Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Liked This article courtesy of the Australian Financial Review:

The time you take to read this newspaper today will probably be longer than the battle of the Eureka Stockade, which seems to have lasted (nobody was using a stopwatch) for about 15 minutes.
By most military standards, Eureka - which happened 150 years ago today - was a skirmish. Accounts of the death toll conflict (almost every fact about Eureka can be contested), but Pierpont will use the figure of 22 diggers and five police. Some accounts put the diggers' death toll as high as 30, but the list compiled by their leader, Peter Lalor, puts the number at 22, including three whose names were unknown.

As every other windbag in Australia has pontificated about the significance of Eureka over the past week, Pierpont thought he'd go with the flow and deliver a few opinions of his own.

Rather belatedly, Pierpont should point out that the Communist Party of Australia's attempt to kidnap the Eureka name has little credibility when one looks at the facts.

Karl Marx has been quoted as saying "the workers" were the main force at Eureka. As Gerard Henderson noted in The Sydney Morning Herald this week, the communists decided in the 1930s to hail the Eureka rebellion as a true manifestation of the revolutionary struggle and incorporated a reference to Eureka in the preamble to their constitution.

The communists also formed the Eureka Youth League as a left-wing alternative to the Boy Scouts a singularly unsuccessful initiative because Baden-Powell's scouts had uniforms, badges and a paramilitary structure that was much more appealing to the boys of the day. The scouts also laid great emphasis on personal responsibility whereas the communists were chronic whingers, who blamed capitalism for everything.

Marx was only half right about the workers. Certainly the diggers worked like dogs, but they weren't wage slaves for some plutocratic capitalist. They were free men and their own bosses, trying to strike it rich in a goldfield. They were small capitalists, not the factory fodder of Das Kapital. Mark Latham got it right when he said the diggers were self-employed contractors and the hard-working aspirational class seeking tax relief.

The first diggers at Ballarat headed straight for the rivers and streams and panned them for gold.

Rafaello Carboni - the only eyewitness to give a full account of the incident - grizzled about being searched for his miner's licence when he arrived at Ballarat by "a six-foot fellow in a blue shirt, thick boots, the face of a ruffian, armed with a carabine [sic] and fixed bayonet". He bemoaned coming 16,000 miles (his calculation of the distance from Italy) to escape Austrian tyranny only to be suffering from "colonial brutedom".

His moans lessened a bit at the end of the month when 177 ounces of gold were discovered at a depth of 60 feet on the hill opposite where he was working.

This was the key to Ballarat. The easily won gold was soon discovered on the surface. Then inquiring explorers sunk deeper and discovered old, deeper waterways that ran in different directions to those on the surface. Some of these gutters contained rich gold and some were barren. Soon syndicates formed and dug down to 60 feet and then beyond 100 feet.

The nature of the gold screamed out for syndicate or company operation and financing. Instead, the authorities were selling licences to individuals. Carboni's licence cost #2 and entitled him to dig for three months, which was not too bad a deal. However, he was limited to one patch 12 feet square or 144 square feet. A syndicate of four could handle a patch four times that size, which was better, but still involved hazards.

As miners dug down, they struck the water table, which required constant baling. As shafts sank deeper, they needed to be timbered, which was expensive. And there was still no guarantee they would strike gold at the bottom. Often they would "shepherd", just turning over a few shovelfuls a day while waiting to see whether their neighbours struck gold.

The licence fees applied whether gold was struck or not. And the raids by the police were vexatious. The licences being paper and perishable were not normally carried by the miners as they were working, but were kept in their tents, which might be half a mile from the hole. So they had to stop work, go back to their tents and retrieve the licence while being harassed by the police.

There is no reason to quarrel with the conventional judgement that this was a stupid tax, harshly prosecuted.

Nor did the climate help. Ballarat boils in summer, especially in northerly winds. And as Pierpont can testify after one unforgettable day at the Ballarat races, in winter it freezes. Carboni was exactly right when he referred to "this Ballaarat, a Nugety Eldorado for the few, a ruinous Field of hard labour for many, a profound ditch of Perdition for Body and Soul". Perhaps the worst point, which rarely seems to be made in histories of Eureka, was that the authorities having levied the licence fees did not in return provide the diggers with any protection from the lawlessness on the field.

