Wednesday, December 3, 2014

160th Anniversary of the Eureka Rebellion

Miners thoughtfully providing Her Majesty's Forces live fire and bayonet practice targets
Today marks the 160th anniversary of the Eureka Rebellion: the nearest to civil war any colony came in pre-federation Australian history.

Those familiar with the English Civil War and the American Revolution will be familiar with the cause; No taxation without representation! 

Miners were forced to buy a license to be permitted to prospect for gold. They maintained that it was an onerous imposition on free enterprise, the more so that they were not allowed the vote. Enforcement of the license by authorities was heavy handed and corrupt, Further exacerbating ill-feelings. Protests against the license escalated until they got out of hand with the death of a miner and the burning down of the Eureka Hotel in revenge after the hotel owner was acquitted of the murder. Radicalised miners built a stockade in Ballarat and swore an oath under the Southern Cross flag.

Authorities in the form of mounted police and detachments of the  12th (East Suffolk) Regiment of Foot and 40th (2nd Somersetshire) Regiment of Foot assaulted the stockade at 3 am on the 3rd of December 1859 in a short, sharp engagement. The whole affair was over in ten minutes. At least 22 miners died with allegations of the killings continuing after the miners had surrendered. There were at least 5 dead in the assaulting party as well.

In the subsequent trial of the ringleaders, they were all acquitted of charges of High Treason by a sympathetic jury. Leader Peter Lalor eventually became a pillar of the establishment, elected to Parliament and eventually becoming Speaker of the House!

I have a family connection to the rebellion. On my paternal grandmother's side of the family, an ancestor was involved as a messenger on the rebel side, as he was too young to fight. I'll have to do a bit of genealogical investigation to get the full story.

Unfortunately the flag has been co-opted by all sorts of causes, from the far-left militant unions who view the affair through a Marxist lens as workers asserting their rights against the bosses, to the far-right who use it as a nationalist symbol of exclusion. In reality the rebellion was more like a protest of small businessmen against the stifling hand of bureaucracy, not that of the oppressed workers and definitely not a white-power struggle. The protesters had a large foreign flavour with miners from all over Britain and Europe and especially the USA.


  1. Fascinating bit of history and intriguing personal tie to the event. Being educated in the USA, I never heard of this brief, but sharp, conflict before now.
    Thank you!

  2. An important anniversary that is, I reckon, best understood as a complex intersection of lots of issues informed by lots of ideas from all over the world, brought together by the gold rush. The rebel leaders were acquitted in Melbourne because the events fed into wider debates around political rights, ties with the Empire and workers' organisation, but in a rather muddled way. It is a shame, as you say, that people are determined to shove the thing into one or another ideological myth, especially when the international character of the rebels is so often ignored. There's a rather excellent Ealing movie, with Chips Rafferty as Lalor, that was re-released on video some years ago. Well worth watching if you can track it down.

  3. Thanks for this, I found it quite fascinating, and like my friend Jonathan, it is a story I've never heard of before. I suppose the McKenzine-Papineau rising of 1837 is a similar event from Canadian history and has been similarly mythologized.


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