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Spirit for a Fair Go
In Australia today, there is no more fitting emblem of the spirit of a Fair Go than the Eureka flag. It stands as the powerful symbol of resistance to injustice.
Wherever the battle lines are drawn in industrial disputes you'll find the Eureka flag flying high on the Picket Lines. And when the workers and their supporters take to the streets to demonstrate in support of justice, we march proudly behind the Eureka flag.
Since it was first raised at the miners Stockade 150 years ago, the Southern Cross of Eureka has come to embody everything that is best in the Australian character; courage, conviction and a commitment to a Fair Go.
For mineworkers, we cherish the spirit of Eureka. For us, the Eureka miners rebellion is not a far off historical clash that occurred 150 years ago and is frozen in time; it is alive in our struggles today.
The burning rage against injustice that fired the Eureka miners 150 years ago, remains undiminished in our struggles today.
There is nothing we wear with greater pride than the symbol of Eureka. There is nothing we cherish more than the proud independent spirit of Eureka.
As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade on 3 December 1854, it is fitting to recall the events that led to this uprising and the benefits that flowed to all Australians as a result of it.
The Eureka Story
In 1851 gold was discovered in a number of places across central Victoria sparking a gold rush that attracted people from not only all over Australia but from all over the world.
By 1854 there were almost 70,000 men, women and children living on the Victorian goldfields chasing their fortune.
By then, the easy surface gold was exhausted and the miners burrowed into the hillsides and gullies. The workings became known as diggings and those that mined them were Australia first diggers.
The rush to the gold fields created a huge shortage of labour as workers left the factories, wharves and industries in search of their fortune. This greatly concerned the captains of industry who not only had to contend with a shortage in the workforce but had to deal with increased demands from the workers who remained and who had real industrial muscle.
At the behest of the employers, the Governor of Victoria, Sir Charles Hotham, moved to force workers out of the gold fields and back to the cities.
On the gold fields there were no civic institutions or any democratic representation. They were ruled by a Government appointed quasi-military Gold Commission, whose aristocratic officials lorded it over the miners and their families.
The Government collected revenue on the gold fields through a 'Miners Licence', which entitled the holder to a single 3.6 metre square 'claim' for a flat monthly fee of 30 shillings.
Hotham knew that many of those in the Ballarat diggings did not have a miners licence. Up to the middle of September 1854, the search for licences occurred about once a month.
Hotham ordered that license hunts become the order of the day. He boosted his police force with coppers from as far away as Tasmania and ordered that fines be substantially increased to five pounds for a first 'offence' ten pounds for a second and fifteen pounds for a third. To ensure that the police vigorously pursed the attack, Hotham cleverly ordered that half the value of every fine be given to the arresting copper.
Under the control of the Gold Commission on the mining fields, the authorities unleashed a wave of tyranny. Miners who had licences but did not have them on them as they worked their claim were arrested and fined.
Arrested miners were taken to police camps and chained to logs or gum trees or flung into filthy prisons until he or his mates found the money to pay the fines. The coppers grew more greedy and ruthless and resentment among the miners fermented throughout the gold fields, nowhere more powerfully than the mining region of Ballarat, which had a population of some 25,000, including immigrants from Ireland, North America, Britain, Europe and China.
In contrast to the miners quarters, a more respectable permanent settlement was growing up around the Government Camp, from where the Resident Gold Commissioner, Robert Rede, exercised absolute authority over the diggings, an authority which was enforced by a large contingent of police and backed up by a military garrison.
Two events in October 1854 lit the fuse that exploded into the Eureka Rebellion.
The first was the wrongful arrest during a licence hunt of a crippled non-English speaking Armenian servant of the local Catholic Priest, Father Smyth. The crippled man was subsequently convicted of assaulting a police officer!
The second occurred when a miner, James Scobie, was killed by the owner of the Eureka Hotel, James Bentley, and three of his men. Bentley and his cronies were acquitted, an injustice that outraged the diggers.
The murdered digger Scobie's claim was next to that of Peter Lalor, an Irishman who was greatly respected as a leader by the miners.
Lalor, whose brother James Fintan was a leader of the Young Irelanders rebellion in Ireland, had spoken out against the injustices and tyranny unleashed on the gold fields.
He said that the diggers were treated like dogs. He pointed out that they had no vote, no chance to get land for themselves and that none of the money from their licence taxes was spend on roads, schools, hospitals or other facilities for their families. We must make the Government realise we're free Australians, Lalor demanded.
