Eureka Stockade, Australia, 1854

Swearing Allegiance to the Southern Cross, watercolour by Charles Doudiet, Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Depiction of the Eureka Stockade by Beryl Ireland (1891)

The spark that detonated rebellion came in October 1854 with the murder of a digger. The culprit, his mates had good reason to think, was the publican of the Eureka Hotel at Ballarat and a known crony of the goldfields police. A mob of 5000 angry diggers burned the pub down. Three diggers who were marginally involved in the bonfire and riot were arrested: yet another injustice. When a deputation of diggers-Humffray, Black and Kennedy-went to Melbourne to petition for their mates’ release, Governor Hotham promised to look into the affair but then ordered police and companies from two regiments, the 12th (East Suffolk) and the 40th (Somerset) to march to Ballarat, a decision that broke any trust the diggers had in him.

On 29 November 1854 thousands of diggers gathered in the sunshine on Bakery Hill, beneath a flag of their own devising, the Southern Cross. The German Friedrich Vern called upon them to burn their licences rather than submit to the government. Peter Lalor spoke next, reminding the men that here was tyranny as bad as that in old Ireland. The Italian Raffaello Carboni, who had come to Australia to find happiness, wine and song, called on them to fight tyranny. Not for the last time in dramatic episodes in Australian history, the grog had been freely passed around, and when a couple of diggers burned their licences hundreds more threw theirs into a great bonfire.

Next day, when Commissioner Rede and his force attempted to inspect licences he was greeted with jeers, oaths and laughter. ‘We’ve burned them! ‘ the diggers shouted and marched in a mob through the heat to Bakery Hill. Here, in the late afternoon, Lalor again hoisted the Southern Cross and called upon all those among the 2 0 0 0 assembled who were willing to fight, to stand together. Kneeling in the dust, he led them in an oath: ‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.’ It was stirring, but it was treason. Others shouted for the vote, for short parliaments, for democracy.

1854: Eureka Stockade Battle

Over the next two days the diggers built a fortress from timber slabs on Bakery Hill-the Eureka Stockade-and fashioned crude pikes from staves and knives. Lalor organised them into ‘divisions’ like an army, under the command of his confederates, Ross (a Canadian) and Thonen (a German). Few of the rebels had guns. By Saturday night only 150 diggers were still with Lalor, the rest having melted away.

It was Sunday, 3 December 1854, and this battle was being fought on the goldfields of Ballarat, Victoria, between Peter Lalor and his band of goldminers sheltering in a makeshift fortress-the Eureka Stockade-and the freshly arrived forces of the British colonial government of Victoria, troops from Melbourne with police in support.

The government forces had crept out of their nearby camp under the cover of darkness and quietly assembled within striking distance of the stockade by 3 a. m., when they started their surprise attack.

These troops were just as ruthless as Major Johnston’s had been in 1804, cunningly waiting till most miners had left the stockade on Saturday night to return home to families and attend church on the Sabbath. Although 800 miners had been guarding the stockade, only 200 had stayed-including Lalor-in case of attack.

Captain J. W. Thomas now began advancing stealthily towards the stockade leading his party of 276 men, all armed to the teeth with the latest weapons. They included 152 infantry, 24 cavalry and 100 mounted and foot police.

The troops had timed their attack well, as most of the remaining miners were sound asleep, but one alert sentry saw their shadowy shapes and fired a shot.

Captain Thomas warned his men: `We are seen. Forward and steady, men! Don’t fire, let the insurgents fire first. You wait for the sound of the bugle’. Meanwhile, the miners woken by the sentry’s shot leapt to their feet, groped for weapons and rushed to man the barricade with rifles, revolvers, cutlasses, swords, pikes, pitchforks or whatever they could lay their hands on.

Just 300 metres short of the stockade, Thomas ordered his centre section to prepare for a full frontal assault, one section to advance on the right flank and another on the left, to prevent miners-such as Lalor-escaping. He also ordered a final section to remain behind as reserves.

Then the troops charged, running across the open ground straight for the makeshift fortification which they could just see in the dark, along with the glint of the gun barrels and blades brandished by determined defenders. These defenders waited until the troops got to within 150 metres of the stockade and then opened fire, sending a scattered volley into the uniformed ranks, felling several men, who fell clutching their wounds.

