IFHAA Perspectives on Australian History
Bloodshed on the Goldfields
The story of the Eureka stockade in Australia

Early on the morning of 3 December 1854, the people of Ballarat, Victoria, woke to the sounds of marching soldiers and the snorting of cavalry horses, sounds that neither the townspeople nor the miners had expected to hear so soon ....

The troops, consisting of 100 horsemen and 176 infantry (both police and soldiers), were on their way to capture the Eureka Stockade, a fortress located on the south side of Ballarat which was set up by rebel miners. Despite their numbers and noise, the troops moved within 275 yards of the rebel stronghold before they were fired upon by one of the few alert sentries. It appeared the diggers had forgotten to put sentries on the outskirts of town to prevent surprise attack.

As the alarm was raised, the military captains realised that speed was essential. Captain Thomas ordered his men into formation for the assault. The cavalry was placed on the wings with the infantry in the centre. A large detachment was also placed on nearby Stockyard Hill, where they could view the attack and assist if necessary.

As they advanced, they were met with accurate fire from the men in the stockade. Captain Wise was one of the first hit, taking a bullet in the knee. To encourage his troops, he tried to laugh off the wound, saying that his dancing days were over. As he tried to raise himself up, he was killed by another bullet. Five members of his troops were killed and several were injured. Despite these setbacks, they continued their advance.

Inside the stockade, chaos reigned. The men numbered just 200, for none expected the attack so soon. In less than twenty minutes, the fight was over. The military gained complete control of the stockade and tore down the rebel flag, the Southern Cross, and trampled it into the ground.

The cost of the battle was high. Twenty-two miners and six soldiers, including the commanding officer, had been killed. Many were wounded. One hundred twenty rebels were arrested for high treason. Like so many other conflicts, the battle at Eureka Stockade arose from misunderstandings on both sides. The conflict revolved around the legal rights of the gold miners, the question of mining licences and the brutal manner in which the goldfields' police enforced the licenses.

When the attack on the Stockade was over and the arrested men imprisoned, the government made an example of the rebels and tried them for high treason. Such was the sympathy for the diggers, however, that they were all acquitted. Realising the futility of their action, the government dropped any further prosecutions and declared an amnesty. This allowed the rebel leader, Peter Lalor, and a number of other miners' leaders to emerge from hiding to begin their lives again.

The following is a comparison of the testimony given by two witnesses to the Inquiry into the revolt. Thomas Budden, a miner, and Joseph Charles Byrne, a trader on the gold fields, offered differing views on the motives for the revolt. They agreed, in principle, on what measures should be taken to ameliorate the tensions present on the gold fields.

Thomas Budden's evidence to the Inquiry was based on his belief that the object of the miners' revolt was one of plunder. He further believed that the diggers' dissatisfaction over the collection of licence fees was merely a pretext. He did feel, however, that a few of the participants had good motives.

Joseph Byrne, on the other hand, felt the revolt was a direct consequence of the police practice in which parties of armed police searched the goldfields for miners operating without licences. The digger hunts, he asserted, were the main source of discontent amongst the diggers. These hunts were a direct result of the assuming and tyrannical conduct of the Gold Commission and engendered a great want of confidence in the administration of the law. A further concern of the Inquiry was that of the nationality of the persons involved in the movement.

The miners' movement, according to Budden, although borne of good motives, had been mismanaged and ultimately corrupted through the agitation and scheming of foreigners (people from non-English speaking backgrounds) who had maneuvered their way to the head of the movement. He thought that more than half of the leaders were foreigners, with greater than 50 percent of the men in the stockade being of British extraction from the lower classes and largely jumpers. Budden opined that, if not for the agitation of the foreigners, the miners would not have resorted to arms over their grievances. In his opinion the majority of diggers opposed the use of violence. Byrne, however, testified that the outbreak did not originate with foreigners; rather,the British would have taken up arms regardless of foreign involvement.

Byrne felt the events of the preceding Thursday triggered the event. On this day, the entire police population of the goldfield conducted an armed digger-hunt, firing on two diggers during the exercise. Byrne asserted that Gold Commissioner (Rede) used the hunt to bring matters to a crisis. Rede was, Byrne felt, acting from pique over a perceived insult to himself and the Camp of Police stationed at the diggings. These actions, combined with the long running discontent over the assuming and tyrannical conduct of the persons employed by the Gold Commission, caused, in Byrne's opinion, the miners to take up arms and construct the stockade. Byrne and Budden both concurred on key points of reform to prevent a recurrence of armed revolt.

Both Byrne and Budden considered the replacement of the Miner's Licence with an annual Miner's Right fee a suitable reform. This action would remove the need for the digger hunts which were such a bone of contention. Both witnesses also agreed that a franchise should be attached to an annual Miner's Right. There also was consensus that a duty on the export of gold would be an acceptable impost to replace the government's lost revenue from the abolition of the licence fee.

Although both men presented different views on the motives and makeup of the miners' movement, as did other witnesses to the Inquiry, they agreed that the existing manner of licensing and the collection of fees was wrong and contributed to the taking up of arms by the miners.

This article combines the writings of S.J. O'Brien and parts of a University assignment by Scott Brown.

Links to other Eureka Stockade sites:

State Library of Victoria Education Centre - Eureka Stockade Publication - http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/slv/educate/publications/eureka/

The Eureka Stockade Centre - http://www.ballarat-goldfields.com.au/Eureka.html

Eureka Stockade Tourism & Accommodation (good page regardless of its purpose) - http://www.balltourism.com.au/eurstock.htm

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Last modified: May 20, 2006