Remembering the Eureka Stockade, 167 years after miners’ rebellion

“We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties“ – Oath of miners at Eureka Stockade 3 Dec 1854.

A group of about 30 people stand in a circle near the Eureka monument.
The Eureka dawn service was attended mostly by anarchists and union members.(ABC Ballarat: Rhiannon Stevens)

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It is still dark when ageing renegades and union officials gather at the site of the Eureka Stockade to solemnly remember the uprising that occurred 167 years ago today.

Normally the dawn ceremony in Ballarat includes the burning of an effigy – last year it was then attorney-general Christian Porter – but this year, there has been a disagreement over the choice of Daniel Andrews.

Veteran anarchist and medical practitioner Joseph Toscano says the organising group, Reclaim the Radical Spirit of Eureka, does not condone the effigy burning.

Only three people, including effigy maker Graeme Dunstan, gather to watch the cardboard head of Mr Andrews ignite.

Two men watch an effigy of Daniel Andrews burning in the early hours of the morning.
A small group, disowned by the organisers, burned an effigy of Premier Daniel Andrews.(ABC Ballarat: Rhiannon Stevens)

“This year, as testified by the … recent Kill the Bill protests in Melbourne, the face of Dan Andrews is clearly recognised as the premiere face of tyranny in Victoria this Eureka season,” Mr Dunstan said. 

The rest of the crowd forms a circle to recite the oath of the rebel miners who swore allegiance to the Southern Cross:

“We stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties”.

A group of people stand in a circle at the Eureka monument in the early morning.
About 30 people gathered at 4am to mark the anniversary.(ABC Ballarat: Rhiannon Stevens)

Protests expected

Crowds more sympathetic to Mr Dunstan’s opinion are anticipated on Sunday, when protesters are expected to descend on Ballarat to “reclaim the Eureka flag” while protesting vaccine mandates and Victoria’s new pandemic legislation.

The Eureka flag, first flown in Ballarat in 1854 by miners calling for political representation and peacefully protesting excessive taxation, has long been associated with protest.Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

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Ageing Ballarat renegades have their ‘Eureka’ momentDownload 11.5 MB

But its use at recent protests has upset some who say the Eureka flag should not be associated with sometimes violent events.

Eureka’s memory and importance has long been contested.

Historian Anne Beggs-Sunter, whose PhD investigated Eureka’s history, says organisations from the left and right have organised events on December 3 since the 1800s, each lending the rebellion a different interpretation.

An old painting of the Eureka Rebellion in December 1854 with red-coated soldiers firing on gold miners at Eureka Stockade.
In 1854 the rebels in the Eureka Stockade revolted against the colonial authority of the day.(Wikimedia Commons)

History of division

In Remembering Eureka, Dr Beggs-Sunter writes that the decision to erect a monument at the stockade for its 30th anniversary was divisive, with some arguing that “reviving memories of disloyal events would cast a slur on Ballarat”.

Later, Eureka was taken up by the trade union movement and then, during World War I, its spirit was linked to the diggers of Gallipoli.Eureka flag stoushThose with close links to the Eureka cause say the flag of the 1854 miners’ rebellion should not be misappropriated for political purposes.Read more

In the 1970s, Dr Beggs-Sunter writes, everyone from the Maoist Australian Independence movement to the right-wing National Alliance and a revived republican movement was evoking the symbol for their cause.

“At various times there was no celebration that I could find happening in Ballarat, and then suddenly a group would arise and there would be some kind of a metrical moment,” she said.

At the turn of the millennium, a dawn lantern walk existed, but even that proved contentious.

“In spite of careful attempts by the organising committee to be ‘non-political and non-sectarian’, controversy flared,” Dr Beggs-Sunter wrote.

“Threats were made by members of Eureka’s children to disrupt the dawn walk because it was following the soldiers’ route.”

A man in a suit lays a wreath at the bottom of a large concrete monument.
Mayor Daniel Moloney lays a wreath at the Eureka monument on the 167th anniversary.(Supplied: City of Ballarat)

‘It’s funny how life changes’

This year, on Eureka’s 167th anniversary, the unofficial dawn service is nearing its 20th year, and the City of Ballarat’s official event consists of a short speech and the laying of a wreath by the Mayor at the more convenient time of 8:30am.

“They brought with them not only energy and ambition, but also a desire to live in a free and just society,” Mayor Daniel Moloney said, before reading the names of those known to have been killed by colonial police at the stockade.

Like many, Cr Moloney sees the events of the stockade as an important foundational story that promotes fair and open democracy.

An older man with a long white beard stands in front of a large banner that urges the reclamation of the Eureka spirit.
Joe Toscano organises the unofficial Eureka dawn service in Ballarat.(ABC Ballarat: Rhiannon Stevens)

Dr Toscano said the unofficial dawn service started because he felt Ballarat was not adequately recognising the rebellion.

“It’s funny how life changes,” he said.

“When we started, we were seen as … the anarchists who’d come over to take over — we had no rights.

“Now we’re seen as the good guys because we’re protecting [Eureka].”

Rhiannon Stevens
ABC Ballarat
3 Dec 2021

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