Eureka: The Unfinished Revolution. By Peter FitzSimons. Published by William Heinemann Australia.
Today is the 160th Anniversary of the Eureka Stockade. Early on Sunday morning December 3, 1854, English Redcoats with heavy artillery attacked what was at the time a very understrength stockade. The result was a massacre, not just of the diggers still in the stockade but for many camped nearby, including their wives. As a result of the massacre and the feelings against the government, no jury would convict those diggers who were put on trial for treason.
This date is one of the most significant in Australia’s history and some would claim, should be the national day. Ask anyone today and not many could tell you why December 3 is important. Among the many good books on Eureka in recent times is Peter FitzSimons’ Eureka – The Unfinished Revolution.
Peter FitzSimons: A ‘true believer’
In the process of researching and writing this book, Peter FitzSimons says he became a true believer. There is little doubt that on reading it you will also become a true believer – not just in the importance and significance of Eureka but in the ideals and beliefs for which the diggers fought. As FitzSimons and others have pointed out, Eureka was the foundation of Australian democracy and multiculturalism and, at the time, was seen by the British establishment as a major threat to their power and privilege.
The beliefs and ideals voiced by the diggers have inspired generations of Australians ever since in fighting for their rights and liberties. It is often said that Australia came of age on the shores of Gallipoli but the diggers there, taking their nickname from the diggers of Ballarat, were inspired and strengthened by the courage and tenacity of Eureka. When Joseph Lalor landed on the beach at Gallipoli he carried his grandfather’s sword, the one that Peter Lalor had with him in the Stockade. There is no doubting the inspirational power of Eureka. This power has produced what I think is Peter FitzSimons’ best book.
With the benefit of a team of researchers, he has drawn on primary sources to set out the background and context for the Eureka rebellion. Using those contemporary accounts and newspaper reports gives the narrative immediacy and vibrancy and a great momentum as the action and events unfold.
What was Eureka about?
FitzSimons emphasises that the Eureka rebellion was not just about the miners licence fee – it was about justice and equality. Many of the miners had fought for those ideals in Europe and none more so than the Irish who had endured English tyranny and oppression over centuries. Raeffaello Carboni, who wrote the definitive firsthand account of the Eureka Stockade, had fought with Garibaldi in Italy and later went back to fight there again.
The Americans and the Canadians had a keen understanding of what British colonial rule was all about and it was their republican sentiments that the British establishment feared most. The licence fee meant very little, but the demands for land, political equality and representation were what hastened Lieutenant-Governor Hotham to declare martial law and send large numbers of well-armed and trained troops to wipe out the diggers.
In a reflection of modern day Australia, the diggers were of all nationalities, colours and religions. Many of their aspirations and demands became a reality and were the genesis of the Australian values of egalitarianism, mateship and fairness. The question this book asks is, how well do these values and the spirit of Eureka hold up today? We are still not an independent country and when that finally happens, FitzSimons thinks there would be no better flag than that of the old stockade.
Time to re-evaluate
People on all sides of politics have down played Eureka, but it is time to re-evaluate and give it the rightful place in Australia’s history that it deserves. Henry Lawson understood its significance and so did Mark Twain when he called it “a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression”.
Every Australian, especially if you’re feeling alienated and jaded in today’s political climate, should read this story and be inspired by the men and women of Eureka and what FitzSimons calls the simplest but most powerful oath of allegiance ever taken in Australia:
“We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and to defend our rights and liberties.”