Friday, 12 August 2016

From victory to defeat

News of the successful attack on the Stockade finally reached Melbourne in the early hours of Monday 4 December but it only partially relieved Hotham’s anxiety. The immediate danger may have been removed but it was possible that Eureka was the beginning of a larger rebellion and his immediate response was to request reinforcements from VDL. He also met a delegation of ‘influential’ citizens asking them to organise a defence of Melbourne as all his troops were in Ballarat and over 1,500 special constables were sworn in as a result. Hotham and his Executive Council proclaimed martial law in and around Ballarat. [1] In an effort to muster support, he presented his case to the Legislative Council on 4 December and to the squatters’ representatives two days later. [2] Both bodies pledged their support ‘to maintain the law and preserve the community from social disorganisation’. [3] Hotham unconvincingly attempted to blame the rebellion on ‘foreigners’ and the Irish. There was widespread contemporary criticism for the lenient ways in which Hotham treated American citizens who had been involved in the rebellion. This action reinforced the erroneous view that Americans did not play as active role. [4] Most of the movement’s leadership were still at large and out of the 114 arrested only eleven were ‘foreigners’ and around thirty Irish. Rewards were offered for the leaders of the insurgents. The authorities were under the impression that Vern was the rebel leader and a reward of £500 was offered for his capture and only £200 for the arrest of Lalor and Black, the ‘minister for war’ who had not been in the Stockade during the attack, for inciting men to arms. None were arrested. [5]

Reactions to the attack on the Eureka Stockade were immediate and led to an extraordinarilyEurer rapid reversal in public opinion. News spread quickly. The Ballarat Times printed a report with black borders on the day of the attack, the Geelong Advertiser the following day and on Tuesday, other major newspapers in the colony prominently displayed accounts. Before long however, disgust at the atrocities quickly turned Victorians against Hotham’s Government especially when it was clear Melbourne was not threatened. Sympathy was now with the defeated diggers and government forces were regarded as murderers and butchers. The Age stated:

There are not a dozen respectable citizens in Melbourne who do not entertain an indignant feeling against it for its weakness, its folly and its last crowning error. They do not sympathise with injustice and coercion. [6]

On 5 December, over 4,000 people attended a loyalist meeting called by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne to consider the defence of the town against a possible outbreak of lawlessness and to give the people of Melbourne an opportunity to show their support for the authorities. [7] Both John Pascoe Fawkner and John O’Shanassy called for moderation but this was followed by a speaker in the audience calling upon the government to resign. The Lord Mayor tried to end the meeting by vacating the chair but, instead of leaving, the audience installed a new chairman. A number of speakers maintained that the Colonial Secretary, John Foster was responsible for the recent disaster. A motion that he should be removed from office received overwhelming support and Doctors Embling and Owens were instructed to convey this to Hotham. By Wednesday 6 December, public meetings were being called across Victoria, condemning the government’s actions and newspapers began to appear attacking Hotham. Around 6,000 Melbourne residents gathered outside St. Paul’s on 6 December and refused to support the government’s action, called for the diggers’ grievances to be addressed but condemned the act of rebellion. [8] Meetings were held calling for the release of the prisoners, public representation and liberty and justice. On 9 December, gatherings of about 600 people in Castlemaine and 2,000 in Bendigo opposed the license and condemned the attack on the Stockade. Within a few days, a comprehensive military victory had become a political defeat.

