Saturday, 29 August 2015

Refugees or migrants?

Events this week have reminded me of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and his description of the hoards of barbarians poised on the borders of the Roman Empire. Were they refugees seeking asylum from the rampages of other barbarian tribes, seeking protection within their stronger neighbour’s frontiers or were they economic migrants who gazed at the wealth and opportunities the Empire possessed and aspired to be part of it?   There were accepted points of entry guarded by Roman legionaries; walls like that built by Hadrian across northern England to keep the unwanted invaders out; some barbarians were allowed into the Empire to supplement depleted Roman forces and they were keen to keep other barbarians out once they had achieved this; there were perennial debates about what the Roman state should do about the barbarians and equally perennial failures to find any workable solution resulting in different parts of the Empire adopting different approaches.  Yes, I’m still writing about Gibbon but this could equally apply to the lamentable mess that the EU has got itself into over the migrant crisis. 

In a week when people suffocated in a lorry in Austria and hundreds drowned off the Libyan coast, our contribution to the issue has been an entirely fatuous debate about whether to call those moving across the Mediterranean refugees or migrants. I’m absolutely certain that this is not the critical question on their minds.  The Schengen system means migrants can arrive on the shores of Greece and Italy and make their way to wealthier countries like Germany, which expects to receive 800,000 new arrivals this year.  German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has said the agreement is only sustainable if Europe agrees a permanent mechanism for relocating refugees so that the burden is spread more evenly.  Britain and Ireland are not members, but Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are, even though they are not part of the EU.  This, and growing anti-immigration sentiments across Europe, mean that finding a solution to the problem of surging migration is extremely difficult.  It’s not the scale of the migration but its speed that causes the real problem.  Countries need immigration to support their economies and most countries have planned immigration policies in place to deal with this…the critical word here is ‘planned’.  But what is happening now is unplanned and unpredictable which is why the EU has difficulty finding a solution and yet thousands more people are trudging towards the EU each week.

All the solutions proposed by governments in the EU are reasonable.  The notion that there should be a quota system for allocating migrants to all member states seems eminently reasonable…it would spread the burden.  Dealing with the people smugglers and traffickers, who pray on human misery and hope, is equally reasonable.  Finding solutions to problems of conflict in, for instance, Syria and Eritrea so that people do not feel the need to move elsewhere, are also thoroughly sensible.  But they all take time and do not address the immediacy of the crisis.  Even establishing refugee camps, one solution that has been suggested, takes time.  So we’re left with small groups, families, individuals getting into the EU and then having to find their own solutions to the problem.  So we have the unedifying sight of people wandering along railway lines, waiting in the street, sleeping in railway stations, establishing ‘jungles’ in Calais as they wait for ‘something to turn up’.  They are discovering, much as medieval peasants who moved to towns found, that the streets of Europe are not paved in gold. 

When faced with an unstoppable wave of humanity, you have two choices…stand against it and be swept away or embrace it, recognise its potential and understand that there will inevitably be a period of disruption to your settled lives.  At present we’re doing neither, we’re simply wringing our hands and crying ‘we don’t know what to do’. 

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.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Annie Besant (1847-1933) : la lutte et la quĂȘte

My appallingly bad yet typically English 'franglais' will never do justice to what is an elegantly written and much needed study of Annie Besant. Until now, we have had to rely on Anne Taylor's sound, if partial, biography published in 1991 but no longer. There is some irony in having what must now be regarded as the best available study of Besant's life written by a historian of British history in France. This reflects the lamentable ignorance of most students and many historians of the diversity of her long life and the central role that she played in developing notions of feminism between the 1870s and 1930s. Apart from her involvement in the Match Girls' strike in 1888, Annie barely figures in British consciousness. Yet, either as a direct participant or a dominating influence, she was a pervasive player in improving the status and opportunities for women through education, birth control, workers' rights, theosophy...I could go on. The Pankhursts were important and are justly feted but their role was, until 1918, largely limited to the suffrage question and geographically limited to Britain even though they travelled widely within Britain's Dominions. Annie's struggles to improve the inequalities of women was far broader and, you could argue, far more influential globally, especially in the cause of Indian independence.

