Marxist Interventions

"To stand truly by each other"

The Eureka rebellion and the continuing struggle for democracy


[A version of this article appeared as an International Socialist Organisation pamphlet in 2004]

"We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties"
– Oath taken by 500 miners on the Eureka goldfield, November 30, 1854

Why Eureka matters

IN DECEMBER 1854 the gold miners of Ballarat rose up in a courageous revolt against draconian laws and undemocratic government. They were supported by almost the entire working population of the colony of Victoria, who shared their aims – an end to the oppressive miner’s licence system and the right for all men to vote in elections.

This radical combination of economic and political demands struck fear into the hearts of the ruling elite. This coalition of land-owning squatters and unelected colonial autocrats were determined to both defend vested interests and defeat a movement that championed dangerous new ideals – universal democracy and social equality.

The battle of the Eureka stockade and the bloody suppression of the miners was the dramatic outcome of a wider struggle between classes about the future shape of Australian society. Though defeated in battle, the rebellious "lower orders" rapidly won many of their key demands. Universal male suffrage was granted in the lower houses of the new Australian colonial parliaments, decades before it was achieved in Britain. A defiant spirit of confidence marked the earliest struggles of workers, most notably Melbourne construction workers, who were the first in the world to strike for and win the eight-hour day in 1856.

To note these key features of the historical record raises more critical questions. Who were the "diggers" who rose in revolt and what material forces, ideas and aspirations motivated them? Was democracy won as a direct result of the Eureka revolt? How did the events of 1854 affect other struggles and the development of Australian society in the following decades?

A paradox remains, for while the rebels of Eureka were struggling for economic independence, political democracy and a greater degree of social equality, Australia remained a society divided by inequality. Women were involved in the struggle but did not win the right to vote. Chinese miners were not immediately involved but would later be subject to harsh oppression. The blight of poverty remained and powerful new contending classes of capital and labour were in formation. All through this period bloody wars raged across the pastoral frontier as indigenous people resisted their dispossession by European settlers.

If we telescope forward to the 21st century, questions regarding the contemporary meaning and relevance of the rebellion continue. Different versions of history will be presented in this 150th anniversary year, which is being marked with a remarkable range of activities.

The Victorian Government has provided $1.5 million funding to support ceremonies, a conference and performances to celebrate this revolt against its colonial government ancestor. Official versions, somewhat sanitised and with an eye to the tourism potential, celebrate the place of Eureka within a "national story", as the birthplace of parliamentary democracy and the supposedly Australian ethos of egalitarianism and the "fair go".

Trade unions and the Left are organising transport to Ballarat so that hundreds of workers can celebrate past struggles with a view to the challenges of the present. The Eureka flag is proudly raised on workers’ picket lines, street marches and over city building sites. It now symbolises a spirit of defiance and continuing struggle by working people for democratic rights and social equality. As such the history of Eureka contains "unfinished business".

The divisive and corrosive attacks on democracy of the Howard years have ensured that this is the case. We have witnessed the balaclava-clad assault on the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) in 1998, the deception and fear-mongering aimed at refugees and the decision to invade Iraq in the face of clear opposition from the majority of people. Faced with such challenges the history of struggle in Australia is not a bed of laurels on which to rest – it is a history that must be critically re-examined and understood more widely.

This pamphlet aims to illuminate the experience and ideals of the Eureka revolt, so that it may inspire and inform our continuing struggle for a truly democratic and socially just future.

Colonial society – the "bunyip aristocracy" versus free labour

‘Money, lucre, profit – these are thy Gods, O Australia’
Sydney Morning Herald, 1838

THE DEVELOPMENT of colonial society in Australia was bound up with the rise of industrial capitalism as a world system. The founding of a penal colony in 1788 was motivated by the British desire to establish a military outpost in the South Pacific before its imperial rivals, Holland and France. This acquisition also provided a dumping ground for a social by-product of the industrial revolution – some of the many landless, impoverished and criminalised working poor of the new industrial cities.

The new textile mills of Manchester and the surrounding Lancashire towns demanded raw materials and provided the basis for independent economic development in Australia. The huge demand for wool drove the rapid expansion of pastoralism and the increasingly ruthless dispossession of indigenous peoples. Wool exports rose from 175,000 pounds in 1821 to more than 12,000,000 pounds in 1840 (a pound was just less than half a kilogram). Wealthy ex-convict emancipists formed an alliance with free settlers to exploit the continent. This new class of "squatters" ignored colonial regulations, occupying and claiming ownership over vast tracts of land.

To this end, in 1835 a group of wealthy merchants and officials based in Hobart formed the Port Phillip Association and sent John Batman across the Bass Strait to establish their own pastoral colony in the fertile lands of the Bunurong, Wurundjeri, and Wathaurang peoples. Batman made a dishonest "treaty" with the indigenous landowners and alongside rival squatter John Fawkner established a settlement on the Yarra River.

Despite initial hostility from the colonial authorities in Sydney, the new settlement soon received official endorsement and began life as an outpost for pastoral expansion. In 1840, Melbourne had 4000 people and the mallee lands of the Western District had been overrun with 300,000 sheep. Wealth and land ownership was concentrated in a few hands – by 1848 in Victoria a mere 666 people claimed ownership over 12 million hectares.

This colonial settler state was deeply conservative and undemocratic, dominated by a clique of colonial officials and rich, land-owning squatters. Unelected officials appointed by and accountable to the Governor administered the colony. From 1842, limited power was vested in the NSW Legislative Council – a partially elected body whose executive was appointed by the Crown. Property qualifications for voters and candidates ensured that the remaining members were either wealthy squatters or merchants. Elected members had to possess property worth 2000 pounds ($4000) or an income of 100 pounds a year. The vote was limited to those with property to the value of 200 pounds.

The social turmoil that accompanied the discovery of gold in 1851 would exacerbate tensions that were developing between the dominant class of squatters and the emerging urban middle and labouring classes. Throughout this period the urban middle classes mobilised the support of the emerging labouring classes to form a common front against the entrenched conservative land-owning interests.

The burning questions of the day were the distribution of land, the form of labour that would supply the demands of a growing economy, civil rights and democracy. Conflict over these issues was framed by the moves toward the creation of the separate colony of Victoria in 1850, and toward colonial self-government, which was granted in 1855. All sides understood that the question of how democratic these new political institutions were to be would determine the future shape and direction of society. This conflict would inform the dramatic upheavals of 1854.

The squatters wanted security of ownership over their lands and a ready supply of cheap labour to shepherd and shear their flocks. Until the abolition of transportation in 1840, convicts "assigned" to work for employers provided cheap labour. The convicts were forced to work a 56- hour week for bed, clothing, board and 10 pounds a year paid in kind – salt or tobacco from the employers’ store. Labour discipline was enforced with floggings and imprisonment. In 1838, the peak year of transportation, 26,000 out of the total of 38,000 convicts in NSW were assigned in this manner.

The squatters objected to the abolition of transportation and continued to dream of building an American plantation-type economy based on coerced labour. The conservative squatter and leader of the NSW Legislative Council, Charles Wentworth, chaired an 1846 select committee that recommended the resumption of transportation.

In 1849, despite widespread public hostility, 212 convicts were sent out as "pardoned exiles". In Victoria, which had never been a penal settlement, 800 citizens attended a protest meeting to oppose the transportation and the Argus newspaper called for armed resistance if necessary to the landing of convicts. As a result, the convict ships bound for Melbourne were diverted to Sydney where they were met by a mass protest meeting on the waterfront and forced on to Moreton Bay in Queensland. The agitation resulted in the formation of the Anti-Transportation Leagues and popularised the demand for a society founded on free labour.

The squatters had secured their property ownership by an 1846 act that enabled them to lease and later buy their lands. They now set out to build political institutions that would protect these property rights. The chief representative of squatting interests, Wentworth, saw any moves toward popular democracy as an inherent threat to property and sought to create a loyal landowning aristocracy as a bulwark against such change. In 1853 he chaired another select committee that proposed the creation of a hereditary upper house.

The proposal was met with a mixture of anger and derision at mass meetings in Sydney and Victoria. The Irish-Australian Daniel Deniehy made fun of the proposed "bunyip aristocracy" at a meeting in Sydney. In the same month, on the Ovens goldfields in Victoria, 3000 assembled at a protest meeting, at which wider demands were raised:

A dray formed the temporary platform, on which the Chairman and the speakers were placed. Over the platform was a crimson flag on which was inscribed, "Taxation without representation is robbery". Another flag which waved from a venerable gum tree bore the inscription of "Representation for the miners", and on a third on which was written, "Unlock the lands", a pick and spade crossed were painted.

Wentworth was forced to drop the proposal. A new independent and assertive social force, the gold miners, had entered the scene and the old establishment was on the defensive. The gold rush would simultaneously upset and transform existing social relations and magnify all the existing tensions.

Gold transforms the colonies

THE DISCOVERY of gold in central western NSW and Victoria in 1851 was greeted with feverish excitement by the people and with alarm by the establishment. The gold rush destabilised the established social order. Within days of the news, employers and landowners found themselves without workers as thousands of people threw in their jobs to join the rush.

The Lieutenant Governor of Victoria, CJ La Trobe, described the situation in a dispatch to the Colonial Secretary Earl Grey in London:

Within the last three weeks the towns of Melbourne and Geelong and their large suburbs have been in appearance almost emptied of many classes of their male inhabitants … shopmen, artisans and mechanics of every description (have) thrown up their employment, and in most cases, leaving their employers and their wives and families to take care of themselves, run off to the workings … Cottages are deserted, houses to let, business is at a stand-still, and even schools are closed … The ships in the harbour are, in great measure, deserted … Both here and at Geelong all building and contract works, public and private, almost without exception, are at a stand-still. No contract can be insisted upon under the circumstances"

Squatters were without shepherds, ships without sailors, workshops without workers and the wealthy without servants. Even La Trobe was at one point forced to groom his own horse and feed it! The Superintendent of Police in Melbourne reported that he had offered higher pay to keep his 55 constables, but 50 were determined to leave for the diggings. For a time, the authorities could rely upon only 44 soldiers. As La Trobe described it: "The whole structure of society and the whole machinery of government is dislocated."