A protest meeting against the acquittal of those who had murdered James Scobie was called for 17 October at the Eurkea Hotel. Bentley went to Commissioner Rede who determined to assert Government authority and teach the diggers a lesson. Rede called in troop reinforcements.
On 17 October, a crowd of 4,000 gathered near the Eureka Hotel, which was surrounded by the hated police. Despite this the meeting was conducted peacefully and it passed two resolutions. The first said: "That this meeting pledges itself to use lawful means to have the Bentley case tried again". The second resolution said: "That this meeting offer a reward for the conviction of James Scobie's murderers".
As the meeting was breaking up the police rode into the crowd trying to herd them away. Inside the Eureka Hotel, the owner, Bentley, panicked and mounting a horse in sight of the angry miners rode full gallop towards the police camp.
The crowd had now swollen to around 10,000 and moved toward the Eureka Hotel to be confronted by Commissioner Rede. Despite Rede's and the heavy police presence the Eureka Hotel was burned to the ground.
Seven men were arrested and charged.
In response, Governor Hotham decided to take a hard line and ordered 500 extra police and soldiers to Ballarat. Hotham demanded more of the detested licence hunts ordering the police to use whatever force they felt was necessary.
On 22 October a crowd estimated at 10,000 miners gathered at Bakery Hill directly across the flat from the Government Camp, on the road to the predominantly Irish area of Eureka. The colonial authorities were on notice, resistance to injustice was increasing and would not be cowered by inflicting even greater tyranny. On 1 November, the Ballarat Reform League was formed.
Meanwhile in Ballarat, four of the seven men arrested for burning down the Eureka Hotel were found innocent and the other three were sent to Melbourne, convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three-months to six-months.
Throughout the next month the leadership of the Reform League sought meetings with Gold Commissioner Rede and Governor Hotham to discuss Bentley's acquittal and the jailing of the three Eureka men as well as broader issues such as the abolition of the licence, democratic representation of the gold fields and the disbanding of the reviled Gold Commissions.
As public condemnation of the injustices grew, so too did Governor Hotham's concern and he appointed one of the State's most respected Magistrates, Mr Stuart, to review the Bentley acquittals. Stuart found that the Ballarat Magistrate Dewes - who acquitted Bentley and his cohorts - and some police were not only liars but were brutal and wicked and that Bentley was undoubtably guilty of Scobie's murder.
Bentley and two of his henchmen were sentenced on 18 November to three years hard labour for the murder of James Scobie.
But that was all that the miners were going to get from Hotham. Their three mates remained in jail and the Governor remained opposed to their demands for reform.
The colonial powers in Melbourne and on the Ballarat gold fields remained determined to impose their rule by force.
On 28 November, military reinforcements from Melbourne to the gold fields were attacked by a group of miners at Eureka. Baggage carts were overturned and a number of men were injured in the clash.
The following day, 29 November, at a mass meeting of some 12,000 miners on Bakery Hill, the Southern Cross flag was flown for the first time.
The moderate leadership of the Ballarat Reform League reported on their failure to make any significant progress in their talks with Governor Hotham.
The diggers had had enough.
Pushing his way through the crowd to the platform a miner named Frederick Vern said he want to speak. He moved that the diggers burn their licences and that no one take out a new one. Further, if any of the miners were arrested they rest pledged to free them.
Beneath the flag of the Southern Cross to the sound of their own guns firing, the miners burned their licences.
Commissioner Rede's spies brought him the news and he responded by ordering a licence hunt the next day, 30 November. They targeted the diggings closest to the police camp and eight miners were arrested.
Following the raid thousands of miners made their way to Bakery Hill where Peter Lalor, rifle in hand, stood on a tree stump.
Lalor told all those who were there and who could not swear an oath of allegiance to the Southern Cross, to leave. Those who stayed formed into formations and with the Southern Cross hoisted on a flagstaff, Peter Lalor, now commander in chief, knelt beneath the flowing flag and led the diggers in their oath - "We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties".
With Lalor at the head the miners selected other leaders and various divisions were established. The rebel miners marched to the Eureka. Pikes were forged and firearms, provisions and horses were organised.
Drilling commenced and miners displayed their new found strength within sight of the police camp.
That night the rebel miners leaders met and decided to send a delegation of three to see Commissioner Rede to demand that the eight diggers arrested that morning be released. They also sought an end to licence hunts. The three representatives were Raffaello Carboni, George Black and the Catholic Priest, Father Smyth. They went into a heavily guarded policy camp where Rede dismissed their demands.
