It was at this critical juncture, when men’s minds were seething with passion, that another hunting raid was got up, and carried out with so many incidents of undisguised truculence as to leave no doubt of its having been intended to provoke hostilities. It was meant for a challenge, and as such was accepted. The gauntlet was thrown down with the recklessness of malice; it was taken up with solemn decision, amidst cheers, every wave of which reverberated defiance. On the following day the business to be transacted related to war precautions. Preliminary resolutions were passed expressive of confidence in Peter Lalor; constituting a council of war, and appointing him President “pro tem.” The council then addressed itself to the weighty matter of the appointment of a Commander-in-Chief. There was no doubt as to who would be the recipient of that honour. Mr. Lalor was chosen; and without affectation he rose and delivered the following characteristic speech:
“Gentlemen, — The diggers, outraged at the unaccountable conduct of the Camp officials, in such a wicked license-hunt at the point of the bayonet as the one this morning, took it as an insult to their manhood and a challenge to the determination come to at the monster meeting yesterday. The diggers rushed to their tents for arms, and crowded on Bakery Hill. They wanted a leader. No one came forward, and confusion was the consequence. I mounted the stump where you saw me, and called on the people to fall in into divisions according to the fire-arms they had got, and to choose their own captains out of the best men they had amongst themselves. My call was answered with unanimous acclamation, and complied to with willing obedience. The result is that I have been able to bring about that order without which it would be folly to face the impending struggle like men. I make no pretensions to military knowledge. I have not the presumption to assume the chief command, no more than any other man who means well in the cause of the diggers. I shall be glad to see the best among us take the lead. In fact, gentlemen, I expected someone who is really known (J. B. Humffray) to come forward and direct our movement. However, if you appoint me your Commander-in-Chief, I shall not shrink. I mean to do my duty as a man. I tell you, gentlemen, if once I pledge my hand to the diggers, I will neither defile it with treachery nor render it contemptible with cowardice.”
The delivery, pregnant with manly sentiment, and modest withal, depicts the man — for sincerity and courage, worthy of a place in the rank of heroes.
It is scarcely necessary to say that he was appointed. With all the ardour of honest conviction, he instantly set about his duties. The national flag — symbol of Australian liberty and unity — with its appropriate stellar device, was hoisted skyward, and for the first time greeted as the palladium of Australian nationality. In its venerated presence the devoted recruits knelt, and repeated after the Commander-in-Chief the words of that oath which pledged their allegiance to the cause. These words were:
“We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties!”
Then the muster divided into squads, and, placing themselves under drill-masters, began to exercise themselves in the actual work of soldiering. There was marching, counter-marching, jangling of military phrases, and other elementary manoeuvring of raw recruits. Instructions were given for the procurement of arms; guns, pistols, pikes, swords, rusty or bright, old or new, serviceable or not, came into requisition. The portents of battle could be read in the distraction around. The air seemed charged with strife. Ordinary business was paralysed, the coming struggle engrossing all thoughts.
Yet even at this pass there were some good men who retained a gleam of hope that the conflict might be averted. Foremost amongst them stood Father Smythe, a clergyman venerated for learning and virtue. He, with Messrs. Black and Raffaello, was deputed to interview the Commissioners at the Camp. They did so, but met with no encouragement. Indeed, I do not think it was within the province of the Camp officials to discuss any terms of conciliation. At all events the answer vouchsafed was to all intents a bluff refusal.
Meantime there was no cessation of drill-exercise in the diggers’ camp; nor did it perceptibly relax until the eve of the fatal day. And here I cannot forbear entering a hearty condemnation of the quality of the drill. It was waste of precious time. As practised, it was no better than a see-saw movement among children. There was no attempt to connect it with any useful or necessary evolution; and even if that were done it would have been useless for our purpose. What we required was plenty of firearms and ammunition and a training to make proper use of them. Rifles, revolvers, powder, and bullets, together with small arms for use at close quarters — these, with steady eye and arm, were what we needed; and of them we had but a scanty supply. When I joined, I was told off to the Californian Independent Rifle Brigade, commanded by James McGill, captain and drill-instructor. He appeared to be a smart, intelligent young fellow. He was an American, and, according to his own account, had received a military education at West Point. If so, he must have been a very indifferent student, for his knowledge of drill did not go beyond the elementary course, and might have been picked up by any assiduous student in the course of a few hours. Whatever may have been his prestige before the battle, his behaviour during the contest and afterwards did not add to its lustre. He was absent without leave, and had a large body of men away with him at the time when their presence was most needed. He tried to explain, but failed to convince, and the shadow of suspicion hung over him through life. He rallied, however, in another sphere of action; he had for a while success in mining ventures; was an excellent explorer and an admirable judge of the course and trend of leads, from topographical observation. He is gone: let us hope, to a better land.
