As we approach the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Eureka Stockade much is being done to remind us of the events of 3 December 1854. Unfortunately a lot of what is said and done will be at the expense of the settlers of the Port Phillip District era.
Dr. Herbert V. Evatt made an oft repeated claim that "Australian democracy was born at Eureka". Even if one ignores the technicality that Australia as a nation did not exist until 1901 there is still reason to question this claim. What, for example, are we to make of the events leading up to Victoria's independence from New South Wales? Could not the series of public meetings, elections and petitions by the residents of the Port Phillip District that led to independence be called a democratic process?
One of the complaints that led the early settlers to seek separation from New South Wales was that the taxes they were required to pay were going to Sydney and not being spent to advance the Port Phillip District. Later issues included the difficulties of being adequately represented in the N.S.W. Legislative Council and attempts to land British convicts at Melbourne. Few of settlers who celebrated the creation of the separate Colony of Victoria from 1 July 1851 would have forseen the turmoil of the years that followed. The census in March 1851 showed a population of 77,345 persons. By the time of the next census in April 1854 the population had more than tripled to 236,798 persons.
Gold had been found on a number of occasions prior to 1851 but efforts were made to keep these secret. However when experienced miners began returning from the Californian goldfields and started making finds in New South Wales the government in Victoria decided to encourage goldmining here lest there be a mass exodus to the north. Even so, the finds in Victoria led many to desert Melbourne.
In August 1851 Lt.Gov. Charles Joseph La Trobe sought to gain some control by introducing licences of 30s. per month for gold-seekers. This fee was only payable after a claim had been staked out. Even so, there was strong opposition to the fee from the start and La Trobe received much criticism. The police who tried to enforce the licencing system even became known as 'Joe's' after his second name. However, what began as a justifiable attempt to control 'gold fever' went too far when the individual policemen who made an arrest became eligible to receive half of any fine imposed. This inevitably led to overpolicing and corruption.
Charles La Trobe had to contend with problems of his own during this time. The health of his wife Sophie, who had not been in good health from the beginning of their stay in Melbourne, and who had had an accidental fall in 1848, was progressively worsening. In June 1853 she sailed for Europe for medical treatment but died in Switzerland at the end of January 1854. Even though Charles had resigned as Lt.Governor he stayed on in the position awaiting a replacement. He eventually sailed for England in May 1854, not long after hearing of his wife's death.
Before he left, Charles La Trobe tried to abolish the system of miner's licences in favour of an export tax on gold. This was not supported by the Legislative Council, though they did reduce the licence fee. La Trobe's replacement was Sir Charles Hotham, a naval officer, who commenced on a salary of £10,000 a year (five times that of La Trobe's salary of £2,000 p.a.). Under Hotham miners conditions worsened. The police continued to receive half of the fines that resulted from their arrests and in September 1854 licence inspections were increased from once a month to twice a week.
A chain of events soon began in the Ballarat area. A miner died in a fight at the Eureka Hotel resulting in the hotel being burnt down. The miners began to organise to protest at government corruption and to gain representation from their taxes. In November 1854 the Ballarat Reform League was established. On 28 November the miners attacked a detachment of soldiers arriving from Melbourne. On 29 November a protest meeting was held on Bakery Hill at which the Eureka flag was first used. The following day hundreds of miners swore "by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties." A large number of these miners were from Europe or America. A stockade was built at the mainly Irish Eureka Lead. Early on the morning of 3 December 1854 a force of over 250 soldiers and police arrived from Melbourne and stormed the Eureka Stockade.
Even though there were faults on both sides there is undoubtedly a definite romance about the events of the Eureka Stockade. It is also a reminder that while most "Australians" are easy going and believe in a 'fair go' for all, there is a breaking point beyond which oppression will be opposed with force.
Contributed by Alexander Romanov-Hughes (PPPG Member No. 52)
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