Employers and the squatters needed the "machinery of government" to maintain some degree of control over the workforce. They had mixed success. One bank tried to bring back its clerks using the Master and Servant Act, but the judge held that a clerk was not a servant in the meaning of the act. A ship captain, fearing his crew would desert, trumped up a charge of riot against the crew. The crew were marched to jail and locked up until the ship was loaded. They were then marched back under escort in time to sail.

The main mechanism used to attempt to control the situation came in the form of a tax on free labour. In August 1851, La Trobe followed the example of NSW and imposed a monthly miner’s licence fee of 30 shillings ($3 – there were 20 shillings to a pound). Although a revenue-raising measure, it was also a means of social control, an attempt to dissuade workers from joining the rush. The licence fee amounted to a tax of 18 pounds a year when, in 1850, a rural labourer received a wage of between 18 and 20 pounds a year plus rations. The miner’s licence would soon become universally resented and a source of unrest on the goldfields.

A wave of mass immigration was transforming the provincial Australian colonies. When news of the gold discoveries reached Britain and Europe it captured the imaginations of huge numbers of people, who soon boarded ships to join the rush. Tens of thousands of people immigrated from Britain, Ireland, Europe, California and China, inspired by the hope of striking it rich and escaping the material hardships of the Old World.

The docks of Port Phillip and the Yarra were soon teeming with ships and milling crowds carrying all their worldly possessions. The number of ships arriving rose from 555 in 1850 to 1657 in 1852. In May 1853 alone, 20 ships arrived from London, 23 from other British ports, 17 from the United States, seven from India and Mauritius and two from South Africa.

In the space of a few years, the population of Victoria rose dramatically, from 75,000 in 1850 to 283,942 in 1854. The number of people working on the Victorian goldfields rose from 35,000 in 1852 to more than 100,000 in 1854. Whole suburbs of Melbourne and the goldfield towns became huge tent cities, lacking basic amenities, as the provincial colony struggled to keep pace. Many migrants spent their first nights sleeping on their luggage, unable to find lodgings. At night the streets were swept with a bohemian revelry the upper classes found both uncouth and unsettling.

The mass emigration, excitement of the gold rush and rough conditions on the goldfields had a social levelling effect and imposed egalitarianism where none had existed before. In his memoirs, a Polish miner, Seweryn Korzelinski, described a group of miners working:

A colonel pulls up earth for a sailor; a lawyer wields not a pen but a spade; a priest lends a match to a Negro’s pipe; a doctor rests on the same heap of earth with a Chinaman; a man of letters carries a bag of earth; many a baron or count has a drink with a Hindu, and all of them hirsute, dusty and muddy, so that their own mothers would not recognise them.

Who were the diggers?

THE MEN and women who converged on the Australian goldfields worked in arduous conditions with the hope of striking it rich in the "jewellery shop" beneath the quartzite soils. Above all they were motivated by an aspiration for economic independence and social mobility. Their hopes were all the more intense because gold offered the possibility of escaping the bonds of wage labour and the poverty of the early industrial revolution.

While some of the new diggers and their families came from middle or even upper class backgrounds, the vast majority had been members of the working classes of Britain and Ireland. Many had experienced poverty and class oppression in rural Ireland or in the urban factory slums of northern England. As one historian states: "Assisted immigration bought many single females to Australia, a good proportion of them from workhouses." Workhouses were the degrading, prison-like "welfare" institutions established in industrial Britain to confine and humiliate destitute workers. The historian Geoffrey Blainey writes:

Gold had a magnetism which the welfare state has dulled. To win gold was the only honest chance millions of people had of bettering themselves, of gaining independence, of storing money for old age or sickness, of teaching their children to read or write. The 1840s had been a decade of revolution and misery and famine in Europe, and now across the globe was a gigantic lottery in which all had a chance and the strong armed labourer the highest chance.

A significant minority of these miners also had first-hand experience of the momentous struggles against national oppression and class rule that had swept Britain, Ireland and Europe in the 1840s. For these men and women, material aspirations were combined with the radical democratic ideals of these revolutionary movements. In the leading ranks of the goldfield revolt were those who had lived through the Irish potato famines (1846-51) and the rise and subsequent bitter defeat of the Young Ireland movement against English misrule in 1848.

Many from Britain had been involved in or influenced by the Chartist movement – the first mass working class political movement, that had led agitation, strikes and armed uprisings with the aim of winning democratic rights and social reforms. Chartist ideals and pre-existing debates regarding strategy and tactics were a key factor in the Ballarat revolt.

Among the Europeans were Germans and Italians who had fought on the streets during the great bourgeois democratic revolutions of 1848. One of these men, Raffaello Carboni, had been an active member of the Italian Risorgimento that fought against autocratic Austrian rule and for a unified Italy, before exile to London and migration to Australia. Following his involvement in the Eureka revolt, he wrote an account entitled The Eureka Stockade that provides an invaluable source of information about the events. Another group who had influence were the American miners who had come via the Californian goldfields and who were noted to advocate the benefits of American-style republicanism and independence from the British.

This minority of diggers with political experience and ideals would play a decisive role in cohering and leading the new movement on the goldfields. The politics of this minority varied greatly, from middle class liberal democrats to radical chartists and republicans. As the movement developed it tended to radicalise, with the initiative shifting from moderate reformers to those who argued for more far-reaching social and political changes.

Within the socially fluid circumstances on the goldfields, many women were able to gain a greater degree of economic independence and assume social roles that broke the strict confines of tradition and Victorian morality. According to Laurel Johnson’s The Women of Eureka, many women continued to be wives and housekeepers. However, "If women weren’t rocking the baby’s cradle, they would be out on the diggings rocking the gold cradle … Women of all classes were often active in their partner’s business and economic affairs." While most women who worked were domestic servants, cooks, needle women, milliners and shoe binders, others were nurses, teachers, storekeepers, lodging keepers or miners in their own right.

Women generally played a more active part in public life and made a significant contribution to the social struggles on the goldfields. The historian Clare Wright states that there were more than 3500 women on the Ballarat goldfield and that "these women were witnesses to the historic events; they were agents too, intimately connected to the critical affairs and emotions unfolding in Ballarat in 1854". Women attended the protest meetings, petitioned the governor and were inside the stockade. Such women included Anastasia Hayes, a "quick tempered Irish woman from Kilkenny … known as a ‘firebrand’ (who) complained openly about the harsh treatment of the miners". She worked alongside Anastasia Withers and Anne Duke to sew the now famous Eureka Flag and to provide material support, shelter and medical aid in the lead-up to and aftermath of the uprising.

While the largest section of diggers came from the British Isles, the population of the goldfields was incredibly international and multi-ethnic. Korzelinski described a group of miners gathering to talk who included: "A happy-go-lucky German tailor, a brawny English smith, a slightly built French cook, a Polish Jew, an American or Dutch sailor … a Swiss hat-maker, an impoverished Spanish hidalgo …a black Negro head, a brown Indian face." He added that a nearby group might include a Swedish sailor away from his whaling ship, a Norwegian reindeer herdsman, a gaucho from La Plata and a Creole from Mozambique.

While in general there was fraternity between miners, there were cases of economic competition between miners over access to mining leases, spilling over into national antagonism. On the Ballarat fields there are reports of regular fistfights between Irish and Scots over the practice of "shepherding" or holding leases.

The national group most subject to popular racism and official discrimination were the Chinese gold miners. Many had come from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, which in the late 1840s had been badly affected by a commercial crisis affecting the tea trade, aggravated by drought, rice shortages and inflation. In Victoria, there were about 2000 Chinese miners in early 1854, and while they were a relatively small section of the goldfields population, this did not prevent them being subject to greater levels of scrutiny and antagonism.

Miners competing to secure declining alluvial gold yields could turn their resentment on fellow miners. In July 1854, a group of miners in Bendigo met and threatened to "rise as one man to drive the celestials out of the district". They made the spurious claims that the Chinese lowered incomes and made the diggings less productive. The colonial establishment was happy to encourage such agitation. In response to the Eureka rebellion government officials were quick to focus attention on the involvement of "foreigners" and to pass measures to limit Chinese immigration.

The development of a united struggle by miners represented an alternative course of action to the politics of racist division. While the Chinese miners were not involved in the Eureka rebellion, it is noteworthy that the movement never raised any anti-Chinese demands. The rhetoric of the movement and its leaders always stressed the international and united quality of their struggle.

A small business revolt?

THE ECONOMIC position of the miners as independent producers has led some commentators to characterise the Eureka rebellion as essentially a revolt of small business people against government taxation. In Imagining Australia, an extended essay arguing for greater neo-liberal restructuring of the Australian economy today, it is argued that:

Eureka should be re-elevated to its previous position as a central legend of Australian nationalism, standing for those distinctly Australian values: egalitarianism, mateship, fairness together with democracy, freedom, republicanism and multiculturalism … the Eureka uprising was a revolt of independent free enterprise (the diggers were in effect self-employed business people) against burdensome taxation, not a collective of militant trade unionists protesting against the exploitation of labour.

A similar line of argument has been advanced in an editorial of The Australian, which asserts that in the wake of its defeat in the 2004 election, the Australian Labor Party must embrace pro-free market policies with even greater vigour than previously. To support this assertion it says that:

When people talk about returning to real Labor values, the party should heed the message of the Eureka flag T-shirt he [Mr Latham] sometimes sports. The miners who rebelled at Ballarat in 1854 were independent workers – the ancestors of today’s 1 million self-employed Australians. They wanted government to stop hammering them with taxes that punished them digging wealth from the soil. It is a message that still applies in the globalised information age and Mr Latham can only succeed if he adopts it. But first he has to convince many members of his own party.

This commentary is based on a superficial analysis of the class position and political aspirations of those involved in the 1854 rebellion. It is true that the miners were not wage labourers. They were self-employed – petit bourgeois – often impoverished and with aspirations for advancement. However, they did not form a stable class of business people with purely narrow economic concerns. As described earlier, the gold rush led to the breakdown and recomposition of class relations. Both workers and employers became diggers and all were in a period of transition. This social instability meant that the miners’ opposition to harsh taxation quickly spilled over into a struggle for wider social reforms.

