The Eureka Stockade rebellion was an important event in the history of Australian nationhood. On the Eureka gold field, the Ballarat miners swore an oath beneath their homemade Eureka Flag ‘to fight to defend (their) rights and liberties.’ Both the flag and the event have been a powerful Australian symbol of rebellion against injustice ever since.
Colonel Robert William Rede, the Goldfields Commissioner of Ballarat, was at the centre of this historic event. Had he chosen to act differently at several critical moments, the event may have run a different course and 28 lives may have been saved.
The rebellion started with resentment against the authorities for enforcing substantial license fees from diggers who could ill afford them. The Eureka miners were especially resentful because of their arduous mining conditions. The diggers became infuriated after a hotel owner was acquitted of killing a digger outside the Eureka Hotel. Commissioner Rede was one of the two members of the Bench that acquitted the accused. The third member dissented. Rede and the police were then sent to protect the hotel from furious miners. Rede ‘bravely faced them from a window and begged them to be peaceable and respect the law’. Instead the hotel was wrecked and burnt to the ground.
The miners formed the Ballarat Reform League and elected Peter Lalor as their leader. On 28 November 1854, Rede was at an official reception when news came that miners at the Eureka Lead had attacked troops arriving from Melbourne. On 29 November 12,000 men in a ‘wildly revolutionary’ state assembled on Bakery Hill, hoisted the Southern Cross Flag and passed a unanimous resolution seeking justice.
Rede had been humiliated by the Eureka Hotel incident. In a provocative action that was to have fatal consequences, he enforced a carefully planned licence hunt the next day in the most extreme part of the diggings. The miners retreated to a rough stockade they had built for protection and began drilling with arms. Three days later, just before dawn on 3 December, 400 troopers attacked 150 miners. The battle lasted barely 15 minutes. Over thirthy people were killed.
Rede had been under great pressure. The governor of Victoria Sir Charles Hotham, ‘a Yorkshire sailor accustomed to the methods of the quarter-deck,’ had insisted that the Commissioner increase the ‘digger hunts’ and break the rebellion.
Ironically Rede had previously been popular at Bendigo where, in 1852, he was assistant to commissioner Joseph Panton (Panton). As a former medical student, Rede had frequently assisted people needing attention. Panton must have been shocked when he later visited Rede’s camp in Ballarat and found ‘the mess tent fortified with a wall of sandbags against which bullets would occasionally come with vicious thuds’.
In the aftermath of the battle Lalor became a member of Parliament and numerous reforms were implemented on the goldfields. Rede left Ballarat and subsequently received appointments as sheriff of Geelong, Ballarat and then Melbourne in 1877. In 1878 he was second-in-command in the colony. His home was in Balmerino Ave, Toorak. As part of his Melbourne duties, he escorted Ned Kelly from his cell to his execution. In the Catholic section of the cemetery in an unmarked grave also lies Lieutenant Doveton of the 51st Regiment Queen’s Own, another officer who put down the Eureka uprising.
The events at Eureka occurred quickly and involved a small number of Australians. But the sentiments expressed had a powerful echo around the nation. They conveyed the passion for a democratic nation free of class privilege and the need for organising politically to represent working people. In turn these beliefs influenced the constitutional framework debated at the time of federation. The Southern Cross on the Australian national flag derives from the banner first hoisted on Bakery Hill.