Victoria was declared a separate colony from New South Wales in 1836and for the first 14 years of its existence was a peaceful and sparsely populated region of farmers and graziers. This was disrupted irrevocably in 1850 with the discovery of substantial gold fields all across the territory, resulting in a rapid and massive influx of fortune-hunting immigrants.
The roots of the Eureka Stockade lie in the inadequacy of the infantile governmental institutions to cope with the social changes and pressures of such a change in the demography of the colony. From being the administrative body of the "rural aristocracy", the government suddenly found itself in charge of an unruly population of itinerants, and was hopelessly unprepared. The response was to impose an unofficial martial law, enforced by the hurriedly assembled and quasi-military "Gold Commission". Additionally, Victorian authorities were regarded as close associates of the deeply hated "English oppression", which many of the miners had left their homelands to escape.
Within a short time, the easy surface gold has been exhausted, and gold could only be found by digging for the deep leads—the veins of gold buried beneath metres of clay and rock. By 1854 the fields of Ballarat were occupied by 25,000 or more miners from Britain, Ireland, Europe and China, (many of whom had come to Australia from the gold fields of California) and the hills has been denuded of trees to provide timber for the deep shafts being dug—an environmental disaster from which the area has never really recovered.
Authority in the camps was held by the Resident Gold Commissioner, Robert Rede, and enforced by a military garrison. The main mechanism of government revenue was the "Miner's Licence"—a short term lease of a "claim" (a 3.6 metre plot of land). The monthly fee for this licence was 30 Shillings—a stupendous fee for the time—and was payable whether or not any gold had actually been found. This obviously raised the ire of the miners, as did the weekly "licence hunts" where the military police searched for and arrested anyone lacking proof of a licence.
In September 1854, prompted primarily by budgetary shortfalls (chiefly caused by the cost of maintaining a private army), the Governor of Victoria, Sir Charles Hotham, ordered the frequency of the licence hunts to twice weekly. With dissent simmering, this and two further events drove the miners to violence.
The next catalyst was the arrest of a crippled, non-English speaking Armenian for assaulting an officer (it was later admitted by the authorities that this arrest was wrongful). This angered the miners on several grounds. First it was seen as victimisation on racial grounds (although it was certainly not expressed in such 20th century terms). This was probably not enough to motivate the miners, as they were not renowned for their racial tolerance. They did identify with the Armenian as a fellow "digger"—a term synonymous with lack of privilege. However, the man arrested was also the servant of a Roman Catholic priest, Father Smyth, and this was interpreted as a religious insult by the enormous Irish miner population, who already held deep resentments against the British for religious oppression.
The second catalyst was the acquittal of the publican James Bentley, who had been charged with the murder of a miner, James Scobie. This was interpreted as a lack of justice, and in early October 1854 an angry mob burnt the Bentley's Hotel to the ground.
Civil and non-violent protests began to be organised at the perceived injustices; on Sunday October 22, 1854 a crowd estimated at more than ten thousand miners gathered at Bakery Hill, directly opposite the government encampment. Although this crowd made camp for over a week, no violence ensued, however neither were their grievances heard by the authorities. A second mass meeting occurred on Wednesday November 1, at which the "Ballarat Reform League" was created, under the chairmanship of J. B. Humffray. Throughout the next month, the League sought to negotiate with Commissioner Rede and Governor Hotham, both on the specific matters relating to Bentley and the men being tried for the burning of the hotel, and on the broader issues of abolition of the licence, democratic representation of the gold fields, and disbanding of the Gold Commission.
Commissioner Rede's response to these disputes was perhaps an ill-judged one, but stem from his military background and has been attributed by many historians (most notably Manning Clark[?]) to his belief in his right to exert empirical authority over the "rabble". Rather than hear the grievances, Rede increased the police presence in the gold fields and summoned reinforcements from Melbourne. A crisis was henceforth imminent.