The haphazard nature of gold prospecting meant that, for most, it could not provide a permanent means of livelihood. The transitory existence of the independent miners was underpinned by the technological limitations of gold mining. At first it was mainly alluvial gold, close to the surface or in riverbeds, that sustained the gold rush. This was relatively easy for individuals to extract using a pick, shovel and water cradle. However, these surface deposits were soon diminished and miners had to begin deep shaft mining to reach underground leads. This required small co-operative syndicates to be formed to invest in the new technology required such as windlasses and timber for shafts. This investment only increased the risks – months could be wasted sinking shafts into barren ground.

The minority who were lucky enough to strike it rich could achieve social mobility into the middle class, by investing their new capital in land holdings, businesses and early venture capital mining companies. The majority of diggers were not so successful and would at some point leave the goldfields and return to wage labour in the emerging capitalist economy. To this extent many diggers would form part of the working class in formation.

By the early 1860s the individual prospector and small syndicate were being replaced by larger share capital mining companies using steam engines and employing waged labour. Blainey points out that the difficulties faced by the early self-employed miners meant that:

In every year in the 1850s thousands of diggers had gone home to Liverpool or Boston or Canton or become farmers and tradesmen and labourers in Victoria, and their departure from the goldfields was compensated by the flow of new diggers from abroad." [My emphasis]

Manning Clark also describes this tendency for diggers to be absorbed into the working class:

Gentlemen’s sons who had seen themselves as saviours of the landed gentry of England were now slinking off the fields grateful to hold such lowly positions as hut-keepers, stockmen, horse-keepers or cowboys. Diggers who had dreamed of becoming rich were now carrying hods of bricks for some parvenu builder who had got rich quickly meeting the demand to house the ever increasing population of Melbourne or Sydney.

Even while the diggers worked as independent prospectors or in small syndicates, the material and social difficulties they faced collectively on the goldfields tended to push them toward co-operation and collective responses. The levelling effects of manual labour tended to instil a collective consciousness akin to that experienced by labourers concentrated at the point of production.

When the diggers arose in collective protest it was no accident that they adopted the ideas and tactics of the contemporary working class movement in Britain – Chartism and mass protest. These ideas and tactics fitted with the collective experience and longer term interests of the diggers. The exhaustion of alluvial gold was coinciding with the exhaustion of naive dreams of individual enrichment – minds were turning toward the necessity for collective action to achieve social and political reform.

Rebellion on the goldfields

THE HOPES of the gold diggers, for material advancement and social mobility, clashed with the harsh reality of life on the goldfields and the arbitrary rule of colonial authority. The most immediate cause of unrest was the licence fee and the repressive methods used to enforce it. The licence fee was a direct tax on free labour, payable before a person even began the haphazard search for gold. It was driving many an unlucky miner into dire poverty, or back into wage labour. The miners justifiably questioned why the wealthy squatters and merchants were not paying their share of the taxation burden.

The injustice of the fee was aggravated by the forceful methods used to enforce payment. Police under the direction of Gold Commissioners carried out regular licence checks – dubbed "digger hunts" by the miners. These officers of the state were a brutal lot, often recruited from among ex-convicts, who asserted their power with impunity. Miners at work were threatened and cajoled by officers armed with bayonets and rifles. Anyone found without licence papers would be arrested, placed in chains and marched to headquarters or "the Camp" where they would be fined five pounds – without recourse to justice.

Among the miners, resentment was combined with bitter disillusionment. Carboni, writing about his first experience of a digger hunt, states:

"Your licence, mate" was the peremptory question from a six foot fellow in blue shirt, thick boots, the face of a ruffian armed with a carbine and bayonet. The old "all right" being exchanged, I lost sight of that specimen of colonial brutedom and his similars, called, as I then learned, "traps" and "troopers" … "I came, then, 16,000 miles in vain to get away from the law of the sword!" was my sad reflection. My sorrow was not mitigated by my mates and neighbours informing me that Australia was a penal settlement.

A contemporary and sarcastic report in the Ballaarat Times entitled ‘Hunting the Digger’ captures the operation of Old World class divisions and the humiliation of the miners:

Five of these fellows were fined in the mitigating trifle of 5 Pounds, for being without licences. The nicest thing imaginable is to see one of these clumsy fellows with great beards, shaggy hair, and oh! such nasty rough hands, stand before a fine gentleman with hands of shiny whiteness … There the clumsy fellow stands, faltering out an awkward apology, "my licence is only just expired, sir – I’ve only been one day from town, sir – I have no money, sir, for I had to borrow half a bag of flour the other day, for my wife and children". Ahem, says his worship, the law makes no distinctions – fined five pounds.

From early 1853 there was widespread agitation and protest against the licence fee. One of the first outbreaks was at Sofala on the Turon River in central west NSW. Wentworth had overseen the passage of a new Goldfields Act in NSW that required all persons over the age of 14 to pay the licence fee. If the person was "alien", ie not originating from Britain or a British colony, they would pay double. In addition the new act favoured mining companies over individual miners by allowing long-term leases of large areas.

The Turon miners organised under the leadership of middle-class democrats such as the ex-newspaper editor James McEachern, who railed against the encroachments of "monopoly" capital on the industry of independent miners. The government responded by sending military reinforcements to Sofala. A series of mass meetings, one of which included a hanging effigy of Wentworth, culminated in some 500 miners taking up arms and marching on the military camp to demand the release of jailed comrades. On this occasion only the last minute intervention of a Wesleyan minister averted bloodshed. It was a sign of things to come.

The centre of the gold rush was moving south to central Victoria, where by mid-1853 a truly mass movement arose. In February, 1000 diggers rallied at Ovens River, where a digger had been shot dead by a policeman during a dispute over a lease. In June and July, the agitation spread to Bendigo, where thousands of miners gathered at a series of mass meetings to hear middle-class reformers such as Dr Jones and Captain Brown. They formed an Anti-Gold Licence Association and sent a delegation to meet La Trobe to present a petition against the fee and the "locking of the lands". Placards on trees proclaimed "No chains for free Englishmen".

While the tactics at this stage were moderate, there were already more radical voices being heard. At one meeting of 2500 miners in Bendigo, a German digger, Mr Goobie, was cheered when he declared that he and his 100 fellow Germans were ready with rifle and sword to assist their English friends obtain their rights.

When the miners’ delegation met La Trobe in Melbourne he told them that the licence fee must remain because that was the law. To this, the miners replied: "Then, sir, give the diggers representation." La Trobe rebuked them and sent them on their way. The failure of the delegation radicalised the miners. There were now heated arguments about the way forward, between loyal protest and outright defiance. As Manning Clark describes it:

Previously all the talk had been about moral suasion and the genius of the English people to compose their differences without resort to violence. At the meeting of 28 July the emphasis had been on loyalty … Now at a meeting at View Point on 12 August ten to twelve thousand diggers turned up wearing red ribbons around their hats … Foreigners of all descriptions boasted that if the demands of the diggers were not instantly granted they would lead them on to blood and victory. In alarm George Thompson called three cheers for the good old Union Jack and asked them to remember that they were pledged to "necessary reform, not revolution". William Dexter, waving the diggers flag, roared to them about the evils of "English Tyranny" and the virtues of "Republicanism".

A stronger course of action was adopted. The miners met again and resolved to pay no more than 10 shillings and, if this was refused, to pay no more. All miners supporting this would continue to wear red ribbons in their hat as a symbol of defiance.

In response to this, all available military forces in the colony were sent to Bendigo. The commissioner in charge of the goldfield, Joseph Paton, informed the Governor that Bendigo was in such a state of revolt that the continued collection of the fee would lead to bloodshed. La Trobe took fright and proposed to the Legislative Council that the licence fee be abolished and replaced by an export duty on gold. The council refused this suggestion, but La Trobe sought compromise and signed a proclamation suspending collection of the fee from October.

The miners celebrated this victory. How great then the bitterness when, in early October, La Trobe re-introduced the licence fee at a rate of one pound a month. The diggers had tasted their power, only to see their gains snatched away again. The experience had shown some basic facts: the colonial authorities were untrustworthy and self-serving, and defiant struggle could win more than polite appeals. The movement would return with new leaders and more comprehensive aims.

Ballarat – the "democratic capital"

IN JUNE 1854, a military officer, Sir Charles Hotham, was sworn in as the new Governor of Victoria. Hotham was determined to assert the authority of the crown and end the continuing state of unrest on goldfields. He also wanted to address the financial crisis facing the state. The squatters were refusing new taxes and passive resistance by the miners continued; about a third of the 70,000 diggers were not paying for licences. In addition to sacking state employees, Hotham decided in September to increase the licence searches to twice a week.

This decision coincided with a deteriorating situation on the Ballarat goldfields, where more than 10,000 miners, storekeepers and their families lived and worked. Alluvial gold had been exhausted and the miners were working difficult, deep shaft mines. Many were impoverished and now faced increased digger hunt repression. Over the coming months, Ballarat would become known as the democratic capital of the colony as the miners organised to assert their rights.

The corruption of the already widely hated police and authorities was exposed when James Bentley, the publican of the Eureka Hotel, murdered a local miner, James Scobie. Bentley was found not guilty by a police magistrate, J D’Ewes, a man widely thought to have received bribes from Bentley. On October 17, 5000 miners met to protest this travesty of justice. Emotions were running high and after the meeting about 1000 miners marched to the Eureka Hotel and set fire to it, burning it to the ground.

Hotham immediately sent 450 police and soldiers to reinforce the Ballarat military camp and ordered the arrest of those responsible. However, the inability of the usually all-powerful police to save the hotel gave the miners a new sense of power. Carboni, who witnessed the entire scene, commented: "The entire diggings, in a state of extreme excitement – The diggers are lords and masters of Ballarat; and the prestige of the Camp is gone forever."

Agitation continued with the arrest of three miners, McIntyre, Fletcher and Westerby, who were charged with leading the riot and burning of the hotel, despite the fact that more than 1000 had participated. Meetings held in their defence heard fresh reports of repression. Police had assaulted Joannes Gregorius, the crippled Armenian servant of the popular Catholic priest Father Smyth, while arresting him for lack of a licence. In these injustices the miners saw their own oppression magnified and they were a catalyst toward political organisation.