If we were busy, they were not remiss on the other side. But their work was done in silence and secrecy; ours, in the open. They knew every move of ours through their “battalion of testimony.” Mounted police speeding between the Camp at Ballarat and the Central Government at Melbourne kept the latter also informed of our doings, and enabled them to checkmate us at every move. Detachments of cavalry and infantry began to pour in, and rumours of additional reinforcements filled the bulletin.
The march of the army through the diggings does not recall pleasant recollections. Loud-mouthed brawlers greeted them with hooting, yellings, and the familiar idiotic cry “Joe,” while men and horses were pelted with missiles, varying in consistency from the viscous clam-pellet to the rough boulder. Along the Main Road at Red Hill, I myself witnessed with indignation this disgraceful conduct. It was even worse at the Eureka; two baggage-waggons were capsized into the holes, and a drummer boy, who was a favourite with the men, lost his life. The cowardly perpetrators little suspected, perhaps, the heavy retribution which was to be exacted of brave men for their enormities. I now pass over minor details and hasten to review the last scene.
On the afternoon of Saturday we had a force of seven hundred men on whom we thought we could rely. We had no idea of the exact time when the encounter would take place, but we were not surprised to learn that it was imminent.
During the night an alarm was given that the soldiers were coming; but it proved false. At the “falling in” we noticed a large defection: there had been numerous desertions. This ought to have been seriously considered, but it was not. Those present retired to rest: some, it may have been, to revelry; others to their last sleep. Just as the grey dawn was breaking in the eastern sky, the vocal tocsin resounded; and now louder than before. Then began the “marshalling in hot haste.” I had taken up quarters in a certain store, and kept watchful all night; but at this particular instant I felt a little drowsy. Rushing out I found a terrible effervescence and hurry-skurry. I cut through rapidly, and made my way to the front, where I took up position to the left of Diamond Store, and fortified the Stockade in front of me with some slabs which I found lying at the foot of the barrier. While making for this position I passed Mr. Lalor, who, from a slightly elevated stand, was giving some orders which I did not wait to hear.
I could hardly discern the military force at first, but as they approached, and began to deploy across the flat, their numbers and the order of attack could be readily estimated. Anxious as to the strength of our own force, I keenly scanned our little divisions, and in that rapid survey could hardly reckon one hundred and fifty of all arms. This was a great defection from the muster of the day before. But this disparity of numbers did not express the relative state of both forces; for the disparity in arms was incomparably more. A shot from our encampment was taken for a declaration of war, and instantaneously answered by a fusilade of musketry. Some sharp shooting followed. The advance of the infantry was arrested for a moment; our left being unprotected, the troopers seized the advantage, wheeled round, and took us in the rear. We were then placed between two fires, and further resistance was useless.
When we were in that helpless state, an unconditional surrender ought to have been proposed to us; it would have been accepted, and the future spared many bitter memories. But the spirit of revenge was uppermost, and revelled in a fierce saturnalia of carnage. More than half the loss of life took place after resistance had ceased. A few, who surrendered on challenge — and very few got the chance — were placed under guards; but as the wantonness of destruction on the one side grew with hopelessness of resistance, on the other, the guards had enough to do to save their charges from being shot or hacked to pieces.
A batch of prisoners, about forty in number, were marched off under escort. One prisoner getting faint from loss of blood, had to give in on the way. I and another were ordered to assist him; we did so for a short distance, but as he was fast dying we had to lay him down.
Arrived at the camp, the wounded men were taken to a shed which was improvised for an hospital. The others, after being searched and partly stripped, were huddled together in a rough building. My coat was taken from me. In return I got a blue shirt belonging to somebody else, and which had seen service. I had left a double-barrelled gun and a revolver on the field of battle. But our guard had them now in perpetual possession. There was yet another little article, a powder-flask, which hung around my neck — that I would gladly be relieved of. The means were at hand. The flooring boards were badly joined. Through one of the chinks I dropped the flask, and so got rid of a dangerous witness for the Crown.
