what happened at eureka

On October 6 1854, late, two men going back to their tents after a night out drinking noticed lights on at Bentley’s Hotel at Eureka near Ballarat. Scotsman James Scobie and his digger mate Peter Martin knocked on a window—too hard, it broke. An argument ensued and they were set upon by four men from within the hotel—the clerk, Farrell, a former policeman; a man called Hance; Mooney the night watchman; and the publican, James Bentley, perhaps egged on by his pregnant wife Catherine. Martin ran away but Scobie, struck through the broken window, probably by Bentley, with the blade of a shovel or a spade, fell down dead. A coroner’s jury next day, citing lack of evidence, discharged Bentley. When protests arose, a judicial inquiry was convened under Gold Fields Commissioner Robert Rede, Police Magistrate John D’Ewes and Assistant Commissioner Johnston. D’Ewes was a friend of Bentley’s; he had expedited his application for a liquor licence at the hotel, was a frequent visitor there and may even have been a part owner of it. As for Rede, he was an autocrat who believed in his absolute right to impose his will upon the rabble of the goldfields. After a private discussion between Bentley and D’Ewes during an adjournment, Rede and D’Ewes, with Johnston dissenting, discharged the publican. On October 17 a public meeting was called to petition the Government for a rehearing of Bentley's case. Thousands of miners attended and after the meeting closed at 2.30 they gathered outside Bentley’s Hotel and began pelting the building with rocks and stones. Bentley, anticipating trouble, had already escaped on a horse lent to him by an Inspector Ximenes. Rede was at the Eureka government camp and came down to address the mob, who threw stones at him too. He called in the military but as soon as the hotel was cleared of people, the bowling alley next door was set alight. Strong winds spread the fire to the hotel and within half an hour it had burned to the ground. The protest was effective; the publican, his wife and two others were sent to Melbourne to be tried for the killing of Scobie. On the same day that Bentley, Hance and Farrell—but not Catherine Bentley—were each sentenced to three years hard labour, three new defendants, McIntyre, Fletcher and Westerby, stood before Judge Redmond Barry to answer charges of riot and of pulling down a dwelling house. They too were convicted but received much shorter sentences—months not years.

The incident of Bentley’s Hotel gave a focus to miners’ discontent as well as suggesting they had the power to do something about it. Their chief grievance was licence fees. Every digger, whether he found gold or not, had to pay thirty shillings a month for the right to mine a 12 foot (3.6 metre) square claim. On the Ballarat fields the easy gold had all been mined and what remained had to be sought in deep seams that required extensive digging and tunneling. The licence system was anyway corrupt and enforced in a heavy-handed manner by goldfield police; there were regular licence hunts that could lead to prosecution if any miner was found to be without his piece of paper, even if he had one left behind in his tent. In September Rede had increased the frequency of licence hunts to twice a week; and during one of these there was a wrongful arrest, and subsequent conviction for assaulting a trooper, of a crippled, non-English speaking Armenian servant of the Roman Catholic priest, Father Smyth. This, along with Bentley’s killing of Scobie, was the other provocation for the events that followed. On November 11 a mass meeting produced the Ballarat Reform League charter which, among other things, demanded the release of those jailed for burning down the hotel—another seven men had been arrested for the crime. The meeting declared that it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called on to obey, that taxation without representation is tyranny. They also decided to leave open the possibility of secession from the United Kingdom if the situation did not improve. The Ballarat Reform League’s formal demands included the right for all men (excluding Aboriginals) to vote; abolition of the property qualifications for members of parliament; payment of members of parliament; voting by secret ballot; short term parliaments; equal electoral districts; abolition of diggers' and storekeepers' licenses; reform of administration of the gold fields; revision of laws relating to Crown land. All of these were refused by Governor Hotham in Melbourne on November 27, allegedly upon the specious grounds that he objected to the use of the word demand. The next mass meeting, on Bakery Hill on November 29, was angrier. There was talk of burning of licences. A further meeting was scheduled for the afternoon of December 3 to elect a new central committee but this never took place. The government camp was arming and reinforcements were being sent up from Melbourne. A skirmish broke out between diggers and troops as soldiers of the 12th Regiment made their way to Ballarat, during which the regimental drummer boy was wounded; many believed he had been killed in the affray and that alarmed both sides still more. Rede now had a force of over 400 men under the command of Captain John Thomas mustered at his camp and, to show the government's resolve, ordered that licence hunts continue. On the morning of November 30 a hunt was conducted in the Gravel Pits, miners turned out in numbers to protest, the Riot Act was read and during the ensuing scuffles there were some injuries and several arrests; all those charged were later acquitted. After the events in the Gravel Pits a second meeting was called on Bakery Hill and the Southern Cross flag was for the first time raised—designed by a Canadian miner, Henry Ross, it has a white cross on a blue ground with a star at each point of the cross and another in the centre. Licences were burned, calls were made for volunteers and new leader Peter Lalor administered an oath to stand truly by each other and fight to defend … rights and liberties. On the afternoon of the following day, December 1, the stockade was built. It was a ramshackle affair hastily constructed from slabs of mining timber and overturned carts and never intended as a military fortress. Lalor said it was nothing more than an enclosure to keep our own men together. He had already outlined a plan whereby if the government forces came to attack us, we should meet them on the Gravel Pits, and if compelled, we should retreat by the heights to the old Canadian Gully, and there make our final stand.