Annie Besant

This is a book that needs to be read by those concerned with the development of feminism, radicalism and socialism, free thought and theosophy and anti-colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It provides a nuanced study of a figure whose importance in British and global history--rather like that of Sylvia Pankhurst--has been under-estimated. Well, no more.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Review of Localities, Spaces and Places

Chartism: Localities, Spaces and Places, The Midlands and the South, Richard Brown, Authoring History, 2015, paperback, 403 pp., ISBN 9781501017247

This volume focusing upon the local and regional dimension of Chartism in the Midlands and the South, is Richard Brown’s sixth excursion into Chartism, which with a sequel print volume encompassing the North of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, will provide an extensive and unprecedented analytical survey by a single author of Chartism from a regional and local perspective. As Chartist historian Stephen Roberts has commented such ‘a comprehensive survey of the Chartist Movement, region by region, will be of immense value to all students of Chartism’ since the intended scope of the two volumes and unified Kindle version is ‘truly astonishing’. Not since the ground-breaking collection of essays edited by Asa Briggs in 1959, which E.P. Thompson observed brought us ‘closer to the local roots of Chartism than any previous study’ and which stimulated a myriad of further local studies, has there been a more considered, in-depth, attempt to re-visit this dimension of Chartism. Indeed, since the 1980s, influenced particularly by the controversial intervention of Gareth Stedman Jones in the historiographical debate, the focus of Chartist studies shifted priorities sharply towards considerations of Chartism as a national political movement. Brown’s contention is that both dimensions remain vital to understanding this extraordinary movement. ‘Is it better’, he asks, ‘to see Chartism as a network of semi-autonomous political organisations over which national control was limited rather than a unified political movement?’ His answer is emphatically, that ‘neither one nor the other’ approach will suffice and that a combination of both approaches is now necessary to understand the full impact of this momentous movement on the history of Britain at every level. Chartism, he concedes, ‘may have been a national, political movement but it was grounded in the experience of its local activists as much, and perhaps arguably more than through grandiloquent oratory and the organisational structures of its national leaders’.

Chartism Vol. 3

Brown engages elegantly and informatively with the historiography of local history in his opening chapter to explain how ‘local and regional considerations, linked to prevailing social and economic conditions played a major role in the ways in which the movement developed nationally’. For example, he argues that the strikes of 1842 arose ‘not from the decisions of national leaders but from the intensity of local anger and frustration at the inequities of local economic structures’. He also draws upon recent writers, notably Katrina Navickas, who have explored the significance of space and place in the development of grassroots radical politics, arguing that recognition of the centrality of space to human experience is ‘fundamental in understanding how and why Chartism developed and exchanged information and ideas within communities, localities, regional and national locations within Britain as a whole’.

Each exploration of regional and local dimensions in subsequent chapters is prefaced by an in-depth socio-economic profile of the locality presenting a rich tapestry focusing upon ‘how Chartism played out regionally and locally reinforcing the point that local priorities and political agendas did not always correspond with those put forward nationally and that, although the national leadership developed principles and policies, operational details were frequently left to local leaders and organisations’. This timely and illuminating study is a poignant and worthy tribute to the author’s wife who died shortly before this volume was completed. It will enrich understanding of Chartism as a national movement, whilst ‘drawing attention to the tensions between the aspirations of the Chartist national leadership and leadership at the local level’, thereby providing an indispensable overview to researchers seeking to understand how the Chartist movement played out in their own particular locality or region.

