Forgotten and whispered memories: Eureka and its contemporary sources

The precise nature of violent events is often problematic. What was said or written about them is not always what occurred. Society’s interpretation of violent events changes over time and differs across different sections of society. Low economic status, ethnic heterogeneity, residential mobility and high population turnover lead to disruption of community cohesion and organisation. [1] Explaining the context of a violent event is often easier than explaining the event itself.

This problem is linked to the ways in which the actions of crowds have been perceived. There have been two leading interpretations of the politics of working-class crowds. One sees popular protest as occurring spontaneously and without prior organisation as a reaction to immediate material deprivations such as food shortages or wage reductions. The other views the crowd as an inchoate and unselfconscious mass that can be galvanised into activity, shown how to constitute itself as a potentially revolutionary class, only by an elite, usually of middle or upper class provenance, who may exploit its potential for violence for their own social and ideological agendas. The problem, Rudé observed

…is that conservatives and ‘Republicans alike had projected their own political aspirations, fantasies and / or fears onto the crowd without having asked the basic historical questions’…law-and-order conservatives, he complains, see all protest as a ‘crime against established society’; liberal writers have tended to comprehend all crimes as a form of protest.[2]

The classic conservative images of proletarian anarchy are Edmund Burke’s depiction of the rioting mob as a ‘swinish multitude’ in Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Hippolyte Taine’s account of revolutionary action as the breeding-ground for the ‘dregs of society’, ‘bandits’, ‘thieves’, ‘savages’, ‘beggars’ and ‘prostitutes’.[3] By contrast, the Leninist approach assumed that the revolutionary activities of the crowd must be directed by an elite, the Party, converting anarchic energy into effective political action. Rudé in his earlier writings, tended towards Leninism concluding that the sans-culottes were on their own capable of nothing more than economic motivation and that movement beyond that required the leadership and political ideas developed by bourgeois intellectuals, a model he later questioned recognising that the lower classes had ideas and motivations of their own.[4]

Both these issues are evident in the sources for the Eureka rebellion in December 1854 and create major problems for historians who want to describe and explain what actually happened. For example, government sources tended to overestimate the threat posed by the rebellion if only to justify the draconian actions that it took and playing up the role of ‘foreigners’, especially the European revolutionary participants at the Stockade while playing down the role of Americans. A further problem with the sources lies in the nature of the protest at Ballarat in late 1854. Although there is a succession of reports from the goldfield to Sir Charles Hotham that provide a developing view of the position of authority, most of the information from those involved in the protest was written after the Stockade was stormed and contains a strong dose of self-justification. Only the less than neutral reporting of the local and Melbourne press provides evidence for the developing crisis on the goldfield from the perspective, and then via a critique, of the miners’ stance.

The accounts of Eureka in various histories of Australia have a tendency to elide the specific details of the incident in favour of situating the event in a narrative of the nation. [5] The writing of histories of Eureka began soon after the event. The difficulty is that unusually the production of sources on Eureka and the early writing of histories of Eureka were almost indistinguishable. Many of those involved on both sides of the rebellion wrote accounts that were both partial and attempted to locate Eureka within a causal nexus. Normally, these accounts would have been used by historians to construct their narratives but not in this particular instance. It was not until 1913 that a specific history of Eureka was written as opposed to a literary heritage was published. [6] Hotham’s version of events is contained in a despatch to the Colonial Secretary dated 20 December 1854 [7] with the account in the Report from the commission appointed to inquire into the condition of the goldfields following in late March 1855. [8] Surprisingly few participants at Eureka wrote accounts of the event and they are for the most part partial. Lalor, [9] Vern [10] and Carboni produced accounts in 1855 and H. R. Nicholas [11] and John Lynch[12] in the 1890s. The same can be said of the only eyewitness account from the government camp written by Samuel Douglas Smyth Huyghue, a Canadian who was chief clerk to Robert Rede the Resident Commissioner on the Ballarat gold fields. Though originally drafted in Ballarat in November 1857, it was revised in September 1879 and not completed until 10 December 1884, some thirty years after the event.[13] The contemporary diary of Samuel Lazarus, though valuable on the aftermath of the attack, is silent on the attack itself that Lazarus appears to have slept through. A neglected source is the history of Ballarat written by W.B. Withers who deliberately sought out written and oral testimony from those involved in the rebellion.[14]

The most remarkable is Raffaello Carboni’s The Eureka Stockade that offers a vivid if unconventional history.[15] Geoffrey Serle made little sense of the book

Carboni Raffaello’s Eureka Stockade stands apart as a literary freak…its qualities of vigour, observation, humour and sarcasm raise it to considerable heights.[16]

