Just over one hundred and fifty seven years ago one of the most important events in Australia’s history took place, yet it passed with barely a mention in the media, and it’s generally not given the attention that, say, the story of Ned Kelly is. I think the Eureka rebellion deserves to be remembered.
The location: Bakery Hill, Ballarat, Victoria. The time: the height of Australia’s Gold Rush era. The background: government oppression and harassment of hard-working, but mostly poor, diggers (miners).
We swear by the Southern Cross
to stand truly by each other and
fight to defend our rights and liberties
Thus began Australia’s civil war, on November 30 1854. Well… actually, it wasn’t a civil war… and it wasn’t really the beginning, either.
Unrest had been building for a long time, and the raising of the flag (on a pole 24m high – the 3.2m x 2.6m flag must have been visible for miles around) and the miners’ oath marked the “we won’t take this any more” moment when the downtrodden took on the powers-that-be. The diggers marched to the Eureka gold lead where they built a rough wooden stockade and prepared to defend themselves. Things came to a head early in the morning on Sunday 3 December, when armed troops attacked the stockade. They overwhelmed the miners and the ensuing battle lasted only twenty minutes. By the time it was over twenty-two miners and five troopers were dead, the proud Eureka flag had been torn down by Trooper King and the tents inside the stockade had been destroyed.
There were several interesting twists to the story.
The thirteen miners charged over the rebellion were all acquitted later in court. A Gold Fields Commission was set up in the days following the battle. When it handed down its report in 1855 the government adopted all of its recommendations; all of the diggers’ demands were met. Peter Lalor, leader of the rebellion, avoided capture, and in 1855 became the first member of parliament for Ballarat. The only person imprisoned as a result of Eureka was the editor of the Ballarat Times, Henry Seekamp, who was found guilty of seditious libel.
In 1895 Trooper King’s widow loaned the flag to the Art Gallery of Ballarat on condition that she or her son could take it back at any time. The family has now formally given the flag to the gallery, where it’s on display. 
Is Eureka important? “The Eureka rebellion is considered by some historians to be the birthplace of Australian democracy. It is the only Australian example of armed rebellion leading to reform of unfair laws. The Southern Cross flag has been used as a symbol of protest by organisations and individuals at both ends of the political spectrum.” (Australia: Eureka Stockade, accessed 17 December 2011).
The Eureka story is covered well at these sites:
- National Library of Australia: an archived copy of Eureka Stockade, an online presentation by the State Library of Victoria. Includes extensive contemporary newspaper coverage. The original is no longer available online.
- australia.com.au: Eureka Stockade.
- ballarat.com: The Affair at Eureka.
- ballarat.com: The Eureka Trail.
- The Australian Centre for Democracy at Eureka (formerly The Eureka Centre): an entire site dedicated to Eureka.
- eGold gives an interesting account of the history of the Eureka Flag.
- eGold has a copy of a painting by Charles Alphonse Doudiet depicting the diggers making their pledge: Swearing allegiance to the ‘Southern Cross’, 1854
 Art Gallery of Ballarat: Unknown Makers Eureka Flag, accessed 17 December 2011.