Saturday, 29 November 2014

On the Eureka rebellion and elections

160 years ago today the Eureka flag was hoisted above Ballarat. Gold miners were unhappy with the laws that required them to pay an onerous license fee. Miners received few services for the fee. They had no vote. The miners burnt their licenses and built a stockade.The Eureka rebels adopted the language of the American revolution - there should be no taxation without representation. There were other issues: a young miner, James Scobie, had been killed by a hotel owner, Bentley. The miners felt that Bentley was acquitted inappropriately by the judge - a similar grievance to the contemporary protests at Ferguson, Missouri.

A replica of the Eureka flag flying near the site of the stockade photographed by me in 2007

On 3 December the Government forces attacked the stockade built by the miners at the Eureka lead. The miners lost the skirmish. 22 miners were killed and 5 of the Government troops. However, after the rebellion changes were introduced. The license fee was reduced. Miners could own land. Miners also got the vote.

A gold license issued in 1853 by my great great great grandfather, Philip Champion de Crespigny (1817-1889),  who was a gold warden in Victoria (image from the State Library of Victoria). He was not at Ballarat at the time of the rebellion.
160 years later the citizens of Victoria went to the polls to elect the State Government. There are debates as to how significant the riots were in progressing Australian democracy. It seems to me that the miners included lack of representation amongst their grievances and that grievance was addressed not long after the riot. The path to our present political system is not dependent on one event but in my mind certainly the protests by the miners progressed our system of democracy and thus our vote today has roots in the raising of the Eureka flag 160 years ago.

In the 1850s more than half a million immigrants arrived in Australia and 60% of these came to Victoria for Gold. At the time of the Eureka rebellion there were about 25,000 living on the Ballarat goldfields including some of my husband's forebears.  I don't know if they played any part in the rebellion, they are certainly not among those named, any part they played must have been small. I would love to know what they thought about it.

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