Taking aim at an officer directing the troops, one of the miners shot Captain Henry Wise, who stumbled wounded to the ground. Picking himself up, the bleeding captain bravely pushed on only to be shot again, a wound that would prove fatal eighteen days later.

The miners let out a whoop of joy. Their first hit at officer level. Things were looking good. The army bugler then sounded his long-awaited signal and the disciplined troops opened fire in the pre-dawn light, from the front and both flanks, pouring lead into the stockade and the poorly armed souls defending their wooden fort.

Miners lucky enough to have rifles or revolvers tried to shoot back; others, like the Irish pikemen, had to wait for hand-to-hand combat. But the miners had neither the training nor the weapons of the troops and could not stop them targeting miner after miner, filling the stockade with wounded and dying men.

Firing his rifle at the fast-approaching troops, Lalor was shouting encouragement to his men when he was shot in the left arm and knocked to the ground. Knowing he would be a prime target once the troopers scaled the stockade, Lalor took refuge under a pile of timber, then called out to a couple of comrades to help whisk him away before it got light. Amid the smoke, noise and confusion of the battle, the two smuggled their wounded leader out through an opening at the rear of the stockade.

Realising they were overwhelmed, Lalor urged others to escape. But it was too late. When the troops scaled the barricades they shot or bayoneted any miners resisting them. Captain Thomas demanded the miners surrender. Routed, they threw down their arms.

By the time the troopers let up-twenty-five minutes after the battle began-they had killed fourteen miners outright (most of whom were Irish) and wounded another eight who later died of wounds. They also wounded twelve others (including Peter Lalor), who all escaped and recovered, and also captured 100 prisoners.

After the battle the government forces killed at least two more. Witnesses said some of the troops `ran amok’ and killed two bystanders before destroying the miners’ tents and property. The miners were so outclassed that defenceless women ran forward and threw themselves over the injured to prevent further indiscriminate killing by the troops.

Some of the wounded fled to surrounding bush, where they died a lonely death without being counted in the toll. The official record of deaths in the Ballarat District Register shows twenty-seven names associated with the stockade battle at Eureka.

By 8 a. m. Captain Pasley, the second-in-command of the British forces, sickened by the carnage, saved a group of prisoners from being bayoneted and threatened to shoot any police or soldiers who continued with the slaughter. But some soldiers and police did go wild, destroying tents and property without reason, bayoneting the wounded and even shooting two innocent bystanders. Because of this aftermath, some witnesses called Eureka a massacre.

Lalor certainly agreed, writing:

As the inhuman brutalities practised by the troops are so well known, it is unnecessary for me to repeat them. There were 34 digger casualties of which 22 died. The unusual proportion of the killed to the wounded is owing to the butchery of the military and troopers after the surrender.

The battle might have been overwhelmingly one-sided and brief, but the miners put up a brave fight in their short-lived attempt to defend their stockade and the call for freedom that the fortress represented. They did better than their Irish predecessors at Vinegar Hill in 1804.

Seventeen soldiers and one trooper were killed or wounded, twenty-four diggers lay dead; another twenty or more wounded (including Lalor, who was hidden by a priest and later had his arm amputated). The 114 prisoners were thrown into gaol to await trial. The bourgeois shuddered at word of Eureka. Even Henry Parkes called the revolt an ‘un-British error’ probably caused by foreigners. He was correct: of the fourteen diggers killed on the day, eight were Irish and two German. One was an Englishman and only one was Australian-born. Hotham made one last error: he ordered that thirteen of the ringleaders be charged with high treason, the only penalty for which was death. The trial became a farce and the sentences were lenient. David Syme’s Age pronounced the general feeling: It was the government that was rotten, not the people. When Governor Hotham caught a chill and died in early 1855, much of the bitterness of Eureka was buried with him.

Eureka would live on in folklore as the day of the Good Fight. ‘Stand up my young Australian, in the brave light of the sun, and hear how Freedom’s battle was in the old days lost-and won,’Victor Daley (another Irish nationalist) would write in ballad. ‘Ere the year was over, Freedom rolled in like a flood/They gave us all we asked for-when we asked for it in blood.’

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