The Eureka Rebellion

Few moments in Australian history were as pivotal and as defining as the bloody Eureka rebellion which took place on the goldfields of colonial Australia in the early 1850's. The gold digger's revolt of 1854 was an event that forged democracy and made roads to the birth of a nation. 

Battle of the Eureka Stockade, by J. B. Henderson

Battle of the Eureka Stockade, by J. B. Henderson

In 1851, a man by the name of Thomas Hiscock discovered gold on the outskirts of Ballarat in the British Crown colony of Victoria in Australia (modern day state of Victoria, Australia). This discovery fueled the beginning of a mass influx of diggers to the region which became known as the Great Victorian Gold Rush, which lasted for many years. In 1851 Victoria had also just achieved separation from the New South Wales colony to become its own colony which was quite the historic time for the region. Hiscock's discovery led the Victorian government to proclaim crown rights on gold discoveries, and introduced a mining licence fee of 30 shillings per month, introduced just days after Hiscock's discovery.

In response the miners of the region held a rally in protest of the licence, as they were not even entitled to vote or own land at the time. It was the first of many rallies, as discontent was brewing among the digging camps, aimed squarely at the government.

Within just a few months the government announced its intentions to triple the mining licence fee up to £3 per month (approximately $400 per month in today's value). This led to mass protests throughout the colony and considerable outrage in the community. The government quickly backed down on its plans due to the reaction. Over the course of 1853 the government ramped up its licence checking considerably, so much so it was happening twice per week, which was incensing the miners to boiling point. In Bendigo frustrations nearly took the form of a rebellion.

Then things turned ugly. The real catalyst for the outbreak of violence in the region was the murder of James Scobie in October 1854.

Burning of Bentley's Hotel, by Charles Doudiet

Burning of Bentley's Hotel, by Charles Doudiet

James Scobie was a Scottish digger who was trying his luck at the goldfields, and one day he was killed at a local tavern, and all evidence pointed toward the tavern owner James Bentley as the culprit. Bentley was arrested and brought before the Ballarat court on the same day but his case was swiftly dismissed due to lack of evidence, although many suspected that Bentley had bribed the local magistrate.

The mining community was absolutely furious that Bentley had gotten away with it, so they organised a meeting outside Bentley's tavern ten days later, where as many as 10,000 miners were in attendance. The events fueled into a full scale riot and led to the burning down of Bentley's tavern. The local soldiers were outnumbered and unable to quell the riot at the time.

Several days later the men responsible for the riot and hotel fire were arrested. This further aggravated the situation which led to a meeting of over 4,000 miners, who agreed to create a 'Digger's Rights Society' to establish a group to fight for digger's rights.

A fortnight later, 10,000 diggers gathered at Bakery Hill to form the Ballarat Reform League, and John Basson Hummfray was chosen as chairman. Hummfray, as well as other leaders of the league, had been involved with the Chartist movement in England and were well positioned to fight for the rights of diggers.

A few days later the League's leaders began the first of many negotiation meetings with the Colony's Commissioner Robert Rede and the Governor of Victoria Sir Charles Hotham. At these negotiations they discussed many matters including the death of Scobie, the treatment of diggers, taxation without representation and the right to vote. By the 16th November, Governor Hotham started a Royal Commission to get to the bottom of the Goldfields' issues. Rede wasn’t particularly concerned with the issues of the diggers and instead of listening to their troubles, he decided to increase the police presence in Ballarat.

A few days later new evidence came to light in the death of Scobie, and Bentley faced trial again, this time he was brought to the colony capital (Melbourne). Bentley, as well as William Hance and Thomas Farrell were all found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three years hard labour.

Several days later the men responsible for the riot and hotel fire were brought to trial in Melbourne. Rioters Thomas Fletcher, Andrew McIntyre, and Henry Westerly were found guilty but the jury recommended mercy. The men were all sentenced to three to six months prison. Rede's reinforcements made their march from Melbourne by the end of the month, and were met by swarms of angry diggers when they arrived.

Swearing allegiance to the Southern Cross, by Charles Doudiet

Swearing allegiance to the Southern Cross, by Charles Doudiet

On the 29th November, a group of over 12,000 diggers attended the Reform League meeting where it was conveyed that negotiations with the government had failed. It was at this meeting that the miners planned to resist the government and burn their digging licenses. Rede responded by ordering a license search the next day where 8 miners were arrested. The arresting officers were swarmed by an angry mob and had to be rescued by the British soldiers. Soon after the League elected a new leader in Peter Lalor, as the League adopted a new position of force rather than negotiation. Lalor quickly mobilised the diggers into military divisions.

The diggers commenced building a stockade enclosure out of loose timber in readiness for the government response. On December 1, 500 miners had their final pivotal meeting inside the Stockade, where Lalor spoke the 'Eureka Oath', to defy the tyranny and harassment of the government. The diggers pledged their allegiance, and raised the new Eureka flag, and burned their licenses.

Loyalties were starting to become tested within the ranks of the rebels by December 2, where Lalor's actions were becoming more anti-British than anti-government. Late in the afternoon of December 2, Americans of the Californian Independent Rangers arrived to support the rebels, numbering around 200. The leader of the Rangers took his troops away from the stockade to intercept the British reinforcements, however Commissioner Rede became aware of this. Most of the rebels left the stockade for the night and went back to their tents, believing the British wouldn’t attack the next day as it was a Sabbath day. Only a small number of miners remained inside the stockade overnight, Rede was also made aware of this, and used it to his advantage.

In the early hours of December 3, the police and two regiments of British soldiers numbering 276 approached the stockade, which then commenced the battle. The battle for all its fury and carnage was over in just 10 minutes, with the diggers routed.  Lalor was seriously wounded in the battle but was smuggled out of the stockade.

In the end the diggers suffered 34 casualties including 22 fatalities, with 114 captured diggers being to sent to the nearby government camp.  There were six casualties from the police and soldiers.

Once news of the events reached Melbourne, the citizens were outraged by the government's actions and turned out in their thousands to protest. The day after the events at the stockade, Henry Seekamp, the editor of the Ballarat Times, was arrested for a series of pro-digger articles he published. He was brought to trial in January and convicted of seditious libel. He was sentenced to six months prison, but only served three.

Thirteen of the captured diggers faced trial in Melbourne in February, charged with high treason. The first man to face trial was American John Joseph, who was quickly acquitted by the jury which led to rapturous applause as 10,000 people had turned out to see the trial. The judge not impressed, sentenced two of the applauders to a week in jail for contempt. Joseph was championed around the streets of Melbourne as all of the other men on trial were also quickly acquitted.

The events led to significant reforms in Victoria over the next 12 months, where gold digging licenses were abolished, legislative representation was expanded to the Goldfields region, and both leaders of the League, Humffray and Lalor, were elected into the Victorian government. By 1857, all white males had earned the right to vote in Victoria.