John A. Hargreaves

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Re-examining the license

The Red Ribbon rebellion came as a real shock for the Government. Commissioner Wright said that the license fee could now probably not be collected and the Government feared revolution. La Trobe completely failed to appreciate the depth of feeling at Bendigo especially after Wright mistakenly reported on 8 August that there was little support in the other fields. He did, however, take some precautions: troop reinforcements were sent to Bendigo; [1] commissioners were told to use minimal force in collecting fees, and future policy was discussed since the Legislative Council was due to meet at the end of August to renew the Goldfields Act. For La Trobe the problem remained the same as it had been two years earlier: if not the license fee, what alternative method was available to raise the revenue necessary to keep the colony solvent? The gold license has proved contentious because of the amount diggers had to pay and the aggressive and often corrupt ways in which it was collected. An export duty on gold would be easier and cheaper to collect but it faced opposition largely from liberal middle-class radicals and politicians who opposed any restriction on the principles of laissez faire and who formed a powerful interest in the Legislative Council.

S. T. Gill, Zealous Gold Diggers, Bendigo, 1854

If anything La Trobe now made the situation worse. At the opening of the next session of the Legislative Council on 30 August 1853, La Trobe proposed legislation to abolish the license system and replace it with an export duty on gold, something that had been unsuccessfully proposed the previous year with a small ‘registration fee for police purposes’, that Foster later claimed would have been five shillings a year.

…the objections to the present license-fee, and the practical difficulties in the way of collecting it, have forced themselves latterly so strongly upon me that I as disposed to propose to you its total abolition…A loss of revenue to a large amount will thus be incurred which I propose to supply by a revision of the tariff including an export duty on gold… [2]

A Select Committee was set up to review the situation, the remainder of the 40th Regiment was sent to Bendigo bringing the number of troops up to 300 and reinforcements were requested from VDL.[3] Due to sheer mismanagement on La Trobe’s part, two conflicting notices were sent out to the goldfields at the same time, one advising that miners would not be required to pay a license fee for the month of September 1853 whilst a Select Committee considered the question of abolition of the fee, and a second notice stating that the fee should be paid. Even the law-abiding diggers at Castlemaine were disgusted by this crass indecision. The Argus commented tartly:

Between two documents so nearly contradicting each other, we are not surprised that the diggers stood confused and wondering. We were confused ourselves, and to this day are at a loss how to reconcile the apparent incompatibility of two such notices; how to excuse the seeming vacillation of the authorities. It is alleged, indeed, and we believe with truth, that the first notice was the result of a misunderstanding of orders on the part of Mr. Wright. That gentleman, it is well known, we have always held to be unfit for his present important office; and the misconception of an order in critical times only forms one portion of a very inglorious and unsatisfactory career. Under such circumstances, however, our own position became a difficult one. We had strongly advised the miners to obey the law…but in the midst of such vacillation, loyalty the most zealous, obedience the most implicit, are puzzled and at a loss. We will rally round the Government if we can, but it is difficult to rally round a Will-o-the-wisp…we feel that we are asked to stand upon a quicksand… [4]

Within a few days, the Council adopted its Select Committee’s proposal that as a temporary solution only a £2 fee should be paid by diggers for three months beginning in September. Although the majority in favour of this was substantial, nearly all the squatter representatives called for the diggers to be tried for treason and for military intervention to make them pay. Common sense prevailed with the Government claiming that it was trying to put the law on a sound, agreed basis and that it would be criminal to shed blood in defence of a law that most agreed needed changing. In many respects, this represented a provisional victory for the diggers: a substantial reduction in the license fee and a reconsideration of the system was as much as most hoped for as a first step. This all reflected very badly on La Trobe. He had not taken the lead in discussion on the license fee in the Legislative Council, had vacillated from his publicly stated position of replacing the fee with an export tax, and had been successful only in perpetuating the poor impression of his administration in the eyes of the colonists, the press and the Colonial Office.

