’ wives – to replace the well-known Union Jack/Commonwealth Star. The authors of Imagining Australia: Ideas for our Future, assert that Eureka “offers great potential to a nation floundering for a national story.” Indeed, Eureka has been described as the event that heralded the birth of Australian democracy. So let’s take a closer look at this curiously noteworthy rebellion…

When the richest gold field the world had ever known was discovered in 1851 just outside of Melbourne, immigrants poured in from all over the world to seek their fortune; in just three years, the population of the colony of Victoria rose from 80,000 to 300,000. It wasn’t long before the opportunistic British governors doubled the cost of a mining licence, established a gentrified Gold Commission, and introduced heavy-handed licence checks. The incensed miners – many of whom had been involved in militant actions in their homelands – in turn established a Reform League, which quickly escalated into a full-scale revolt. The rebels built a stockade, unfurled their famous flag and took the following oath: “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and to defend our rights and liberties.” On December 3rd 1854, the 40th Military Regiment launched a dawn attack on the ramshackle Eureka Stockade, and crushed the insurgents in minutes – resulting in the deaths of 22 miners and six soldiers.

The rebellion’s spectacular failure might have ended there, had the British not hoisted themselves with their own petard. Thirteen rebel leaders were brought to trial for high treason, but the jury found that the Eureka Stockade had been a riot and not a revolt. And so, under the law, one by one all the defendants were acquitted and the Governor was forced to grant amnesty to all rebels in hiding. Within a year, the hated licence fees were scrapped, miners were given the vote and the colony acquired a democratically elected parliament.

It was a stunning and unlikely political victory, and one that would inspire a genuinely heroic episode in Australian history: the women’s suffrage movement of the 1880s and 1890s.

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3 Responses to 3rd December 1854 – The Eureka Stockade

  1. Cool article Dorian. The eureka stockade was indeed an important rebellion in Australia’s history and it’s important to note that the Southern Cross flag used by the miners has also been adopted since by unions all over the country as a symbol of worker’s solidarity…it’s also unfortunately becoming a bit of a racist symbol used by anti-immigration arseholes Australia-wide.

    It’s important to note too that Australia’s revolutionary history is much younger than other post-colonial nations and the stockade is by no means the only such rebellion against the man here down under. Our black heritage is peppered with Aboriginal people tired of the bullshit of colonial and post-colonial governments. I think it is incredibly important to read about the work of land rights activist Eddie Mabo. Also in my own homestate of Queensland we lived under fascist rule essentially throughout the 70s and 80s and the student uprisings of the time were in many ways pivotal in bringing about the dominance of our more liberal and left-leaning governments since and its affect on our culture, particularly our music, is monumental. All and sundry should read a fantastic book called Pig City if you haven’t already. Particularly if you’re a big Go-Betweens fan!

    Even in recent years aboriginal people have stood up against the ghost of colonialism. For instance, after the death in custody of an innocent man at the hands of Queensland Policemen on Palm Island, the local aboriginal people rose up against the police and burned down their compound. The backlash is still sending reverberations throughout the community today and the silence orders pushed upon its main instigator should ring alarm bells to all revolutionary people. On a larger scale the awful Howard administration of the late 90s and early naughties instigated a large-scale “intervention” in remote territories in the North of Australia…banning booze, drugs in order to stop alleged child abuse all whilst quietly stealing more land for mining companies to rape freely. We Australians definitely need to rise up more often to stop this sort of revolting corruption!!

    • Kitty says:

      Right on Adam. We certainly seem a passive bunch these days, or maybe just lazy and comfortably ignorant. I have found that any form or hint of dissent is still either ignored, placated or dismissed by the masses, especially when you live in small town, red neck Oz. The only time aborigines get any attention is when our local Mayor needs a photo opportunity. I have tried on several occasion to get the council to fly the aboriginal flag but get no support from the white community or our civic ‘leaders’. Meanwhile the Australian flag is flown from most homes around these parts of South Aust.

      Heads still in the sand on Climate Change, we are sold out under the banner of what’s best for the economy. We recently had a day of national climate action and reports of 60,000 turning out to events. Inspiring and empowering and keeps some of us juiced up for the peaceful revolution that must come.

      Being a big Go Between fan, I will be reading Pig City.

      Thanks for your post from Oz. Good to know there are others out there banging the drum of dissent.

      • Lizzy says:

        Although I know many union members in Australia adopt the flag as a symbol of solidarity in the spirit of Eureka, the Southern Cross symbol/Eureka flag has had long history of dubious connotations particularly in regards to anti-immigration militancy & violence (i.e. 1860s NSW goldfields & anti-Chinese attacks.) Racist arseholes using the southern cross symbol aren’t anything new, they’ve been around from the beginning. So much depends on subjectivity & cultural viewpoint, and as we know, a symbol can mean different things to different people.
        On indigenous flags: Most local government councils in Victoria display the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, as does the Commonwealth, this is an addition to having an acknowledgement of country statement incorporated in proceedings. But then of course there’s a difference between lip service and sincerity…

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