Eureka Stock­ade:

the un­fin­ished rev­o­lu­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Ba­bette Smith

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.

Swear­ing Al­le­giance to the South­ern Cross

(1854) by wit­ness Charles Doudiet

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