In September and October 1853, the Select Committee re-examined the license system. For the first time, leading Victorian politicians heard the diggers’ case from their own representatives. [5] Owens, Jones and Thomson put forward their case to considerable effect detailing the violence, corruption and drunkenness of the police. Jones gave lucid reasons why the diggers distrusted the Council producing angry reactions from some of the committee. It was, however, Thomson who best represented the opinion of most digger leaders when he recommended the replacement of the license fee by an export duty. The Bendigo committee produced a compromise proposal that a monthly 10 shillings license fee and a duty of 2/6d per ounce would be reasonable. [6] It is difficult to understand why the diggers, who were in a strong position, failed to press home their advantage. Serle saw this as political inexperience and, given La Trobe’s statement on 30 August calling for the abolition of the license fee and the strength of feeling in Bendigo, it is surprising that the diggers were prepared to accept the compromise suggested by Thomson leaving the license fee in place. [7] The retention of a small license fee would make it easier to give the vote to diggers as occupants of Crown Land and for some diggers the issue was not the license fee per se but its level.

Both the Select Committee and the Legislative Council were extensively lobbied by the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce that was implacably opposed to an export duty, maintaining the position it had taken the previous year. There was overwhelming evidence against the license fee but, with the possible exception of Foster, there was no support for its abolition in either the Committee or the Council. The Committee concluded against the wishes of the government that, despite the defects of the system, its retention was the best practical means of ensuring social order and maintaining the rights of public and private property. It proposed a sliding scale for licenses with £1 for a month, £2 for three months and £5 for a year with those taking out annual licenses getting the vote. It also recommended that diggers should be allowed to cultivate waste land on the fields as vegetable plots, that farming land nearby be sold, and that the same licensing laws as elsewhere be applied to the gold fields.[8]

On 9 November, the same day that La Trobe’s Gold Export Duty Bill was introduced, Stawell introduced the Gold Fields’ Better Management Bill incorporating the Select Committee’s recommendations and Export Duty Bill was withdrawn. [9] The legislation imposed new license fees on miners increasing the annual license recommended at £5 by the committee to £8. It was only later realised that this range of fees made it difficult to enfranchise miners under the new constitution since only those who could afford the new annual license and who had six months residence could vote. Few took out an annual license and since they were only valid in one district, there was no financial incentive to do so as diggers tended to move from field to field in search of the ‘big strike’. This suggests that neither the Government nor the Council were serious about enfranchising the diggers; had this been the case then they could have adopted a cheaper annual license. It was the Legislative Council not La Trobe that blocked attempts to abolish the license fee and this provoked further tension on the gold fields and growing fears of rebellion.


[1] The Courier, 1 September 1853, p. 2, reported that 100 constables and 100 soldiers under Major Leslie had left Melbourne for Bendigo on 29 August and were joined on their journey by 50 mounted troops of the 40th Regiment.

[2] ‘The Opening of the Session’, Argus, 30 August 1853, p. 4, ‘Opening of the Legislative Council, Argus, 31 August 1853, p. 4.

[3] The management of the gold-fields and the establishment of the Select Committee was debated on 31 August, ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 1 September 1853, p. 4.

[4] ‘The Government and the Diggers’, Argus, 15 September 1853, p. 4, prints both notices.

[5] See, for instance, reports in the Argus, 2, 7, 17, 28, September 1853.

[6] ‘Bendigo’, Argus, 2 September 1853, p. 4.

[7] Serle, p. 115.

[8] ‘The Report on the Gold-Fields’, Argus, 5 November 1853, p. 4; ‘The Report on the Gold-Fields’, Argus, 7 November 1853, p. 5.

[9] ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 10 November 1853, pp. 4-5.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Back to the Future

There are two reports in today’s press that suggest British politics is going through a retrospective.  Jeremy Corbyn says that Labour could restore its historical commitment to public ownership of industry—the old Clause IV of its constitution that many thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history when Tony Blair scrapped it in 1995.  Scotland is to ban the growing of genetically modified crops, Richard Lochhead, its Rural Affairs Secretary had announced.  Or rather he is to request that Scotland be excluded from any European consents for the cultivation of GM crops.  Under EU rules, GM crops must be formally authorised before they can be cultivated.  An amendment came into force earlier this year which allows member states and devolved administrations to restrict or ban the cultivation of genetically modified organisms within their territory. 

