It is the 1850’s in Australia. An English man Edward Hargraves has just discovered a ‘grain of gold’ in a waterhole near Bathurst. This discovery would mark the beginning of the Australian gold rushes and a radical change in the economic and social fabric of the nation.
Victoria would contribute more than one third of the world’s gold output in the 1850s and in just two years the State’s population had grown from 77,000 to 540,000!
The number of new arrivals to Australia was greater than the number of convicts who had landed here in the previous seventy years. The total population trebled from 430,000 in 1851 to 1.7 million in 1871.
The political scene
Australia had at this time a very limited version of democracy. Because only wealthy men could vote and stand for parliament, power was concentrated in the hands of a small section of society. Poor people were unhappy that they were locked out of the government system like this. They also felt that government authorities sided with the rich and powerful while treating the poor with contempt.
Between 1851 and 1854 tension was building on the goldfields. Clashes between the miners and the authorities became more frequent with significant discontent brewing over the injustice of the goldfield licensing system and police corruption.
In steps a man from Laois
At Ballarat an hour from Melbourne, the tension was rising quickly. The Ballarat Reform League was set up under the leadership of a Laois man and engineer, Peter Lalor.
Lalor’s family was descended from the O’Lalours, one of the Seven Septs of Leix, who had fought against the English invasion of Ireland in the 16th century. Peter Lalor was simply one of the many who were part of the mass emigration from Ireland after the famine, and instead of America he choose Australia.
He arrived in Australia and was swept up in the Gold Rush moving to the mining town of Ballarat where he agitated for reform.
Among Lalor’s fellow supporters of reform were a passionate and colourful bunch, including a Prussian republican, Fredrick Vern; the Italian redshirt, Raffaelo Carboni; and the Scottish Chartist, Tom Kennedy, but the Irish played a leading role in this fight for miners rights and Lalor would become their leader.
In December 1854, 1000 men gathered at Eureka, on the outskirts of Ballarat and unfurled their flag, a white cross and stars on a blue field,
Lalor reluctantly stepped up as leader, rallying the miners and calling on them to arm themselves for battle. According to one observer, Lalor:
…knelt down, the head uncovered, and with right hand pointing to the standard (flag), exclaimed in a measured tone: ‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other to defend our rights and liberties.
They swore to fight together against police and military. After the oath, they built a stockade at Eureka, and waited for the main attack.
On 3 December, there was an all-out clash between the miners and the police, supported by the military. The miners were no match for the well-armed force they faced. Six of the police and troopers were killed and there were at least 22 deaths among the diggers.
Lalor was hit by a bullet to this left arm but escaped to safety and went into hiding. In the following months jury after jury acquitted those captured of treason and they were accepted on their release as heroes and patriots.
Their act of defiance tapped into a Australian national mood hungering for change. Although the battle was lost, the miners demands including the vote for all males were met.
A Royal Commission condemned the goldfield administration and the miners’ grievances were remedied. The battle of one-man one vote had been won. Within a year, Peter Lalor – the leader of the rebels – became a member of the Victorian parliament.
The Eureka Rebellion, which is Australia’s only armed uprising, is now viewed as the birthplace of Australia’s political system. It is possible now to see the full extent of its impact, government could no longer ignore its population, freedom of speech, the right to vote were all hallmarks of this historic uprising. In 1857 universal suffrage for white males was passed in Victoria.