Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Eureka Rebellion

Think back to the American Revolution. What got the Brits in trouble in the first place? No, besides the gaudy red color of their uniforms. That's right, it was taxes on everything imaginable, from sugar, to tea, to playing cards, to newspapers, to sugary tea-flavored playing cards with news articles on them. The American colonists didn't appreciate being taxed without any representation in Parliament, or at least that was their excuse to get drunk and dump a bunch of tea into the harbor (soon followed by cow-tipping out in Farmer Wittenton's fields). Long story short, the Americans rebelled, and shook off British rule. You'd think they would have learned their lesson, but Britain nearly goofed again in another colony almost a century later: Australia. Yet another instance of "taxation without representation" caused a rebellion that changed the fabric of a quickly-developing nation. Yeah, the rebellion pretty much laid an egg, but details details...

Fig.1: A "Canvas Town" south of Melbourne, where you 
could find all the amenties of the big city, like a butcher, 
a doctor, and at least 57 liquor stores.
In 1851, a man with an unfortunate name, Thomas Hiscock, became very fortunate by discovering gold in Victoria, the southeastern-most colony on the Australian mainland. Sure enough, folks from all over the world migrated to the island or continent or whatever it is to claim a piece of that action, with most settlers camping out in tents throughout Victoria (fig.1). The British government didn't miss a beat either, and created a law that not only made the profits from discovered gold taxable, but also forced people to purchase a £1 monthly permit in order to even be allowed to look for gold. At first this was circumvented by miners pretending to be searching for their lost lucky penny or dog that wandered away from home, but the local magistrates cracked down on this and became rigorous in inspecting everyone's permits. This upset many Australians, old and new, and many banded together into unions in order to protest against this grave injustice...or practice their boomerang skills. One of the two.

The silt really hit the pan in October 1854 when a young Scottish miner named James Scobie was murdered in a hotel in the central Victorian town of Eureka. The hotel's proprietor was acquitted of the crime, even though several other patrons saw him and Scobie in a heated argument about the £7 bottles of Fanta in the mini-fridge. Thousands of miners came to Eureka to protest the decision, and eventually got a little carried away and ended up burning down the hotel. Several were arrested, and reinforcements from the Victorian colonial guard were called in to keep the peace (aka: boss around the miners about their permits even more). The miners were fed up with this treatment, and over 10,000 showed up outside Eureka to form the Ballarat Reform League as a forum to grumble grumble the day away. One of their founding resolutions proclaimed "that it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called on to obey, that taxation without representation is tyranny." Sure sounds familiar...

Fig.2: The Ballarat Reform League swearing 
allegiance to the new flag, which was followed 
by a giant game of "Duck, Duck, Goose."
Eventually, the League was sick of just sitting around and grumble grumbling, and a new leader by the name of Peter Lalor called for open resistance against the government until their demands were met (Lalor was an Irishman, and they know a little something about rebelling against the Brits). A new flag was created to symbolize the Australian nation, and the miners pledged their allegiance to the cause on December 1, 1854 (fig.2). That was a Friday, and they being good Australians, decided to get the weekend started in full force. After two days of partying and bad decisions, they figured they could rest on Sunday, December 3, since the good Queen's forces would never begin a battle on the Sabbath day. Turns out the troops weren't all that pious, as they began to march toward the miners' hastily-built stockade early that morning.

And here is where any comparison between the American Revolution and the Eureka Rebellion ends. While the war in America waged for over eight years and had its ups and downs for both sides, the Battle of the Eureka Stockade lasted ten minutes and was even more one-sided than the "Truffle Shuffle" kid on a seesaw. Only about 150 miners were ready and willing to fight, and this wouldn't have been enough to stop the Lollipop Guild, let alone a British-trained colonial military force. Twenty-two rebels were killed, while the British troops allowed for six of their own to get shot "just to be sporting." Peter Lalor was hit in the left arm, which would need to be amputated (unfortunate for him, since that was his drinkin' arm). All other miners who put up a fight were rounded up and sent to a government camp to await trial. It was pretty much a dud as far as actual rebellions go, with my fight to wear crazy-colored socks to the workplace being way more successful.

Fig.3: "Guys, quit it! This suddenly stopped being fun!"
So why do we care? Why bother writing about such a seemingly throw-away event? Should I have just thrown together a history of Vegemite if I wanted a token Australian post? Well, sometimes the aftermath becomes more important than the event itself, and that is precisely what happened here. The general population in Victoria appeared to be on the side of the rebellion, and cheering erupted in the courthouse when the miners on trial were acquitted by a probably-biased jury. The initial causes of the rebellion, the cost of the permits and miners not wanting to take responsibility for burning down an entire hotel, were lost in the shuffle; instead, legend has it that the rebels were fighting for equal rights and fair representation in the government. Don't know how that happened, but it stuck! In 1856, one-armed Peter Lalor was unanimously elected to the Victorian Legislative Council, and eventually became the Honorable Speaker for the assembly. The next year, the Council voted in favor of granting universal suffrage to all eligible citizens in Victoria (aka: all white males who could pound a can of Fosters in less than a minute), with other colonies quickly following suit. Just like that, democracy started to take hold down under, allowing folks like Crocodile Dundee to subsequently be elected to Parliament.

Fig.4: Yeah, the Eureka Flag is a 
little bit blah, but at least it doesn't 
have something as silly as a maple 
leaf on it!
It's hard to imagine this jolt of democracy would have occurred without the shock that was the Eureka Rebellion. The British colonial government saw the people Australian people united against them, and had no other choice than to grant them the political freedoms they called for. Some historians have disagreed with this viewpoint, claiming that the aura of the Eureka Rebellion has been magnified since Australia never had an uprising as grand or significant as the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, or Prince and the Revolution. A current Australian senator has even called the Eureka Rebellion as a "protest without consequence," which caused Peter Lalor and his one-armness to shed a tear in his grave.

But whether the Eureka Rebellion caused anything to change in 19th century Australia, it has been revered as a pivotal moment in that nation's history nonetheless: there's a monument and a museum dedicated to it on the alleged battlesite, there are commemorative postage stamps for it every ten-year anniversary, there are calls for Australia to shake off the British monarchy and change the flag to the Southern Cross one used by the rebels (fig.4), and a 1949 movie called Eureka Stockade showcased the Australian film industry's biggest star: Chips Rafferty. That's like the best name ever. I would start a rebellion just so a guy named Chips Rafferty would play me. No doubt! So maybe the Eureka Rebellion wasn't as conclusive or as evenly matched as the American Revolution, but it may have produced similar results: freedom, democracy, a nice bedtime story to tell the kids. And isn't that what rebelling against the government is all about? I think so...I think so...

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