On November 28, reinforcements marching from Melbourne were attacked by a mob, with a number being injured and a drummer boy allegedly killed. At a meeting the following day (November 29) the Reform League relayed their failure to achieve any success in negotiations with the authorities. Most notably a blue flag bearing nothing but the Southern Cross (ie. the Union Jack of Great Britain had been deliberately excluded) was flown for the first (recorded) time. This meeting resolved to openly rebel by burning the hated licenses and resistance to the authorities.
Rede responded by ordering a large contingent of police to conduct a licence search on November 30. Although 8 defaulters were arrested, most of the military resources available had to be summoned to extricate the arresting officers from the angry mob that had assembled.
This raid prompted a breakdown in the leadership of the Reform League, and in the rising tide of anger and resentment amongst the miners a more militant leader, Peter Lalor[?] took control. In swift fashion a military structure was assembled, with brigades formed and captains appointed. Licences were burned, the rebel "Eureka" flag unfurled and oaths of allegiance were sworn. An encampment at the Eureka Flat was set up and by Friday December 1, a ramshackle stockade was in existence, assembled from timber and overturned carts. The miners vowed to defend themselves from licence hunts and harassment from the authorities.
Although the scene was set for a great military encounter, Rede did nothing, and as a result the passion and vehemence of the miner's lost steam. By late in the evening of Saturday December 2, many miners had returned to their personal camps and were getting on with the business of mining or traditional Saturday night carousing. A small contingent of two to three hundred miners remained at the stockade.
Rede's inaction thus far did not reflect his true intent, and at 3 AM on Sunday December 3, 1854, a party of 276 police and military personnel, under the command of Captain J. W. Thomas, approached the Eureka Stockade and a battle ensued.
There is no agreement as to which side fired first, however what was clear was that the battle was fierce, brief and terribly one-sided. The ramshackle army of miners were hopelessly outclassed by a military regiment and were quickly routed. Estimates are that 22 miners died inside the stockade and an uncertain number of others may have died outside. Many miners fled, and a substantial number of survivors were arrested. Martial Law was imposed, and all armed resistance collapsed.
For a few weeks it appeared that the status quo had been restored, and Rede ruled the camps with an iron fist. However, in Melbourne, and to a lesser extent Sydney, there was tremendous public outcry against the military actions. Newspapers characterised it as a brutal overuse of force in a situation brought about by the actions of government officials in the first place, and public condemnation became insurmountable. Thirteen miners were tried for treason early in 1855, and all were rapidly acquitted, to great public acclaim. Rede himself was quietly removed from the camps and reassigned to a position of insignificance in rural Victoria.
A Commission of Enquiry into the affair was organised, and was scathing in its assessment of all aspects of the administration of the gold fields, and particularly the Eureka Stockade affair. The gold licences were abolished, and replaced by an export fee (based on the value of the gold) and an inexpensive annual miner's licence. A system of mining wardens replaced the gold commissioners, and police numbers were cut drastically. The pace of reform was so rapid that within a year, the rebel leader Peter Lalor was representing Ballarat in the Legislative Council, and a few years later was elected Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Victoria.
For the next thirty years people tried to forget the Eureka Stockade, so much so that the precise location of the insurrection remains uncertain. All of the materials used to build the stockade were rapidly removed to be used for the mines, and the entire area itself was extensively worked, so that the original landscape has changed. However the event itself returned to the national consciousness and became a rallying cry as the call for independence from Britain gained momentum in the 1880's.
The Eureka Stockade (or more accurately, the driving force of public opinion that followed) has been characterised as the "Birth of Democracy" within Australia. It's precise significance is uncertain: it has been variously mythologised by the political left as a revolt of free men against imperial tyranny and of labour against a privileged ruling class, and by the political right as a revolt of independent free enterprise against burdensome taxation, as an expression of multicultural republicanism, and so on.
The affair continues to echo throughout Australian politics to the present day, and the call to replace the existing Australian flag with the Eureka flag has been raised on countless occasions by various groups within the country. While there is no doubt that the Eureka Stockade was one of the most significant events in Australian history, what the precise nature of that significance actually is will probably be argued about for a long time.