Chapter 1 [The Story of the Eureka Stockade, by John Lynch]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Story of the Eureka Stockade by John Lynch.]

The Story of the Eureka Stockade


The causes of the outbreaks

That epic incident in colonial history, known as the Eureka Stockade, has been already treated of so fully by the accomplished historian of Ballarat that but little remains to be added; yet a slight amplification, although perhaps not essential to the main current of the narrative, may not be uninteresting by way of episode.

The year 1853 may be fairly considered as the culminating period of the gold-digging epoch. The population on the goldfields had then nearly reached its numerical maximum. Gold was got easily — lucky finds were matters of daily occurrence. The extent of the auriferous distribution was not known, nor were the physical laws understood by which it is governed. Fortune seemed to place unlimited treasures within the reach of her lucky votaries; but, as she bestowed her favours capriciously, the numbers fated to disappointment were, even in those days of wasteful prodigality, more numerous than those favoured by her blind partiality. The pinchings of poverty, though not unfelt, were, however, in no case acute.

It was in the month of March of that year that I arrived on Bendigo, and witnessed for the first time the harassing treatment to which the miners were subjected by the imposition of a poll-tax, burdensome in its incidence, and odious from the manner of levying it. The exaction or thirty shillings a month was naturally felt to be a grievance by those who could not afford to pay; while the methods by which payment was enforced were so irritating that, viewing it even now, after the lapse of forty years, and with temper toned down to moderation, I can hardly forgive the submissiveness that tolerated such tyranny for even a single day; nor can I cease to wonder at the infatuation that possessed the ruling powers to expect obedience to so obnoxious a system.

This novel species of persecution was graphically styled “digger-hunting.” It seemed as if contrived to provoke the greatest possible amount of ill-will, and to add to the odium inherent in an unconstitutional impost, another and keener element of exasperation in the mode of its exaction. Whilst invested with much of the barbarism of mediaeval outlawry, it showed little or none of the chivalrous forbearance not rarely extended to their inoffensive victims by proscribed brigands. Its ways were eccentric. No one could forecast the day or the hour of its visitation, but generally it came like a thief in the night, when least expected. The accompanying display was imposing enough. Latterly, about twice a week, horse and foot in skirmishing order swept around the scene of the diggings to collect the impost; and then might be descried affrighted diggers here, there and everywhere, making, as best they could, for some outlet or place of concealment. Some would take refuge in their burrows; some under the bunks in their tents; while not a few by donning female attire and taking to the wash-tub, eluded the vigilance of the tax-raiders. Those who were fleet of foot betook themselves by preference to the bush.

Where the country was open and the police cordon strong, the breathless digger often gave ground. At the word of command from his pursuers he had to turn back to add another unit to the muster destined for the logs and the mulct. When the several detachments had brought their captives up, the order to march was given with stern authority by the gold-laced Commissioner, and the procession moved silently forward to the camp. Arrived there, they were reviewed before being formally delivered over; and as accommodation was limited, they had generally to submit to be chained to logs in the yard until such time as it should suit the convenience of the representatives of the law to determine their fate. They were either fined, or, as in many cases, sentenced to terms of imprisonment with, usually, hard labour.

The amount of the fine ranged from £5 upwards, graduated according to the trouble of the chase or cost of the pursuit. Those who were unable to pay the fine had to expiate their offences by a term of bond-service, which depended for its duration on the humour of the oracle who dispensed justice. I once had the honour of being thus brought up, but it was my good fortune to be able to regain my liberty by payment of the fine of £5.

What became of the revenue thus obtained, nobody knows; and as the accounts were never audited, nor a ba1ance-sheet struck, the state of those finances remains unsettled even to this day. But because of the system of book-keeping peculiar to the concern (where single entry prevailed) it would be better not to attempt to unravel the business, but suffer it with other muniments of the past to glide into oblivion.

In justice to the tribunal, it must be conceded that it possessed some original points. There were no quirks or quibbles indulged in, no dilatory displays of attorney-logic. Decision and despatch were the rule; and as a doubt never was entertained of the guilt of the accused (that being a foregone conclusion), this presumption helped greatly to expedite business. The penalty was the most important item of the proceedings; the answers to a few suggestive questions, stereotyped in the practice of the Court, fixed the award and decided the rate of the offender. The prisoner was asked his name, the ship by which he had arrived, and whether he had for any length of time sojourned in Tasmania. An affirmative to the last interrogatory put an end to the case; the frown of the judge presaged the severity of the sentence.

