Today the museum commemorates 160 years since the Eureka Stockade
On 3rd December, 160 years ago, gold miners at the Eureka Lead in Ballarat, Victoria, lost an armed battle against police and British troopers at a hastily built stockade. At least 22 ‘diggers’ were killed, together with six police and troopers.
Despite losing that bloody battle, known as the Eureka Stockade, the men and women of the Ballarat Reform League soon ‘won the war’.
It is not the purpose of this article to describe the events leading up to the Eureka Stockade. Suffice to say the miners were dissatisfied with the government’s system of licencing, as well as the often brutal methods of imposing the licencing system.
Historians debate the nature, objectives and significance of the Eureka rebellion but the unifying factor was widespread opposition to the costly licences which were seen as a form of taxation.
The Victorian goldfields had attracted thousands of fortune-seekers from Britain, Europe and America, and among them were individuals who had been active Chartists in England, republicans in Ireland, democrats in the United States and an assortment of European revolutionists and reformers.
The Americans included men of the Independent California Rangers Revolver Brigade: they knew from their own not-so-distant history the implications of the slogan, ‘No taxation without representation’, which was essentially what the struggle was about.
The men of the Stockade were victorious when, in 1857, universal male suffrage was introduced to the Colony of Victoria for lower house elections.
It is a highpoint of the Eureka story that in the immediate aftermath of the Stockade, when 13 men were on trial for treason and sedition, all were acquitted by the jury. Among them was a black American, John Joseph, who was carried shoulder high through the cheering 10,000 strong gathering outside the court in Melbourne.
There they were, beneath the Southern Cross, men and women from Ireland, Denmark, Canada, Finland, Wales, England, Scotland, Cornwall, France, Greece, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Switzerland, Spain, the West Indies and the United States, and the Australian-born, united not on the basis of nationality or religion but for a common cause of justice and an ideal.
To Mark Twain, ‘It was a revolution—small in size; but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression … It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle’.
The museum celebrates the story of Eureka and its aftermath in the exhibition ‘Art is a Weapon’.