The story of gold-digging in the Southern island-continent teems with romance and adventure, and the episode of the Eureka Stockade is by no means lacking in either. It has been included here partly because it is the only battle which has been fought in the land of the Golden Fleece, and partly because it is in itself worthy of a place in a book of battles.
The affair of the stockade was in reality a rebellion against what the gold-diggers considered the tyrannical high-handed administration of the Governor of Victoria. In 1851 Governor Latrobe issued a proclamation, asserting the right of the Crown to whatever gold was discovered, and made it imperative upon all diggers to take out a licence, costing thirty shillings every month, such licence to be non-transferable, valid only within half a mile of the station from which it was issued, and to be produced upon demand.
The diggers of Victoria were no worse off in this respect than those of New South Wales, except that the officers charged with the issue and inspection of the licences were by no means as patient as they might have been, and reasonable protests against what the diggers regarded as an unnecessary imposition were received and replied to in a harsh and bitter manner.
The result was that many miners refused to take out licences, and to search out the offenders the Government instituted "digger hunts." These hunts were undertaken by the police, the majority of whom were ne'er-do-wells of wealthy families in the old country. Many excesses were committed by these officers, whose arrogance and insolence towards the miners, many of whom were their social superiors, aroused the blood of the hard-working toilers.
The climax almost came when Latrobe decided to increase the fee to sixty shillings a month, but, wise for the time, on seeing the agitation his new proclamation had aroused, he reduced the fee to thirty shillings once more.
In 1853 Latrobe was succeeded in the Governorship by Sir Charles Hotham, who, to the petitions sent in by the diggers, only replied by issuing orders that the digger hunts were to be carried on with greater vigour.
It was the last straw. Bendigo and Ballarat were seething with discontent. Men spoke openly of armed resistance. Timothy Hayes, an Irishman, with all the fluency of the Emerald Isle, and chairman of a League which the diggers formed, rallied his fellows together at the big mass meetings which were held to protest against the tax, crying:
"Will ye fight for the cause, boys? Will ye die for the cause?
Enthusiasm such as this was infectious. Three men were arrested on a charge of incendiarism, sent to Melbourne for trial, convicted and sentenced to prison. Appeals against the verdict were of no avail, and the diggers at once took stronger steps. A large meeting of about twelve thousand miners assembled at Bakery Hill, Ballarat, and passed resolutions in favour of reform. We must now introduce a new character into the drama: Peter Lalor, a young Irishman, who had arrived in Australia in 1852. Lalor, by his energy and denunciation of the tyranny under which they laboured, soon obtained a foremost place in the ranks of the discontented, and at the meeting on Bakery Hill vowed that the only way to obtain redress was by revolutionary means. The meeting acclaimed his speech, resolved that the diggers would pay no more taxes, intimated that it would be a matter for fighting if another digger hunt took place, and wound up by burning all the licences that could be found. At this meeting the insurgent flag was unfurled. It was the Southern Cross, the four chief stars of the Southern Constellation worked in silver on blue.
Seeing the pass to which things were now come, the Government were by no means idle, and detachments of the 12th and 40th Infantry Regiments were drafted into Ballarat from Melbourne. Then, immediately after the mass meeting on Bakery Hill, the authorities ordered another digger hunt, which was carried out by police and military combined.
As soon as the diggers saw them coming, they began to retreat, contenting themselves with throwing stones and firing a few shots at the oncomers. A number of miners were arrested and carried away.
This digger hunt was the signal for action. Peter Lalor called his men together, the Southern Cross was unfurled again, and, asking for volunteers, Lalor soon had round him about five hundred diggers, who, standing with outstretched right hands, cried:
"We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties."
The next step was to drill his volunteers, and Lalor spent the rest of the day in that work. This was on November 30th, and next day Lalor and his men marched off to the Eureka plateau, and began the erection of the stockade which was to become famous in Australian history.
The stockade, enclosing a plot of mining ground about an acre in extent, was made up of wooden slabs and all kinds of carts, roped together to make them firm. It was situated so that it commanded the Melbourne road, via which military reinforcements were advancing on Ballarat.
As soon as the stockade was completed, tents were pitched, lances and pikes were forged in a blacksmith's shop, sentinels were posted, and everything was prepared to receive the troops which the insurgents knew must soon arrive. Appeals for help were sent out to various mining stations, a declaration of independence was drawn up (but never issued), and munitions of war were laid in.
