Thursday, 5 November 2015

The beginnings of rebellion

It is not fines, imprisonments, taxation and bayonets that is required to keep a people tranquil and content. It is attention to their wants and their just rights alone that will make the miners content. [1]

Ballarat had not played as important a role as Bendigo and Castlemaine in the anti-license campaign in mid-1853 largely because of the prosperity of the goldfield. A year later things had changed. Yields from alluvial mining were declining and although deep lead mining had increased substantially, it usually took six to eight months to sink shafts onto the pay dirt. This meant that diggers were in contact with the same government officials, giving time for personal resentments to grow on both sides. For Blainey, this was the key to understanding why rebellion occurred in 1854.[2] Hotham’s decision to enforce all licensing laws rigorously brought simmering tensions between the diggers and authority to a head. His actions resurrected the simmering grievances of the Ballarat diggers who were experiencing growing poverty, license hunts, the corruption of the police and inadequate public services. [3]

There were growing concerns among officials over the political activities of diggers’ organisations by late 1854. On 9 October, in a confidential memorandum William Wright, the Chief Commissioner of the Goldfields required that a magistrate and two witnesses should attend all public meetings held for political purposes and to note down any seditious language. [4] In addition, police spies began attending diggers’ meetings to collect evidence. Although the revenue collected in the Ballarat District from license fees and storekeepers’ licenses was substantial reaching more than £96,000 by the end of 1854, only a small proportion of diggers and shopkeepers actually paid their fees. For Hotham, this represented a clear breach of the law as well as reducing potential revenue. [5] Hotham was rightly concerned by developing political agitation in Ballarat and, during October, the Ballarat Reform League emerged from a series of meetings and was officially launched at Bakery Hill on Saturday 11 November. By the end of November, Rede had concluded that the Eureka District was the centre of radical activity. What is extraordinary about events in Ballarat was the pace at which the situation deteriorated from resentment to open defiance to rebellion. Yet the signs were there in early October:

There are breakers ahead. If Sir Charles manages to avoid the reefs by which he is surrounded, he will prove himself a pilot of no mean ability. For the last week or so, the spirit of dissatisfaction has been rapidly increasing, and, unless a change for the better be speedily brought about, Ballarat, I fear me may soon cease to be worthy of praise from the lips of the Governor in matters of loyalty.[6]


[1] Ballarat Times, 28 October 1854.

[2] Ibid, Blainey, Geoffrey, The Rush that Never Ended, pp. 50-52.

[3] Walshe, R. D., ‘Bibliography of Eureka’, Historical Studies: Eureka Supplement, (December 1954), pp. 81-91, provides a summary of available primary and secondary material up to 1954. Of the myriad studies of Eureka, Gold, Geoffrey, Eureka: Rebellion beneath the Southern Cross, (Rigby Limited), 1977; ibid, MacFarlane, Ian, (ed.), Eureka From the Official Records, Fitzsimons, Peter, Eureka: The Unfinished Revolution, (Random House), 2013, and Molony, John, Eureka, (Melbourne University Press), 1984, 2nd ed., (Melbourne University Press), 2001, are the most useful. Of the earlier studies, Turner, Henry Gyles, Our Own Little Rebellion: The Story of the Eureka Stockade, (Whitcombe & Tombs Limited), 1913, retains its vigour.

[4] Blake, L. J., ‘William Henry Wright, (1816-1877), ADB, Vol. 6, pp. 444-445.

[5] ‘Letter of the Editor: Digger Hunting at Ballarat’, Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 10 October 1854, p. 5, demonstrates the depth of feeling against the intensity and severity of license fee collection.

[6] ‘Ballarat’, Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 11 October 1854, p. 4.

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