Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Eureka and memory

In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, two alternative views of Eureka emerged. Many Australian were reluctant to recognise the importance of events in Ballarat. By the early 1860s, there were few diggers left; mining was now the preserve of large mining companies. The prevailing conservative climate caused people to shrink from the memory of what happened at Eureka. One of Henry Lawson’s short stories demonstrated the mood perfectly describing how two old friends take a walk after dark, and allude to the events at Eureka twenty years before

And sometimes they’d get talking, low and mysterious like, about “Th’ Eureka Stockade;” and if we didn’t understand and asked questions, “what was the Eureka Stockade?” or “what did they do it for?” [1]

Eureka had become a whispered memory. Historians were also uneasy about the lawlessness of the Stockade and saw it as an alien aberration. The result was the development of pervasive myths about Eureka that persisted well into the twentieth century. Edward Shann said that the Ballarat Reform League ‘with clumsy obstinacy [it] repelled his [Hotham’s] conciliation and reiterated their ‘demands’ and gave no credit to the rebel side at all. [2] Ernest Scott and A. W. Jose blamed Eureka on ‘foreign agitators’. [3] For Jose, the Reform League was ‘an instrument of foreigners and political rebels’ and the police and military confronted a ‘body of rebels nearly five times as large’. This misrepresented both the composition and number of the rebels. [4]

Whether, as many have argue and still argue, Eureka was a ‘watershed’ in Australian politics remains contested. The constitutional changes that occurred in 1856 with Victoria’s new constitution were not a direct outcome of the rebellion but the changes, especially in the electoral arrangements in the colony and the rapid move towards universal male suffrage suggest that the principles of popular sovereignty that played such an important role in 1854 had taken deep roots. This is, however, not evident in the contemporary sources that played down the events in Ballarat that only achieved their significance in retrospect.


[1] Lawson, Henry, ‘An Old Mate of Your Fathers’, in While The Billy Boils, First Series, Sydney, 1896, pp. 6-10.

[2] Shann, Edward, An Economic History of Australia, (Cambridge University Press), 1930. See also, Snooks, G. D., ‘Shann, Edward Owen Giblin (1884-1935)’, ADB, Vol. 11, 1988, pp. 574-576.

[3] Ibid, Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, p. 178. Fitzpatrick, Kathleen, ‘Scott, Sir Ernest (1867-1939)’, ADB, Vol. 11, 1988, pp. 544-546 and ibid, McIntyre, Stuart, A History for a Nation: Ernest Scott and the Making of Australian History, 1994, provide important biographical material.

[4] Jose, A. W., Growth of the Empire, Sydney, 1897, pp. v-vi; Short History of Australasia, Sydney, 1899, pp. 154-156; History of Australia, 15th ed., Sydney, 1930, pp. 133-134.

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