Meanwhile, in Melbourne the authorities were taking steps to prevent disaffection spreading, proclamations being issued against the insurgents, and people being warned against breaking the peace. A reward of £400 was offered for information leading to the apprehension of Lalor and his second in command, Alfred Black. Precautions were taken against a surprise attack by the diggers, but as this was not attempted, Captain Thomas, the officer in command of the troops at Ballarat, decided to make an attack on the stockade. Accordingly, on December 3rd, he moved his force of three hundred men, soldiers and police, out on to the plateau. The fact that he had learned that the diggers were even then unprepared for an attack helped him to come to this decision, and when, before daylight on the 3rd, he approached the stockade, he discovered that only about two hundred men were inside
Lalor had been unfortunate. Many of his volunteers had deserted, others were out seeking food and arms, and although he had given a watchword, "Vinegar Hill" (reminiscent of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland), strict discipline was not kept.
The troops advanced towards the stockade, getting within a few hundred yards before they were discovered by the sentinel, who, as soon as he saw them, immediately fired the alarm.
Instantly the diggers were on the alert. With a rush they were at their breastworks, pouring a steady fire into the attackers, who returned the fire with such good effect that several diggers were killed and wounded at the outset. Lalor, standing upon a barrel, directed his volunteers, ordering them to fire at the officers, and several officers were killed or wounded during the first part of the fight.
For some time the troops contented themselves with returning the fire of the diggers, but at last, Captain Thomas, realising that little was to be gained by this, decided to rush the stockade. While the diggers remained behind their barricade they had the advantage, even although they soon ran short of ammunition, and had to load their guns with pebbles in lieu of bullets. The result was that their fire slackened—a fact which helped Captain Thomas to arrive at his decision to charge. The order to fix bayonets was given, the word of command rang out, and with a ringing cheer the soldiers and police hurled themselves on the improvised fort. For a few minutes there was a fierce fight, but, as was inevitable, discipline triumphed, and ere long the troops had clambered through the wooden wall.
This was the sign for a stampede on the part of some of the diggers, and many of them rushed to the furthermost side of the stockade, bounded over, and were lost in the distance.
To their credit be it said, the majority of the diggers stood their ground, fighting for every inch, but nevertheless being compelled to give away before the better armed soldiers. Lalor, standing on the top of a shaft, exposed to the full fire of the oncoming soldiers, and using his revolver freely, suddenly reeled, grasping his left hand. A bullet had shattered the bone. Running towards a group of his supporters, he cried:
"Get away, boys, as quickly as you can!"
"Come with us," said one of the men.
"I can't go!" replied Lalor. "Get away and save yourselves."
"Instantly the diggers were on the alert . . . pouring a steady fire into the attackers."
Weak from loss of blood, Lalor dropped on to a slab near a shaft, and his companions, seeing that it was impossible for him to get away, made him get into the shaft, and covered him over with slabs.
Meanwhile the fight still proceeded. Step by step the diggers were forced back into the hollow holes of the claims which the stockade enclosed, into the tents and the blacksmith's shop, until, at last, all who had not succeeded in getting away or in hiding were taken prisoners. One hundred and twenty-five were thus secured, and, after firing the tents and pulling the stockade down, the troops returned to camp. Altogether, about forty men were killed in the miniature battle, and a great many were wounded.
Of what happened afterwards we need not say much, except that, although the diggers had failed in their intention to found a Republic (the newpapers of the day make it quite clear that this was in the minds of many of them), yet they had not been altogether unsuccessful, for shortly afterwards a Commission of Inquiry was appointed and upheld the diggers in their protests against tyranny, saying "While in certain cases they had been guilty of excesses, they had been goaded thereto by bad laws that were badly enforced." The prisoners were acquitted, and although a reward was offered for Peter Lalor, no attempts were made to take him. His cause had been justified.
It may be interesting to mention that Lalor, after the soldiers had left the stockade, was smuggled away to a hut for the night, then taken to the house of a friend, where his arm was amputated. For six months he remained in hiding, although the authorities were well aware of where he was to be found. On the amnesty being proclaimed, he reappeared, and later on he was elected first member for Ballarat in the Legislative Assembly of Victoria, holding various posts in the Cabinets, and eventually becoming the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly.
And the results of the battle at the Eureka Stockade? A gold-digger has epitomised these thus: "The sacrifice at Eureka was a heartrending one, but beneficial effects ensued. When the torch of rebellion was finally extinguished, reforms were immediately instituted in Victoria, and to the progressive measures then adopted may be distinctly traced the liberal legislation that followed in the other Colonies of the Australasian group. The way was paved for constitutional government; the unpopular Executive Council resigned office; the Ballarat officials were either dismissed or transferred elsewhere; digger hunts terminated; manhood suffrage was established."
It was a battle worth fighting.