Sunday, 2 December 2012

EUREKA: The Unfinished Revolution by PETER FITZSIMONS; and EUREKA STOCKADE: A Ferocious and Bloody Battle by GREGORY BLAKE

EUREKA: The Unfinished Revolution
William Heinemann, 2012, 696 pages, $49.95 (hb)

EUREKA STOCKADE: A Ferocious and Bloody Battle
Big Sky Publishing, 2012, 249 pages, $29.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Labor’s Foreign Minister and history buff, Bob Carr, has dismissed it as a ‘local tax revolt’ and the Liberal Party has stoutly ignored it but the political importance of the gold miners’ Eureka Stockade in 1854, the closest thing Australia has had to an armed insurrection, deserves more than the short shrift it gets from Australia’s politicians who are the beneficiaries of the democratic reforms won through armed struggle by working people, as two new books on Eureka by Gregory Blake and Peter Fitzsimons show.

The discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851 sucked half the male population of the British colony away from their city and farm jobs and, facing massive wage rises for those left, the squattocracy (the rural ruling class) and the urban capitalists got their colonial government to impose a tax, through a license fee, on the miners to, as Fitzsimons notes, force the diggers back to work for their proper masters.  The tax also pumped a handy £50,000 per month into the government itself, prompting one journalist to note that ‘the Government is the greatest Gold Digger after all’.

Exploited by a tax (paid in advance, gold or no gold), oppressed by police (“uniformed thugs with guns”, says Fitzsimons), chained like beasts to trees and logs if caught without a licence during digger-hunts, denied justice in corrupt courts, their grievances not listened to by government, the tinder was set.  The spark was the connivance of a bent coroner and magistrate in absolving a pub owner and mate from the murder of a miner, and the prosecution of three miners for arson when the pub was torched by angry miners.

When a 12,000-strong miners’ meeting protested by burning their licenses, government officials ordered a license-hunt by mounted police, this time with drawn swords, who arrested seven miners, and by newly-arrived British soldiers with fixed bayonets who fired on the miners.  Incandescent with fury that the government had abandoned all restraint, most miners switched from faith in deferential petitions and ‘moral persuasion’, taking to ‘physical force’ and erecting a defensive stockade on a small hillock called Eureka.

Politicised through English Chartists (working class political radicals), the armed miners united around a manifesto of demands for democratic reforms to Victoria’s parliament of the rich which was elected by just 4,000 propertied men of a total population of a quarter of a million.

Governors La Trobe and Hotham, writes Blake, feared this “conspiratorial democratic political agenda”.  The authoritarian Ballarat Goldfields Commissioner saw demands for the abolition of the license fee as ‘a mere cloak to cover a democratic revolution’, writing of the need to teach a ‘fearful lesson’ about the price of rebellion to any other Victorian democrats.  Hotham had been overheard, as he departed England, to say ‘a little blood-letting would not do the unruly gold-miners any harm’.

When least expecting it (naively thinking the authorities would respect the Sabbath), and consequently with only 120 miners in the stockade, the attack came on Sunday, 3 October, overwhelming the stockade in just twenty minutes.  Around 60 miners were killed, most, notes a rightly indignant Fitzgerald, after resistance had ceased - “the worst of the murderers, for that is what they have become, are the police”.

To justify what Fitzsimons calls its “killing frenzy”, the government tried 13 prisoners for High Treason but could not find a jury of common men willing to convict any of them, so strong was popular sympathy for the miners.  With Governor Hotham’s moral authority listing badly in a sea of popular outrage, Hotham was forced to give the miners reform rather than face revolution, conceding all their demands (abolition of the license fee, granting the miners’ a vote and wider male suffrage not long after).  To ease Hotham’s pain, his own Commission of Inquiry into Eureka also noted that the economic returns from increasingly difficult mining were less than the usual wages the miners could earn and that this would drive them back to their old jobs better than armed troopers.

Democracy, on bourgeois terms, also turned out to be not so bad as feared.  Peter Lalor, leader of the rebels, was elected (minus one arm lost in the battle) to parliament in 1856 where he spent three conservative decades as a Minister of the Crown and strike-breaking mine-owner opposing further democratisation.

Blake, alas, makes little of the politics of Eureka.  His turgid history dismisses the historical relevance and class conflict interpretation of Eureka as driven by the “rigid political ideology” of Marxism but lead-footed doctrine better describes Blake’s own history of Eureka.  It is a myth, Blake says, that poorly armed, “innocent gold miners” were confronted by a “tyrannical government” which “brutally slaughtered” them in a “fearsome massacre” and his aim is to redeem the government, police and soldiers in an “affirmation of Australian nationhood” through Eureka.

Ultimate government responsibility for crushing the revolt was, pleads Blake, a “necessity” when faced with insurrection.  Government officials were poor, helpless cogs in a war dynamic when faced with a political challenge to their rightful authority, whilst the police have been victims of unwarranted “prejudice and vilification”.  The blood-lust behaviour of the soldiers (such as repeated use of the bayonet on the wounded) was “perfectly consistent” with what an army has to do against an “insurgency”.  Blake’s swooning over gun calibres and associated militaria betrays his intention of normalising Australia’s war brutalities.

As for the miners, says Blake, they have been romanticised as underdog heroes.  They brought on their  own heads the state’s military response by aggressively arming for war with guns aplenty and a sturdy fortress.  Fitzsimons shows, however, that the stockade was “a long way from impregnable” and that the rebels’ guns, pikes and theatrical sword props faced a “devastating” firepower disadvantage from the  276 well-armed attackers, including cavalry, with 200 in reserve and 850 more, plus artillery, on the way.

Fitzsimons is not ideologically hamstrung by Blake’s revisionist militarist nationalism although he does share the limitations of the nationalist analytical framework, promoting Eureka, along with the Anzacs at Gallipoli, as part of the ‘birth of a nation’ through bloodletting.

Eureka, in Fitzsimons’ telling, is much more than Blake’s narrow “history of a battle” – it is the history of class struggle.  The conservative columnist, Gerard Henderson, as noted by Fitzsimons, has lauded Eureka as a rising by small businessmen ‘against iniquitous taxes and over-regulation that was stifling their creation of wealth’ but this, whilst technically correct (the miners were independent, petit-bourgeois producers in economic competition with their claim-jumping rivals), misses the point.  The miners united, by manifesto and arms, for economic justice and democratic political rights, as have slave, peasant, national liberation and proletarian rebels, a political process of universal relevance to all oppressed and exploited classes, not just Henderson’s self-employed, small-time capitalists.

Fitzsimons wants his book to be “read like a novel” and this is how it is best read – for the artistic flavour of the drama of a stirring political rebellion by flawed but passionate common people against the power of the privileged.  As Mark Twain put it, Eureka is the ‘finest thing in Australasian history.  It was a revolution … a strike for liberty … a stand against injustice and oppression ... a victory won by a lost battle’.

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