In order to keep up the supply of game, the police raids became more frequent and exasperating, the display of armed authority more menacing and insolent. As if tired of idle displays, and anxious to add zest to the pleasures of the chase, a valiant member of the force took it into his head to give a realistic turn to the business, and while in the humour, shot a man named O’Gorman, who was running away to escape arrest. O’Gorman may have had a license, but its possession would have availed him nothing unless he could produce it when called upon to do so. Instances were frequent of men being fined and imprisoned who owned the talismanic document, but had either forgotten or neglected to carry it about with them.

Annoyances so oft repeated and provoking had at length reached the limits of endurance; and mutterings of discontent began to be heard around the camp fires, on the streets, and in every place of resort. A strong determination to put an end to this petty tyranny pervaded the multitude, and the prevailing temper found ready expression in the agitation known as the “Red Ribbon” movement. Doubtless remedial measures would have been insisted upon long before; but the conditions under which people lived, the nature of the evocation which had brought them together from all parts of the world, the inorganic state of society, the migratory instincts of roving diggers impatient to “strike a patch” and return with the first ship homeward bound, the looseness of the framework that held together that chaotic community, and the general want of cohesion among such heterogeneous elements, left but little ground for common cause until they were absolutely forced to combine.

It is a defect of the body politic, remarkable everywhere, that it is too slow to move. This was notably so on the goldfields. The diggers felt that though they were here to-day, they might be away to-morrow; that the time at hand was too precious to be wasted in political squabbles which might lead to trouble without securing any compensating results. In short, people who had come to pick up gold had hardly a thought for anything else, and it is from this point of view one must consider their behaviour in order to find a reason for their listlessness at first and their fierce activity later on.

The “Red Ribbon” movement was at its height when I left Bendigo; and judging by the apparent earnestness of some of the leaders, one might have expected more solid results than it directly led to. But this movement was not followed up with vigour. It did a great deal of useful work; but, after all, its claims to credit rest on the fact that it set a good example and led to the founding of an organisation which was really capable of effecting great things. To Ballarat belongs the credit of having pushed to its ultimate conclusion the work initiated at Bendigo thirteen months earlier. During the interminable period things were quiet at Ballarat. The reverberation of the thunders of Bendigo were, perhaps, felt feebly audible; the atmosphere was, perhaps, highly charged; but nothing ominous of an explosion showed itself till the occurrence of that drunken brawl at Bentley’s Hotel, in which the miner Scobie was killed. There was nothing in that tragedy to differentiate it from others of a similar kind; but the crisis had come, and in that single event was concealed the torch which kindled the conflagration.

The burning of the hotel, the murder of Scobie, the scandalous acquittal of certain persons charged with complicity in the crime, form an episode of thrilling interest, and for full and correct information regarding them, I would recommend a perusal of that valuable and authentic record “The History of Ballarat.” Let me here be permitted to drop for a moment the general retrospect of events, and bring forward some of the personages who had to play a part in them.

Mr. Latrobe’s administration ended early in 1853, and not a day too soon. Of that finical Puritan it may be safely said that, though he was not chargeable with any noticeable fault, the people on the whole were glad to be rid of him. Of the disaffected the “Argus” was the most conspicuous. It displayed in one of its leading columns the standing advertisement that there was “Wanted a Governor for Victoria.” In another column appeared an imperious demand to “Unlock the Lands.” These early utterances contrast strongly with those coming now from the same quarter; and if we had not seen many such transformations in our day, we should wonder much how the Radical reformer of the early fifties could, in the course of one generation, get metamorphosed into the Imperialistic courtier and apologist for rampant Jingoism and Squattocratic Monopoly.

Mr. Latrobe retired upon a fat pension, which he lived to enjoy for many years. To him succeeded Sir Charles Hotham, who reached these shores under favourable auspices. The unpopularity of his predecessor threw a chance in his way, which, had he had the sagacity to seize it, might have been turned to good account. He let the occasion slip from him, and thus earned a name which can hardly be mentioned without evoking mingled feelings of resentment and pity. A brave man and largely endowed with the masculine courage of his race, he, that brusque sailor, could be relied upon to give a good account of himself if duty called him to action upon his favourite element. But the training that could have turned out the gallant admiral did not suffice to fit him for the broader duties of civil Governor. The discipline of the quarter-deck ill comported with the idiosyncracies and aspirations of the daring restive spirits that thronged the diggings.