Although roughly linear, Carboni included commentaries on events and what characterises him as a narrator was the mobility of his stance, ‘using the voices of reporter, judge, polemicist, philosopher, satirist, historian and participant’. [17] It is, however, a mistake to view the book as the record of a partisan and a tale of damnation of tyranny without scholarly detachment rather than a history. In two important respects, The Eureka Stockade is clearly a history: first, its use of particular narrative forms and secondly, its attention to evidence.[18]

Carboni wrote within the European historiographical tradition that had begun in the eighteenth century based around distinctive forms of emplotment, the narrator’s position and reader’s expectations. His account is consistently written in the forms of satire, comedy and tragedy but all these devices are subordinate to a romance of heroes, a vindication of his own character and those of the diggers. [19] Carboni was writing for the future in the expectation that the events at Eureka would be accorded the ‘historic’ status they deserved. He saw the book as an act of remembering events for the future that he was sure would be forgotten:

…it is in my power to drag your names from ignoble oblivion and vindicate the unrewarded bravery of one of yourselves…But he [Ross] was soon forgotten. That he was buried is known by the tears of a few true friends! The place of is burial is little known, and less cared for. [20]

He supported his case by an extensive accumulation of evidence that provided both the basis for his narrative and his means of authenticating the text as historically accurate. Carboni also drew on a much older form of history, the notion of historian as witness and made this claim explicit in the introduction:

I was at the centre. I was an actor and therefore an eye-witness. The events I relate, I did see them pass before me. [21]

Carboni was right that Eureka would not be instantly remembered in written history. Once the battle ended, the focus for most historians moved to Melbourne to pursue the effects of events: the demonstrations in the capital and across the goldfields, the resignation of Colonial Secretary Foster; the reform of the goldfields and the constitution and Hotham’s death. This shift was possible because Eureka was on the cusp of two processes already in motion: the demise of imperial autocracy and the emergence of limited self-government dominated by colonial liberalism. The introduction of the miner’s right deflated the causes of the crisis of 1854 and the local political élite, liberated by their new constitution, had little appetite for grappling with demands from the forces of popular protest, ‘the dark side of their commitment to democracy’. [22] Eureka had served its purpose and, with reforms secured, the rebellion became an event that had passed quickly and for the moment was left in the past.

This was clearly the case with Peter Lalor. His statement in April 1855 was, unlike Carboni, neither a narrative of heroism nor a history. [23] It is a defence of the diggers’ actions written by a man who deeply regretted having been forced to take up arms. His lesson from the rebellion was that reforms should have been introduced earlier and that, despite the bloodshed, civilisation would prevail. His only use of the word ‘history’ was in his boast that ‘I have taken measures to have the history of the outbreak and its causes brought before the House of Commons’, a very different audience to the one Carboni had in mind. Whether Lalor was a ‘forgetter’ as Molony suggests, it was increasingly the case that Lalor, now the parliamentarian, regretted Eureka as an ‘unfortunate affair’. [24] These characteristics were shared by other immediate historians of the event. Captain H. Butler Stoney arrived in Ballarat shortly after the battle and, like Carboni, relied heavily on evidence especially the Royal Commission and the report of Captain Thomas to provide a historical veneer. [25] His explanation for the rebellion was an even-handed apportioning of blame to abuse of power and wayward citizens and was the first historian to focus attention on foreigners.[26] ‘Even though their wild passions of rebellion had for a moment made them lose sight of their loyalty and obedience to her law’, Stoney concluded that the diggers were really loyal to the Crown, that there had been substantial progress in Victoria and that it was a fine place for investment opportunities.[27] For him, Eureka was an unfortunate aberration in the inevitable progress of the colony to economic prosperity.

Myth is a highly charged concept when linked with the study of history. To suggest that fable and fact may be reconciled to explain the past suggests that truth and falsity can explain the same historical event. Yet myth cannot be easily dismissed from a consideration of history, particularly from histories of nations and national identity. All histories have some element of myth, a distortion of the truth produced to draw out a significant explanation of the past; a sense of significance shared by a cultural group embracing a mythic explanation of the past in order to reinforce shared values. [28] Ernest Scott, for example, sought to explain how British racial origins and an accompanying heritage of liberal ideals creatively flourished in Australia. Gifted with ‘the most liberal endowment of self-government that had ever been secured in the history of colonization by dependencies from a mother-country’, the ‘thoroughly British’ Australian population had been left ‘free to work out their own destiny’. Thus Australia became ‘…a field for the exercise of their racial genius for adaptation and for conquering difficulties’. [29] In his identification of shared British origins, Scott offered a reassuring sense of familiarity, proudly enhanced by an account of how Australians had proved themselves worthy of their inherited traditions and faced the challenges of developing a new country.

[1] Reiss, Albert J., Understanding and Preventing Violence, 2 Vols. (National Academies Press), 1993, Vol. 1, pp. 31-41, 129-139.

[2] Kaye, Henry J., ‘Introduction: George Rudé, Social Historian’, in George Rudé, The Face of the Crowd: Selected Essays of George Rudé, (Harvester Wheatsheaf), 1988, pp. 7-15.

