The Eureka Stockade defines Ballarat, but for many its legacy is divisive

In the darkness of the early hours of Sunday morning of December 1854, the well-drilled ranks of two colony-garrisoned British regiments, the 12th and the 40th, assaulted a hastily arranged hobble of drays, carts and stray pieces of mining lumber.

Brief and bloody: an impression of the Eureka Stockade battle. In actuality the troops stormed the camp in darkness, between 3am and 4am. They delivered two volleys of fire and then charged.

Brief and bloody: an impression of the Eureka Stockade battle. In actuality the troops stormed the camp in darkness, between 3am and 4am. They delivered two volleys of fire and then charged.

Corralled inside the ‘stockade’ as it is now known, were the serried numbers of miners who had pledged allegiance to the Southern Cross just the day before.

Some of them, at least. Perhaps just 150 men were in the enclosure at the time of the attack, out of more than 1500 at one point.

The lure of the bottle and the baud proved too strong for most of those who had only just sworn fealty “to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties”. They were on a bender, or out to its effects.

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The soldiers and mounted police numbered between 270 and 400 according to differing accounts. Product of the lash and the line, disciplined by cruelty and trained to mete it out, the British army had not conquered most of their Queen’s sunlit empire by courteous negotiation.

Bottle and baud, lash and line. The outcome of the ‘battle’, as if it called be called that, was a fait accompli of almost farcical expectation. It was slaughter. Men and women alike were butchered by the troops, who eventually had to be restrained by their officers from running amok, fuelled by exhaustion (they had marched from Melbourne), anger and bloodlust. And it must be said, an abiding hatred of the Irish, whom they blamed for the insurrection.

The deaths on the miner’s side at the scene were between 27 to 30. Perhaps as many again died of wounds, hiding from the law. Six soldiers perished.

That is the battle. The legacy is more complex, because it is the rebellion which defines Ballarat to the present. Groups and factions within the city claim it for their causes: the trade unions, the descendants, the council; conservatives and leftists, anarchists and historians; Sovereign Hill and the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Until relatively recent times, the uprising was commemorated merely by two obelisks in the Old Cemetery and one on the aptly-named, understated ‘Stockade Reserve’. Garlanded by naval cannon, it spoke to the native reticence of Ballaratians to consider the issue too deeply.

During the 1950s and 1960s the exploration of Eureka began to evolve. Geoffrey Serle’s The Golden Age, published in 1963, considered the motives and outcomes in detail. A diorama of the battle was built on the Reserve; a reenactment on the centenary (held at the future site of Sovereign Hill, complete with troops armed with .303 rifles) was attended by 5000 onlookers. 

By the late 1990s state and federal politicians, eager to claim their take on Eureka, had given Ballarat a $4 million centre on the site. In 2002 there was ‘Eureka Week’, with the following events: 

  • Eureka Mayoral Ball
  • Eureka Week Opening
  • Carboni – The Play 
  • Raising the Flag
  • Make you own lantern for the Dawn Lantern Walk
  • Eureka Graves Ceremony
  • The Nations of Eureka
  • Eureka Stockade Diggers' March
  • Eureka Dawn Walk 2002 (4km walk)
  • Dawn Oration and Public Breakfast
  • Eureka Luncheon
  • Tour of Old Ballarat Cemetery
  • Boys Choir Eureka The Opera
  • The Italian Connection
  • A History of Australia in Miniature

The Centre is now MADE – the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka. Like the event it commemorates, the new museum has sometimes struggled to fulfil every expectation of what it defines. The museum’s funding from Ballarat City Council is now annual rather than triennial; it is the subject of an ongoing review. Eureka is now a ‘Day’, not a ‘Week’. Its first director, Jane Smith, was open about MADE’s problems, speaking after her resignation in 2016.

“It is fair to say there was a range of legacy issues around Eureka and MADE, and we worked very hard to get involved with the key groups in the Ballarat community to make sure we were an important part of what was on offer,” Smith said. 

“I think people now understand what MADE is and can be in a way they didn't in the beginning, we didn't know at the beginning either. It was a brand new experiment of a highly immersive, digitally interactive museum dealing with democracy.”

MADE’s ‘legacy issues’ and the issues of Eureka in general, still exercise the mind of the new chief executive officer, Rebecca MacFarling.

Just two months into the job, she says MADE needs to ‘amplify’ the Eureka story.

“Democracy has a role in the Eureka story, and every stakeholder I talk to tells me about the impact and the outcomes of that story, the birth of a nation and modern democracy,” says MacFarling.

“People come to see the Eureka flag, learn about the Eureka story. I think we can put a ‘Eureka first’ meaning in the organisation.”

To that end, the Peter Tobin Oration on Eureka Day tomorrow will be delivered by author and avowed republican Peter FitzSimons.

FitzSimons is under no misapprehensions about the significance of the rebellion to Australian history. He regards the Eureka Flag as the most iconic item in Australia.

“Ballarat possesses the Crown jewels,” says FitzSimons.

“For me, Eureka is the complete story; it’s our national story. For me the Eureka Flag stands for justice, stands for democracy; it stands for multiculturalism, even if they didn’t have the concept at the time; it stands for liberty. It stands for a sense of national identity, separate from being ‘Brits in the South Seas’.”

FitzSimons’s view is in stark contrast to others, such as former NSW premier and federal politician Bob Carr, who called it “overblown in importance by sentimental revolutionaries”; historian Geoffrey Blainey says Lalor’s call to arms got the miners killed, whereas had they stayed the political course, their aims would have been achieved in short time anyway.

“It probably persuaded an even larger number of Australians that governing by debate than by force is the wisest mode of government," he wrote recently.

In Ballarat, the direct descendant of a Rebellion participant explains the city’s fractured relationship with its past. Actor and writer Liana Skewes is the great, great, great grandaughter of Phoebe Scobie

Scobie had two husbands on the goldfields. Both died, as did all her sons and a daughter.

Her forebear saved Peter Lalor’s life after the stockade, but Skewes says, like all women on the field (over 4000) she was written out of history until recently. 

“She doesn’t have a street or a hotel named after her. She wasn’t allowed to be Speaker of the House. She wasn’t allowed to attend the meetings of the Reform League or the swearing of the oath.”

“Aboriginal people were made to bury the Chinese who died, because white people regarded them as ‘dirty’. Yet many women married Chinese men because of the violence they would suffer at the hands of white miners. 

“That history is problematic for Ballarat.”

Peter FitzSimons is the author of 10 books on history, including Eureka, The Unfinished Revolution. He is delivering the Peter Tobin Oration about the legacy of the Eureka Stockade at MADE on Sunday at 11am.