A justification of the outbreak
Turning next to the peace party, we discover a miscellaneous assortment. We admit that a large number of them shrank from strong measures in obedience to principle — from an inborn submissiveness to so-called constituted authority. Another section — perhaps a larger — was composed of mere opportunists and time-servers, who deemed it more prudent to view the conflict from a safe distance, and reserve their allegiance for the winning side. To these should be added the nondescript wiseacres who, wise after the event, tell us even yet that they had foreseen the result — who groaned prophetic warnings. Ever and anon some decadent member or this class would come forward to plague us with his garrulous senilities about the obedience due to law and order, forgetting or ignoring the fact that the breaches of law and order were not committed by the diggers, but by the Camp officials, who wantonly pushed their usurped authority beyond the bounds of endurance.
To neither of these divisions did J. B. Humffray belong. And yet a censorious critic might find in many phases of his career arguments to fasten upon him the imputation of inconsistency and back-sliding. As a matter of fact, he was so charged by his friends, the diggers, who by turns made him an idol and a suspect; who more than once raised him to the highest dignity in their gift, and then withdrew from him their confidence and left him to pine in obscurity. There was no real reason for these alternations. The genial old Tribune kept steadily to the beaten track; or if, at any time, he stepped aside from it, it was but a momentary aberration, which he soon righted. He never entered upon the devious ways that lead to treachery. He had been held up by many of his indiscreet admirers as the Apostle of Peace “par excellence”; but his public pronouncements and certain resolutions proposed by him on the eve of the catastrophe speak for themselves, and proclaim him to be a combatant as uncompromising as General Vern or Secretary Black, and much more so than the calm fellow-worker who was soon to be Commander-in-Chief. His was a tame proposition in comparison with those carried at the instance of the men who were to be members of his staff; and notably so, in comparison with that proposed by the Apostle of Peace.
Having carried forward our narrative to this stage, and sketched briefly the leading characters concerned, we are naturally confronted with the question, whether the rights obstinately denied to the goldfields’ communities could not have been obtained by milder measures than those resorted to, or, in other words, whether the moral force of public opinion, intelligently directed, might not have achieved the same measure of freedom that was readily conceded after the baptism of blood. The wiseacres confidently say it would; and they blame the precipitancy of the diggers for thwarting the intentions of a beneficent Government, which was busy, they say, framing such measures of redress at the moment when the grim form of insurrection lifted its hideous head, and spurned the message of peace. We maintain that there was no such intention on the part of the Government; that the unyielding disciplinarian who was head of the Government, and acting under the spell of his law adviser, was set dead against reform, and not averse to further restraints on the licentiousness of the “lucky vagabonds.” Is it to be supposed for a moment that these men, having at their disposal the best channels of information, could be ignorant of the state of things at the gold-fields, or of the widespread disaffection prevailing there? Such a supposition cannot be seriously entertained. It therefore follows that the Government policy was deliberately planned and carried into execution not so much for the benefit of the people as for the general purposes of revenue — to maintain a costly court retinue at Melbourne, and an extravagant body of soldiers, police and officials of various grades on the gold-fields. The arguments advanced in support of this extravagant regime were that life and property were insecure, and therefore called for extraordinary provisions to protect them. It was alleged, further, that there was a pressing need of a special class of officials vested with jurisdiction to hear and determine disputes relating to mining affairs.
