Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Protest in 1853: growing tensions

The most serious incident took place at Castlemaine in early May 1853 and was significant for several reasons: the unprecedented levels of violence used by the police, the reaction of the diggers, and the ineffectiveness of their representatives. [1] A party of police led by Inspector Christian raided the Mount Alexander Coffee House throwing out the sixty occupants (including women and children), dismantling the tents and impounding them and all their contents at the Government Camp.[2] The tents’ proprietors were thrown in the lock-up. The reason for the raid was that John Mangan, a Vandemonian policeman had informed Christian that illegal liquor was being sold there. In this case however, those arrested were respected citizens, the charges were dismissed the following day by the magistrates and Mangan arrested for perjury and convicted on 9 June. [3] The diggers reacted provocatively by drilling volunteer bodies of men and, perhaps because of this, ‘several gentlemen of station, wealth and influence’ immediately called a meeting. They were the business and professional √©lite from the town, individuals who would eventually become town councillors and who resented that control over both town and goldfield lay with officials in the Government Camp. About a thousand people assembled at four o’clock on Monday, 9 May on Agitation Hill. [4]

‘Professor’ Jackson, a phrenologist and Baptist preacher chaired the meeting. He had been an eyewitness to the police raid. Adams, keeper of one of the tents, was a member of his congregation and when he went to support Adams, had been threatened with arrest. Mr Hitchcock, auctioneer, then proposed a motion that: ‘…the whole of the district is so tyrannised over and disturbed, that this meeting declares its solemn belief that we are on the eve of a general revolution’. Dr William Preshaw [5] who had arrived in Castlemaine a year before supported:

...the foregoing resolution with all my heart and soul and strength, and wealth and influence...and I do so as an out-and-out Tory and conservative; but as an out-and-out radical if necessary…

Then came Owen Jones, [6] auctioneer, of Campbells Creek:

The tyranny of the Government has been such that, unless people take steps to intercept a despotic invasion of their constitutional rights, the relentless and unscrupulous authorities would take further now becomes an obligation with the residents on the diggings to be unanimous and not trampled on.

This was confrontational rhetoric demanding compensation and a change in police leadership in the area and was no longer simply protest by petition.

Three People’s Commissioners were appointed to present the meeting’s grievances to La Trobe and to demand immediate compensation for those who suffered the loss of property. The situation was defused, in large part through the deft handling of the Chief Gold Commissioner. Compensation was given, though Wright was accused by the People’s Commissioners of having bullied the victims into accepting lower terms.[7] Inspector Christian, who led the initial raid, was eventually transferred. [8] Jackson claimed to have met with La Trobe something the Governor denied in a despatch to London. La Trobe also hinted of financial irregularities in the conduct of one or more of the People’s Commissioners which, if true, may account for the subsequent weakness of the diggers’ movement in the Castlemaine area. [9]

That there were so few incidents, despite the provocative actions of those managing the goldfields, reflected the respect held for constituted authority by most diggers but La Trobe should have seen the warning signs. He did not recognise and remained unmoved by the fundamental inhumanity of the system seeing protest as the actions of a small minority of ‘agitators’, ‘people of no account’ or ‘foreigners’ though this was recognised in NSW:

The system of Government is barbarous, incompetent, wildly severe or else loosely inapt and ineffective—terrified with nightmare phantoms, or incapable of seeing danger where it really lies. Legislation in Victoria partakes of the same vices. Can it be expected that Government officials of any grade will escape this infection? [10]

La Trobe’s complacency was to be rudely challenged in the months ahead.

[1] Melbourne Morning Herald, 16, 17, 23 May, 23 June 1853, provides the broad narrative though Serle, p. 404, is right when he says that: ‘the sources are tantalizing in their inadequacy’.

[2] Annear, Robyn, and Bannear, David, Call it the miner's right, (Friends of Mount Alexander Diggings), 2005.

[3] For the Mangan case see, ‘Important Intelligence, Castlemaine Police Court’, Argus, 9 May 1853, p. 9, when Mangan gave perjured evidence and was arrested, and ‘Mount Alexander’, Argus, 11 June 1853, p. 4.

[4] ‘Public Meeting, Castlemaine’, Argus, 11 May 1853, p. 4, and a an extended article, ‘Important Public Meeting, Castlemaine’, Argus, 16 May 1853, p. 13.

[5] Dr William Fisher Preshaw (1810-1866), n.d., (Castlemaine Art Gallery and Museum).

[6] Bradfield, Raymond A., Owen Jones: Labour pioneer on the Castlemaine goldfield, (R. A. Bradfield), 1983.

[7] ‘Mount Alexander’, Argus, 11 June 1853, p. 4, stated that three of the four claimants had settled with amounts ‘much smaller in amount than those which had been assessed’ since the government had already re-erected the destroyed buildings reducing the compensation paid and had refused to pay for any loss of business and that the claimants were willing to settled out of court.

[8] A further incident of pulling down tents of sly-groggers by Inspector Christian occurred later in May, Argus, 2 June 1853, p. 5. This drew comment from magistrates when they dismissed the case that Christian’s action was ‘highly censurable’ and from the Argus, ‘How is it that Mr. Christian's superiors tolerate such proceedings? If Mr. Christian has not common sense enough to discern right from wrong, why retain such a man in the service?’

[9] Gervasoni, Clare, and Wickham, Dorothy, (eds.), Castlemaine Petitions, (Ballarat Heritage Services), 1998.

[10] ‘The Affair at Castlemaine’, Empire, 24 May 1853, p. 2.

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