Eureka Stockade: A fighting affair of the Australian gold field [George L. Kilmer, 16 July 1892]

[Editor: An article on the Eureka Rebellion, by the American author George L. Kilmer (1851-1905); it contains various inaccuracies, but is of interest regarding how the story of the rebellion was told in other countries. Published in the South Side Signal (Babylon, New York), 16 July 1892.]

Eureka Stockade.

A fighting affair of the Australian gold find.

The mining colony of Victoria rebelled against odious taxation, declared war and hoisted an independent flag — romance of their Irish military chieftain.

[Copyright, 1892, by American Press Association. Book rights reserved.]

Gold digging in Australia at the time of the great rush was attended with much the same excitement and stirring and romantic episodes as on our own gold coast in the early “fifties.” Thither the European adventurer of every social grade betook himself; men from the border land of every country and men with no country lo boast their own — in short, fortune hunters the world over who could by hook or crook get passage to the new El Dorado hied there with the desperation of spirits bound to make or break. And they didn’t go in driblets, giving time for assimilation; there was a flood, a deluge, and the population jumped from 50,000 souls to 250,000 in a year from the time the first Australian nuggets were displayed on the Strand in London. The rich diggings of the time were located in an insignificant strip of mountainous coast at the extreme southern point of the island about 400 miles long by 200 wide.

The country about that time became a separate political division under the superlatively loyal title of Victoria, although, of course, there is nothing in a name.

The population of a mining camp is not specially qualified to make any great sacrifice to uphold an attribute so shadowy as mere political dignity, and a vast squatting ground of diggers was what the British queen’s young protege speedily became. A cotemporary historian wrote of its people: “From California came wild men, the waifs of societies which had submitted to or practiced lynch law. The social festers of France, Italy and Germany shed exfoliations upon Australia. The rebellious element of Ireland was there. The disappointed crew who thought to frighten the British Isles from their propriety in 1818 were represented in some strength.”

The convict element of Australia completed the vile ingredients. With shiploads of such immigrants unloaded daily at the Victorian ports the colonial authorities — which means officials sent out by the home government — wouldn’t naturally find their rule a holiday outing under the best of circumstances. And circumstances could not well be other than tough as things were. The land was thousands of miles from the world’s storehouses, and in itself produced nothing to make life worth living, for gold alone cannot do that. Provisions became so scant that the government could barely feed the convicts of its penal colony. Freight from the seashore 100 miles inland, rose to £100 a ton. And all classes went gold mad; servants bolted, ships’ crews, porters, drivers and even policemen ran off to the diggings. The lucky ones returned to the capital town and port to display their wealth and incite the cupidity of the conservative stay at homes, and this thing going on for months produced a fever that upset everything and chaos was at no time far away. The best thing and about the only good thing was gold, gold in heaps at that, and this everybody couldn’t pick up just to the liking. Poverty will not abolish itself even in an El Dorado.

After the boom had reached a state bordering on permanence, the colonial officers hit upon the clumsy idea of making the camp pay its own way in the matter of administrative expenses through a license tax on individual miners; that is, every spade and pick, practically, must flaunt its license stamped with the colonial seal. The tax at first was £1 10s a month and was soon doubled, and every delinquent was torn from his pit and placed in a chain gang to work out the fee at hard labor. The lucky fellows in the diggings didn’t mind such trifles as a pound or two at all, but the great unlucky majority couldn’t more than earn their bread as bread sold then, and they resolved, after the manner of outraged majorities everywhere, to “kick.” Kick they did, and the extra tax was taken off.

Having gained a point the “kickers” struck out again. They complained of the chain gang business and of the collection of the tax by “armed men,” and asked a reduction from £1 10s. to 10s. The constabulary used in emergencies by the authorities consisted of soldiers, and the gold fields were soon ablaze with incendiary placards setting forth the miners’ grievances. “Down with the Troopers!” “Down with Oppression!” “Diggers, Avenge Your Wrongs!” Some of the Dennis Kearneys of the diggings harangued crowds in Melbourne, talked of the black flag and threatened to sack the place if they didn’t get what they demanded. These insurrectionary proceedings had the effect of causing the colonial governor of Victoria to reduce the tax and to promise that compulsory measures for collecting it would be abolished. The accommodating official was soon relieved, however, by a successor who instructed the police in the gold region to stamp out unlicensed miners, and sent a regiment of regular soldiers to back up the civil officers in their unpopular duty.

This was the last straw, and for many months there was open war between the diggers and the government. The headquarters of the miners were at tbe town of Ballarat, the centre of the mining industries. A league was formed “to resist and if necessary remove the irresponsible power which tyrannized over” the diggers. Due notice was given to Queen Victoria that she must either ignore or call off her “dishonest ministers” or the royal prerogative would go down before that of the people, “the most royal of all prerogatives.” The signers of this Victorian declaration of independence included besides a goodly representation of Englishmen, a German, an Italian, a United States negro, an Irishman — destined to win imperishable notoriety before the affair ended — and several nondescripts either devoid of a native land or of any recollection about it. The miners’ blood was up. The onerous tax which fell light upon the rich and was burdensome to the masses was not the sole grievance. Favoritism was alleged against magistrates and other powerful officials. Miners who got in trouble with other classes were severely punished by the law and other offenders went free, while murders and other offenses against them were unavenged. The first governor had tried to make a show of reform by deposing a corrupt justice, but his action only served to prove the existence of evils.