Theft and claim jumping were rife. Carboni complained that his hole was next to one that was "jumped by the Eureka mob, where one man was murdered in the row". When Carboni went to fetch timber, the dirt he had left behind to wash was gone. Indeed, he said even his little hole was gone. The whole patch had been "clean shaved" by claim jumpers.

So the police were there at the behest of the governor to collect taxes, not to maintain law and order.

It was in this atmosphere on October 8, 1854, that a drunken digger named James Scobie was killed late at night after being refused entry to the Eureka Hotel. The publican, James Bentley, was suspected of murder, but released for lack of evidence. That infuriated the diggers, who burned down the hotel. (And for the benefit of non-mining readers, it takes a very infuriated digger indeed to burn down a pub.)

Three of the men involved in the riot were convicted and jailed, which further inflamed passions. On November 29, an angry meeting was held at Bakery Hill where some diggers burned their licences.

On the following day the police again raided the diggings, got stoned for their pains and arrested more diggers. The diggers held another meeting, elected Lalor as their leader and formed a rough stockade from slabs of timber. Inside the stockade, they armed themselves with pikes and firearms. The pikemen drilled and those with guns dug rifle pits.

It was not so much an armed rebellion as a defence against further raids by the police. At 3am on Sunday, December 3, there were perhaps 120 men inside the stockade. In the dark, a force of some 1000 troops and police had assembled. They launched a surprise raid and quickly overran the ramshackle defences.

As a symbol of Australian revolutionary spirit, Eureka doesn't quite make it. To begin with, only two of the diggers were Australian-born. As Pierpont's source for this statistic is Latham, he is not wholly comfortable with the number, but certainly there weren't many.

Only one of the fallen on Lalor's list of 22 was Australian, whereas 10 were Irish.

As the Irish were Catholics, it takes some skewing of history to repaint them as socialist revolutionaries, but doubtless that was child's play to any communist who could believe Joe Stalin was a nice chap.

The spine of the rebellion also seems to have been provided by Californians, who formed a Rangers Brigade, armed with Colt revolvers and long Mexican knives. They were standing sentry when the soldiers attacked, which raises the possibility that Eureka has more credibility as a revolutionary symbol for Los Angeles than for Australia, which means Hollywood has so far missed the opportunity to exploit this morsel of its military past.

The Californians were sticking to the principle of the American Revolution ("no taxation without representation"), which is really what Eureka was all about.

In seeking the meaning of Eureka, we should not ignore its consequences. A total of 113 diggers were arrested for their part in the affray and spent a few months in jail awaiting trial, but juries sensibly refused to convict them. Most of the trials were before Redmond Barry, who was sympathetic to the diggers' plight. (He was less sympathetic later to Ned Kelly.)

In 1855 only months after the battle the miners began to make their own laws and run their own courts to settle pegging disputes. The mining code was overhauled and modified. The code became kinder to ordinary diggers and, more importantly, expedited the formation of syndicates and companies that could exploit the deep leads.

Lalor, who lost his left arm during the stockade, became a prosperous miner and conservative MP, rising to become speaker of the Victorian parliament. Above all, the battle probably hastened the onset of democracy in colonial Victoria.

The lesson of Eureka is that Australians do not have the revolutionary mindset. They are not much interested in ideological struggle, although they will fight for ordinary human rights. They are pragmatic and they found practical solutions for their difficulties without erecting any more barricades.

Where England had a civil war, and the United States, France and Russia had earth-shaking revolutions, Australia patched up an imperfect system and made it less imperfect.

After Eureka, the legal system worked to protect the oppressed, and democracy emerged. All this was achieved without any more blood being spilt. It's not glamorous.

Indeed, it's downright prosaic. But it's better than revolution, bloodshed and a legacy of a century and a half of hatred and bitterness.

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