the unfinished revolution
PETER FitzSimons opens Eureka: The Unfinished Revolution with the extraordinary claim: ‘‘ Like most Australians, the saga of Eureka Stockade is in the very marrow of my bones.’’ It may well be in his bones — a youth of the 1960s — but he can be assured today’s schoolchildren know little or nothing about it.
According to research published by Anna Clark a few years ago, students learn mainly about Aboriginal history, Federation and Australia’s role in World War I. They told Clark they hated Australian history and were bored out of their minds. In this they resemble their ancestors from the 50s who claimed they were bored out of their minds by tracing explorers’ journeys across the landscape. Pity they didn’t tell us what really happened on those trips.
FitzSimons’s book may provide one remedy. His Eureka is a great tale, a rollicking story with momentum that sweeps the reader along to the climactic explosion of violence. His vivid description of the blood and guts of the ultimate battle, not to mention the gory details of an operation to remove Peter Lalor’s arm, should jolt teenagers to attention.
But don’t think the book is just for teenagers. I loved it. FitzSimons has found fascinating details that I never knew before. For instance, he includes a marvellous quote from Friedrich Engels. News of trouble on the Ballarat goldfields quickly percolated back to London. Writing to Karl Marx in September 1851, three years before Eureka, an excited Engels predicted:
The British will be thrown out and the united states of deported murderers, burglars, rapists and pickpockets will startle the world by demonstrating what wonders can be performed by a state consisting of undisguised rascals. They will beat California hollow. But whereas in California rascals are still lynched, in Australia they’ll lynch the gentry . . .
FitzSimons is a republican, which shapes his interpretation. As he admits, Eureka lends itself to many versions. In his case, a colleague at SBS radio suggested he focus on the multicultural aspect, which he did, along with what he argues is the republican spirit evident at Eureka. It makes a change from casting it as an exclusively Irish rebellion or just a little dummy spit about a mining tax. Or purely an example of free-settler courage in Victoria, which was how it was once viewed.
All approaches have their pitfalls because a question leaps off the page. If this is, as FitzSimons insists, a defining Australian rebellion, where are the Australians?
As the narrator, FitzSimons locates himself among the diggers. He writes as an Australian, he describes a culture on the goldfields that we recognise as Australian: where else but in a former penal colony would so many people unnecessarily announce they are free men?
But most of the multicultural leaders on whom FitzSimons concentrates had been in the country barely two years. There is a potential argument that, like Charles Hotham, the governor of Victoria, who had been there less than six months, they misunderstood the community to which they had immigrated.
Ah, you say, but Australia was created by people like this, on the goldfields. Well, no, it wasn’t. There had been nearly 70 years of Australian European history before Eureka. During this period, convicts and their children created a working-class community with a strong egalitarian ethos that was enforced by the power of their numbers over a tiny middle class. The gentry had been expecting Engels’s ‘‘ lynch mob’’ for years.
Another peculiarity enforced by the local community was the insistence that newcomers did not import cultural or religious strife from their homeland. That included Ireland. Almost a decade before Eureka, Irish Catholics used this strong ethos to protect the religious equality they had achieved with the assistance of governor Richard Bourke. ‘‘ That great and good man,’’ as John Harpur, a convict’s son described Bourke, ‘‘ had secured to the colony, the blessing of religious equality.’’ Harpur promised to guard it by every means in his power. Others present at the large meeting swore they would never allow the Protestant ascendancy of Ireland ‘‘ to contaminate the land of our adoption’’. Hardly a vote for rebellion.
FitzSimons misses this nuanced background because he shares with other writers an assumption that Eureka was the start of real Australian history, that what preceded it was some unspeakably brutal hellhole not worth examining. Convicts are represented mainly by the fearmongering stereotypes of the anti-transportation campaign.
Context is otherwise a strength of Eureka. FitzSimons has done an excellent job in comparing and contrasting the goldfields of Victoria and NSW: the issues were the same, but the process different. Peaceful negotiation in one colony; bloodshed in the other.
In my opinion, FitzSimons conveys more successfully than others how the authorities realised they had lost control. Experienced administrators in NSW, who had monitored the temperature of the penal colony for decades, recognised it would be fatal to oppose the diggers outright. They must negotiate, just as they had done many times before, when the same men were convicts. In Victoria, Charles Joseph La Trobe reached a similar conclusion, but much more slowly. Nevertheless, before ending his term as lieutenant-governor, he recommended that the tax on miners should be replaced by a tax on gold.
Multiculturalism proved a mixed blessing. The many Americans who were urging the rebellion’s leader Peter Lalor to fight imported the gun culture that was rampant on their own goldfields. Much of the republican sentiment that FitzSimons detects was theirs. And it was a Canadian with pretensions to greatness who drafted a wordy declaration of independence. The Germans, too, greeted the prospect of battle with Prussian fervour and diligently made lethal weapons. Raffaello Carboni, who had been disappointed in his hopes for Garibaldi in Italy, transposed them to Eureka. As a witness, he is entitled to be heard, but FitzSimons recognises the need to balance his interpretation with other sources. Lalor’s agenda had been fashioned in Ireland rather than locally. He wanted ‘‘ independence’’.
And finally, for all their enthusiastic drilling, the diggers were caught by surprise on December 3, 1854. Of the estimated 500 men who had sworn the Eureka oath, only 120 were in the stockade when the troops attacked. Some came later. Many just melted away. It prevented a greater slaughter, perhaps, but it also prevents us from assessing more accurately the response of those usually pragmatic negotiators. They were angry. As FitzSimons rightly points out, the miners’ tax transgressed their idea of a ‘‘ fair go’’. But when it came to a fight, would they have bothered?
As a historian I can pay FitzSimons no greater compliment than to say his work triggered new insights for me. Furthermore, he has given it gravitas with footnotes, bibliography, index and taken care to rest his interpretation mainly on primary sources.
Much as I would like to agree with him, I think he overreaches with his claims about ‘‘ the republican spirit’’ and about Eureka’s significance for Australian democracy, but he’s not alone in that. Many have shaped Eureka to their personal predilection. Few have written about it so vividly as FitzSimons.
(1854) by witness Charles Doudiet