[3] Ibid, Kaye, Henry J., ‘Introduction: George Rudé, Social Historian’, p. 6.

[4] Ibid, Kaye, Henry J., ‘Introduction: George Rudé, Social Historian’, p. 24.

[5] Elder, Catriona Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity, (Allen & Unwin), 2007, pp. 23-40.

[6] Ibid, Turner, Henry Gyles, A History of the Colony of Victoria From its Discovery to its Absorption into the Commonwealth of Australia, Vol. 2, pp. 23-51, and Our Own Little Rebellion: The Story of the Eureka Stockade, Melbourne, 1913. McCalman, Iain, ‘Turner, Henry Gyles (1831-1920)’, ADB, Vol. 6, 1976, pp. 311-313.

[7] Duplicate Despatch Number 162 reporting a serious collision and riot at the Ballaarat Gold Field: Victoria Public Record Office: 1085/P, Unit 8, reprinted in ‘Eureka Documents’, Historical Studies: Eureka Supplement, (December 1954), pp. 3-7.

[8] Anderson, Hugh, (ed.) Report from the Commission appointed to inquire into the Condition of the Goldfields, 1855, (Red Rooster Press), 1978.

[9] Lalor, Peter, ‘Statement on the Ballarat rebellion’, Argus, 10 April 1855, reprinted in ibid, ‘Eureka Documents’, Historical Studies, pp. 8-14.

[10] Vern, Frederick, ‘Col. Vern’s Narrative of the Ballarat Insurrection, Part I’, Melbourne Monthly Magazine, November 1855, pp. 5-14. Part II does not appear to have been published.

[11] Nicholls, H. R., ‘Reminiscences of the Eureka Stockade’, The Centennial Magazine: An Australian Monthly, (May 1890), in an annual compilation, Vol. II., August, 1889 to July, 1890, pp. 746-750.

[12] Lynch, John, ‘The story of the Eureka Stockade’, Austral Light, October 1893-March 1894, republished as a pamphlet Story of the Eureka Stockade, (Australian Catholic Truth Society), n.d. [1946?].

[13] Huyghue, S.D.S., ‘The Ballarat Riots’, printed in O’Brien, Bob, Massacre at Eureka: the Untold Story, 1992, (The Sovereign Hill Museums Association), 1998, pp. 1-39.

[14] Ibid, Withers, W. B., History of Ballarat, pp. 72-163.

[15] Ibid, Raffaello! Raffaello!: A Biography of Raffaello Carboni, and Rando, G. ‘Raffaello Carboni’s Perceptions of Australia and Australian Identity’, based on a paper presented at the Eureka 150 Democracy Conference, University of Ballarat, 25-27 November 2004 and ‘Raffaello Carboni’s Perceptions of Australia’, Journal of Colonial Australian History, Vol. 10, (1), (2008), pp. 129-144.

[16] Serle, p. 360.

[17] Healy, Chris, From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory, (Cambridge University Press), 1997, p. 137.

[18] Ibid, Healy, Chris, From the Ruins of Colonialism, pp. 139-142.

[19] Rando, G., Great Works and Yabber-Yabber: The Language of Raffaello Carboni’s ‘Eureka Stockade’, St Lucia (Qld), 1998, considers Carboni’s use of language.

[20] Ibid, The Eureka Stockade, p. 2.

[21] Ibid. The Eureka Stockade, p. 2.

[22] Ibid, Healy, Chris, From the Ruins of Colonialism, p. 141.

[23] Lalor, Peter, ‘Statement on the Ballarat rebellion’, ibid, ‘Eureka Documents’, Historical Studies, pp. 8-14.

[24] Ibid, Moloney, John, Eureka, p. 210. See also Sunter, Anne Beggs, ‘The Apotheosis of Peter Lalor: Myth, Meaning and Memory in History’, paper in Remembered Nations, Imagined Republics: Proceedings of the Twelfth Irish-Australian Conference, Galway, June 2002, Australian Journal of Irish Studies Vol. 4, (2004), pp. 94-104.

[25] Stoney, H. Butler, Victoria: With a Description of its Principal Cities…and Remarks on the Present State of the Colony; Including an Account of the Ballarat Disturbances, and of the Death of Captain Wise, 40th Regiment, London, 1856.

[26] Ibid, Stoney, H. Butler, Victoria, pp. 106-138 considers Eureka.

[27] Ibid, Stoney, H. Butler, Victoria, p. 137.

[28] Collins, Rebecca, ‘Concealing the Poverty of Traditional Historiography: myth as mystification in historical discourse’, Rethinking History, Vol. 7, (2003), pp. 341-3, 356.

[29] Ibid, Scott, Ernest, A Short History of Australia, pp. 330-332, 336.

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