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November 29 and the Birth of Australian Democracy
Ian MacDougal is a long-time Webdiarist and occasional, highly valued contributor. His last contribution was Gaia's revenge - review of James Lovelock's, The Revenge of Gaia.
by Ian MacDougal
On Thursday the 29th of November, 1854, near the Eureka lead of the Ballarat goldfield, a crowd of about 12,000 miners held a meeting, which they concluded with an extraordinary ceremony. The only eyewitness account is the one provided by the linguist turned miner Raffaello Carboni, who wrote it down in English, which was not his first language:
The history of The Crusaders in Palestine is as it may be. And somewhere in Australian literature, or the world’s for that matter, there might be a more moving account by a witness to a significant historical event. But I have yet to read it.
The flag that fascinated Carboni and electrified all (except presumably the government spies among the diggers – it probably horrified them) was not the emblem of some state power over which the diggers had no electoral influence. That is, it was not the sort of flag they were used to. It was their flag.
There were at least 25,000 miners on the whole Ballarat field at the time. The 500 who swore the oath were the armed contingent. They had mainly pistols, but their number included American mounted riflemen. Many also had pikes that had been made on the field. Carboni was an Italian. The 27-year old designer of the flag, ‘Captain’ Henry Ross, was a Canadian. Peter Lalor, the militant who took charge after the embarrassing failure of the Chartists’ moderate approach, was an Irishman (as were the majority of the diggers).
The issues of the Eureka rebellion were straightforward, and it is not my purpose here to give a detailed account. (That has been done very well elsewhere, by John Molony and others: see the notes and links below.) All miners’ claims were subject to an onerous licence fee of 30 shillings a month for a 3.6 square metre claim – a hellish expense, particularly since it was payable whether gold was discovered or not. Storekeepers on the field likewise had to buy equally expensive licences. By contrast, the wealthy squatters who owned the colonial legislature paid little. (One miner pointed out to the government that the licence fee that he had paid would buy him the right to twenty square miles of land.) Every miner had to be able to produce his licence on demand at any time to any patrolling trooper who asked for it. A satirical contemporary song opened with the lines:
And so on in that vein. The money collected from those working on the goldfields in whatever capacity was revenue for the new colony of Victoria, split off from New South Wales in 1851. The main expense of the Victorian government was the maintenance of its army, needed in government perception to keep order on the goldfields. Licences in other words were sold to fund, at least in great part, the cost of troopers doing the licence hunts. State power was its own justification. The miners were well aware of this, and also that that the ordinary man only had two choices: either pay the fee and hope to strike it lucky down the hole, or resign himself to wage slavery in one of the jobs abandoned by those who had joined the rush.
The Governor of Victoria, Charles Hotham, was born in Suffolk in 1806. He had joined the Royal Navy as a twelve-year old boy, and had gone on to become an officer of some distinction and a diplomat. His Resident Gold Commissioner, Robert Rede, who was responsible for the maintenance of law and order on the fields, also originated in Suffolk as the scion of local gentry. (To the manor born, as it were.) His father was a naval officer, and such connections were influential. He had spent his youth travelling in Europe and studying medicine, which he had abandoned to join the gold rush, working downwards in a hole as a digger for a period before joining the Gold Commission and working his way upwards in that. The Eureka rebellion showed clearly that both men had reached their level of incompetence, though admittedly they were called upon to handle an extraordinary situation. Hotham died in 1855 at the age of 49, but despite Eureka, Rede went on to advancement first in the constabulary and then in the military, and by 1878 was second-in-command in the colony.
Diggers had come to the Australian goldfields from Europe, America and China, each hoping to make a fortune, or at least, enough to justify the arduous journey. The ‘self-overworking’ diggers knew all about the other kind of overworking. There could be famine in Ireland, China could be reeling under the impact of the Opium Wars and foreign penetration, the English political system could be languishing in corruption, the hopes of the European revolutionaries of 1848 could be dashed. But anyone with enough cash could take passage to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa and leave all that behind. The contemporary popular songwriter Charles ‘The Inimitable’ Thatcher put the following words into the mouth of a digger returned to London and spent out of gold:
Earlier, on Saturday, the 11th of November 1854, a crowd of over 10,000 miners had gathered at Bakery Hill, and had formed themselves into a new organisation, which they called the Ballaarat Reform League (the spelling of the town’s name then in use). With the Chartist John Humffray chairing the meeting, they passed a resolution declaring that it was “the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called on to obey, that taxation without representation is tyranny.” The meeting also resolved to secede from the United Kingdom if the situation did not improve.