The date of Victoria’s Independence day remains a blank on the calendar of political events for reasons to be developed later on, but on Nov. 29, 1854, the insurrectionary movement culminated in a grand mass meeting at Ballarat [text obscured] assembled and hoisted the flag of rebellion. It was a noisy meeting, not to say an enthusiastic one. The moderates were hooted down, signal shots of defiance were fired in direction of colonial headquarters and a blazing bonfire was fed from time to time by the duly stamped and sealed licenses that had caused the trouble. The occasion was another tea party in its way. The governor, not to be outdone in demonstrativeness, promptly ordered a more rigid enforcement than ever of the odious laws, and the very next day after the mass meeting and bonfire the royal commissioner and his police went to the diggings to demand a show of licenses. The first party was stoned; a second that hurried to the scene of trouble fared no better, the riot act was read and the soldiers marched up and opened fire. Nobody was hurt and the mob dispersed, while a few miners who had not been at the bonfire or had played a shrewd Ananias game displayed their papers at the supreme moment, and the commissioner and his police and armed soldiery marched back to camp rejoicing.

The miners lost no time in replying to this raid by a declaration of war. The lone Exile of Erin, whom fate had made the John Hancock of the Declaration of Independence, was elected military dictator, and for the space of forty-eight hours, more or less, signed himself “Peter Lalor, Commander in Chief of the Diggers Under Arms.” An insurgent camp was pitched on a height overlooking Ballarat, known as Eureka Hill. Horses, weapons, ammunition, provisions and even recruits were impressed by the simple edict of “Peter Lalor,” etc., and the hill was fortified by means of a barricade and stockade combined. The work of intrenching was undertaken in a hurry and every hour added some new devoce for obstructing and harassing the enemy’s approach. As fast as they could be procured slabs were imbedded at one end, stakes were driven, ropes were stretched, carts and other bulky obstacles were overturned to all was added earth embankments, for the diggers hadn’t forgotten their trade. The strangely composite intrenchment enjoyed ephemeral notoriety as the “Eureka Stockade.”

The warlike preparations of the insurgents went on for two days and three nights undisturbed by the government. The miners gave out that they would assault the governor’s camp, but didn’t do it. Their equipment was the weakest part of the insurrection. Many hundreds pretended to bear arms, but shooting pieces were scarce, and the majority had to take up with rude pikes, made at a common forge and mounted on staves green from the bush.

After four days of the wildest excitement and fatiguing labor — counting from the mass meeting of Nov. 29 — everything being ready for the grand struggle, Peter Lalor’s army took a notion about midnight of Dec. 2 to go to sleep. And it was not a sleeping on arms, either. The men stood valiantly to the barricade until midnight, then made off to town, to their huts, to wherever inviting and comfortable berths could be had. Of course not all were so suddenly overcome by drowsiness. The “commander in chief” and a handful of trusty fellows, chiefly pikemen, however, remained to guard the stockade and perhaps give an alarm of impending danger.

Now the governor’s troops were real soldiers — regulars at that, barring a few policemen, which is the same thing — and at half past 2 o’clock on Dec. 3, when the great army of “Diggers Under Arms” were also under their blankets, the governor’s military underling led out a detachment of not quite 300 men and noiselessly stormed the stockade on Eureka Hill. “General” Lalor and his old guard were alert, and began to shoot with such irons as they possessed. The British bugle sang out, “Commence firing!” and the soldiers rushed upon and over the barricade, dropping a score or more of pikemen before the recall was sounded. The flag of defiance to colonial tyranny was quickly hauled down, over 100 prisoners, wounded and unwounded, were taken, and between 30 and 40 dead miners showed what might have been had not the bulk of the diggers gone to sleep at a time so inopportune for the future of the Victorian league.

Lalor escaped, but carried a bullet in his person that cost him an arm and so marked him for life as the leader of the Victorian gold field rebellion. There were prosecutions for high treason and all that sort of thing but no conviction, and a general amnesty resulted. The leader remained in hiding until the affair cooled down, all the time unrepentant and bewailing the unfortunate drowsiness of his army on that momentous morning. The miners eventually sent their hero with the empty sleeve to parliament and he served term after term, landing at last in the speaker’s chair of the Victorian commons. So much for sentiment and that brief night tussle in defense off the “Eureka Stockade.”


South Side Signal (Babylon, New York) 16 July 1892, p. 1

Editor’s notes:
Ananias = a man mentioned in Acts 5 in the Bible, who sold an asset with an outward intention to give the proceeds to the disciples but secretly kept back a part for himself

black flag = a plain black flag is a traditional symbol of anarchism

Dennis Kearney = (1847-1907) a Californian labor leader and agitator

El Dorado = (Spanish) “the gilded one”; a place of abundant wealth (especially of gold) or great opportunity; as a place, this was originally a reference to a wealthy gold-laden land or city that was believed to be located somewhere in South America, but the term has since been used to refer to any place of real or imagined wealth or opportunity (“the gilded one”, i.e. someone covered in gold, was originally a reference to a South American tribal chief who, as an initiation rite, covered himself with gold dust and dove into a lake)

Erin = Ireland

hie = hurry

John Hancock = (1736-1793) President of the Continental Congress when the American Declaration of Independence was drawn up; his signature was prominently displayed on mass printings of the document, as well as being prominent on the copy signed by members of Congress, and thus the term “John Hancock” came to be used in the USA as a synonym for “signature”

rude = primitive, raw, or rough, or in an unfinished state or natural condition (not to be confused with the modern usage of “rude” as someone being discourteous or ill-mannered)

[Editor: Several words (perhaps 3-5) after “mass meeting at Ballarat” are obscured, so the notation “[text obscured]” has been inserted in their place.]

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