The turmoil in Melbourne was in stark contrast to the prevailing mood in Ballarat. On Tuesday 5 December, the commander of the colony’s military forces Major-General Sir Robert Nickle, who had been knighted in 1841 for his services during the Canadian rebellion, arrived to take command in Ballarat. [9] He successfully lowered the political temperature and his conciliatory manner helped restore public confidence and the Ballarat diggers quickly resumed their normal work. [10] The Argus commented:

The martial law administered by Sir R. Nickle is about as far superior to the Commissioner’s law, under which we have been so long labouring, as it is possible for anything human to be. Had Sir R. Nickle arrived here a few days before, the bloodshed of last Sunday would have been avoided. [11]

Though he condemned the rebellion, he showed his disapproval of the actions that had caused it. [12] Grievances were aired, tension subsided, arms were handed in and martial law was repealed on 9 December. [13] According to the Argus:

…the moral force party, now that they are relieved from the threats and intimidations of the armed agitators, are fast assuming a preponderance. [14]

In the days and weeks that followed the decisive military victory at the Stockade, there was a groundswell of public indignation in Melbourne as well as in Ballarat against what was seen as a brutal over-reaction to a situation largely brought about by the actions of Gold Commission and government officials. Rede, who made the vital decisions in the few days before Eureka, though never blamed by Hotham, was moved from Ballarat remaining on full pay until late in 1855 when Hotham arranged for his appointment as deputy-sheriff of Geelong and commandant of the Volunteer Rifles. He became sheriff of Geelong in 1857, Ballarat in 1868 and Melbourne in 1877. On 16 December, Inspector Foster of Ballarat reported that threats had been made to the lives of several police officers and recommended that most of Ballarat’s pre-Stockade police should be moved out of the area for their own safety.

There were also casualties in government. The public meeting in Melbourne on 5 December called for the resignation of Colonial Secretary Foster. [15] In fact, he had done this the previous day although Hotham did not announce it for a week. Foster had been under relentless attack in the press for several months and every problem in the colony’s government was blamed on him. This was both unjustifiable and unfair since, under Hotham, he had already been deprived of much of his authority. Whether Hotham used Foster as a scapegoat for Eureka is questionable but he was certainly glad to see him go. He could now appoint a Colonial Secretary with whom he could work and who had the people’s confidence. This was clearly evident in his choice of William Haines as Foster’s replacement with whom Hotham quickly developed an excellent working relationship. [16]

What of Hotham’s responsibility for Eureka? To his credit, but to his own detriment, he always accepted full responsibility for the policies that had been followed on the goldfields. However, his action in pursuing the 13 rebels charged with High Treason while protecting government officers at Ballarat with an Act of Indemnity was unpopular with many in the colony. On 10 January 1855, the Gold Fields Commission wrote to Hotham recommending a general amnesty for all those connected with the Stockade, a suggestion he flatly rejected. [17] In addition, Hotham tried to restrict the Gold Field Commission by directing it to avoid the Eureka issue, something it overruled as a violation of its independence. This incident ‘was indicative of the barrier of hostility that was building up between the Governor and the colonists’. [18] Until Eureka, Hotham had retained a degree of public support and, although there was a growing hostility to the government, it was not directed against the Governor. After Eureka, if Hotham had had the ‘instincts of a politician he could easily have salvaged his popularity at this stage’. [19] If he had announced a general amnesty for the Eureka prisoners and waived the gold license pending the Royal Commission’s report, he would have been largely freed from personal blame. By refusing to do both, Hotham found himself the focus for the increasingly emotional reaction to the tragedy of Eureka leading to a very public humiliation when the Eureka prisoners were acquitted of high treason in March 1855.

The Royal Commission released its report in late March 1855 and was scathing in its criticism of the handling of events at Ballarat. Unsurprisingly, it agreed with all of the diggers’ demands, mindful that rebellion might reoccur in the colony. It decided that the causes of the Eureka rebellion included a lack of political rights, the diggers’ inability to buy land and the way the mining license was collected. Although the license was the trigger that led to the unrest, by itself it was not the main cause. The Commission recommended that the license be abolished and replaced with an export duty on gold and that diggers would pay an annual £1 miners’ right. [20] The local courts replaced the hated and corrupt Gold Commission and regulated conditions on the goldfields. On the 14 July 1855, just eight months after the Eureka rebellion, nine members of the mining community, including Raffaelo Carboni, were elected unanimously at Bakery Hill to the local courts. The diggers’ control of the local courts was seen by the mining community as the ‘blood bought rights’ of the Eureka rebellion. The right to elect members to the Legislative Council led to two of the digger leaders, Peter Lalor and John Humffray join the Council in November 1855, less than a year after the massacre. The Commission of Enquiry also recommended that the squatters’ control of the land be broken, and the diggers have the right to buy land. The resultant subdivision of land around mining sites led to the development of some of Victoria’s most important regional towns and cities. ‘The day of arbitrary or despotic rule in Victoria was over’. [21]