On October 30, between 8000 and 10,000 miners and citizens rallied to protest the arrests of McIntyre, Fletcher and Westerby. The meeting elected a deputation to visit Hotham and demand the men’s release. The deputation was composed of men known for their Chartist views: diggers JB Humffray and Tom Kennedy, and George Black, the editor of the popular Gold Diggers Advocate. Humffray was later elected as secretary of the Ballarat Reform League.

The three represented different wings of Chartism. Humffray and Black were advocates of "moral force" Chartism – for achieving democratic rights through the persuasive power of mass peaceful action and rational argument. Tom Kennedy was more radical, an advocate of "physical force" Chartism. He argued that direct action against the authorities would be necessary and achieve more than polite appeals.

Describing Kennedy, Carboni states that his "merit consists in the possession of the chartist slang; hence his cleverness in spinning a yarn". Manning Clark writes that at this meeting Kennedy reminded the diggers that "they were dealing with the ‘very rags and tatters of a British Government’, that when constitutional arguments failed, as fail it would, the diggers might remember the good old Scottish couplet,

That mere persuasion is all humbug.
Nothing convinces like a ‘lick in the lug’."

These differences reflected the debates and experiences of the Chartist movement in Britain. Chartism was the first mass political movement of the new industrial working class. It had been launched in 1837 around a national petition or charter for universal suffrage. It rose as a mass movement alongside the combination of workers in trade unions and around radical newspapers such as the Northern Star. The movement’s strategy and tactics were a source of constant debate.

Depending on the circumstances and the outcome of debates, the tactics employed in the struggle varied greatly, ranging from huge "monster" protest meetings and petitions to parliament, to mass strikes, and frustrated attempts at armed insurrection. When the British state rejected mass peaceful appeals some took more direct action, such as the Newport uprising of 1839. In 1842, general strike action to win the charter had spread from the industrial heartlands of England into South Wales and Scotland. Such developments terrified the ruling class, who blocked moves toward reform.

The debates about strategy within Chartism were not peculiar to the times. They reflected the ever-present argument inside the working class, and among radical movements, about "reform" versus "revolution" – whether change comes from convincing those above or by mobilising for change from below. In the 1840s, as in the struggles of today, the majority of workers and diggers took the line of least resistance – the tactics of reform. As bitter experience taught them of the limits of this strategy, they turned to the ideas of the radicals. The ideas of a minority became the course of action of a majority.

By the 1850s Chartism was in decline, but its ideas continued to be widely influential. Chartism had inspired and educated a whole generation of men and women, and some of them ended up on the Australian goldfields. The labour historian Robert Gollan argues that:

The extensive migration into Australia in the forties and the flood in the fifties sprang from a Britain in which chartism was the mass protest of the working and lower middle classes against the intolerable conditions of early industrialism. Naturally, there was no chartist movement in Australia, for industrialisation was still a thing of the future. But chartism had an influence. Some of the men who established trade unions had their political baptism in the chartist movement. The form of mass protest meetings on the goldfields and in Melbourne was directly influenced by English experience. Manhood suffrage in Australia was in one sense the first victory for the People’s Charter.

Chartism provided a broadly coherent set of political ideas that united the miners as they moved on to the offensive against the government. This was evident at the 10,000-strong mass meeting on November 11 where the Ballarat Reform League was founded. The meeting adopted a radical democratic program that linked the miners’ immediate grievances with calls for political democracy. This was evident in the immediate demands:

*Disband the office of Gold Commissioners.
*Abolish the miners’ and storekeepers’ licence tax.
*Full and fair representation.
*Manhood suffrage.
*No property qualifications for Legislative Council candidates.
*Payment of Legislative Council members
*Short parliaments

The miners threw down a challenge to the colonial state – grant democratic reforms or face a revolutionary assertion of popular power. Although it is worded in unfamiliar language, it is worth quoting at length to understand this clearly implied threat. The program declared:

That it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in the making of laws he is called upon to obey. That taxation without representation in tyranny … That it is the object of the League to place the power in the hands of responsible representatives of the people to frame wholesome laws and carry on an honest government. That it is not the wish of the League to effect an immediate separation of this colony from the parent country, if equal laws and equal rights are dealt out in the whole free community; but that, if Queen Victoria continues to act upon the ill advice of dishonest ministers and insists upon indirectly dictating obnoxious laws for the colony, under the assumed authority of the Royal prerogative, the Reform League will endeavour to supersede such Royal prerogatives by asserting that of the people, which is the most royal of all prerogatives, as the people are the only legitimate source of all political power.

The birth of Australian nationalism?

IT IS INTERESTING to consider the meaning of this declaration in light of the fact that many commentators and political figures have sought to characterise the Eureka rebellion as the birth of Australian nationalism. Even at the time, the Ballaarat Times celebrated the launch of the league as representing "not more or less than the germ of Australian independence". In 1888, this theme was taken up by the nationalist Bulletin magazine in an article entitled "The Day We Ought to Celebrate", that argued that the holiday celebrating January 26, 1788, should be replaced by December 3 because Eureka was when "Australia set her teeth in the face of the British lion".


During the Second World War, Labor Party leaders such as Ben Chifley and Dr Evatt also used Eureka to bolster a sense of Australian nationalism. Evatt, in his 1942 introduction to Carboni’s book, argued that: "Eureka will always be regarded as evincing the spirit of deep comradeship and self-sacrifice in a great common cause. Something of this spirit was caught and preserved by the very word ‘digger’ with which the Australian soldiers of 1914-18 were wont to greet each other. Moreover, the symbol of the Southern Cross … now finds perpetual honour as an important part of the flag of the Commonwealth of Australia."

This nationalist analysis was also popularised by the Communist Party of Australia following its turn to Popular Front policies in 1935 and subsequent support for the Allied war effort from 1941. The Popular Front strategy laid down by Moscow directed communist parties to form alliances with "progressive" sections of the ruling class and to embrace nationalism in a common front against Hitler. The Comintern president, Dimitrov, argued for communists to wrap themselves in the national colours to stop fascists using the national symbols. Ralph Gibson, a leading CPA member, writes that the 1938 CPA congress "took seriously Dimitrov’s advice to pay more attention to progressive national traditions in the fight against fascist ideology … It was in this period just before World War Two that Len Fox and others dug the original Eureka flag out of its oblivion. We carried the flag constantly in street processions. The youth movement when reformed in 1942 took the name ‘Eureka’. And for a long time we celebrated the Eureka Anniversary." In 1944, Lance Sharkey, the CPA leader, wrote in Tribune: "Our traditions such as Eureka, make up the Australia we love, our true national pride, our heritage. It remains but to remove that which is ugly and evil from the life of our country." Unfortunately, Nazi groups like National Action later proved capable of themselves adopting the Eureka flag.

By the late 1960s a left-nationalist analysis of Eureka as an anti-imperialist revolt against Britain had became dominant on the left. It was this left-nationalist analysis that Humphrey McQueen criticised in his 1970 work A New Britannia. He criticised leading historians who perpetuated an "Australian legend" in which "Nineteenth century Australia is seen as a vast spawning ground for all that is politically democratic, socially egalitarian and economically non-competitive whilst our nationalism is anti-imperial and anti-militarist". A New Britannia highlighted the limitations of Australian radicalism during the 19th century, when Australia remained a colonial settler state loyal to the British Empire.

The Ballarat Reform League declaration, along with later events, represented an assertion of democratic rather than nationalist sentiment. The miners demanded not national independence but independence or freedom for themselves as a section of the popular classes. The miners’ enemy was a colonial state that ruled with the authority of the British crown. Thus, the miners’ opposition to crown rule was based on their immediate political interests as a class, not on a sense of Australian nationalism (which would not really develop until the 1880s). The program clearly states that national separation is not the aim, but implies that it may be the consequence of an assertion of popular political power against the "authority of the Royal prerogative". Moreover, it must be remembered that any rhetorical calls for independence occurred in the context of a pre-existing and much anticipated move toward responsible self-government by the Australian colonies in 1855.

The central involvement of Irish miners in the movement obviously added weight to the anti-British sentiment. This justified sentiment was a response to "English tyranny", as William Dexter, had put it and a desire for independence from this tyranny, rather than a positive assertion of a new nationalism. The vague desire to build a new and more just society in the "New World" also explains the development of new symbols such as the Southern Cross.

The Southern Cross flew as a symbol of the miners’ unity – a unity that was consciously internationalist. The November 11 meeting was adorned with the national flags of the miners: the Union Jack, the green flag of Ireland, the Welsh dragon, the St Andrew’s cross of Scotland, the German eagle, the Italian and French tricolour and the Stars and Stripes. It was a Canadian, Captain Charles Ross, who suggested the design of the new flag to symbolise the miners’ unity.

The Southern Cross was first raised at a mass meeting on November 29. At this meeting Carboni rose to speak for the first time. His words are recounted in his memoir, "according to notes I had previously taken in my tent" and give the finest sense of the causes and spirit of the rebellion.

"I came from old Europe, 16,000 miles across two oceans, and I thought it a respectable distance from the hated Austrian rule. Why, then, this monster meeting today, at the antipodes? We wrote petitions, signed memorials, made remonstrances by dozens; no go: we are compelled to demand, and must prepare for the consequences. The old style: oppressors and oppressed.

"A sad reflection, very sad reflection, for any educated and honest man … We must meet as in old Europe – old style – improved by far in the south – for the redress of grievances inflicted on us, not by crowned heads, but blockheads, aristocratical incapables, who never did a day’s work in their life. I hate the oppressor, let him wear a red, blue, white or black coat" … I called on my fellow-diggers, irrespective of nationality, religion, and colour, to salute the "Southern Cross" as the refuge of all the oppressed from all countries on earth.

From "moral force" to militant action

THE BALLARAT miners were now organised, united and determined to prevail. The Governor and his officials were just as determined to defeat the rebel movement – by military force if necessary. The Eureka Hotel cases had been resolved, but not entirely to the miners’ satisfaction. The publican Bentley was retried, convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to three years hard labour. However, the diggers McIntyre, Fletcher and Westerby were also sentenced respectively to three, four and six month imprisonment. In response the pro-digger Geelong Advertiser declared: "We can ensure justice only by the complete abolition of the present system of misrule."

