It seemed like a good idea at the time. I'd been overseas for about a year. I was missing home, missing Australia. A Southern Cross tattoo – yeah, I thought: that's what I need. So I got the ink. That was 12 years ago, when Eureka symbolised independence, the underdog, and something uniquely Australian.
That was then.
These days it is associated with white people throwing beer bottles at brown people on Cronulla beach.
For all that, it had been awhile since I'd dwelt on the meaning of the Eureka Stockade and its flag. Up until, that is, when I picked up a copy of Peter FitzSimons' new book, Eureka: the Unfinished Revolution.
The book warms up slowly as FitzSimons lays out the preconditions to the uprising on the goldfields: a handful of squatters taking up nearly all land in Victoria (by virtue of nothing other than being there first). The development of the colony through the weak, incompetent leadership of the first Lieutenant-General of Victoria – Charles La Trobe, and then his successor Charles Hotham - a strict military man totally unsuited to this new, wild Australian culture.
That was the thing about Australia: the people who travelled here were of a different breed. Yes, there were the British who established the colony and yes, there were the convicts transported in the ships. But as for the rest – some were escaping political oppression, (particularly in Ireland); many were looking for adventure; and more wished to escape the socio-economic constraints of the UK and Europe – the stifling social order, the limited economic opportunities for those not born into wealth.
To be blunt, it also takes strength of character to make that journey: to pack up one's family, to head across the oceans in a perilous journey, to play dice with fate. That takes courage.
The book really heats up as the diggers on the goldfields walk a path of inevitability that leads to the ill-fated rebellion at the Eureka Stockade. For sprinkled into this antiauthoritarian brew that was shaping the Australian character was another explosive ingredient: gold.
Lots of it. Just sitting there, on the ground or just below, in large fields all around Victoria. And gold meant economic independence. It meant the people that found it – the ex-convicts, the chancers, the dreamers, and the adventurers – were empowered. It meant they had enough wealth to be free of the need to be employed by the squatters (the so-called 'Bunyip aristocracy') or to be required to abide by the class rules of the English.
This gold meant that the political ambitions of our society of malcontents became turbocharged. It turned the social order upside down. As one squatter complained, "outsiders cannot imagine the state of things here. Men who have been servants all their lives are now, after a few weeks work at the diggings, independent."
Yet the Government did not miss its chance to extract payment from the goldfield diggers through a blanket licencing scheme. Indeed, the miners were contributing the majority of taxes into the Government's coffers. The book cites some compelling statistics. Two years before the Eureka rebellion, the few hundred squatters - who owned nearly all of the land in Victoria - paid 20,000 pounds a year in taxes. The diggers, on the other hand, paid over half a million. And the license fee only paid for an 8 by 8 square feet of land, whether or not there was any gold on it.
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