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The storming of the Eureka Stockade crushed the rebel miners

Posted in Australia, Historical articles, History on Friday, 10 August 2012

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This edited article about the Eureka Stockade originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

Eureka Stockade, picture, image, illustration

The defence of the Eureka Stockade by Angus McBride

The diggers in the stockade were getting jumpy. Why was there no news from James McGill and his men? Surely they had captured the Government cannon by now, and surely morning would see reinforcements arrive from other parts of the goldfields, miners who would rally round the Southern Cross, the “Australian flag of Independence”. It flew proudly over Eureka Stockade in the heart of the Victorian gold-mining country, solemnly raised in November 1854, and, as we saw last week, the vast throng had sworn a great oath to defend their rights and liberties in its name.

Now it was the night of December 2 and it would soon be the 3rd. McGill had left the fort with 300 picked men, little knowing that they had been bluffed by the Government to get them out of the way while an attack could be launched on the remaining 200 or so “rebels”.

Rebels? Had they not smarted under the hated licensing laws to dig for gold and the even more hated men that administered them – the corrupt, often brutal officials and police? But if only the thousands of other miners had joined them, for did they not equally hate the way they were governed and the way that they had no say in that government? Most of them sympathised with their cause, but few of them wanted war, and that was what the miners in Eureka Stockade would soon be experiencing.

For towards the hastily erected, ill-constructed stockade a small force was marching. Legend later had it that 1,000 regulars and 1,500 troopers were on their way, but actually there were a mere 276: 152 foot soldiers, 24 foot police, 30 mounted military troopers, and 70 mounted police. Determined men inside a stockade should have been a match for them, but the men in Eureka were not determined enough. The absence of McGill and his men was to prove fatal.

The regular soldiers were Redcoats of the Twelfth and Fortieth regiments and it was ironic that the men of the Twelfth (later the Suffolk Regiment), drawn from the 1st Battalion, had never been in action. The last time this battalion had fought had been 40 years ago against Napoleon’s troops and now their successors were marching against their own countrymen.

Now it was 3 a.m., and many of the diggers were in their shacks and tents outside the stockade. Their leaders – most of them, as we have seen, foreigners – had little idea of military discipline, and the fact that those diggers who had ridden away under McGill were the best armed hardly inspired confidence. Only the American miners present, many of them veterans of wars against Indians and Mexicans, were in any sense soldierly, and they had agreed, despite taunts of cowardice, not to act unless matters got desperate. One of them, C. D. Ferguson, who left a brilliant account of the “battle”, was abused for advising caution, but, like his other fellow-countrymen, he was in position when the troops attacked.

The attack came around 4 a.m. just as first light was breaking in the east. Pickets rushed back into the stockade and the alarm “To Arms!” was sounded. Later it was claimed that the troops fired the first shot, but this was sheer propaganda. A digger named Burnette stepped forward and fired and Captain Wise of the Fortieth fell dead.

As soon as their officer fell, the troops were ordered to fire, then they charged the stockade. The defenders returned the fire, the “California Rangers” being particularly brisk, among them Ferguson. When splinters from the breastwork were flying the thickest he noticed that Vern, the revolutionary from Hanover, who had been in charge of the construction of the stockade, was running past him. Ferguson asked him where he was going.

“To stop the others,” replied the frightened-looking Vern. Ferguson had other ideas.

Now the soldiers had broken into the stockade and a wild hand-to-hand fight ensued. Many of the diggers fled, but many more fought bravely. One of the first to be wounded was their leader, Peter Lalor, a wise and idealistic Irish-born M.P.’s son, who had abandoned civil engineering to seek his fortune in the goldfields and now lay faint and bleeding from a shot in the arm. Ferguson and others put him in a shallow hole and covered it over to conceal him from the troops.

The fight raged for a little more than 20 minutes. Ferguson was unwounded but was tending a dying friend when a soldier came upon him and demanded his surrender. Ferguson informed him that he would see him damned first and made a leap at the stockade over which the cowardly Vern had vanished long before.

The soldier fired and the bullet went clean through Ferguson’s hat. He fell back and was captured. Finally, after another attempt, and a rough-and-tumble fight with several soldiers, he managed to give himself up not to the troops but to a captain of police. One of his fellow-countrymen was luckier. An ex-sailor named James Brown, he jumped on to a rope and slid down a hole more than 100 feet deep. Later, he climbed the rope to safety, but expert as he was, he took a full two hours climbing up it.

The stockade was now a ghastly sight, with men lying strewn over the ground, dead or dying, or writhing in pain. Twenty-five diggers had been killed and others were to die from their wounds, while Government casualties were one officer and three private soldiers dead and a number seriously wounded.

As for the prisoners, they were mostly terrified, for they expected hanging, and were encouraged in that alarming belief by their gloating captors. The gloating came not from the soldiers who had simply done their duty, but from the police. Though the latter’s brutality that dismal December day has been disputed, the fact remains that a coroner’s jury later condemned them for “brutal conduct in firing at and cutting down unarmed and innocent persons of both sexes at a distance from the scene of disturbance.”

Yet the defeated diggers won a victory of sorts and benefited all those miners who had not ventured beyond mere complaining and bitterness. Fifteen “rebels” were tried for treason and acquitted, while the authorities sensibly proclaimed a general amnesty and set up a commission to study the state of the goldfields and why there had been so much discontent. The loathed system of licenses was abolished, a moderate export duty on gold was levied and a flat rate of ¬£1 a year was brought in for all those wishing to dig.

Peter Lalor benefited even more than some later rebels against British rule in our own day. Though he lost his arm and for a while was a fugitive with a price on his head, he later became greatly admired and ended his career as the Speaker of the Victorian parliament, actually turning down a knighthood. The cowardly Vern lost his friends but survived, as did Ferguson. The Governor, Sir Charles Hotham, had sympathised with many of the diggers’ grievances, but had not the skill to avert a rebellion. He was blamed by the British Government for not being more severe on the rebels. It was to his credit that he was not.

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