Throughout this period, every peaceful appeal by the miners was met with vague hints of concessions combined with blunt refusals and increased repression. The Ballarat Reform League deputation met with Governor Hotham to demand the release of the three diggers. Hotham angrily rejected their right to present him with demands and could only refer to his decision to establish a commission of inquiry at some point in the future. The delegation left empty-handed. In an editorial the next day entitled "Government by Artillery", the Argus criticised the hardline attitude of the government and warned of the danger it presented.

More military reinforcements were sent to Ballarat and the miners were growing impatient, sensing the impending conflict. On the evening of November 28, a detachment of the 40th Regiment marching from Geelong was halted by a crowd of armed miners, who demanded to know if the wagons contained cannon. Receiving no answer, they stormed the convoy and during the skirmish several soldiers were shot, wagons overturned and weapons seized.

A mass meeting held the following day, November 29, was to be a crucial turning point in the struggle. It was advertised with notices proclaiming "Down with Despotism! Who so base as to be a Slave!" and "Down with the Licence fees!" The meeting was convened to hear a report from the deputation and was attended by up to 12,000 miners. The failure of the deputation radicalised the miners and revealed the weaknesses of tactics based on moral persuasion. A new and more radical group around the Irishman Peter Lalor took the initiative and won the support of the assembled miners.

Lalor would be the leader of the miners as they rose in open revolt. His decision to step forward at this point reflected his own experiences as a young man in Ireland. His father, Patrick, was a member of the British House of Commons in the mid-1830s and worked in close association with the nationalist Daniel O’Connell for repeal of the Act of Union. His brother, James, was a leader of the revolutionary Young Ireland movement in the late 1840s. At mass meetings and in papers such as The United Irishman, The Felon and The Tribune, the movement advocated national ownership of the land and armed revolt against the British. James penned the famous words: "Who strikes the first blow for Ireland? Who draws the first blood for Ireland? Who wins a wreath that will be green forever?" In 1848, the movement was suppressed. James Lalor was jailed and died soon after his release. His comrades were transported to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania). These bitter experiences led Peter Lalor, among many others, to emigrate and must have been in his mind as he again witnessed the British state oppressing his fellow miners and countrymen.

The meeting opened with reports from the deputation to the Governor. Humffray advised patience, dubiously claiming that Hotham was "determined to put an end to our grievances, and that he had appointed to this effect, a Commission of Inquiry". Kennedy and Humffray then moved a motion protesting "the common practice of bodies of military marching into a peaceful district with fixed bayonets, and also any force, police or otherwise, firing on the people, under any circumstances, without the reading of the Riot Act, and that if Government officials continue to act thus unconstitutionally, we cannot be responsible for similar or worse deeds from the people".

Lalor rose and successfully moved a motion to elect a new leadership body. He proposed a central committee, with each 50 members of the league electing one delegate to this body. His motion was clearly motivated by dissatisfaction with the existing moderate leadership of Humffray and by the need for a leadership that could lead the miners in action. Carboni made his previously quoted rousing speech in support of this motion. The militant German, Frederick Vern, then proposed a public burning of licences and that "in the event of any party being arrested for having no licences, the united people will, under all circumstances defend and protect them".

A church minister, Reverend Downing, proposed that the licences should not be burned, but as Carboni states: "Although the rev. gentleman was heard with patience and respect, a sullen excitement pervaded the whole assemblage while he spoke. Those even of his most devoted followers were of the opinion that his sentiments did not accord with the spirit of the times, and the result was that the rev. gentleman’s amendment fell to the ground."

The meeting chair, Irishman Timothy Hayes, put the motion and won an extraordinary commitment to act on the decision. According to Carboni he said:

Gentlemen, many a time I have seen large public meetings pass resolutions with as much earnestness and unanimity as you show this day, and yet, when the time came to test the sincerity, and prove the determination necessary for carrying out these resolutions, it was found then that "the spirit, indeed, is willing, but the flesh is weak" … And so I feel bound to ask you, gentlemen, to speak out your mind. Should any member of the League be dragged to the lock-up for not having the licence, will a thousand of you volunteer to liberate the man?

Yes! Yes!

Will two thousand of you come forward?

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Will four thousand of you volunteer to march up to the Camp, and open the lock-up to liberate the man?

Yes! Yes! (The clamour was really deafening)

Are you ready to die? shouted out our worthy chairman, stretching forth his right hand, clenched all the while;

Are you ready to die?

Yes, Yes! Hurrah!

Hayes was then moved to recite the following poetry, summing up the determined spirit of the meeting,

On to the field, our doom is sealed,
To conquer or be slaves;
The sun shall see our country free.
Or set upon our graves

Carboni then states:

No one who was not present at that monster meeting, or never saw any Chartist meeting in Copenhagen-fields, London, can possibly form any idea of the enthusiasm of the miners of Ballarat on that 29th of November. A regular volley of revolvers and other pistols now took place, and a good blazing up of gold licences.

Armed struggle

THE MINERS and authorities were now on a collision course. The miners made last-minute attempts at negotiation that proved futile. On November 30, Goldfield Commissioner Rede wrote a dispatch to Governor Hotham stating:

The absolute necessity of putting down all meetings, public and private, I think must now be apparent, for the abolition of the license-fee is merely a watchword. The whole affair is a strong democratic agitation by an armed mob. If the Government will hold this and the other gold fields it must at once crush this movement, and I would advise again that this gold field be put under Martial Law, and artillery and a strong force sent up to enforce it.

On this day police and soldiers made a final raid on the Gravel Pit diggings, provoking a riot. The traps and troopers were met by an armed and angry crowd and the soldiers advanced and opened fire, injuring a miner and taking eight prisoners. The miners now moved into action. According to Carboni, when news of the attack spread: "Peter Lalor was on the stump, his rifle in his hand, calling on volunteers to ‘fall in’ into ranks as fast as they rushed to Bakery Hill, from all quarters, with arms in their hands, just fetched from their tents." The view of many of the 500 assembled on Bakery Hill was stated by miner Stephen Cummings who said: "Our only defence is to have recourse to arms or else we shall be shot down by these troopers." The Southern Cross was raised and Lalor stepped forward, calling on the diggers to fall into divisions and swear an oath of allegiance: "We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties."

After the oath was taken on mass, the miners marched in formation to a hill on the nearby Eureka diggings. At this point Carboni writes: "I assert as an eye witness, that we were within one thousand in the rank with all sorts of arms, down to the pick and shovel." The miners were organising for armed battle with the authorities, forming military divisions based on the type of weaponry available. Among the first to form were two strong "pikeman’s divisions" led by the Irishman Patrick Curtain and the German Edward Thonen. The pike was a sharp metal stake that had been the weapon of choice during the Irish rebellions. According to Carboni, on the march to the Eureka diggings Lalor had asked him to act as an interpreter and said: "I want you Signore: tell these gentlemen, pointing to old acquaintances of ours, who were foreigners; that if they cannot provide themselves with fire arms, let each of them procure a piece of steel, five or six inches long, attached to a pole, and that will pierce the tyrants’ heart." The pike divisions were later supplied with pikes by a German blacksmith working over his forge inside the stockade. According to Carboni, they remained the strongest and most loyal of all divisions throughout the coming struggle and "consequently suffered the greatest loss on the morning of the massacre".

Alongside the pikemen were the rifle divisions, that tended to be led by North Americans with military experience – Ross’s Rifle Brigade led by the Canadian Captain Ross, the American First Rifles Brigade led by Captain Nelson, the Independent Californian Rangers Revolver Brigade led by former US Infantry lieutenant James Magill and another led by a Captain Nealson.

On this first day Lalor called a meeting of the miners’ leadership in Diamond’s Store. Present were a dozen miners who formed a self-described "council of war for the defence" and elected Lalor leader of the armed diggers. Carboni, who was present at this meeting, wrote that: "It was perfectly understood, and openly declared, in this first council-of-war, that we meant to organise for defence, and that we had taken up arms for no other purpose." The council would meet constantly over the following days, co-ordinating the military organisation of the diggers, issuing orders and assigning duties.

Over the next two days, Friday, December 1, and Saturday December 2, a state of de-facto civil war existed on the Ballarat goldfields. Two armed and hostile camps stood in a tense stand-off. The government authorities had withdrawn all their forces to within the Camp for defensive protection and feared an attack by the armed diggers. The historian Blake notes that a military clerk, Huyghue, "observed that tensions developed between the soldiers and police, uncertain of what was impending. All realised that an angry horde of diggers could easily overwhelm the encampment, food and water grew scarce as the Camp’s normal supplies yielded to diggers’ threats and stopped deliveries". The military leadership were more resolute and was preparing to crush the rebels by force. On Saturday, all remaining companies of the 12th and 40th regiments left Melbourne for Ballarat with two field guns and two howitzers. Major General Sir Robert Nickle, Commander in Chief of the Army in Australia, had taken personal charge of the operation. He had extensive military experience fighting rebels, having fought for the crown in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and in America.

On Eureka Hill the insurgent miners were forming armed divisions, conducting drills and sending out parties to collect arms and ammunition. The miners used thick slabs of timber and overturned carts to erect a defensive fortification or stockade around the centre of the Eureka diggings. The timber slab barricades sloped outward and were designed to provide cover and prevent troopers charging on horseback. The riflemen who drilled within the stockade were instructed to "fire their muskets between the slabs and to aim firstly at any officers". The password for entry to the stockade was "Vinegar Hill" – a reference to the Irish convict uprising at Parramatta in 1804.

On Friday, the rebels received reinforcements in the form of 300 miners led by Thomas Kennedy, who had marched from the nearby Creswick goldfields, apparently singing the Marseillaise. Unfortunately, they lacked arms and supplies, and new efforts were made to collect both. Drays bought in supplies of bread, provisions and meat donated by nearby storekeepers and butchers. On Saturday, more promising reinforcements arrived in the form of Magill’s Californian Rifle Brigade. Carboni states approvingly: "I should say they numbered a couple of hundred, looking Californian enough, armed with a Colt’s revolver of large size, and many had a Mexican knife at the hip."

