Friday, 15 February 2013

Settler Australia, 1780-1880, Volume 2: Eureka and Democracy


The second volume, Eureka and Democracy, is also divided into two parts. The constitutional separation of New South Wales and the Port Phillip District in 1851 and the establishment of Victoria as a separate colony coincided with the discovery of large deposits of gold. Although the established colonial administration in New South Wales coped relatively well with the ensuing influx of immigrants in search of success on the gold diggings, developments in Victoria were less auspicious. Coping with setting up the new colony and the rapid growth in population proved difficult for Charles La Trobe, the colony’s Lieutenant-Governor leading to growing protest from diggers who, not without justification, felt oppressed by colonial taxation and the colonial police. With widespread protest in 1851 and 1853, matters came to a head in Ballarat in the final months of 1854 when a combination of colonial mismanagement, locally and in Melbourne, and a burgeoning sense of in justice and tyranny led to the formation of a rebel stockade on the Eureka gold field and its brutal repression by British troops and colonial police. It proved a pyrrhic victory for the authorities that was damned for the heavy-handed nature of its actions during and after the attack on the Stockade and was unable to convict any of those brought to trial for high treason the following year. How far Eureka was responsible for political change in Victoria in the mid-1850s is debatable. The process of establishing responsible government in the colony took place parallel to the increasing intensity of protest on the goldfields and would have occurred whether there were protests or not. Nonetheless, the ‘spirit’ of Eureka played an important role in establishing a new system of colonial government that was aware of and responsive to populist demands and Eureka was and still is regarded as the midwife of democracy in Australia. It became, though initially its memory was ‘whispered’, one of the defining events in the formation of Australian nationalism.

Settler Australia 2

The second section of the book contains five papers linked broadly to the theme of democracy. They explore the different ways in which working people struggled to define their rights within the framework of changing notions of the colonial state and maintain those rights against assault from those who favoured an anti-democratic state and from immigrant labour. Paradoxically, the Australian state that emerged from the 1870s was both inclusively democratic in character and also exclusively racist and ‘white’ in its cultural attitudes leading to the espousal of a ‘White Australia’ policy after Federation in 1901. For most of the nineteenth century, according to Richard White, there was no strong evidence of a distinctively Australian identity: ‘Australians saw themselves, and were seen by others, as part of a group of new, transplanted, predominantly Anglo-Saxon emigrant societies’. It is significant that a sense of national distinctiveness only grew stronger towards the end of the century and that this was accompanied by ‘a more explicitly racial element’, based on being Anglo-Saxon or, as confidence in the new society grew, ‘on being the most vigorous branch of Anglo-Saxondom’. White settlers may have been deeply attached to freedom for themselves but they opposed freedom for others. The result was that to be free, individuals needed to be of British or at least European origins. However, these colonial freedoms were not freely given to settlers who had to extract recognition of their rights by persuasion, resistance and even rebellion from metropolitan and colonial authorities that wished to maintain centralised control over colonial activities. The book ends with an examination of the nature of the colonial settler state.

No comments: