In the early hours of 3 December 1854, the British Army attacked the Eureka stockade in Ballarat, Victoria with almost three hundred soldiers and police. It’s been widely argued as to whether the army or the miners in the stockade fired first.
But why did it happen? Why did the gold miners build the barricades in the first place?
If we learned about the Eureka Stockade in school I don’t remember it and I certainly didn’t remember what caused it until I began my research. Do you know why it happened?
Today, the 164th anniversary of the massacre, the basic facts are these:
- In 1854 a mining licence rose to 3 pounds a month, which afforded you nothing but a claim, water and wood. In today’s money, and with inflation, that’s around $600. The police would raid the mines regularly and if you didn’t have a licence and didn’t carry it with you, you would be arrested in a very violent fashion.
- The murder of a Scottish miner by a wealthy pub owner was another inciting moment, especially when that pub owner was acquitted after a kangaroo court hearing
- Immigrants weren’t allowed to own land and had no voice in the legislature in which to argue their grievances
And with their requests landing on deaf ears, the miners burned their licences and barricaded themselves in the stockade.
The conflict itself lasted no more than thirty minutes, but in that time it’s said (although there is some discrepancy as to definite numbers) that approximately twenty-seven civilians and four soldiers were killed. Nine more soldiers and countless other civilians, including women and children, were wounded.
Over a hundred diggers were arrested and a group of thirteen miners were charged with treason. They were eventually acquitted and cheered on by thousands of Melbourne residents who had come to watch the trials and to condemn the actions taken by the British Government and military in the taking of the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat.
The diggers’ commander in chief, Peter Lalor, was shot and severely injured in the stockade battle and eventually had his arm amputated. In November 1855 he was elected to the Victorian Legislative Council as Member for the new district of Ballarat, a role he stayed in until March 1856.
The original Eureka Flag, damaged by the policemen who tore it down, is on loan from the Art Gallery of Ballarat and can be seen at the MADE Museum (Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka) in Ballarat, which sits on the site of the Eureka Stockade and well worth a visit.
Some say the constant petitions and battles by the immigrant miners were Australia’s first step towards an independent democracy.
As for the soldiers, who have often been portrayed throughout history in film and literature as the villains, twenty-two soldiers of Her Majesty’s service deserted between December 1854 and the early months of 1855. In total, one hundred and sixty-five soldiers threw back the Queen’s shilling in Victoria alone. Their living conditions in the government camp weren’t much better than the squalor of the diggers’ camps.
Of course, there’s more to it than that and if you want to learn more about those inciting events, well, you can buy my book “The Girl from Eureka”. Indy and Will’s story is a fictional one but it’s set during those volatile preceding months and culminates with the events of that morning in December.