Corbyn

In many respects, both moves reflect a denial of developments in the last three decades, an attempt to put the genie back into the bottle.  The Scottish decision appears to be based on ‘keeping Scotland Green’.  Richard Lochhead said:

There is no evidence of significant demand for GM products by Scottish consumers and I am concerned that allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland would damage our clean and green brand, thereby gambling with the future of our £14bn food and drink sector.  Scottish food and drink is valued at home and abroad for its natural, high quality which often attracts a premium price, and I have heard directly from food and drink producers in other countries that are ditching GM because of a consumer backlash.

Is there a ‘consumer backlash’ in Scotland?  Well as far as I can tell from press reports, no there isn’t.  So it’s an ideological decision, justified by reference to economic necessity, rather than a judgement based on the science and a denial of the view expressed by Huw Jones, professor of molecular genetics at agricultural science group Rothamsted Research, that GM crops approved by the EU were ‘safe for humans, animals and the environment.’

Jeremy Corbyn is right  when he says that the Labour Party needs a new statement of objectives..its confused message played a major part in its defeats in 2010 and 2015…but it is doubtful whether it could win the 2020 election or even 2025 with a socialist agenda.  While this may have an appeal to the hundreds of new applicants to the Labour Party and to those left-wing activists who have long wished to restore purity to the Party with the destruction of what has been called the Blairite ‘virus’, there is little evidence that it’s an election winner. Those of us who experienced the railways and utilities—where public investment was insufficient and  badly spent—would not wish to see them returned to the public sector. It will certainly establish clear blue-water between Conservatives and Labour but at a cost.  For many in the centre and right of the Labour Party it would be unacceptable, a move away from the centre ground that they believe is essential to winning elections. The result will be a divided party with infighting reminiscent of the 1980s.  It  may well contribute to a revival of the Liberal Democrats as disgruntled Labour voters seek and non-Conservative alternative.  For the Conservatives it really would be political manna from heaven…there’s nothing like having an ineffective opposition when your majority is wafer-thin. 

It seems to me that we have lost our historical perspective on politics…presentism is all that seems to matter.  In a whole range of areas from the EU referendum through to questions of public ownership and GM foods, we appear to think that the solution to our problems necessitates going back to move forward.  The problem with this approach is that it’s very easy to get stuck in the past.  We all know that turning a clock back damages its internal workings, some politicians do not appear to have grasped this.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Red Ribbon Rebellion

The Red Ribbon Rebellion was centred round Bendigo, where nearly twenty thousand of the fifty thousand diggers in the colony worked. [1] The Bendigo valley was part of the Ravenswood Run initially occupied by Charles Sherrard and later sold to Messrs Heape and Grice of Melbourne and then Messrs Gibson and Fenton. Gold was discovered in Bendigo Creek, named after a shepherd employed by Sherrard, who was a notable bruiser and had been nicknamed ‘Bendigo’ after the celebrated English prize-fighter of that name. The initial rush to the area proved unsuccessful but after gold was found at Forest Creek a second and more permanent gold rush occurred. Gold Commissioners were appointed to Bendigo: Mr Horne, Captain Dane and Mr Cockburn in quick succession in late 1851 and early 1852 and then Mr Gilbert assisted by Mr Panton who administered the field with ‘tact and moderation’. Mackay suggested that this explains why Bendigo ‘did not resort to the extreme measures which resulted so disastrously in Ballarat.’ [2] This did not, however, apply to the local police especially after the appointments of Lachlan McLachlan as Police Magistrate and Simon O’Neill as chief detective officer in the Bendigo District. Although their actions significantly reduced criminality in the area, this was achieved through an arbitrary and strict application of the law especially over gold licenses and sly-grogging.[3]

