Eureka, right and left

eurekaoldflagDecember 2004 saw the anniversary of the Eureka rebellion. In 1854, in Ballarat, Victoria, small gold miners, angered by Government taxes in the form of miners’ licences and heavy handed tactics by the police acting as licence inspectors, erected a barricade at a place called Eureka and staged a local uprising. They designed and flew a flag still used today, especially by unionist and anti-establishment groups. The events of the Eureka Stockade at Ballarat 150 years ago remain part of Australia’s national consciousness.

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The most potent symbol of Eureka is its flag, which has often has been appropriated to promote various causes. For the 150th anniversary there was a huge Eureka flag flying from the flagpole in the centre of Canberra, where the Australian Capital Territory usually displays its flag. The ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope said about 200 flags would be shown around the city. “I think it’s day when you can say the fight for justice, the fight for democracy and the fight for representation really reached its zenith and was successful in Australia at Ballarat 150 years ago,” he said. Well that may be an overstatement; the rebellion was soon crushed and its impact was small. But the Eureka miners have a lasting place in Australian lore as as opponents of injustice and probably the only non-Aboriginal group in our history to stage an armed rebellion against government authority.

The original flag, carefully restored but still rather tattered, is now in the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.Also known as the Southern Cross, it was first raised at the mass meeting of miners at Bakery Hill on 29 November, 1854. It was a huge flag, four times the size of a contemporary Australian flag and hoisted on a flagpole nearly 25m high. It became the miners’ focal point – they built their stockade around it and, led by Peter Lalor, took the oath beneath it.

Captain Ross, a Canadian miner on the goldfields, is said to have designed the flag. He was fatally wounded in the Eureka shootout and died next to the flag after being carried to it by a number of friends, including Charles Doudiet. Tradition has it that three women made the flag: Anastasia Withers, Anne Duke and Anastasia Hayes. After the stockade was overrun, the flag was taken down by Police Constable John King, with pieces torn off as souvenirs. It remained in the King family for over forty years before being donated to the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. The flag lay seemingly forgotten for 80 years. In 1973 it was restored by Valda D’Angri – the great-great granddaughter of Anasatasia Withers. After 120 years the flag was once again open to public view when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam unveiled it at the Gallery.

During the bitter 1891 Queensland shearer’s strike which, though it failed, is important in Australian labour history, the Eureka flag was flown again at the striker’s camp in Barcaldine, Qld, and celebrated by poet Henry Lawson in the Worker of 16 May 1891:

So we must fly a rebel flag,
as others did before us;
and we must seeing a rebel song,
and join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
O’ those that they would throttle,
They needn’t say the fault is ours,
If blood should stain the wattle.

ABC News reports that the Senate has voted to display the Eureka flag in the foyer of the Senate chamber to commemorate anniversary. The Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate not to fly the Eureka flag outdoors at Parliament House. Labor Senator Gavin Marshall, says it is sad only some people at Parliament will be reminded of an important event in Australia’s history. “‘Every other state and territory Parliament will be flying the flag, it will even be flown overseas in some areas, and I think it is quite silly of the Federal Government to take the position that it’s taken,” he said. “It’s an historic symbol, a symbol that we should be proud of, and we should be proud to fly it.”

Meanwhile conservative Senator Brett Mason could not resist the opportunity for a shot at his labor opponents in the Senate. “It never ceases to amaze me,” he said “how this simple yet powerful story has been stolen by those on the left of Australian politics and how a giant myth was created to portray the events in Ballarat those 150 years ago as some sort of watershed in the history of the labour movement, socialism and radicalism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yet the fact that many Australians think of the Eureka Stockade as class warfare turned particularly violent tells us less about what actually happened than about the Left’s dominance in shaping our country’s perception of itself.” Hmmm …?

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Swearing Allegiance to the Flag, 1854. Charles Alphonse Doudiet.

In 2011 the Old Parliament House hosted the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery’s exhibition Eureka Revisited: the Contest of Memories. The exhibition reflects on the events of the Stockade using artworks and memorabilia from the 1850 and traces its place in Australian thinking and action since.

Though trivial in scale compared to civil wars elsewhere, Eureka has been an inspiration for many Australian artists, writers, composers, photographers and poets, transforming Eureka and its great symbol, the Southern Cross flag, into a legend. “Debate continues about the meaning and significance of Eureka. Was it a protest against the denial of democracy, a plea for a republic, a call for better working conditions, lower taxes or a ‘fair go’? The Eureka is seen some as a defining moment in Australian history and has become a legend and part of our national identity?” (temporary exhibition web page) The Eureka rebellion had some influence in making the Australian colonial parliaments among the first in the world to have universal suffrage for men and women. Read more at the Ballarat Fine Art Galley’s Eureka page.

I’ve written about it previously, here.