The rebels at Eureka found themselves caught up in events that were fast-moving and had armed themselves for defence against the authorities. Yet, their use of the Southern Cross and a defiant rhetoric that went beyond the popular constitutionalism of previous protests led Hotham, with some justification to regard them as involved in rebellion. Unlike the rebellions in the Canadas and in South Wales, there is considerable disagreement about what sort of rebellion Eureka actually was and what it came to mean. For Bob O’Brien:

The attack on the miners at Eureka was something like the slaughter carried out by the Chinese regime on human rights demonstrators in and around Tien An Men Square in 1989…In a sense, the slaughter at Eureka was a riot by administrators, soldiers and police representing the old order of privilege and patronage. They were making a last-ditch attack on the gold-rush immigrants who foreshadowed a new order in which human dignity would be respected. Eureka is ultimately about human rights. [22]

By contrast, Audrey Oldfield suggests:

If viewed as a revolution to gain redress of grievances and greater democracy, it was certainly more successful than most of the greater revolutions in Europe and the uprising in Ireland six years before! [23]

Geoffrey Blainey commented:

Eureka became a legend, a battle-cry for nationalists, republicans, liberals, radicals, or communists, each creed finding in the rebellion the lessons they liked to see…In fact the new colonies’ political constitutions were not affected by Eureka, but the first Parliament that met under Victoria's new constitution was alert to the democratic spirit of the goldfields, and passed laws enabling each adult man in Victoria to vote at elections, to vote by secret ballot, and to stand for the Legislative Assembly. [24]

The extent to which the Eureka Stockade was instrumental in precipitating change and the extent to which change was inevitable remains a point of contention. There can be no doubt however that the Eureka affair has echoed and re-echoed in the national political consciousness down to the present day. The Eureka affair has been variously characterised and mythologised as the cradle of Australian democracy, as a revolt of free men against imperial tyranny, of labour against a privileged ruling class, of independent free enterprise against burdensome taxation, as an expression of multicultural republicanism, and so on. Notwithstanding, this enduring if ambiguous legacy was not apparent in Ballarat in the immediate aftermath of Eureka. The inclination among officials and the Ballarat community alike was to forget the incident. There were also mixed feelings in the general community. Some remained antagonistic, seeing the Stockade episode as the result of the extreme actions of a few hotheads. Indeed, a number of the Stockaders themselves, including Lalor, were quick to move on in respectable and profitable new directions. As a result, the event soon faded from public consciousness, the materials used in the construction of the Stockade were reclaimed for other purposes and its physical trace disappeared. Nevertheless, people did not forget. Geoffrey Blainey again:

It seems to me that Rede and Hotham were determined to push protest into a resistance that be called rebellion and justify suppression…Tragedies like Eureka have occurred and will be repeated across time and throughout the world when governments fail to heed the voice of the people and ignore their needs and rights. [25]

The events that took place at the Eureka Stockade in December 1854 have achieved a privileged status within Australian national mythology. As Stuart Macintyre observed:

The Eureka rebellion became a formative event in the national mythology…its celebrants saw it as a belated counterpart to the Declaration of Independence of the American colonists eighty years earlier, without which a transition to nationhood was incomplete. [26]

The diggers’ resistance at Eureka and the brutal actions of the colonial authorities in suppressing it have taken on a significance exceeding the actual events and accounts of Eureka in various histories of Australia have a tendency to elide the specific details of the incident in favour of situating the event in a narrative of the nation. [27]