Soon afterwards another escort arrived with a larger body of prisoners. In the fuss and confusion that ensued owing to the want of room, the whole number got mixed; and thus it happened that later on those who had been arrested under arms could not be distinguished from those who had none. Many of the latter had been taken away from their tents; a large number had been picked up on the highways, and marched along.
All night we were handcuffed in couples, and had to lie on the floor in rows, with narrow lanes between. We were constantly watched by a strong guard, separated from us by a rampart formed of hay-trusses, sand-bags, and such materials; behind this stood the guards with levelled muskets all night. This vigilance was, however, considerably relaxed during the day. Owing to a silly rumour that there was to be an attempt at rescue, the guard was doubled, until all apprehension ceased. It seemed as if the rumour caused uneasiness at the camp, for precautions were duly taken there. On the night in question, a well accoutred officer, apparently in a hurry, entered, and stepping up to the rampart, called out “attention,” and in a few words, the meaning of which could not be mistaken, warned us to keep quiet, whatever might happen, and promised that we should be protected. There was no response; but he took silence for consent, and disappeared. We obeyed the mandate, scarcely lifting a head that night above the flat recumbency which we presented as we laid out on the level floor. We were by this time getting inured to hard lines. We had neither straw for bedding, nor the usual luxury of our boots for pillows. Some of the soldiers were civil and obliging, and one of these, Sergeant Harris, deserves special mention. At night he would pass up and down, inquiring how all were getting on. If the handcuffs pressed too tightly, he would ease them or replace them with others more easily fitting. Though good drinking water was scarce, he used to fetch it often; in those days it was neither abundant nor pure. These particulars may appear trivial, but I cannot, even at the risk of being considered tedious, omit them; especially as the time is fast approaching when there will be no living witness of those things left.
One day we had a visit from Major-General Sir Robert Nickle, a brave veteran who had seen service at the head of the famous Irish regiment, the Eighty-eighth or Connaught Rangers. He noticed that the Hibernian element predominated amongst us, and expressed regret at seeing us in our present predicament — would rather have us before the walls of Sebastopol. And then, with the straightforward bluntness of an honest soldier, mildly chid us “Britons” for not settling our differences amongst ourselves, and for allowing foreigners to meddle in our domestic affairs. The old warrior spoke from the heart, and kindly, and made a good impression.
I think that he felt that we were more sinned against than sinning. It was easy to see that the enmity of the police was particularly directed against a few, whom they blamed for instigating the others to insurrection. Hayes, Raffaelo, Seekamp, Manning (non-combatants) were particularly disliked. So was ———, a coloured gentleman, who was arrested in the thick of the fight, and who bore himself throughout the whole ordeal with a degree of dignity which, exercised on a wider theatre, might have enabled him to emulate the deeds of his renowned countryman Toussiant L’Ouverture.
After a week’s experience in durance we were brought to trial. The Court and its approaches reflected the character of the business on hand. From the number of witnesses in uniform, one could hardly distinguish whether it was a court-martial or a general gaol-delivery. Perhaps it would be more exact to describe it as a hybrid between them. Brevity and decision ruled the proceedings. It came to my turn to be arraigned: I will briefly state the procedure. It was on the whole typical. Standing impenitent at the bar, and having heard a dreary recital of my wicked, seditious, and evil-minded behaviour — to wit, on a certain day: I was asked to plead, and did so, with the usual laconic reply denying the impeachment. Then ensued some bustling and whispering among the witnesses, but no move towards the witness-box. This I interpreted for a good omen. At length an epauletted trooper stalked forth and entered the box. He failed, however, to throw any light on the subject: he had seen me before, and believed I had wrought mischief on the day of strife, but could give no further particulars. The more they tried to get something definite out of him the less he yielded. At last he became quite confused, and was ordered out of the box: no other appeared. Then that terrible record, the police charge-sheet as appealed to. No entry appearing there against my name, solemnly the magical word “discharged” was pronounced, and in a couple of seconds I found myself outside in the midst of a congratulating crowd, whom I regaled with extracts from the “gaol journal” of memory till the shades of evening and general lassitude moved me to seek what I much needed, rest on the lap of “Nature’s sweet restorer, balmy sleep.” Of the total number placed under arrest only thirteen were committed for trial on the charge of treason. Of these not more than one-half had taken part in the overt action. They were acquitted; and very soon after a general amnesty followed.
John Lynch, The Story of the Eureka Stockade, Melbourne: Australian Catholic Truth Society, [1947?], pages 27-33