All the next day, Friday 1 December, and throughout the next day, the rebels constructed a defensive fortification - a stockade at Eureka built of slabs, logs and other oddments. In reality it was no more than a rough fence that provided little protection.
Inside it was about an acre of ground on which were tents. About 500 men were marching and drilling while the Southern Cross flag flew over the stockade.
News of the brewing storm spread throughout the Victorian gold fields as diggers from other areas began to make their way to Eureka.
Rede's spies reported the secret Eureka Stockade password - "Vinegar Hill", to the authorities. The password was a tribute to the first convict uprising at Vinegar Hill near Sydney in 1804 where the colonial authorities brutally murdered dozens of poorly armed Irish convict rebels. Their leaders were hanged in chains and most of the survivors sentenced to between 200 and 500 lashes and sent to work in the colony's first convict coal mines.
The Vinegar Hill historical connection would have greatly alarmed the colonial authorities who feared that the Eureka miners might spark a widespread rebellion throughout the goldfields. The authorities were determined to nip it in the bud as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, in the centre of the stockade a huge bonfire was lit and a makeshift kitchen was established to feed the men.
At noon on Saturday 2 December, no attack had come and most miners began to leave the stockade planning to come back on the Monday.
By Saturday night only 150 miners remained at the stockade. Rede's spies were reporting regularly. They knew the miners ranks were thin that night and that they were poorly armed.
At 2am on Sunday 3 December, the Government troops mustered quietly outside the police camp for their surprise assault on the 150 poorly armed miners in the Eureka Stockade.
The Government forces were made up of: 152 infantry soldiers; 30 cavalry; 74 mounted police; 24 foot police; and five inspectors.
At 3am when the attack began most of the Eureka miners were asleep.
The uneven fight lasted between 15 and 20 minutes.
At the end of the battle, among the 22 stockaders killed and the 12 wounded were Peter Lalor and 19 of his fellow Irishmen. With the exception of one miner identified as being from New South Wales, all the others were immigrants.
On the Government side there were four killed and 12 wounded.
Peter Lalor later paid tribute to the courage of the Eureka diggers in the face of overwhelming odds. "There were about 70 men possessing guns, 30 with pikes and 30 more with pistols, but each man had no more than one or two rounds of ammunition".
Most of the Eureka stockaders were taken prisoner while some escaped. A number of tents within and around the Eureka Stockade were burned. The exact number of miners killed and wounded is not known.
Peter Lalor was wounded in the shoulder and lay hidden beneath some slabs. Although he escaped most of the other leaders were killed but 13 were arrested, including Carboni Raffaello, and charged with treason.
Martial law was declared.
However, the Government's military victory was short lived. There was a massive outburst of public indignation and anger over the slaughter at Eureka.
Massive public meetings in Melbourne rocked Governor Hotham and the colonial authorities throughout Australia as the people condemned them and honoured the rebels.
In early 1855, just months after the Stockade, all 13 of the Eureka rebels tried for treason, , were acquitted to great public acclaim.
The Governor was forced by public opinion to establish a commission of enquiry into the administration of the gold fields and it was scathing in its criticism of the authories.
In the following months, most of the miners demands were granted. The Miner's Licence was replaced by an export duty on gold and a Miner's Right, which cost a small annual fee. The detested all-powerful gold commissioners were replaced by mining wardens. Police numbers on the gold fields were cut drastically.
Within a year, the rebel miners leader Peter Lalor was representing Ballarat in the Victorian State Legislative Council. After the establishment of the Legislative Assembly in 1856, Peter Lalor was elected as an MP and later became the Speaker of the Parliament.
But the Eureka Stockade did much more than usher in a new era of important reforms in Victoria, it reverberated throughout the whole of Australia and sparked the introduction of many reforms democratic rights for ordinary people throughout Australia.
Within 17 years of the Eureka Stockade the following important laws were passed in Australia ahead of their introduction in Britain:
1856 - Australia introduces Secret Voting at elections. England did not follow until 1872.
1857 - Australia introduces the right for every man to vote. England followed in 1884.
1857 - In Australia a man no longer had to own property to vote. England followed in 1858.
1858 - Australia introduces a short period of Parliament for every three years. England introduces a five-year Parliament in 1911.
1871 - Australia introduces payment of Members of Parliament allowing workers and other in the community equal opportunities to stand. England follows suit in 1911.
The events of Eureka in 1854 were pivotal in Australia's history for democratic rights and a Fair Go for all.
It is the courage and commitment of the diggers at Eureka that we salute. It is their determination for fight against the odds for what they knew was right that inspires us today.
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