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The Battle at the Eureka Stockade

I had intended to write more about Mary Ann Goulding’s story but the last 10 days in the USA have been momentous ones and have demanded attention. The murder of George Floyd and its stirring of memories of similar racist attacks and its renewed exposure of racist attitudes in America, the protests, the disobedience of curfews, the looting by opportunists and the constitutional challenges raised by Donald Trump’s attempts to deploy the military to ‘dominate’ civilians have all created a warped sense of dark theatre.

Of course, protests and civil disobedience are not unique to the USA.  We can go back to many instances in the USA itself with Martin Luther King Jnr’s assassination still crystal clear in my memory, but we can also look at the Sepoy rebellion and Ghandi in India, Ireland’s fight for independence, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia as they threw off the yoke of communism, Tiananmen square and Hong Kong – all in modern times.  Further back the Peterloo massacre and the Swing riots in England comes to mind (as I wrote about in Book I of the Helots’ Tale) and, of course, the American War of Independence.  Not an exhaustive compendium by any means and that only goes back to the mid-18th Century.

As I covered in book II of the Helots’ Tale, Australia also saw mass protests against unjust British rule with the ‘Red Ribbon’ rebellion in 1853 (its name came from the red ribbons that the protestors wore in their hats to signify their protest against an unjust government). Ten thousand miners in Bendigo peacefully protested against a hated 30/- license fee that they had to pay to dig for gold, whether they found anything or not.  Heavy-handed enforcement by police inflamed the situation.

The Governor had rejected an earlier petition to eliminate the fee but after this monster protest and the underlying threat of action, he agreed to cancel the fee for one month while he looked afresh at the situation.  Instead he ploughed ahead with plans to crack down on civil disobedience with the deployment of the military to reinforce the police. 

This ultimately led to the battle at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat in 1854 where protesting miners had gathered, swearing allegiance to a new flag, the Southern Cross, asserting what today we might call their ‘human rights’.

The heavily armed police and army overran the stockade in a surprise attack early one Sunday morning, killing the poorly-armed defenders with an unconstrained glee.  Some of the Irish defenders just had pikes to combat sabres, pistols and rifles. The martinet commander, Commissioner Rede, expressed himself well satisfied with the outcome but such was the popular outrage that the miners put on trial were acquitted and carried around Melbourne in triumph, Rede was ingloriously demoted and the Governor was forced to dramatically overhaul the system.  The leader of the protestors, Peter Lalor, who escaped the massacre at the cost of his arm, went on to become a notable legislator in the Victorian parliament.

Mark Twain commented: I think it may be called the finest thing in Australasian history. It was a revolution—small in size; but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression. …

This was the closest Australia came to establishing its independence by force but it was only brought under control by significant concessions to the popular will.  I hope that the current situation in the USA turns out as well, in particular with the military held in check and with no further loss of life or damage to public property – and the beacon call of ‘No Justice, No Peace’ taken to heart.

The post Recurring History first appeared on David Cairns of Finavon.

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