While the miners continued to prepare in earnest for the expected battle, they increasingly faced problems of desertion and morale. The total number of armed diggers is very difficult to estimate. While about 500 miners were probably organised into some form of military unit, the total number on duty inside the stockade fluctuated greatly, sometimes falling to only 100. This problem was the result of wider strategic problems faced by the rebels. They had taken up a fixed defensive position, declaring that they were acting in self-defence and did not intend to attack the Camp. This left the miners vulnerable to an attack at a time chosen by the authorities.

At various points it was shown that a more offensive strategy was possible. On Friday morning, the Camp had been thrown off guard by a series of mass manoeuvres made by the diggers. At 11am that morning Commissioner Rede had been called to Bath’s Hotel by a crowd of 200 who claimed they wanted to be sworn in as special constables (pro-government volunteer police). When two magistrates were ordered to swear them in the crowd burst out laughing, yelling "Joe! Joe!" and had to be broken up by mounted police. At the same time, Lalor led some 200 armed miners to march defiantly back to Bakery Hill and raise the Southern Cross. They were joined by a huge crowd, and soon numbered 1500. Another group of armed miners was also observed marching in formation around Black Hill.

Describing these events, the historian Blake states: "Altogether some 1500-2000 men were making a show of strength. Rightly or wrongly Rede concluded that the Bakery Hill exercises were designed to draw troops there in attack so that the Camp, being left unprotected, could be approached in a pincer movement from Black Hill and Bath’s Hotel areas and captured." Given the commitment to self-defence it is probable that this was an armed show of force, not a prelude to attack – but it showed what may have been possible. Indeed there were miners who favoured an attack on the Camp. After the final digger hunt on Thursday, November 30, the first calls had been, "To the camp, boys, to the camp". On Friday, December 1, it is reported that Kennedy, Black and Father Smyth had to dissuade a group of diggers "who wanted to gather together 2000 men to attack the camp".

The reason this attack did not eventuate was political. The miners had taken the radical step of arming themselves in self-defence and to win reforms, but did not have the intention of moving to overthrow the state. This still represented a massive threat to the colonial Government and the ruling class, who were determined to crush the rebellion with maximum violence. This is evident in an official dispatch written by Governor Hotham following the uprising:

The aspect of affairs now became serious – the disaffected miners formed themselves into corps, elected their leaders, and commenced drilling; they possessed themselves of all the arms and ammunition which were within their reach, they established patrols, and placed parties on the high roads leading to Melbourne and Geelong, searched all carts and drays for weapons, coerced the well affected, issued orders, signed by the "Secretary to the Commander in Chief of Diggers under Arms", despatched emissaries to the other diggings to excite the miners, and held a meeting whereat the Australian flag of independence was solemnly consecrated and vows proffered for its defence.

All cause for doubt as to their real intention from this moment disappeared; by the most energetic measures must order be restored, and property maintained; a riot was rapidly growing into a revolution, and the professional agitator giving place to the man of physical force.

The time chosen for the government attack was before dawn, about 4am on Sunday, December 3. The authorities knew that numbers were down inside the stockade and took the opportunity even before the Melbourne reinforcements arrived. When the soldiers and police, numbering 288, made their attack, the Eureka stockade was defended by about 120 miners. The battle was brief and brutal. After 10 minutes of sustained firing by the riflemen, the pikemen advanced to halt the cavalry. There was hand-to-hand fighting around the stockade with miners shot, bayoneted and gouged by sabres. When the rebels were overcome a gruesome bloodbath occurred, police and troops going on the rampage, bayoneting the wounded, burning tents and shooting at non-combatants. An inquiry later concluded that mounted police made a "needless as well as ruthless sacrifice of human life indiscriminative of innocent or guilty, and after all resistance had disappeared".

In this carnival of reaction a soldier tore down the Southern Cross amid cheers and laughter. Those diggers who could, fled the scene, while another 128 were chained and marched back to camp as prisoners. The total number dead was 29 miners and four soldiers. Rebels killed included Thonen and the blacksmith John Hafele, alongside scores of English, Irishmen and one William Quinn from Goulburn. Captain Ross died of wounds inflicted when he was shot more than 10 minutes after he had surrendered. Lalor was seriously wounded, shot in the left shoulder. He would go into hiding and have his left arm amputated. Carboni had escaped the fighting but was captured and imprisoned at the Camp, later to stand trial along with 12 others charged with high treason. The repression was completed with the arrest of Henry Seekamp, the editor of the pro-digger Ballaarat Times, who was charged with sedition on the basis of his journalism.

The bloody suppression of the rebels cast a pall of grief across the goldfields. Newspapers carried reports of the gruesome carnage, hasty burials of the rebels and grieving families for all to read. Order had been restored at a terrible cost.

Victory in defeat

NEWS OF THE bloody attack on the miners threw the entire colony into a state of extreme shock. The already widespread support for miners fuelled an outpouring of anger. While the government had crushed rebellion, it had clearly lost the support of the majority of people.

On Monday morning officials in Ballarat awoke to find all flags flying at half-mast and people wearing black ribbons alongside the red. On Tuesday, December 5, the conservative Mayor of Melbourne called a public meeting to support the government and enrol special constables to defend the city. A crowd of more than 3000 assembled, who were hostile to the official speakers and installed their own chair to pass motions condemning the government’s actions. They described Hotham’s government as a "set of wholesale butchers" and shouted "Down with Foster" – the Colonial Secretary.

On Wednesday, December 6, a larger mass meeting of 6000 in Melbourne heard speakers condemn the whole policy of the government and declare support for the miners’ demands. The same day, John Humffray chaired a mass meeting on Bakery Hill to protest the massacre and restate the miners’ grievances. This unexpected response put Hotham on the defensive and Colonial Secretary Foster was forced to resign. Over the summer there was widespread agitation for an amnesty for the Eureka prisoners and those in hiding.

Hotham continued to insist that the captured rebel leaders stand trial charged with high treason. However, the outcome of these jury trials would represent a serious defeat for his Government and underline how little support it had. Thirteen leaders were charged with treason, a crime punishable by death. They included leaders associated with the miners’ council such as Timothy Hayes, Raffaello Carboni and John Manning.

The trials began in February 1855. The first to face court was John Joseph, an African-American miner from New York who had fought in the stockade. This was almost certainly a crude attempt to target "foreigners" and stoke racist division. Government officials repeatedly blamed the presence of "foreign agitators" for the unrest in official dispatches of the period. If this was their intention, it failed miserably. The jury found Joseph not guilty and he was greeted as a hero by hundreds of supporters outside the Supreme Court.

The trials continued into March, but in every case the juries found not guilty and the prisoners were released to a jubilant welcome on Russell Street in central Melbourne. In response, the Age editors wrote: "The heart of the people is sound; it is only the heart of the Government that is rotten" and referring to Hotham, "The Czar of Toorak may command his two-law generals to conquer, but fate is against them; and the vice regal tyrant is finding out that … all power belongs to the people."

In the same month Karl Marx wrote a report "Buying Jobs – From Australia" for the Neue Oder-Zeitung newspaper of Wroclaw, Poland, in which he pointed out that:

We must distinguish between the riot in Ballarat (near Melbourne) and the general revolutionary movement in the colony of Victoria. The former will have been suppressed by now; the latter can only be suppressed through complete concessions. The former is by itself only a symptom, an incidental eruption of the later … The really important questions at issue, around which the revolutionary movement in the province of Victoria revolves, are two. The gold diggers demand abolition of the licences for gold prospecting, ie, a direct tax on labour; secondly they demand the abolition of the property qualification for members of the Chamber of Representatives … It is not difficult to notice that these are essentially similar reasons to those which led to the Declaration of Independence of the United States, but with the difference that in Australia the opposition arises from the workers against monopolists tied up with the colonial bureaucracy.

In the period after the Eureka uprising and with the failure of the treason trials, the colonial ruling class was forced to grant the immediate demands of the movement. Reforms continued to be granted only because the ruling class feared the prospect of further unrest. This was particularly the case in the area of democratic rights, where there was the greatest resistance from conservative forces. While initial concessions were made, the right to universal male suffrage without property qualification was not granted until November 1857.

A royal commission promised by Hotham presented its findings in July 1855. It recommended that the licence tax be abolished and replaced by an export duty on gold, that the Gold Commission be abolished and finally suggested that miners be able to buy a miner’s right for one pound a year that would entitle them to vote for representatives in the Legislative Council. Accordingly, Hotham abolished the licence fee, replaced the Gold Commissioners with elected Miners’ Wardens Courts and expanded the Legislative Council to include representatives from goldfield electorates. As a result of these changes Lalor and Humffray became members of the Legislative Council in November 1855.

While the movement had won its immediate demands, it had only partly achieved the extension of democratic rights. Changes in this area coincided with the granting of self-government to the Australian colonies by Britain. The Constitution Act of October 1855 granted self-government to Victoria and established the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council as lower and upper houses. The vote was still restricted to male citizens according to property ownership: 50 pounds for the assembly and 1000 pounds for the council.

Lalor and Humffray were both returned in Victoria’s first parliamentary election of October 1856. Unfortunately, in office Lalor seemed committed to proving his moderate liberal credentials. Due to his training as a civil engineer he had already been appointed Inspector of Railways on a salary of 600 pound a year. In December 1856, he angered his supporters when he voted for a bill that re-affirmed the property qualifications noted above. Lalor could argue that "freehold suffrage is virtually manhood suffrage" but it was a clearly a betrayal.