Like Lalor himself, the miners at the stockade were overwhelmingly Irish. Even the password they used—Vinegar Hill—commemorated an earlier 1804 uprising of predominantly Irish convicts in western Sydney. There were also English Chartists and Italian revolutionaries among them. During Saturday December 2, some 1500 men trained in and around the stockade. A further 200 Americans, the Independent Californian Rangers, under the leadership of James McGill, arrived about 4 p.m. The Rangers were armed with revolvers and Mexican knives and rode horses; but in a fateful decision McGill took most of them away from the stockade to try to intercept rumoured military reinforcements coming from Melbourne. Rede's spies observed these actions. That night many of the miners went back to their own tents after the traditional Saturday night carousal, on the assumption that the Queen's military forces would not attack on a Sunday. A contingent of about 150 miners remained at the stockade. Early on that Sunday morning 276 police and military personnel under the command of Captain Thomas surrounded the stockade. At 4.45 a sentry fired a warning shot to alert the diggers. The battle was fierce, brief and one-sided—the miners were hopelessly outclassed by the military and routed in about fifteen or twenty minutes. Lalor, standing on a pile of wooden slabs trying to rally his men, was hit by a bullet in the arm. Henry Ross was shot dead standing beneath the flag he had designed, which was then torn down. In the aftermath, the killing was indiscriminate, bodies were mutilated, tents set on fire and nearby stores burned and pillaged. Women ran forward and threw themselves over the injured to prevent further slaughter. The Commission of Inquiry would later say that it was a needless as well as a ruthless sacrifice of human life indiscriminate of innocent or guilty, and after all resistance had disappeared. According to Lalor's report, fourteen miners were killed inside the stockade and another eight died later from injuries they sustained. A further dozen were wounded but recovered. The unusual proportion of the killed to the wounded, he wrote, is owing to the butchery of the military and troopers after the surrender. The number of deaths and injuries might have been higher; some miners fled to the surrounding bush and it is likely a good many more died a lonely death or suffered the agony of their wounds, hidden from the authorities for fear of repercussions. By 8 a.m. Captain Pasley, the second in command of the government forces, sickened by the carnage, had had enough. He saved a group of prisoners from being bayoneted and threatened to shoot any police or soldiers who continued with the slaughter. One hundred and fourteen diggers, some wounded, were marched off to the government camp about two kilometres away, where they were kept in the crowded lockup before being moved to a more spacious barn on Monday morning. Among the soldiers and military police six were killed, including one Captain Wise. In the aftermath, martial law was imposed and all armed resistance collapsed. But news of the massacre spread quickly to Melbourne and to other gold fields, turning the repression of the insurrection into a public relations disaster, with widespread condemnation of the government's action and equally widespread support for the diggers' requested reforms.

Peter Lalor, heavily wounded, hid underneath slabs within the stockade. He was rescued and after a few weeks clandestine recovery, escaped to Geelong concealed in a dray; his wounded arm had to be amputated. Thirteen men were taken to Melbourne and charged with High Treason, the penalty for which was death. They were Timothy Hayes, Chairman of the Ballarat Reform League, from Ireland; John Joseph, a black American from New York; Raffaello Carboni, an Italian and a veteran of the Risorgimento; James McFie Campbell, a black man from Kingston, Jamaica; John Manning, a Ballarat Times journalist, from Ireland; James Beattie, from Ireland; John Phelan, a friend and business partner of Peter Lalor, from Ireland; William Molloy, from Ireland; Henry Read, from Ireland; Michael Tuohy, from Ireland; Thomas Dignum, born in Sydney; Jacob Sorenson, a Jew from Scotland; and Jan Vennick from Holland. The trial was a farce and all thirteen men were found not guilty and acquitted. When the first man, John Joseph, was freed the court erupted into wild cheering and he was later carried through the streets of Melbourne in a chair amidst a procession of 10,000 people. The Commission of Inquiry’s report was scathing in its assessment of all aspects of the administration of the gold fields, and particularly of the Eureka Stockade affair. Rede was removed from his post. Gold licences were abolished and a small annual miner’s right and an export fee based on the value of the gold being remitted substituted. Mining wardens replaced the gold commissioners and police numbers were drastically cut. The Legislative Council was expanded to allow representation from the major goldfields and Peter Lalor was elected, along with another leader of the insurrection, the Chartist John Basson Humffray, as member for Ballarat. Two other court cases resulted from Eureka. Henry Seekamp, editor of the Ballarat Times, was arrested the day after the stockade battle, charged with seditious libel and eventually found guilty; his conviction thus became the only one to eventuate from the entire affair. Amongst the evidence against him was a copy of the Ballarat Reform League charter that he had printed. No government representative was convicted of committing any criminal act at Eureka. One man, Arthur Akehurst, a clerk of the peace, was arrested and tried for the manslaughter of storekeeper Henry Powell. Eyewitnesses testified that Akehurst cut Powell with his sabre, even though Powell wasn’t involved in the stockade. Powell survived his wounds long enough to make a statement against Akehurst but the prosecution case was dropped after Powell's dying deposition was ruled inadmissible. Nor was the government held accountable for the destruction and theft of property during the events at Eureka. Numerous accounts were given to the Commission of Inquiry lamenting the wanton disregard for the property of innocent bystanders by soldiers and police. Raffaello Carboni submitted a petition for compensation, suggesting that drunken troopers had robbed arrested prisoners of their belongings after their capture. The Italian was the sole eye witness to write and publish a comprehensive account of the events at Eureka. His The Eureka Stockade came out in 1855, a year after the events. He had cried out presciently before the events had properly begun for all men irrespective of nationality, religion or colour to salute the Southern Cross as a refuge of all the oppressed from all countries on Earth. The stockade itself was soon dismantled, the timber used for other things; there is now some uncertainty as to where it actually stood. But the karmic web continues to spin: the Eureka flag remains as a sign of hope for a Republican future for Australia; while, curiously, descendants of the Bentley family in Ballarat are still agitating for the return to them of the land upon which the burnt down hotel once stood.

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