The Eureka Stockade is one of the most celebrated and controversial events of Australian history and generally regarded as the only major act of white armed rebellion against a government that the country has seen – however, some historians argue that Aboriginal people were involved in it as well. It was provoked by conditions in the goldfields, where diggers had to pay exorbitantly for their right to prospect for gold (as much as thirty shillings a month), without receiving in return any right to vote or to have any chance of a permanent right to the land they worked. The administration at Ballarat was particularly repressive, and in November 1854 local diggers formed the Ballarat Reform League, demanding full civic rights and the abolition of the licence fee, proclaiming that “the people are the only legitimate source of power”. At the end of the month a group of two hundred diggers gathered inside a stockade of logs, hastily flung together, and determined to resist further arrests for non-possession of a licence. They were attacked at dawn on December 3 by police and troops; 22 died inside, and five members of the government forces also lost their lives.
The movement was not a failure, however: the diggers had aroused widespread sympathy, and in 1855 licences were abolished, to be replaced by an annual Miner’s Right, which carried the right to vote and to enclose land. The leader of the rebellion, Irishman Peter Lalor, eventually became a member of parliament.
With its white cross and five white stars on a blue background, representing the constellation of the Southern Cross, the Eureka Flag has become a symbol of empowerment – and indeed of many Australian protest movements: shearers raised it in strikes during the 1890s; wharfies used it before World War II in their bid to stop pig iron being sent to Japan; and today the flag is flown by a growing number of Australians who support the country’s transformation to a republic. On a deeper level, all sorts of claims are made for the Eureka Rebellion’s pivotal role in forming the Australian nation and psyche. The diggers are held up as a classic example of the Australian (male) ethos of mateship, as well as independence and anti-authoritarianism, while the gold rush in general is credited with overthrowing the hierarchical colonial order, as servants rushed to make their fortunes, leaving their masters and mistresses to fend for themselves. The flag is on display at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka.