The uprising that shaped a nation’s history

Like all great symbols the original Eureka Flag is steeped in unsolved stories  and controversy as the deacdes roll on.
Like all great symbols the original Eureka Flag is steeped in unsolved stories and controversy as the deacdes roll on.

Mention Ballarat and word associations usually throw up cold, gold and Eureka Stockade.

Australia’s only ever armed rebellion took place on December 3, 1854 when the increasingly politicised gold miners fought back against unfair licensing laws and heavy-handed policing.

Thirty miners and six troopers and police died in the short-lived skirmish, with the Eureka Stockade considered the fiery birthplace of Australian democracy.

The iconic image of the Eureka uprising from the Art Gallery of Ballarat

The iconic image of the Eureka uprising from the Art Gallery of Ballarat

But contention rages to this day as to where the battle site actually is.

Books have been written about it, the Ballarat Historical Society has staged conferences on it and historical researchers – including former Ballarat politician Tom Evans – dedicated years to researching it.

The miners took part in a mass burning of mining licences at Bakery Hill then marched to the Eureka diggings and built the famous structure made of wooden slabs reinforced with carts about 1.5 metres high. 

In 2013, Eureka descendant Ron Egeberg told The Courier that, after the battle, the miners fled to their diggings and the stockade virtually disappeared with them.

 “We’d just had our only civil uprising and it was a bloodbath,” Mr Egeberg said. “It must have been a shocking experience for the people there. I don’t think they wanted to remember where it was. We can’t ever underestimate what it was like.”

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Mr Egeberg points out the Eureka Memorial stands on the highest point of the Eureka Gardens, with a view of the government camp – roughly where the Art Gallery of Ballarat stands today – and says it would have been the ideal location for a stockade.

But historian Peter Butters disagreed. He told The Courier he believed the stockade was assembled west of the current memorial, towards Belford Street.

 “Over the years, people interested in history have been frustrated because they don’t believe the area where the fight took place is where the monument stands,” Mr Butters said.

Weighing into the debate, historian Anne Beggs-Sunter said that in 1884, a group of eyewitnesses to the battle gathered on the site to try to determine the stockade’s location.  But the landscape, turned over from years of gold mining, had dramatically changed.

Reenactments  such as one for the 150th anniversary have been a constant part of keeping the mystique alive

Reenactments such as one for the 150th anniversary have been a constant part of keeping the mystique alive

“They thought it was near enough at the time,” she told The Courier. “There are a number of theories that it was outside the reserve that has been created, but it would require a massive archaeological dig to sort out that issue,” Dr Beggs-Sunter says.

The site of the stockade hasn’t been the only bone of contention over the Eureka Stockade story. The Eureka Flag, also known as the Southern Cross, has caused much controversy over the years.

Back in 1854, the miners took an oath under the flag to “swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties".

The flag was taken from the battle site by Trooper John King before being lent to the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery in 1892, with bits of the flag cut off and given to visiting dignitaries. By the time legal ownership was passed to the art gallery in 2001, 31 per cent of the flag was missing.

It was eventually sent to Adelaide for restoration and is now on loan to the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka. However, several moves have been made to claim the flag for alternate – and alternative – causes.

While the monument erected at East Ballarat is often believed to be the true site some academic belief is it could be elsewhere.

While the monument erected at East Ballarat is often believed to be the true site some academic belief is it could be elsewhere.

Both the City of Ballarat and Ballarat MP Catherine King have made recent moves to protect the flag from “inappropriate use” after the Australia First Party lodged its draft logo which included the Southern Cross.

“I think it's one thing to have it when you're seeing it flying at different protests – but having it registered as a party logo, trying to associate themselves so closely with it in a party-political way to engender votes - to me that goes too far,” Ms King told The Courier last year.

In 2012, prominent journalist and historian Peter FitzSimons led a push for the Eureka Flag to also become the national one.

“The Eureka flag represents justice, egalitarianism and multiculturalism – three things that define Australia now,” Mr FitzSimons told The Courier.

However, Val D’Angri, who in the 1970s restored the flag her great-great grandmother helped sew on the Ballarat goldfields, said she didn’t think it should be the national flag but it should be used more.

Ballarat is dotted with memorials to the legend but the principles of the Eureka uprising now have a permanent modern home at MADE.

Ballarat is dotted with memorials to the legend but the principles of the Eureka uprising now have a permanent modern home at MADE.

“It’s a difficult one. The further from the actual date of the event, the more the flag gets these magical properties,” Ms D’Angri said.

Then there’s the burning question of whether a second flag was flown below the famous Eureka flag in 1854?

The Australian Flag Society launched a worldwide quest to locate the flag, referring to early newspaper reports of the stockade, which claim both the Eureka flag and Union Jack were captured by police and soldiers.However, that Union Jack – if it exists - has not surfaced since that fateful day.

In 2013, the Museum of Australian Democracy (MADE) opened on the current Eureka Stockade site. It tells not only the story of the December 3, 1854 battle but also the evolution of democracy the world over.

Just prior to opening, former MADE board chairman Dr David Battersby summed up the centre’s aims to The Courier succinctly; “Our key objective is to make history meaningful.”