The miners’ demands of Governor Hotham were almost identical with those the Chartists had placed before the parliament in London: Manhood suffrage; abolition of property qualification for MPs and electors; payment of MPs; secret ballots; short term parliaments, and equal electoral districts (‘one vote, one value’). There were three additional demands specific to the goldfields: abolition of diggers and storekeepers licenses; reform of goldfields administration, and revision of laws relating to Crown Land, to make it more accessible to those of modest means.
There were other issues, including the little matter of a prior dispute between a miner, James Scobie and the proprietor of the Eureka Hotel, James Bentley. Bentley had killed Scobie in a fight, was brought to trial, and acquitted. The response of the miners was a riot (on October 19th) during which Bentley’s hotel got burned to the ground. Nine diggers were arrested and put on trial for this, causing further outrage among the miners given vent to at a number of mass meetings. They demanded that those accused be immediately released. In the face the inherent challenge to his authority in this, Commissioner Rede abandoned what sympathy he had previously had for the miners, and responded with increased determination to “teach the diggers a lesson”. Political power, as exercised in 19th Century Victoria, was fast becoming what it had been for the previous century or so in Britain: ‘oligarchy tempered by riot’.
A delegation of miners conveyed the Chartist demands to Hotham in Melbourne. His response was to refuse them all, and instead to offer one seat in the legislature to a goldfields representative. When the diggers back on the field were told of this they were outraged, and so began the train of events leading to the Eureka massacre.
88 years before, in 1776, “no taxation without representation” had been the cry of the American revolutionaries. But the concept had a much deeper history. The English nobility were given a written commitment to it by King John in 1215, in the document known as Magna Carta: “No scutage or aid may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent, unless it is for the ransom of our person, to make our eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry our eldest daughter. For these purposes only a reasonable aid may be levied. Aids from the city of London are to be treated similarly.”
(‘Scutage’ was cash commutation of obligation to military service, and ‘aid’ was special exaction in times of emergency.)
Once absolute power was denied the monarch, a further constitutional issue was automatically created: if a parliamentary approval was required before the king could spend any scutage or aid, who was to be represented in the parliament, and how? Should there be equal representation of all, or representation only of the most privileged? In 1215, the question was about as substantial in the minds of the barons as the Law of Gravitation. But it was there none the less, hovering in the background beyond their consciousness, getting ready to assert itself again and again down the course of parliamentary history. The scutage and aid paid by the barons to the king had its ultimate source in the people, whose descendants would incline to increasing claims to a role in deciding how it was to be spent. The history of the Parliaments of both Britain and Australia is thus of a long, drawn out battle in which decision making power is slowly and reluctantly yielded by the most privileged to the greater mass of the citizenry.
The colonial legislatures of Australia began as bodies appointed by the governors, who were in turn appointed by the (unreformed) British Parliament. In 1850, the Australian Constitutions Act gave the legislatures part-election, and the power to make their own constitutions. Members were subject to property qualification, as were the voters who elected them.
Chartism had begun in Britain in 1838, inspired by perceived deficiencies in Sir Robert Peel’s parliamentary Reform Act of 1832. The Chartists’ method was to collect signatures in huge numbers on petitions for reform, and to present these to Parliament, which they did in 1839, 1842 and 1848, claiming in 1842 to have collected over 3 million signatures. The MPs and Lords, however impressed, remained unmoved. So emigration out of Britain became one attractive option for disappointed Chartists. Return was not so appealing for disappointed diggers.
There had been a clash on November 28th between armed diggers and army reinforcements on their way to the field from Melbourne. Back at Ballarat, the diggers were expecting trouble, and had erected an improvised stockade at Sovereign Hill, about 2 km away from Bakery Hill. Early on the morning of the following Sunday, a day that has lived ever since in infamy, a whole regiment of redcoats attacked the stockade when most of its would-be defenders, as faithful Irish Catholics, were in church. The Empire of Japan used the same tactic 87 years later at Pearl Harbour.
