Thursday, 24 March 2016

Under the Southern Cross

On 28 November, the Argus commented in its leader:

Canada could not get a British statesman to listen to her grievances till she broke out in rebellion…We must warn the diggers that it is no slight affair upon which they are entering. [1]

The first sentence may have been a warning to the authorities but, if the second was to warn the diggers, it was almost an open invitation to rebel. Two days later, it was clear that neither the authorities nor the diggers had heeded the warnings and the mood in Ballarat hardened on both sides. After the license hunt on 30 November, several thousand diggers, many armed rushed to Bakery Hill. [2] None of their usual spokesmen were present to conduct the meeting. Humffray and George Black had already distanced themselves from the movement and it is unlikely that diggers would have listened to their calls for calm. The leaderless crowd was about to disperse when Peter Lalor took charge calling on the diggers to unite and fight to free themselves from tyranny. Critical in the shift from peaceful protest to direct action was belief in the right to bear arms in one’s own defence.

The concept of self-defence was an ambiguous Common Law right but legal opinion suggested that it did not extend to those who resisted the lawful authority of the state. However, Captain Wise’s untimely parading of his troops on 28 November and especially the clash at the Gravel Pits two days later confirmed the fear of many diggers that the authorities were preparing to use force against them. The miners would have been fully aware that the British government had used troops to deal with dissent and unrest in Britain and in the colonies. It does however seem that it was the prominence of the bayonet in both incidents that aggravated the situation: the bayonet was seen as ‘the iconic weapon of despotic coercion’. [3] Carboni was not alone in expressing his outrage at the threatened use of the weapon:

John Bull…was born for law, order and safe money making on land and sea…he hates the bayonet: I mean of course that he does not want to be bullied by the bayonet. [4]

Hundreds enrolled as volunteers and were organised into companies by Lalor while George Black’s brother, Alfred recorded the names of each division and its captain. The companies were made up of men from all nationalities on the diggings according to the weapons they brought with them. Charles Ross, for instance, took command of the division of men armed with rifles and muskets while Irishmen Michael Hanrahan and Patrick Curtain commanded a division armed with pikes, seen by some as an archetypically Irish weapon and the Prussian Edward Thonen took charge of another company of riflemen. [5] Lalor asked Carboni to tell those without firearms to make pikes. This was not, as some have argued, a reflection of the shortage of firearms among the rebels but recognition of the value of the pike as a weapon for defence. What was important about pikes was that they were easily made and could be used to some effect with little training. About 1,000 diggers with their leaders, Lalor, ‘Captain’ Ross, Timothy Hayes, Frederick Vern and Raffaelo Carboni then marched to the Eureka diggings with the Southern Cross flying before them. [6] This made tactical sense since Bakery Hill was an open, cleared space where diggers could be surrounded by troops from the nearby Camp. Eureka was less exposed.


Charles Doudiet, Swearing Allegiance to the Southern Cross, watercolour

At a meeting of the thirteen captains, Lalor was chosen as ‘commander-in-chief’ with a mandate to ‘resist force by force’.[7] After his election, the diggers began to erect a simple fortification about 200 metres from the remains of Bentley’s hotel. They enclosed about an acre of relatively flat ground with slabs of timber shovelling some earth round the slabs to strengthen them. Once the palisade had been completed, the men who had marched to Eureka, already reduced to 500, marched back to Bakery Hill, the symbolic centre of digger resistance. Lalor and his captains returned to Bakery Hill and as the sun was setting Captain Ross, sword in hand hoisted the Southern Cross. Holding his rifle in his left hand, Lalor mounted a stump nearby and ordered those not prepared to swear an oath to leave immediately, which many did. He then knelt at the foot of the flagpole and with his right hand raised towards the flag, swore in the men who remained:

We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.

As dusk fell, they took down the Southern Cross and marched back to Eureka. Although they did not know it, the diggers had won the first round of the Battle of Eureka. They had not thrown away their arms or deserted the Stockade, that frail symbol of resistance and returned to their diggings.[8]


[1] ‘Government by Artillery’, Argus, 28 November 1854.
[2] ‘Ballaarat: Serious Outbreak at Ballaarat’, Argus, 2 December 1854, p. 5.
[3] Ibid, Blake, Gregory, To Pierce The Tyrant’s Heart: A Military History of The Battle for The Eureka Stockade 3 December 1854, p. 19.
[4] Carboni, Raffaelo, The Eureka Stockade, (Melbourne University Press), 2004, p. 6, cit, ibid, Blake, Gregory, To Pierce The Tyrant’s Heart: A Military History of The Battle for The Eureka Stockade 3 December 1854, p. 19.
[5] Thonen was German-born Jew from Elbertfeld, Prussia and in 1851 the twenty-three year old was in Britain earning a living as a teacher of languages. Thonen, just five foot tall, travelled about the diggings with a keg as a ‘lemonade seller’, probably a euphemism for sly grog of some kind.
[6] O’Grady, Desmond, Raffaelo! Raffaelo!: A Biography of Raffaelo Carboni, (Hale and Iremonger), 1985, is an good study of this enigmatic figure. In addition to his The Eureka Stockade, it was known that he had published another book about his experiences in Australia in 1853-1855 ­ Gilburna, this book, first published in 1872 had been thought to have been lost until a copy was discovered in Rome in 1990. It throws new light on the forgotten people in the Eureka story, ­ the indigenous inhabitants of the land. Carboni, Raffaelo, Gilburna, translated and annotated by Tony Pagliaro, (Jim Crow Press), 1993.
[7] The thirteen captains included: Lalor, Frederick Vern, Carboni, Edward Thonen, a Prussian who sold lemonade, John Manning, Timothy Hayes, Patrick Curtain who led the pikemen and George Black. It is probable that Captain James McGill and Thomas Kennedy were also there: ibid, Molony, John, Eureka, pp. 129-130.
[8] Ibid, Molony, John, Eureka, pp. 136-137.

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