Although there had previously been no major protest in Bendigo, the Red Ribbon Rebellion was the best organised and most widely supported of all the diggers’ movements. [4] On 6 June 1853, an Anti-Gold License Association was formed by G. E. Thomson, Dr Jones and the Irish-born American ‘Captain’ Edward Brown, and immediately gained widespread support. [5] They probably drew up the petition, adopted on 2 July that they saw as representing the ‘respectable’ and constitutional nature of the movement and it certainly displayed a strong statement of the rights of British subjects:

Your petitioners are convinced that the monthly license tax levied on the gold fields is unjust and unconstitutional in principle…that it requires an armed body of police to enforce it, that...a serious inroad is made on the liberty of the diggers, many of whom are fined and imprisoned, or sent to work on the roads, because they do not have the means of paying.

The squatters’ land monopoly was condemned and there was a firm statement that the diggers did not have the vote. The petition represented a compendium of digger grievances including:

1. The License Fee be reduced to Ten Shillings a Month;

2. Monthly or Quarterly Licenses be issued at the option of the applicants;

3. New arrivals or invalids should be allowed on registering their names at the Commissioner’s Office fifteen clear days’ residence on the goldfields before the license be enforced;

4. To afford greater facility to diggers and other resident on the goldfields who wish to engage in Agricultural Pursuits for investing their earnings in small allotments of land;

5. The penalty of £5 for non-possession of License should be reduced to £1;

6. The sending of an armed force to enforce the License Tax should be discontinued.

On 12 July, an orderly and peaceful meeting at McIvor pledged significant support despite the presence of a strong body of troopers. Two days later, a poorly attended meeting was held at Castlemaine that passed a modified petition. [6] The diggings there were widely scattered but there was a concerted effort to disrupt the movement: notices had been removed; there were widespread rumours that armed force was intended, and that the American flag had been raised in Bendigo. [7] The campaign continued in Bendigo throughout July and placards such as: ‘No Chains for free Englishmen’, were put up all over the field. When the delegates returned, there was a further ‘monster meeting’ with diggers marching in national groups with flags and banners and the petition, some forty feet in length and bound in green silk was displayed. [8] Thomson claimed that 23,000 signatures had been gathered, plus 8,000 from McIvor but these had been ‘lost’ on 20 July 1853 after the robbery of the gold escort at Kyneton. The petition eventually presented to La Trobe contained only 5,000 signatures.

The diggers are an intelligent body. Again and again they have shown their love of order, and their wish both to respect authority, and to induce it to become respectable. Nothing but a long course of the most stolid disregard to the indications of the political barometer on the one hand; and on the other, a timorous vacillation beyond a precedent, could have placed an executive in so ridiculous a position with so large a proportion of the sinew, nerve and brain of the community. [9]

Brown, Jones and Thomson rushed to Melbourne with the petition and met La Trobe in his office on 1 August 1853.[10] The confrontation was not a success. The delegates tried to explain the seriousness of the situation but put their case badly. La Trobe, convinced that the diggers were ‘mere grievance mongers’, responded defensively partly to what he saw as an attack on his authority but also because of his fear of the ‘mob’ and quickly closed the meeting. The delegates then spoke to meetings in Melbourne on 5 July and Geelong where there was vague talk of rebellion. [11] There appears to have been little support within the Legislative Council for the petition. Neither the miners’ deputation nor La Trobe was happy at the outcome. The miners returned to their diggings dissatisfied that their main demand for reduction of the license fee had been refused. In his written response on 19 August, La Trobe made his mistrust of democracy and firm belief in authority very clear:

The deputation informed me that the sole object which they personally had in view in moving in the matter was the public good. I differ from them however in their estimate of the means and machinery by which the public good and social prosperity are to be secured. I am no enemy to free and honest discussion of any subject of public interest… [However] I do not think the public advantage to be promoted by the loose and intemperate popular discussion of questions of importance as they arise or by an agitation which however plausibly defined, may be shewn to be in sober fact questionable or uncalled for. [12]

The Government’s response was, according to Serle: ‘one of its few wise moves’. [13] Drafted by J. F. L Foster, the Colonial Secretary and signed by La Trobe, it contained the first real justification of the Government’s need for gold revenue but said that the proposed issue of quarterly licenses and specific complaints would be examined. It argued, not very convincingly that the license fee was not a tax but a charge for using public property. It also said that the government was attempting to bring land forward for sale but that problems surveying were causing delays. It addressed the question of the franchise noting that the constitution was based on property and interests, such as the pastoral interest, and individuals were not directly represented. In many respects, La Trobe’s response was conciliatory but unbending. Yes, specific complaints such as land reform would be investigated but no, the license fee would stand, a position unlikely to appease the diggers. [14]

La Trobe had little patience with the arguments posed by the diggers. He was annoyed by their assertiveness and the challenges this presented to the administration of the colony and when he dismissed the petition, it was these considerations that were uppermost in his mind. The petition failed, but it had united the diggers in their opposition to the license fee. Large gatherings of diggers took place in Bendigo during August 1853 and newspaper reports of the unsatisfactory negotiation intensified militant feelings across the fields. Over 10,000 people welcomed the petition representatives back to the diggings on 13 August, assembled under the Diggers’ Flag, designed by William Dexter, a china painter from Devon, England. [15] The main speakers were supported by William Denovan [16] and Henry Holyoake, who were to become prominent leaders. Thomson’s call for ‘passive resistance’ was enthusiastically adopted. This was later reinforced by Holyoake:

…he felt that the measure proposed was strictly within the bounds of moral force…If physical force was resorted to at all, it would be when the Government became the aggressors, and by that means justified the people in resorting to arms. [17]

Thomson proposed the diggers should pay only 10 shillings for September’s license and when this was refused should write: ‘No license taken here’, on their tents. He rightly recognised that it was impossible for the authorities to make large-scale arrests, but that arrests should not be resisted. It was now a matter of organisation. The Chief Commissioner was surprised by its effectiveness and only four hundred took out licenses compared to fourteen thousand a month earlier.

On 21 August 1853, 20,000 diggers assembled on Hospital Hill and vowed to pay no more than 10 shillings a month for their license. Six days later, the Red Ribbon rebellion began with a meeting held at View Point. There was talk of armed resistance and Thomson later revealed that the movement was prepared to take up arms if troops, as many expected, had broken up the meeting. [18] A delegation led by Brown, Thomson and Holyoake marched to Camp Hill to offer only 10 shillings; Wright was there in person to reject it. However, Mitchell, La Trobe’s Chief Commissioner of Police rushed to Melbourne to tell the Governor that ‘Bendigo was in a state of revolution’. This has been generally regarded as an over-reaction to events but a report in the Argus in early September suggests that Wright’s concerns may not have been mere hyperbole:

…an impression gains ground in the best informed circles that there are instigators in the movement hitherto unsuspected but who are actuated by a wish to foment disorder, with the hopes of pillage… [19]