While the Eureka revolt had begun moves toward democratic reform, it required continued struggle by urban social forces and new leaders for victory to be achieved. There were two key factors that propelled the movement forward – the struggles of the Melbourne construction and trades workers and agitation for land reform. The gold rush and the economic activity it created continued to cause relative shortages of labour, particularly in the booming construction industry. In February 1856, skilled stonemasons, led by James Galloway and James Stephens of the Operative Stonemasons Society, began a campaign to win the eight-hour day. Central to it were the stonemasons working on the law buildings at the University of Melbourne. Most employers, including those at the university, conceded the eight-hour day but those building Melbourne Grammar, Parliament House and the Western Market held out. This led to a large strike and demonstration on April 21 that was joined by the workers on all these sites. Stephens, who had once attended a Chartist demonstration in England that was fired on by police, provides a first-hand account of the April 21 strike:

No meeting of the joint committees having taken place for some time, and a majority of the members being at work at the building of the Melbourne University, where I also had been employed for a considerable period previously, I called a meeting during the "Smoko" time, viz. between ten and eleven o’clock in the forenoon, and reported our interviews with the employers, but that Mr Cornish, contractor for the Parliament Houses, would not give in. I then insisted that the resolution of the society should be carried by physical force if necessary. The majority of masons employed are society men, and we can easily coerce the minority. It was a burning hot day and I thought the occasion a good one, so I called upon the men to follow me, to which they immediately consented, when I marched them to a new building then being erected in Madeline Street, thence to Temple Court and on to the Parliament House, the men at all these works immediately dropping their tools and joining the procession.

As a result of such actions, all stonemasons, plasterers, bricklayers, carpenters, slaters, plumbers and painters soon achieved the eight-hour day. This world-first achievement was a result of the confidence of workers to assert both their industrial strength and democratic rights to organise, assemble and strike.

The movement of the building workers coincided with a wider campaign for land reform, to break the monopoly of the squatters and make land available to more people. The campaign was led by the Victorian Land League or Convention, a body that adopted the popular ideals and symbolism of the diggers’ movement. "On 19 January 1857 over eight hundred persons crammed into an amphitheatre to debate the petition to parliament by the Victorian Land League praying that the lands of the squatters at once be thrown open for settlement. That night the revolutionary slogan ‘vox populi’ was emblazoned on the flag of the Southern Cross on the platform of the chairman and speakers." The convention would continue to be a source of populist sentiment, leading demonstrators in storming Parliament House in 1860.

In 1857, conservatives dominating the Legislative Council used their numbers to block passage of legislation abolishing property qualifications for assembly elections. The response from the movement was immediate. As described by Manning Clark:

Enraged by such tactics the operatives of Melbourne and the friends of the people gathered in the Olympic Theatre on 4 May 1857. Charles Jardine Don, a Glasgow stonemason, chartist, deist … told them the land was the property of all who inhabited it … he wanted manhood suffrage, he wanted representation by population; he wanted no property qualifications for members of parliament. A deafening roar of applause greeted those remarks. Every attempt at opposition or the voice of moderation was drowned ... There were groans for Michie, groans for Lalor …"

According to Clark: "The gentry and bourgeoisie took fright. Again as in the crisis over the future of transportation when the demands of the radicals and republicans put terror into the hearts of the conservatives and liberals, the consensus men, urging that British genius for compromise, that use of reform and embrace to avert violent revolution, bought forward a compromise." The compromise was the Electoral Bill of 1857 that finally abolished property qualifications in elections for the Legislative Assembly. (They would remain in the Legislative Council in some form until 1950!) In 1859, the stonemason Charles Jardine Don was elected to the Legislative Assembly. He claimed to be the first artisan elected to any parliament in the British Empire. Receiving no parliamentary allowance, he continued to work on Parliament House extensions by day and take his seat as a member at night.

The miners’ courageous revolt and the wider democratic movement had achieved a great gain, winning universal male suffrage decades before it was granted in Britain and elsewhere. It was a victory that would influence the development of Australian society and future struggles between the contending classes. By struggle, the people had won the bourgeois democratic right to vote, to elect representatives and governments or to sack them. In this period of struggle men and women had asserted wider democratic civil rights to organise, to assemble and to withdraw labour. However much they may try, politics and government would never again be the exclusive domain of ruling class officials, property owners or employers.

The American writer Mark Twain visited Ballarat in 1895 and wrote the following summary of the significance of the Eureka rebellion:

The Ballarat miners protested, petitioned, complained – it was of no use; the government held its ground, and went on collecting the tax. And not by pleasant methods, but by ways which must have been very galling to free people. The rumblings of a coming storm began to be audible.

By and by there was a result; and I think it may be called the finest thing in Australasian history. It was a revolution – small in size; but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for a principle, a stand against injustice and oppression. It was the Barons and John, over again; it was Hampden and Ship-Money; it was Concord and Lexington; small beginnings, all of them, but all of them great in political results, all of them epoch-making. It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle.

The meaning of Eureka today

WHAT CAN we learn from the struggles of 1854 that is relevant today? While society has changed enormously since then, questions of democracy and civil rights continue to be central to the struggles over the direction and shape of society. A re-elected Howard government with control of the senate has been quick to assert that it will use this power to restrict the democratic rights of others – in particular the rights of workers and trade unions to organise and take industrial action. In general terms the conservatives seek to roll back the gains won by workers, women and indigenous people over past decades. The experience of the Eureka rebellions holds some crucial lessons for all those who seek to resist these attacks and to build a more just society.

Democracy is a class question

In 1854, the miners rebelled against a state dominated by unelected colonial officials and the owners of property. The colonial parliament, bureaucracy, courts and armed forces were all instruments of class rule used to defend the interests of the colonial ruling class. To win economic and social reforms the miners had to fight for the extension of democratic rights to all classes. The ruling class viewed this with alarm and were determined to prevent it occurring. On November 30, Goldfield Commissioner Rede met a delegation of miners and asserted that "The licence is a mere cloak to cover a democratic revolution".

The "democratic revolution" achieved by the miners and urban classes established the basis for the parliamentary liberal democracy that exists today. Parliamentary democracy provides a stable political framework for the development of a modern capitalist economy. Citizens of all classes have the equal right to vote. However, this formal equality does not contain actual equality of power when it comes to making decisions about the direction of society.

Democracy is restricted to the sphere of parliament, an institution that generally operates within the limits imposed by the wider capitalist state and society. Beyond parliament, immense decision-making power is held by unelected officials of the state: highly paid senior public servants, judges, police commissioners, military generals and the governor-generals. Parliamentary democracy rarely encroaches on the massive power of private companies and corporations. Boards of directors are free to make decisions that impact on the lives of millions of people, decisions about what to invest, how to restructure, who to make redundant and what to broadcast on television. In capitalist society an unelected class of wealthy individuals holds the real power.

That’s why for workers and our communities, democracy is a class question. Those who manage and run society constantly seek to limit our democratic rights to influence or challenge their decisions. These decisions may be about a company sacking workers, the building of a toxic waste dump or the detention of refugees. To prevent the sackings, stop the dump or free the refugees we need to assert our democratic rights in a struggle both inside and outside the parliament.

Democratic and civil rights are won in struggle

Democratic rights accepted as normal today have been won as a result of struggle and pressure from below. Those in power have never granted rights out of a generosity of spirit. Before 1854, the colonial ruling classes were determined to restrict democratic rights to those with substantial property. The rebellion on the goldfields and the urban mass movement won universal male suffrage. By opposing the digger hunts the miners also asserted the civil right of citizens to not be oppressed by armed police and soldiers on a daily basis. Their victory in the treason trials also marked a historic defeat for this autocratic form of government. From the early 1840s workers were also asserting their rights to form unions and take strike action, usually in open defiance of repressive laws such as the Master and Servants Act. These laws were rendered obsolete by workers’ action and by the 1880s were replaced by Trade Union acts that formally recognised limited union rights.

Women did not win the right to vote until much later: 1894 in South Australia, 1902 in the Commonwealth, with other states following soon after. This was the result of widespread campaigning by supporters of women’s suffrage. Women had to keep fighting to win the right to stand as candidates, a right not granted until as late as 1923 in Victoria. The achievement of formal rights to equal pay, divorce and equality before the law during the 20th century were the result of direct and often militant struggle by women in the trade union and women’s liberation movements.

The violent dispossession of Aboriginal people was followed by the denial of basic civil and human rights under the Protection Acts of the 1890s. This situation did not begin to change until the mid-1930s when Aboriginal men and women formed organisations such as the Aboriginal Progressive Association to organise on the reserves for full citizenship rights, abolition of the Protection Board and an end to the removal of children. 1n 1939 there was a nine-month strike by residents of the Cumeragunja Mission on the Murray River for these demands. In 1957, a similar strike occurred on the oppressive Palm Island reserve in north Queensland. Charles Perkins led the "Freedom Rides" through northern NSW in 1965 to highlight the apartheid-style denial of civil rights. This generated support for the 1967 referendum that finally recognised Aboriginal people as citizens in their own country. In 1982 mass protests against the Commonwealth Games exposed the continuing denial of human rights under the repressive Queensland Aborigines Act.

While the struggle for justice continues, any rights held today are the direct result of generations of courageous struggle.

Democratic rights have to be defended

Because of the nature of capitalist society democratic rights are always under pressure and need to be defended. The ruling class concedes minimum rights to give workers a limited stake in the system but acts quickly to attack these rights if they are used to challenge its social or economic power. Rights also come under attack when they help workers forestall employers’ offensives on jobs and conditions aimed at maintaining profit rates. Under capitalism, workers and the oppressed can win battles, but never the war.

This is evident in the field of parliamentary democracy. On two occasions in the 20th century the elite have resorted to using regal powers to sack democratically elected Labor governments. In 1932, NSW Governor Sir Phillip Game dismissed the government of Jack Lang, the populist Labor premier who in the midst of the Depression refused to pay interest on loans to the Bank of England. In the mid-1970s the economy was entering another international recession in the midst of a massive upsurge in strikes by a combative union movement The mildly reformist Whitlam Labor government faced an orchestrated attack by the employers and the wider ruling class. Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser used the senate to block supply and on November 11, 1975, the Governor-General Sir John Kerr sacked the Whitlam government. Across Australia workers walked off the job in protest and mass rallies were held, but the struggle was largely limited to the following election which was won by Fraser, "Kerr’s Cur".

The democratic right to freedom of political association had to be defended in 1951 when the Menzies Government attempted to ban the Communist Party. A mass public campaign saw a referendum narrowly defeated. During World War One the radical anti-war Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was crushed when 12 of its leading members were jailed on trumped-up charges of "conspiracy to commit arson and sedition". Again, a mass campaign in the wider labour movement was necessary to win their eventual release.