The stockade fell in about 15 minutes, and the day is commemorated as Eureka Day, December 3rd. It is not celebrated, even by modern conservatives, as the triumph of law and order over an unruly mob in the course of defending all that is right and proper. Like Anzac Day, it commemorates a defeat in a battle for a cause agreed by all but a small minority to have been a just one. It is also rather interesting to ponder what a different course Australian history might have taken had the armed miners not been quite so naïve, and less trusting in the honour of the redcoats.
After the stockade fell, redcoats and police carried out what has been described as an indiscriminate massacre, mutilating bodies and looting nearby stores. The subsequent Commission of Inquiry found that it was “a needless as well as a ruthless sacrifice of human life indiscriminate of innocent or guilty, and after all resistance had disappeared.” As at Culloden in 1746, many of the wounded lying on the field around the stockade were bayoneted to death by the victorious troopers. The flag was torn down, and troopers cut bits off for souvenirs of the day. Ross died at the foot of the flagpole. One trooper however, recognised the flag’s significance and kept the major part of it. His family eventually donated it to the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, where it is kept to this day, in a small wing all of its own; dimly lit to preserve its colour: a most appropriate shrine for this relic of the birth of Australian democracy. (Ironically, the art gallery is on the site used for the troopers’ camp.)
Digger casualties were 22 dead and 12 injured. 114 diggers were taken prisoner. The troopers lost 6 killed. But for Hotham it was a Pyrrhic victory and a public relations disaster. Massive protest meetings occurred in Melbourne when news reached the city, and within 6 months the government had conceded the diggers’ main demands. The expensive licenses were abolished, and replaced with Miners’ Rights costing a mere 20 shillings per year, rather than 30 shillings a month. With the Miner’s Right came also the right to vote. The activities of the Gold Commission were terminated, the ‘licence hunts’ stopped, and the diggers were given their own local governments and courts. All the Victorian fields together sent eight MPs to the Legislative Council.
Writing in 1942 about Eureka, the eminent jurist, first Secretary-General of the UN, and federal ALP Leader Dr H.V. (‘Bert’) Evatt called it “the birth of Australian democracy.” Whatever else may be said of Evatt, he was not wrong there.
An analogous place to Sovereign Hill, is perhaps Gallipoli. To find a counterpart of Bakery Hill we must go to Boston Harbour, where the first insurrectionary act of the Independence War occurred, or to Concord, Massachusetts, where on April 19th, 1775, there occurred the first armed clash: between those who wanted no taxation without representation and the redcoats fighting for the diametric opposite. Or perhaps to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed by the delegates to the Second Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776. In its own way, that American shrine represents the response of the original 13 colonies to over-enthusiastic British taxation combined with hopelessly inadequate representation. Exactly what the Ballarat diggers were in revolt over.
A close analogue to the Eureka Flag is the ‘Goddess of Democracy’, the styrofoam and papier mache statue erected on May 30, 1989 in Tienanmen Square, Beijing and destroyed by the inaptly named Chinese People’s Liberation Army on June 4 that year, amid massive bloodshed. The Tienanmen Square Protests had been organised by a movement consisting of many groups: people who went from protesting against corruption to calling for freedom of the press and an end to the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly of power. In its own 20th Century Chinese way, and on a much larger scale, it was Eureka all over again.
Bakery Hill today has a splendid flag pole on a site close by the spot where the original Eureka flag, now in the art gallery a couple of kilometres away, was first raised and flown. The original site is now a McDonald’s, right next to a busy intersection and roundabout.
Perhaps this is appropriate in its own way, as a monument to political indifference: specifically, of the attitude shown by successive Victorian and Federal governments to the birth of Australian democracy. It also serves as a reminder of the difference between democracy and parliamentarism, and how the people who put themselves forward for democratic election all too often themselves turn out to be less than enthusiastic for democracy, if not overtly antidemocratic.
Perhaps therefore it is also the best monument to the heroic Eureka miners who raised that brilliant banner on November 29, 1854.
