Deliberate provocation?

Hotham increasingly shared Rede’s suspicions about the revolutionary aims of the diggers and decided to reinforce the regular troops in Ballarat. As events moved rapidly to their climax over the next six days, all Hotham could do was to wait for despatches to arrive in Melbourne with growing unease. On 27 November,[1] he deployed 70 soldiers of the 12th Regiment under the command of Captain Atkinson and a company of the 40th Regiment, 50 strong, commanded by Captain Henry Wise to Ballarat. [2] When Wise arrived at Ballarat the following day, he brazenly marched his men with bayonets fixed and muskets primed through the diggings to the Government Camp. In addition, the Argus reported that mounted police troops with two pieces of artillery and many of the police from Melbourne were also under orders to go to Ballarat.

In Ballarat, Father Smyth, acting as an unofficial mediator, secretly visited Commissioner Rede on Sunday night or Monday morning warning him of the potentially explosive situation on the diggings and that the Camp was in danger of being attacked. As a result, Rede reported his concerns to Melbourne having been informed that the diggers could muster 1,000 rifles and 900 men had assembled on one occasion to attack the Camp. This was fabricated either by Rede or Smyth since at no time were the diggers able to muster 1,000 riflemen in Ballarat. Rede faced a paradox: an attack on the Camp was daily expected and yet the diggers appeared as quiet and well-disposed as ever. There is no evidence that the Reform League had any intention of attacking the Camp and Rede was correct in telling Melbourne he was in charge of the fields in which good order prevailed. Despite this, he concluded that the only way out of this impasse was to crush the digger movement. Events now reinforced that conviction.

On Tuesday 28 November, a detachment of two officers and men of the 12th Regiment, accompanied by supply carts carrying ammunition arrived at Ballarat at dusk.[3] Unlike Captain Wise, the officer commanding did not order his men to fix bayonets or load their muskets; in fact many of the muskets were not being carried but were in the carts. Their route took them through the Eureka diggings, a difficult process during the day but even more so at night, where the last two carts were attacked by a group of diggers. A skirmish occurred, shots were fired and the wagons overturned. John Egan, the Regiment’s drummer boy was shot in the leg and an American driver seriously wounded. [4] It has never been determined who attacked the soldiers or who fired the shots but the attack may have been occasioned by the belief among diggers that the soldiers were bringing artillery to Ballarat. At the time of the scuffle, Rede was attending a function for the American Consul James Tarleton at the Victoria Hotel where Tarleton gave his support to the government and reminded American diggers that they should obey the law. [5] Once his reinforcements arrived, Rede had 435 officers and men under arms. Rede had, according to some sources ‘come to a state bordering on frenzy’. [6] He saw the mob as the potential source of rebellion but he was unsure who the mob was except that he believed that no true Briton was part of it. He was also unclear about what rebellion meant but feared a republican uprising. By Tuesday night, Rede had the military force to deal with anything the diggers were planning.

Public opinion was important to the diggers but this incident suggests that they were not going out of their way to cultivate it. The Argus had been forthright in its criticism of the government and in its support for the diggers but this incident led to a temporary shift in editorial perspective. It commented:

While the burning of the Eureka Hotel was condemned as a rash and inconsiderate action, the hope was entertained that the occurrence might give additional earnestness to the enquiry which has been instituted, and lead to real and permanent good….A wagon upset in the dark night, the soldiery, who have never yet struck a blow or fired a shot against the diggers, beaten with their own arms, a driver brutally maltreated and a poor drummer shot through the thigh – are these deeds that will enlist the sympathies of an intelligent people? Is the maiming of a drummer-boy a worthy triumph for a large mass of a British population, who wish to occupy a creditable position in the eyes of the world?’ With an eye to the future, the editorial commented ‘Now it must be evident to intelligent men that there is a point at which Government must take a stand. [7]

Evans was equally critical of the attack:

It is some relief to the feelings of Englishmen to know that the row was commenced & principally carried on by the worst portion of the digging community, old Convicts & Tipperary men, for no man however well disposed towards the diggers’ interests can disguise the fact from himself that it was a cowardly affair. [8]

[1] Argus, 28 November 1854, p. 4.

[2] Smith, Neil C., Soldiers Bleed Too: the Redcoats at the Eureka Stockade 1854, (Mostly Unsung Military History Research and Publications), 2004, lists the men of the 12th and 40th Regiments.

[3] ‘Domestic Intelligence’, Argus, 1 December 1854, p. 5, wrongly identified the troops as from the 40th Regiment. See also, Rede to Chief Gold Commissioner Wright, 30 November 1854, PROV, 1189/P Unit 92, J54/14460.

[4] John Egan or Eagan was not fatally wounded in this incident as was persistently believed until shown as myth by Dorothy Wickham. The people of Ballarat even erected a small memorial to him since he was thought to have died in the rebellion. Egan did not die until 8 September 1860 (Death Certificate: NSW 1860/002463) aged twenty-one at Victoria Barracks Sydney and was interred in the Roman Catholic burial grounds.

[5] Potts, E. Daniel, and Potts, Annette, ‘American Republicanism and the Disturbances on the Victorian Goldfields’, Historical Studies, Vol. 13, (1968), pp. 145-164, and Potts, E. Daniel, and Potts, A., Young America and Australian Gold, (University of Queensland Press), 1974, explore the American dimensions to Eureka.

[6] Ibid, Molony, John, Eureka, p. 118.

[7] Argus, 28 November 1854, p. 4, 1 December 1854. p. 5.

[8] SLV, MS 13518, Charles Evans, Diary, 28 November 1854, p. 117.

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