Saturday, 29 August 2015

How threatening was the digger movement in 1853?

Just how much of a threat to colonial government was the digger movement in 1853? Miners at the Ovens disarmed and pelted the police and in Bendigo miners went further fathering in mass meetings and firing volleys into the sky. But contention was not confined to Victoria and in early 1853, miners on the Turon met to express their opposition to mining regulations. [1] There was, according to the Argus, even the threat of ‘civil war’. [2] Was there a loosening of ‘the bonds of attachment to the parent state’? [3] Many immigrant labourers had come to Australia largely because they felt that they had not had a fair deal in Britain. Native-born colonists and convicts had no strong loyalty to Britain and foreigners had none at all. The Argus, perhaps the strongest force for republicanism in Victoria recognised:

Chartists, Socialists and others…who have recently come amongst us…We live in times of restlessness and desire for political change and there is nothing in the character and prospects of the mass of colonists…which may induce us to believe that they can remain unaffected by the spirit of the age: or that the growing sense of importance and independence arising from unexampled prosperity, emancipation from old ties and obligations, and powers of self-support, and self-government, should not influence the multitude. [4]

The American press also encouraged calls for Australian independence. [5] This had a profound impact on the government and led La Trobe to exaggerate the number of foreign signatures on the Bendigo Petition while Chief Gold Commissioner Wright believed that the object of the diggers’ movement was to overthrow the government. The problem was that few in the government had any real idea about popular political movements; all they remembered were the events of 1848. The consequence was that all radical demands, however reasonable and rationally expressed, were seen as subversive.

What fear of radicalism did in Victoria, much as in the Canadas in the 1830s and in Britain faced with the threat from Chartism, was to polarise the debate between those who saw themselves as defenders of established order and those perceived as trying to subvert it. In reality, there is little evidence of any significant revolutionary dimension in the diggers’ movement in 1853. Chartist influence may have been evident in the widespread use of petitions, the ‘monster meetings’, the use of ‘strike’ action inherent in passive resistance and in the persistent debate over tactics between ‘moral’ and ‘physical force’. Other than Henry Holyoake, the brother of the freethinker and leading Chartist G. J. Holyoake, no other Chartist is known to have been formally connected to the movement. ‘Physical force’ meant little more than mass rallies to intimidate government but with no intention of removing it. That there was no armed resistance in 1853, given the strength of feeling among the diggers, was the result of two things. No attempt was made to disrupt meetings using police or soldiers and the government did not seek to enforce payment of the licenses. In this respect at least, those responsible for managing the goldfields adopted a pragmatic, non-confrontational approach that had also been used in 1851 recognising that excessive force would be counter-productive. The critical development in 1853 was a growing realisation by digger leaders that the vote was the only real solution for their grievances, an emerging political consciousness largely absent among their followers. Throughout the protests between 1851 and 1853, the loyalty of most diggers was to the Crown, their attachment to change through constitutional means and their conviction that they were claiming the rights of British citizens.

Mass support for the diggers’ organisation drained away with the reduction in taxation. A series of meetings in Ballarat in October and November 1853 petitioned for the vote, fairer taxation of all classes and opening up of the land.[6] Bendigo, by contrast, was relatively quiet until December when the government’s weak franchise proposals saw a revival of the movement. Attempts were made to establish a permanent Diggers’ Congress with representatives from all the diggings. Delegates travelled to Melbourne in December but both La Trobe and the Council refused to meet them. In January 1854, the movement and the organisation of the Congress collapsed because a new rush to Bryant’s Ranges attracted a significant proportion of Bendigo’s miners. By February 1854, the gold fields were again relatively quiet. The miners’ leaders had lost heart and the government recognised that it had no chance of effectively operating the license system. Only half the miners were now taking out license fees and the government, perhaps alarmed by the formation of the Diggers’ Congress, made little attempt to arrest defaulters. The diggers’ movement in 1853 had managed to get the license fee significantly reduced but the system remained and political rights had been denied. The diggers faced the same dilemma as the reformers and radicals and the Canadas and in Britain: what are you to do when the Government keeps saying ‘No’?

The timescale of the events that led to rebellion in Victoria was short. During the 1840s, tensions began to emerge in NSW and in the district of Port Phillip but the profound changes occasioned by the discovery of gold in 1851 and by the government’s reaction to it led to a growing realisation among diggers that, though their complaint over the license fees was essentially economic, theirs was a political not simply an economic protest. Could La Trobe have avoided the folly of the license fees? His administration of the goldfields from 1851 to 1854 was undoubtedly the weakest period of his management of the colony. He believed that effective decisions were based on thoughtful deliberation but there was no time for him to deliberate and was deeply concerned by the confusion caused by the discovery of gold. The situation brought out two opposing features in La Trobe’s character: his diffidence and his authoritarianism. The result was that, with little support, he lost confidence in ever being able to resolve the situation and it is not surprising that the press criticised his dithering. The constant barrage of criticism from the press and the colonists wore him down to the point where his confidence was shattered. [7] Drury concluded:

Turbulent times and a constantly changing focus for his attention as more and more problems came before him for resolution, eroded any decision-making ability he had remaining, and destabilised his judgement.[8]


[1] ‘Notes from the Turon’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 February 1853, p. 2.

[2] ‘Sydney’, Argus 11 March 1853, p. 6.

[3] Argus, 20 July 1853.

[4] Argus, 20 July 1853.

[5] For example, Daily Alta California, 2 September 1853, and New York Daily Times, 29 December 1853.

[6] ‘Gold Diggers’ Association, Ballarat’, Argus, 4 November 1853, p. 5.

[7] This can be seen in The Times, 29 October 1853, and 31 May 1854.

[8] Ibid, Drury, Dianne Reilly, La Trobe, p. 227.

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