The diggers’ meeting resumed and rejected La Trobe’s nomination of E. N. Emmett to represent them in the Council even though he was a supporter of the diggers’ cause as they wanted to nominate their own representative. The diggers then agreed to wear a red ribbon in their hats as a symbol of their unity in defiance of the law and 9 out of 10 miners sported one after the meeting. Given the speed of events, other diggings gave substantial support to the protest movement. Heathcote and the smaller fields at Moliagul and Waranga followed Bendigo ‘out on strike’. There was, however, little support at Castlemaine even though 6 diggers had offered 10 shillings on 27 August and most considered the fee too high. At the Ovens field perhaps the most radical opposition took place with a series of meetings throughout August with greater emphasis on the need for the vote: ‘Taxation without representation is robbery’, one placard affirmed. [20] Surprisingly, however, the diggers on the Ovens felt that Bendigo had gone too far, the view also at Ballarat where the Gold Diggers’ Association viewed ‘with regret and astonishment the conduct of the gold-diggers of Bendigo’. Here too, there were calls for the vote but on 29 August a meeting regretted that the Bendigo miners had not waited for La Trobe’s response before taking further action and called the Ballarat diggers to take out their licenses for September as usual. [21] Although meetings continued to be held in Bendigo, by 19 September the Argus reported:

Bendigo is quiet again, the storm is over and all is peace. The fretful sore—the license-tax—is considered to be gone and the people are complying with the new law with alacrity. [22]


[1] Mackay, George, History of Bendigo, (Fergusson & Mitchell Ltd), 1891, pp. 1-30.

[2] Ibid, Mackay, George, History of Bendigo, p. 6.

[3] See, for instance, £50 fines imposed on sly-groggers on 28 April 1853, Argus, 11 May 1853, p. 4.

[4] Hocking, Geoff, The Red Ribbon Rebellion! The Bendigo petition, 3-27 August, 1853, (New Chum Press), 2001.

[5] Kiers, Dorothy, ‘George Edward Thomson (1826-1889)’, ADB, Vol. 6, pp. 268-269.

[6] ‘Castlemaine: Public Meeting against the License-Tax’, Argus, 21 July 1853, p. 5. The report suggested that attendance reached 600 largely because ‘little notice was given’.

[7] Thomson addressed the issue of the American flag at a meeting in Castlemaine on 22 July: ‘It…must have originated from the fact of the flags of various nations of the various people attending the meeting being carried in the procession’, Argus, 28 July 1853, p. 5.

[8] The Bendigo petition can be examined at www.slv.vic.gov.au/collections/treasures. Once thought to be have been lost, it was presented to the State Library of Victoria in 1988 by Melbourne collector, Dr John Chapman.

[9] ‘The Diggers’ Petition’, Argus, 28 July 1853, p. 4, suggested that the petition contained 8-10,000 signatures.

[10] Argus, 5 August 1853, p. 4, prints the minutes of the meeting.

[11] ‘Grievances of the Gold-Diggers, Public Meeting’, Argus, 5 August 1853, p. 4, on the Melbourne meeting.

[12] ‘Charles Joseph La Trobe’s Reply to the Diggers’, H7570, La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria, cit, Drury, Dianne Reilly, La Trobe, p. 225. See also, La Trobe to Sir Charles FitzRoy, 1 August 1853, printed in Argus, 27 August 1853, p. 4, on his attitude to the gold license fee.

[13] Serle, p. 108.

[14] ‘The Opening Speech’, Argus, 31 August 1853, p. 4, criticised La Trobe’s response to the digger movement.

[15] The flag showed a pick, shovel and cradle for labour, scales for justice and Roman fasces for union and a kangaroo and emu representing Australia.

[16] ‘William Dixon Campbell Denovan (1829-1906)’, ADB, Vol. 4, pp. 55-56.

[17] ‘Bendigo’, Argus 19 August 1853, p. 4, provides a detail account of this meeting.

[18] ‘Bendigo’, Argus 1, 2 September 1853, p. 5, p. 4, provides a detail account of the meeting on 27 August and its immediate aftermath.

[19] ‘The Diggings’, Argus, 2 September 1853, p. 4.

[20] ‘Important Meeting of the Diggers of the Ovens’, Argus, 26 August 1853, pp. 4-5.

[21] ‘Gold Diggers’ Association, Ballaarat’, Argus, 4 November 1853, reported the meeting on 29 August.

[22] ‘Bendigo’, Argus, 22 September 1853, p. 5.