Eureka crusaders fought way into history

From a declaration of independence to a pitched battle between redcoats and diggers, the battle of the Eureka Stockade had it all, Peter FitzSimons reveals in this excerpt from his new book, Eureka: The Unfinished Revolution.

In late 1854, the goldfields of Ballarat are in open revolt against a Victorian government that has been heavily taxing the miners while treating them as mere vassals. Worse, the government has been sending out troops after the diggers on armed ''licence hunts'', manacling those not in possession of expensive mining licences.

Matters come to a head on the morning of November 30, when shots are exchanged between diggers and the redcoats on yet another licence hunt.

That afternoon, 10,000 miners attend a ''monster meeting'' on Bakery Hill. It is here that the diggers elect Peter Lalor to lead them. The Irishman quickly calls for an armed insurrection.

"I want you, signore,'' Lalor says, gripping the hand of Raffaello Carboni warmly before pointing to a group of French and Italians who are without weaponry. ''Tell these gentlemen that, if they cannot provide themselves with firearms, let each of them procure a piece of steel, five or six inches long, attached to a pole, and that will pierce the tyrants' hearts.''

Hundreds of men step forward to affirm their willingness to fight, as Alfred Black - who Lalor names as his ''Secretary of War'' - notes down the names of each of the companies, together with those they have elected to be their ''captains''.

The men in their six companies, with their captains in front, form up before the podium. Lalor raises his right hand towards the Southern Cross, palm facing outwards, and indicates that he wishes them to do the same.

''It is my duty now to swear you in,'' he begins, his words rolling over this international sea of hard men, ''and to take with you the oath to be faithful to the Southern Cross. Hear me with attention. The man who, after this solemn oath, does not stand by our standard, is a coward in heart. I order all persons who do not intend to take the oath to leave the meeting at once.''

Not one man leaves.

Lalor removes his hat, kneels and raises his right palm outwards to the flag, their flag, and says in a forceful tone with measured pace, ''We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.''

The sea of men, their heads bowed, their hands raised, repeat the words with a throaty rumble, ''WE SWEAR BY THE SOUTHERN CROSS …'' and follow the pledge with a unanimous ''AMEN''.

Carboni would record the wondrous look of the men at this moment: ''The earnestness of so many faces of all kinds of shape and colour; the motley heads of all sorts of size and hair; the shagginess of so many beards of all lengths and thicknesses; the vividness of double the number of eyes electrified by the magnetism of the Southern Cross; was one of those grand sights, such as are recorded only in the history of 'the Crusaders in Palestine'.''

It is done. For the first time since the colonisation of this land began seven decades earlier, the fealty of a large body of colonists has been sworn to an entity other than the British Crown. Instead, these men have sworn loyalty to each other, to their rights and liberties, and to this land beneath the Southern Cross.

Realising they need more men to help, emissaries are sent to nearby goldfields, such as Creswick, to ask for men with guns to rush to Ballarat.

Late evening, November 30

There is just something about the Scottish digger Tom Kennedy - a man who knows how to move the masses.

On this occasion, in Creswick, he has been so strong once again that he really has got them moving, marching, on the way to Ballarat. And, of course, he is at their head, wildly waving a sword as he leads the way.

As the armed diggers march out of Creswick, the German band accompanying them strikes up the tune of the wonderful French national anthem and battle hymn, La Marseillaise, the most famous revolutionary song of them all. And so they go, some humming, the French among them singing: ''Allons enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrive.''

Perhaps the day of glory really has arrived - but the binding force upon these antipodean marching men is a little further along in the song: ''Contre nous, de la tyrannie, l'etendard sanglant est leve, l'etendard sanglant est leve!'' Against us tyranny's bloody flag is raised, the bloody flag is raised.

In Ballarat, Lalor has instructed his men to build a ''stockade'' - a higgledy-piggledy rectangular barricade composed of slabs of wood placed broadly upright but ''at a great slope facing outwards'', and anything else that comes to hand. The roughly 1.2-metre-high barricade surrounds a rough four acres of land. After all, if the government can have their enclosed ''Camp'', which lies on the other side of the large gully from Eureka, then the diggers can also have their own defensive enclosure.

Friday morning, December 1

Lalor gives the order for the military drills to recommence in earnest, and the 1000 men now inside the fortifications set to with a will, engaging in exercises that lift in intensity when word arrives that heavily armed redcoats are heading this way.

No matter that this proves to be a false alarm. Even if the troopers are not attacking now, it is obvious to all present that it is only a matter of time. Fortunately, more and more diggers keep pouring into their stockade. In some ways they are like an army, but in one key way they are different. This nascent army has men from all over the world - men of entirely different cultures and levels of education. As later described by Carboni, ''We were of all nations and colours.''

Their points of unity, however, far outweigh their points of difference. Together, they are diggers; they are mates. They have worked together, suffered together, rejoiced together, and now they are united in their common disgust with an iniquitous government and a corrupt police force that have attempted to crush them.

They want democracy. They want the right to buy land.

Only for lunch do the men in the stockade finally take a breather. One man who has no time to stop, however, is swarthy German blacksmith John Hafele. He keeps working feverishly before his roaring furnace, making vicious-looking pikes - sharpened metal spikes secured to 2.4-metre-long poles - which he promises will most definitely ''fix red-toads and blue pissants especially''.

Nearby, Henry Nicholls has been summoned by Black, who has something to show him. It is nothing less than a declaration of independence, a document he hopes might be like the American Declaration of Independence by which America had severed its links with Great Britain. As Black regards Nicholls as a ''literary character'', he asks if Nicholls would mind having a look at it.

With a great deal of pride, Black begins reading it, and, as Nicholls would recall, ''rounded out his words with unction, rolling them over his tongue as if he enjoyed their flavour''.

