The story of Australia — LII
The Eureka rebellion
Diggers take up arms against police and military
The refusal of Governor Hotham to release the three men condemned for burning Bentley’s Hotel caused intense excitement in Ballarat. An indignant meeting of diggers was held, and a resolution was passed, declaring they would burn their licences and pay no more fees. Bonfires were lighted and the licences burnt there and then.
The following day (November 30), with incredible want of prudence, the authorities ordered the police to make a special vigorous “digger hunt.” The police, supported by the whole military force available, with skirmishers in advance and cavalry on the flanks, advanced upon the Gravel Pits, as the Bakery Hill diggings were called.
The diggers were forced to retire as the troops advanced. At certain parts of the main road, however, the diggers made a stand, and received the troops with a running fire of stones and occasional gunshots. The troops took some prisoners and returned to camp.
The diggers hastened to a conference with the leading spirits of the league. Peter Lalor was elected leader, and under a blue flag adorned with the stars of the Southern Cross, which had already been flown at the meeting of November 29, the assembled diggers knelt and swore to defend one another until death, implored the help of God. and then began to drill.
An area of about an acre, on the Eureka claim, was hastily enclosed with piled-up mining slabs, building timber, and any other material handy. An appeal was made to the commissioner to release the prisoners of the morning, and to stop digger hunting, but it was refused.
As soon as the news of these doings reached Melbourne the Government sent up all the remaining available troops, horse and foot police, four field pieces, and a number of baggage and ammunition waggons. They were several days on the march, and only arrived when the trouble was over.
Republic of Victoria
Meanwhile the occupants of the stockade were hard at work drilling and strengthening their barrier. In the midst of this stronghold they proclaimed the Republic of Victoria, and here they were able to carry on their drilling unmolested under the command of two leaders — Vern, a German blacksmith, and Lalor, the son of an Irish gentleman.
It appears, however, that ammunition was not abundant in the stockade, and parties were sent out in all directions to gather as much as possible.
On Saturday, December 2, there were a large number of diggers within the stockade, but before the day was over many left to obtain food and never came back. When night fell not more than 200 remained within.
Spies informed the commissioner of the situation, and Captain Thomas — who commanded the troops in the camp — determined to end matters by making a sudden attack.
On Sunday morning (December 3), just before break of day, a troop of 276 men were marched silently to the stockade. The soldiers succeeded in approaching within 300 yards of the stockade without being seen.
Many were asleep when the alarm was given; those armed with rifles and revolvers rushed to their posts and fired a volley at the advancing soldiers. Men fell on both sides, but the line of advancing bayonets, flanked on both sides by cavalry and mounted police, were too much for the diggers. They turned to seek shelter and all was over.
Under Martial Law
Of the military force Captain Wise and four privates were killed and about a dozen injured. Sixteen miners were killed, and at least eight others died of their wounds; 114 prisoners were taken, but all were discharged except 13, who were held to take their trial for high treason. Lalor, badly wounded, managed to escape; £500 reward was offered for his capture, but he was not taken.
On December 6 Sir Robert Nickle arrived with reinforcements. He placed the district under martial law, and in obedience to his order the inhabitants brought in a large quantity of firearms. He listened to the miners’ grievances, and his just treatment had a soothing effect on the population. He informed them that the Governor had appointed a commission to inquire into their wrongs.
In the early part of the year 1855 the 13 prisoners were brought up for trial in Melbourne, and were acquitted. The report of the “commission” of inquiry stated that the diggers had been “governed three times over,” and declared that if the men who fought had been guilty of excesses they had been goaded thereto by bad laws badly enforced.
The remedy suggested was the government of the people by the people through a fairly representative Parliament.
The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 23 June 1935, p. 33
Republic of Victoria = a Republic of Victoria was apparently desired by an element of the rebel forces at Ballarat in 1854 (there was an unsubstantiated rumour that a declaration of independence had been drawn up), but a Republic of Victoria was not proclaimed by Peter Lalor and the rebels at Eureka
Robert Nickle = Sir Robert Nickle (1786-1855) was commander-in-chief of the British military forces in the Australian colonies; in August 1854 he shifted his headquarters from Sydney to Melbourne as a consequence of the gold rushes
See: Ronald McNicoll, “Nickle, Sir Robert (1786–1855)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University (accessed 22 October 2013)
[Editor: Corrected: “Nichle” to “Nickle”.]