[1] Victoria Government Gazette, 4 December 1854 ‘Martial Law at Ballaarat’, Argus, 5 December 1854, p. 4.
[2] ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 6 December 1854, pp. 4-5, detailed the address supporting Hotham in the Legislative Council.
[3] ‘The Legislative Council’, Argus, 8 December 1854, p. 4.
[4] See, ‘The Governor and the Foreigners, To the Editor of the Argus’, Argus, 22 January 1855, p. 5, and ‘Amnesty to Americans’, Argus, 23 January 1855, p. 4, was highly critical of what it termed as ‘favouritism towards American citizens…displayed by Sir Charles Hotham’.
[5] Ibid, MacFarlane, Ian, (ed.), Eureka From the Official Records, pp. 205-207, contains a list of those arrested.
[6] The Age, 5 December 1854.
[7] ‘Defence of the City, Great Public Meeting’, Argus, 5 December 1854, p. 7.
[8] ‘Meeting for the Protection of Constitutional Liberty’, Argus, 7 December 1854, p. 5.
[9] McNicoll, Ronald, ‘Sir Robert Nickle (1786-1855)’, ADB, Vol. 5, pp. 339-340.
[10] On the return to normality in Ballarat, see ‘Ballaarat’, Argus, 7 December 1854, p. 4, and a report a week later, ‘Ballaarat’, Argus 18 December 1854, p. 5.
[11] ‘Geelong’, Argus, 9 December 1854, p. 5
[12] SLV, MS 13518, Charles Evans, Diary, 6 December 1854, p. 145, echoed this view: ‘He [Nickle] stepped out of his carriage as the troops were on their way to the Camp & addressed them in very sensible & politic, he seemed to deplore the late sacrifice of life & expressed him anxious to do all in his power to restore confidence & tranquillity’. On 8 December, Evans wrote: ‘The temperate attitude assumed by Sir Robert Nichol has done a good deal toward restoring confidence & the majority seem earnestly desirous of peace. The late lamentable occurrences have been most disastrous to both diggers and storekeepers -trade has been all but suspended…’
[13] This was announced in the Government Gazette, 6 December 1854, ‘Revocation of Martial Law in Ballaarat’, Argus, 8 December 1854, p. 5.
[14] ‘Geelong’, Argus, 9 December 1854, p. 5
[15] ‘Mr Foster’s Resignation’, Argus, 7 December 1854, p. 4.
[16] ‘Causes of Revolt’, Argus, 6 December 1854, p. 6, attacked Foster.
[17] ‘Ballaarat’, Argus, 11 January 1855, p. 5, ‘The Approaching Trials’, Argus, 13 January 1855, p. 4, ‘The Amnesty’, Argus, 20 January 1855, p. 4.
[18] Ibid, Charles Hotham, p. 159.
[19] Ibid, p. 163.
[20] Connelly, C. N. ‘Miners’ Rights’, Curthoys, A., and Markus, A., (eds.), Who are Our Enemies? Racism and the Australian Working-class, (Hale and Iremonger), 1978, pp. 35-47.
[21] Ibid, Molony, John, Eureka, p. 175.
[22] Ibid, Massacre at Eureka.
[23] Oldfield, Audrey, The Great Republic of the Southern Seas: Republicans in Nineteenth-Century Australia, (Hale & Iremonger), 1999, p. 195.
[24] Ibid, Blainey, Geoffrey, The Rush that Never Ended, pp. 56-57.
[25] Blainey, Geoffrey, ‘The Significance of Eureka’, 2004, quoted in The Eureka Echo, Vol. 23, (4), (2004).
[26] Macintyre, Stuart, A Concise History of Australia, (Cambridge University Press), 1999, p. 90.
[27] Elder, Catriona Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity, (Allen & Unwin), 2007, pp. 23-40.

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