Nicholls, however does not.

''It was long, very long, very flowery and decidedly verbose,'' Nicholls would later recall. ''It was spicy, high-flavoured, and I fancy that in it tyrants in general had a bad time of it.''

He declines to criticise as he sees that Black really only wants an opinion if it is a positive one. It would be unwise to say what he truly thinks. Whatever he says is just noncommittal enough that Black is more convinced than ever that he has a masterpiece on his hands. Before long, just as the sun is falling, Black stands on a stump and reads it out to the assembled armed diggers. Sure enough, he is cheered loudly at the whole idea of separating from Great Britain, if not necessarily at the words that he has chosen to express this view.

Friday night, December 1, Government Camp

It is time for the government authorities in Ballarat to have their own Council of War, and on this evening Commissioner Robert Rede is again in conference with his two top military officers, discussing what must be done. He has little doubt: they must move against the stockade. Precisely how they should move against it is not a matter for him - it is a matter for these officers - but he has no doubt that it is the right course of action.

Rumours are still sweeping the goldfields that the diggers will attack the camp first, and Rede is convinced that the ramifications of the success of such an offensive would be devastating. He is in no doubt that if the authorities lose this battle, they risk losing the entire colony - the stakes are that high.

But the same fear is felt by those within the stockade. If the rebels lose control of the stockade, they lose the diggings and the fight - and the rule of Her Majesty's law will be re-established across the entire Colony of Victoria.

It is a matter of who can, and will, move first. And when.

Rede feels strongly that it should be sooner rather than later.

Pre-dawn, Sunday, December 3

Startled grunts fill the night. It is just after 2.30am and the 182 men of the 12th and 40th regiments and 94 police, with their officers, are being woken inside the Government Camp. Stay quiet. It's on. Leaving from the back of the camp to shield their move from possible observers outside the main gates, they are told to form up in the gully just to the east of ''Soldiers Hill'', a little less than 1.6 kilometres north of the camp.

Usually such an exercise would be accompanied by shouted orders or bugle calls. But not on this occasion. The men know what to do.

All their training, all their drills, have led them to this moment, to be able to form up quickly and move with stealth.

Once his men are gathered on the eastern flank of Soldiers Hill in the chill damp air, Captain John Thomas steps forward, while an aide de camp holds the bridle of his horse. Now each man leans in close as the officer whispers instructions, even as they are served a tot of rum to warm their bellies.

Thomas's words are crisp and precise: they are about to launch an attack on the rebels' stockade and they will go in just before dawn.

Those insurgents who ''cease to resist'' are to be spared. And a last point: the soldiers are to do everything possible to remain silent - it is extremely important to get as close as possible to the stockade without being detected.

All good? All understood? All content?

No, not entirely. Two soldiers, knowing they will be expected to fire on men they regard as innocent, promptly fall out of the ranks and resolutely announce that they will not march - only to be immediately arrested for their trouble.

No matter. Better off without cowards in our ranks.

''We marched off in the dark,'' Captain Charles Pasley would later tell his father, ''in such perfect silence that you could almost have heard a pin drop.''

No fewer than 100 men are on horseback, while 176 are on foot.

Just less than two hours later, they are in position …

With the stockade effectively surrounded, the word is quietly passed from rank to rank, soldier to soldier: ''Advance.''

And now the main body of soldiers under Thomas, with Pasley leading the forward elements, marches over the small rise they have been sheltering behind, while the mounted soldiers and police go around it.

As one, they strain their eyes to the east, looking for some sign of the rebels. They can see the barest silhouette of the enemy flag against the lightening sky way up to their east, fluttering just above the treeline. But if the soldiers can see the stockade, that must mean that those in the stockade can …

Suddenly the blare of a bugle coming from the stockade shatters the silence.

One of the men with the Independent California Rangers Revolver Brigade, John Lynch, would record ''a terrible effervescence of hurry-skurry'' around him as his fellow rebels rush from their bunks and tents and take up their posts, their guns and pikes in hand. But he would also report that he ''could hardly discern the military force at first''.

Soon enough, though, there they are. Up in the stockade, the diggers really can now just make out the long line of redcoats some 140 metres down the slope, moving into the open and advancing.

The first of the sentries runs back, shouting a warning to the others: ''To arms! To arms!''

With the bugle, and now the shouting, it is enough to wake even the most profoundly asleep, including Lalor. He is instantly up and moving, realising that the redcoats have clearly come and, while more of a moral leader than a military one, at the very least he must quickly be seen to be present, doing whatever he can to get the defences of the stockade organised.

At this point, the forces at Lalor's rough command are just 70 men holding shotguns and rifles, 30 or so with pistols and 20 men with pikes.

By the time the bulk of the diggers have taken up their positions at the barricades, the situation is becoming just a little clearer. By now the redcoats and some of the foot police who are accompanying them are close enough that the diggers can clearly distinguish features.

It is time.

The diggers' own Robert Burnette, a tiny but game-as-all-get-out fighting force of the California Rangers, steps forward, smoothly raises his rifle to his shoulder, takes aim in the rough direction of the advancing redcoats and pulls the trigger.

Down in the advancing line, a lead ball sears from the shadows and hits Private Michael Roney of the 40th Regiment directly in the head.

RIP Michael Roney. Born in Belfast 1833, died on the Eureka on December 3, 1854.

The battle of the Eureka Stockade has begun …

This is an edited extract from Eureka: The Unfinished Revolution, which was released  through William Heinemann, $49.95.

Beryl Ireland's painting The Eureka Stockade depicts the military assault on the rebels.

Beryl Ireland's painting The Eureka Stockade depicts the military assault on the rebels.


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