Such a scheme of administration might well have been a boon, but, in point of fact, it forfeited all title of respect as an act of solicitude for the public welfare, inasmuch as the attendant expenses were swollen beyond all proportion to the services rendered. Impromptu decisions by the commissioners, arrived at without the safeguards of advice or preparation, the casual modicum of protection which official arrogance deigned to yield, and the general absence of system in the province of officialdom, were but poor returns for forced subsidies levied at the point of the bayonet. The pastime of digger-hunting, recurring regularly twice a week, must have been felt as a welcome break in the tedium of camp life, especially when the fun came to be heightened by those delicious morsels, the spoils of the game and the pillory of the logs. In fact, the people had to defend themselves: they dispensed with the services of the administration in favour of a more compendious process. The ordeal of battle, long obsolete, was re-inaugurated, and the boxing ring became, for a while, the arena of jurisdiction and final appeal. Disputes involving large issues were referred to its rough and ready arbitrament. To judge by the number and importance of those who had recourse to it, one might well infer that it afforded satisfaction. If the procedure was wanting in logic and decorum it was, at all events, cheap and expeditious. It saved the expense of “fetching the blank Commissioner,” whose fee, regulated by use and want, might be anything from £1 to £20.
The assumption that rulers will voluntarily yield anything which it is their interest to withhold should find scant acceptance in the business of real life. Paragons of disinterestedness are rare; and British proconsuls might esteem themselves beneficent without going the length of the renowned Caliph, who regarded the day lost on which he had failed to do a good deed. Nations and communities must rely on themselves, not on others. America supplies a notable instance of the futility of begging for justice, when it can be had by nobler means. For years the aggrieved colonists continued to submit their claims: petitions, supplications, remonstrances, and expostulations couched in language of abject servility came in with every session, but only to be hustled aside as things unworthy of consideration. When at length it was seen that nothing remained but to submit to slavery, or win freedom by fighting for it, the path of duty, long obscured, became bright as day. Traitors and cowards as usual croaked evil forebodings, but they were no longer listened to. War with all its horrors raged for seven years before the cause of righteousness prevailed. Defeat and disaster, punishment and humiliation dogged the track of the aggressor, and taught him, to his cost, that the battle is not always to the strong, that sooner or later vengeance overtakes the evil-doer, and that the slower the punishment of sin the surer is its blow. Devastation and ruin, bloodshed and sorrow in the wake of combat, from the initial affray at Lexington to the closure at Yorktown, point to a heavy ransom; but when redemption means the enfranchisement of a whole hemisphere, and the showing forth to the world at large of an inspiring example, who shall deem the cost too high?
Let us take Ireland: there we find the armed Volunteers achieve in a few months the boon of national independence, which centuries of talk had not been able to effect. And be it remembered that the same boon was revoked as soon as traitors from within had conspired with enemies from without to effectuate the disbanding of that army of National Volunteers.
Without dwelling longer on the consequences to the world of American independence, I will close this topic with one other example, because it is recent and pertinent to the subject. The dangers to weak nationalities from the usurpations of stronger and rapacious neighbours, is well illustrated by the case of the Dutch settlers of South Africa. These could never be got to fall in quietly with our rule. In order to avoid us they kept steadily receding into new country according as we advanced towards them. Having crossed the Transvaal and taken a stand in the country that side of the river, they perhaps fancied themselves safe from further intrusion; but if any such delusion possessed them, it was soon dissipated by the arrival on the scene of the trappings, ensigns, and implements of battle in full and stern array. The situation was critical; but the duty of the settlers was clear, and right manfully they acted up to it. Dutch courage, so often jeered at, came to be tested, and was found without alloy. Armed negotiators, expert and daring, took up the cause. The carnage of Majuba Hill came to attest the thoroughness of their work, and illustrate the temerity of appealing to the “ultima ratio” of that dread logician — a Boer rifle.
The prompt withdrawal of the British troops from the scene of action after the reverses at Laings Nek and Majuba Hill must not imply the faintest shade of enforced humiliation. Rather does it stand as a signal proof of British magnanimity. For it is not to be supposed for a moment that the only power which held aloft the flag of defiance to the conqueror of Europe, when the proudest nations of the continent lay prostrate at his feet, would submit to be beaten by a handful of Dutch settlers, no matter how valiant they may have been. The retirement must therefore be regarded as a tribute to bravery, and it is in this light alone that it deserves to be viewed.
John Lynch, The Story of the Eureka Stockade, Melbourne: Australian Catholic Truth Society, [1947?], pages 16-19