Had Sir Charles known no other form of government than that of ruling the British Navy his ignorance might he pleaded in excuse of the tyrannical system he espoused. But he was not ignorant of civil rights, nor adverse to the interpretation of such rights in their broadest meaning. In an after-dinner speech delivered by him at Geelong, he boldly affirmed that “all power comes from the people” — a declaration which was greedily caught up and reiterated with insatiable relish. For the nonce the said people flattered themselves that the man at the helm was a friend and brother. It was at this juncture, while yet basking in the sunshine of popularity, that His Excellency, somewhat after the manner of the Emperor Adrian, resolved to make the tour of his dominions.

To Ballarat was accorded the honour of the first visit. Elated with the compliment, Ballarat, as became its loyal instincts, rose to the height of the occasion; and a profusion of placards and parti-coloured handbills, stuck on to trees, stumps, tents and rigging-gear announced in terms of an oracular conundrum that “Victoria welcomed Victoria’s choice.” If by any of these “Victoria’s” was meant ourselves personified, then it was misleading; for we had not then, nor have we yet, any voice in the matter, nor of power (to use a simile of Dr. Johnson’s) any more than the man pitched out from the top window of the highest storey has to select a soft spot to fall upon.

It may flatter the vanity of some people to be told that our welfare is the primary object sought in making these appointments, and that although the recipients of the honours may have been Court favourites and nothing more, our acquiescence in the wisdom of the selection should be presumed to follow as a matter of course — somewhat after the fashion of the courtly lackey who can complacently make his salaam to each succeeding master.

Well, the hour arrived, and with it the man, and of the reception it may justly be said that it was hearty and spontaneous. His Excellency appeared pleased and said so, indeed, all the incidents went to show that this visit would be the precursor of peace and goodwill. He was accompanied by Lady Hotham, who in the course of her short visit won golden opinions by her affability and condescension. Curious to observe the process of gold working and have a look at the shafts, the lady essayed to cross the miry passage that lay between, but the trail was full of risk to the purity of nether garments, while “long boots” — the wading diggers’ refuge — would not exactly fit, nor in any case be “en regle.” In this dilemma it was thought best to bridge the passage with slabs; but, while these contrivances were being improvised, a herculean Milesian made for the lady, clasped her in his brawny arms, lifted her “high i’ the air,” and, with three or four immense strides, crossed the Styx, and landed her ladyship safe on “terra firma,” amidst roars of hilarious laughter. Whether the fair lady felt complimented or not by big Larry’s unceremonious attention no one can say. At all events, she had taste enough to take the adventure in good part, and to apparently appreciate it. Thus ended the adventures of the “bould” knight and his fair companion among the pioneer fathers of the Golden City.

But if visions of peace and contentment soothed the slumbers of those good fathers on the night, they were soon disturbed by a rude awakening. No sooner had His Excellency reached headquarters than, willingly or unwillingly, he set himself to the work of effacing the good impressions which his frank and artless manner had created during his short stay.

It is hard, at this distance of time, to conjecture the cause of such a sudden revulsion. It is not improbable that the display of prosperity which he had witnessed, and which was perhaps too ostentatiously displayed before him, excited his cupidity and that of his advisers. Perhaps the baneful policy now resolved upon was due to a desire of replenishing the Treasury out of that superabundance. Whatever the actuating motive was — and no sordid personal consideration entered into it — it led to prompt and active attention.

Fresh instructions relating to the hunting business were issued. The old raids were condemned as savouring of laxity; the meeting should henceforth be twice instead of once a week; no rest must be given; the game must be tracked to its lair. These instructions were strictly acted upon. Their influence made itself felt immediately, and with a rush accelerated the catastrophe.

The authorship of this insane policy was for many years a matter of doubt. Public opinion, without tangible grounds, attributed it to Mr. Secretary Foster. We know now that this was a mistake, and that he alone of the Executive was strongly opposed to it. He even foretold the fatal consequences; but his predictions were unneeded, and Foster, with a loyalty which does credit to his memory, preferred to bear for years the odium of the charge rather than divulge the secrets of office which he felt bound to observe. In the Council there sat another functionary whose principles were more likely to prevail, being more in accordance with those of the presiding martinet. He lived to do good service to the country in after times, but neither at the time of which we write nor ever afterwards had he much sympathy with the men whom he stigmatised as “lucky vagabonds.”

John Lynch, The Story of the Eureka Stockade, Melbourne: Australian Catholic Truth Society, [1947?], pages 4-10

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