Two years ago the editor of the Age Review, Ray Cassin, wrote: “… the danger in the revival of interest in Eureka, for a politician of John Howard's conservative stripe, is that it just might result in renewed demands for thoroughgoing change in the way we are governed. Such change - bottom-up politics, if you like - would be founded on the assertion in the diggers' charter that the people are ‘the only legitimate source of all political power’".
Cassin in that article also remarked that the Australian constitution is atypical in that it contains no reference to the people as the ultimate power. This is probably due to its origin as an Act of the British parliament, and the fact that Britain has no written constitution at all; just a collection of traditions, conventions, and inertial institutions like the House of Lords. By way of contrast, the US Constitution begins with the statement: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The struggle for democracy is ongoing. In the parliaments, alongside many fine and dedicated representatives, we have far too many careerist twerps, rorters, urgers, and old-fashioned honest-to-goodness bludgers. More importantly, politics is the art of what someone like Paul Keating or John Howard can get away with.
As the old anarchist slogan puts it so well: no matter who you vote for, a politician always wins.
In my opinion, the next stage of democracy involves increased frequency of referenda, which modern electronic data transmission makes possible as never before, with elected representatives becoming more like executives, and less like members of a company board. Just one example will suffice for now: how ‘representative’ will the representatives be when they exercise the ‘conscience votes’ coming up over stem cell research? Or will they just highlight the inadequacy of representative government vis a vis direct democracy in such decision making? Yet asking the parliaments to support the idea that such issues should be decided by referendum is like the parliament of Cromwell’s day asking King Charles I to reduce his own power.
For my own part, I am indifferent to republicanism, but am with Rafaello Carboni in regarding the day the flag was first raised as being more important than the day it was torn down by that mob of bloodthirsty and ignorant troopers. So I do not celebrate Eureka Day. Rather, I honour November 29th, which I choose to call, in the absence of any generally recognised name, Bakery Hill Day. On that day, wherever I am, I raise and fly the Eureka Flag, and leave it flying until the morning of December 3rd. (The flagpole is inevitably, the radio aerial of our car.)
Though various Australian groupuscules of fascists have attempted to hijack it, that flag continues to serve as a reminder of the real origins of our democracy, of the historic sacrifices others have made seeking it, and that the ongoing democratic project is not finished.
In vexillological terms, the existing Australian National Flag is described as a ‘defaced British blue ensign’. That is, a ‘defaced’ State Ensign of the United Kingdom. But despite that, it has a history and legitimacy of its own in the eyes of the mass of the population. The Eureka Flag is a bit too controversial to replace it, short of quite extraordinary circumstances arising in future.
But that is hardly the point. The Southern Cross was the emblem raised in the boldest and most effective democratic initiative ever taken in Australian history. That to my mind is a good enough reason to fly it perpetually in Ballarat, and to raise it on November 29th every year all over the land.
Naturally, I commend the practice to others of like mind.
Some time ago I visited the park in Budapest containing the remainder of the ‘socialist realist’ statues put up in the time of the Soviet puppet regime. Only a few have been saved, as the bronze was deemed to be of greater value than the art. But maybe one day somewhere a Liberty Park will be set up, featuring replicas of the icons of the great struggles against oppression.
Were I put in charge of such a project, I would include the original symbol of Christianity (a stylised fish: the cross only came to prominence about 250 years after the Crucifixion); a copy of Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to a replica of the front door of Wittenburg Cathedral; the tricolour flag, first flown the day the Bastille fell in Paris, July 14, 1789; the original star-spangled banner; the Eureka flag; the red flag of the workers’ movements (trade union, socialist and communist); the black flag of the anarchists; those flags raised in the Russian (perhaps), Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions, and the Chinese Goddess of Liberty. Background music would include the three magnificent revolutionary anthems: Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, The Marseillaise, The Internationale, and the haunting songs of the Spanish Civil War. I would also somehow include the (originally radical) Apostle’s Creed.
Before exiting the park, visitors would be reminded that most of the icons and symbols they had seen had become in their turn symbols of oppression. Those few which never suffered such transformation include the Goddess of Liberty and the Southern Cross of the Eureka miners.
Such is history.
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