Workers’ right to organise is a democratic right that is constantly under threat. Often the state has sought to intimidate workers by prosecuting their leaders. This was the case during the Broken Hill miners’ strike of 1892. The five elected leaders of the strike, including the local president of the Amalgamated Mining Association, were arrested, charged with "seditious conspiracy" and imprisoned.

Sometimes the state has used armed force to attack workers. During the bitter waterside strike of 1928 a worker was shot dead by police in Port Melbourne. A year later, miners on the northern NSW coalfields were locked out. On December 18, 1929, police opened fire on pickets at Rothbury pit, injuring many and killing the miner Norman Brown. Soldiers were used to break the coalminers’ strikes in 1949.

Usually employers and the state have used a web of legal mechanisms to prevent strikes. In 1947 and 1956 the arbitration laws were strengthened to enable unions to be fined by the Industrial Court under new penal powers. This placed a severe limit on workers’ rights. In 1969, the penal powers were broken by a nationwide strike to protest the jailing of Clarrie O’Shea, Victorian secretary of the Tramways Union for non-payment of fines. This mass action by workers rendered the penal powers useless and cleared the way for workers to win substantial gains during a period of struggle that lasted until the early 1980s.

The Hawke and Keating Labor governments used an Accord with the ACTU to limit strikes. In 1984 they used the law to deregister the Builders Labourers Federation, which continued to struggle for gains outside the Accord system. Labor later smashed the pilots’ union, using the RAAF as a scab airline. These attacks paved the way for the actions of the Howard Government, which in 1996 passed the anti-union Workplace Relations Act and in 1998 backed an attack on the Maritime Union of Australia. Mass action by workers defended the MUA and will continue to be crucial to defending our union rights.

Even the most basic rights to free speech and public assembly have to be repeatedly fought for and defended. In the 1930s, unemployed workers defied bans on street marches and communist activists defied police arrests to win free speech at meetings on the streets of working class suburbs. On the northern NSW coalfields workers defended picket lines from attacks by armed police and strike-breakers. In the suburbs of Sydney working class Labor Party members formed leagues to defend meetings from attacks by the armed thugs of the fascist New Guard. As late as 1979 people in Queensland had to act in defiance of Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ban on street marches and public assembly. A campaign of street marches and mass arrests eventually won the right to march in the streets of Brisbane.

Unity is strength

The greatest strength of the miners’ movement of the 1850s was the unity built between men and women from different nations. The leaders of the movement always stressed its international character and refused to succumb to the politics of anti-Chinese scapegoating. The colonial authorities feared this unity and tried to undermine it in various ways. They appealed to the loyalty of "Englishmen" and tried to paint the rebellion as mainly the work of disloyal "foreign" agitators. This was linked with an attempt to divide the miners’ leadership from the rank-and-file miner in an early form of red-baiting. Thus Hotham wrote in an official dispatch:

Nevertheless the eyes of Government must not be shut against what I believe to be the fact; the agitators and promoters of sedition have further objects in view than the repeal of the license fee. The more moderate make a trade of their vocation and subsist upon the money collected from their followers and hearers; the rest hold foreign democratic opinions; they are indifferent as to the precise form of government to be obtained, provided the road to it lay through an overthrow of property and general havoc; foreigners are to be found amongst the most active, and if they abuse the hospitality and protection they obtain here, have no right to expect clemency if convicted. [Emphasis added]

The prominence given to John Joseph and Raffaello Carboni in the treason trials was further evidence of this strategy. With the failure of the treason trials, the colonial ruling class began to ferment anti-Chinese sentiment. The official Commission into the Goldfields levelled a series of baseless and racist charges against the Chinese population and warned that "a comparative handful of colonists may be buried in a countless throng of Chinamen". The commission recommended that Chinese immigration be restricted by charging ships a 10-pound fine on every Chinese cabin passenger. This measure was introduced and created a climate of officially endorsed racism that contributed to the outbreak of anti-Chinese riots on the Buckland River goldfields in 1857 and at Lambing Flat in 1861.

Today we face similar attempts at division by conservative forces. The Howard government refused to condemn the racist stance of Pauline Hanson in 1996 and subsequently made its draconian policy toward asylum-seekers the centrepiece of the 2001 election. The government also attacked "native title", stubbornly refusing to make any apology to the indigenous stolen generations or to support any moves toward reconciliation or justice for indigenous people. More recently the Liberals have attacked self-determination by abolishing ATSIC and promising to "mainstream" indigenous controlled health, housing and legal services.

Since 9-11 and the declaration of a "war on terror" it has been people of a Middle Eastern or Muslim background who have come under particular scrutiny and attack. In Sydney this began with a hysterical media campaign about "Lebanese crime gangs" but quickly shifted to fermenting suspicion about the loyalty or intentions of members of the Islamic community. This has been fostered by the passage of draconian "anti-terror" laws and public campaigns encouraging people to be "alert" to suspicious activities. In 2003, NSW police exploited racist sentiments when they attacked an anti-war student strike assembly in central Sydney, arresting many young people they labelled as being of "Middle Eastern descent".

The best antidote to this climate of division and fear has been the unity of thousands of Muslim and non-Muslim Australians in campaigns to defend asylum-seekers and most significantly during the series of huge protests against Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war. Women and men of all backgrounds marched together with a vision for a more peaceful and just world.

The argument is sometimes made that racism is a "symbolic" issue of concern only to middle class intellectuals and with no relevance to working class people. Aside from being a narrow and patronising portrayal of the concerns and interests of working people, this is also a false assertion. It is no coincidence that the same government that has set out to undermine workers’ living standards and union rights has also consistently been the source of divisive politics. Howard and the employers prefer workers to be divided and suspicious of each other rather than united in opposition to their agenda. To meet the challenges ahead we will need to build union and social movements that consciously challenge division and unite people "irrespective of nationality, religion, and colour" in our workplaces, on picket lines and in the streets.

Militant mass action wins

In every movement there is discussion and debate about the way forward. There are always people who argue that the best way forward is to use the "official channels", to lobby politicians and mount public relations campaigns to win over public opinion. In 1854, this argument was made by the moderate "moral force" leaders, who wanted to rely on petitioning and persuading the Governor to achieve change. Today this strategy is usually put by union officials and Labor politicians who argue that workers should basically rely on lobbying senators, backbenchers and judges and win community support by passive campaigning. This leaves workers dependent on the good will of others and in a weak position to resist attacks when they are made.

An alternative way forward is to rely on the strength of people mobilised in action, to demand change and make it clear that the movement will fight to achieve it. This usually achieves more than any amount of passive lobbying and is also more effective in winning over public support. The miners in 1854 found that they were ignored until they decided to burn their licences and mount a campaign of outright defiance.

Today, the physical and intellectual labour of workers is crucial to the functioning of the modern economy. Strike action and demonstrations that aim to mobilise large numbers of people can force even the most determined government or corporation to back down. This is because mass strike action threatens the profits of private capital but also because it upsets the social stability that is so cherished by those who invest capital. By taking a determined stand, workers or a social movement can win wider community support as people begin to question the "spin" put out by officials and the media and identify with those fighting back.

A good example of the benefits of militancy and mass action was the 1998 campaign to defend the MUA. The decision to lock out the unionised waterside workers was made by a company confident about its chances of victory. Patrick’s Stevedores had the support of the Workplace Relations Act and the Federal Government. A series of Federal Court decisions banned pickets. In defiance of the judges, mass union and community pickets at the dock gates were turning the tables on the lockout and beginning to win over public support.

The decisive turning point occurred on the East Swanson dock in Melbourne on the morning of April 18. Thousands of people had stood on the picket line throughout the night, in defiance of a Federal Court injunction. The Victorian Government had declared that it would break the picket and sent hundreds of police at dawn to do so. As the police approached the thousands of people on the picket line, thousands more city construction workers who had walked off the job marched in behind them. The police, trapped, were forced to negotiate their retreat with Trades Hall officials and from this point on the initiative swung behind the waterside workers, who won back their jobs.

The MUA had shown that it was "here to stay" and since then the Howard government has been reluctant to mount a head-on offensive against well-organised unions. This and many similar struggles have shown that militancy and mass action win – a crucial lesson as we face the next round of union-busting.

The past and the future

Conservative politicians and historians portray Australian history as a story of steady and peaceful progress, without major crisis or incident. They have launched an ideological offensive against historians, such as Henry Reynolds, who document the violent dispossession of indigenous people. In a 1996 lecture John Howard attacked what he termed the "black armband" view of history and said that "in the balance sheet of history, there is a story of great Australian achievement to be told". The National Museum of Australia has been subject to a restructure because an official report claimed that there were "pockets of bias" and a lack of "compelling narratives, giving priority to national themes".

The struggles of 1854 show that Australian society did not develop in a steady, peaceful march of progress. A whole series of crisis and turbulent class struggles has shaped the society we live in today. Australia has a complex history in which there is always a contest between various ideas, material forces, classes and individuals. Throughout there has been struggle; between indigenous people and settlers, convicts and masters, diggers and troopers, women and chauvinists, workers and employers, S11 2000 protesters and the police defending the World Economic Forum. The Eureka rebellion belongs to this hidden history of struggle from below, a history that can both inspire and inform us as we meet the opportunities of the present, in an epoch of imperialist war and global resistance.

In 2004, the best tribute we can make to the spirit of Eureka is to continue democratic struggle for social change and against conservative government. The Liberals won the 2004 election with a promise to defend living standards but are already preparing to attack our union rights, remove unfair dismissal laws, sell Telstra and limit women’s right to choose. Australian troops still patrol the streets of Baghdad and refugees continue to languish in detention. In Victoria, the Bracks Government has overseen the jailing of the prominent trade unionist Craig Johnson, singled out for his uncompromising defence of workers’ rights.

These attacks will only be defeated and society changed for the better by a struggle waged inside and outside parliament, against the parliament and the smug ruling class of employers and the rich. We will win by asserting our democratic rights to strike at the employers’ profits, to assemble and march in the streets, to speak out in every forum and to build new organisations of unity and struggle.

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