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From the Archives, 1854: The Eureka Rebellion shocks the colony of Victoria

It seems still incredible. While reading the mournful record, the mind refuses to believe that those scenes were really enacted within a few miles of Melbourne, and that the actors in them were our fellow colonists.

We can hardly persuade ourselves that we are not reading of occurrences in some distant country, inhabited by a temporary horde of reckless adventurers, who have never known the inestimable privilege of British liberty, or enjoyed the strong protection of British law.

To think, that on that quiet morning, ere yet the sun had risen, the startling tumult of a deadly conflict broke fiercely on the holy stillness of the Sabbath; and before its echoes died away, the lifeblood of nearly thirty brave men had stained the sod of this Victorian land!

To think that the opposing ranks which poured upon each other those deadly vollies were filled, not with foreign mercenaries or lawless aliens, but with British subjects, all owning and holding allegiance to the British crown, brethren in race, sympathies, and religion!

And – saddest reflection of all – to think, that the causes which precipitated that fatal catastrophe were in themselves of the very least importance – things that might have been once easily rectified by the exercise of a little energy and integrity!

But the final step has now been taken – the irretrievable advance has been made. That Rubicon whose waters run with a deep crimson tinge has been crossed. The ultimate appeal to brute force has been made on both sides.

The Eureka Stockade. Canadian artist and digger Charles Doudiet's painting 'Swearing allegiance to the Southern Cross', 1854

The Eureka Stockade. Canadian artist and digger Charles Doudiet’s painting ‘Swearing allegiance to the Southern Cross’, 1854Credit:Charles Doudiet

The shock of revolt vibrates through the colony. The majestic sanctions of British constitutional law are cast aside as powerless and inoperative, and a military despotism holds rule in the land. The only law paramount at Ballarat for the moment, is the law of the bayonet and bullet.

The reign of Queen Victoria has been superseded by a reign of terror. The first act in the sanguinary drama of revolution has been performed in the hitherto peaceful country, and men await its further development in trembling suspense. It is impossible to exaggerate by words, the magnitude, the momentousness, the peril of this crisis. Victoria’s Hour of Trial has come.

Whatever might once have been effected by monitory counsels, they are useless now. They come too late. The irrevocable deed has been dune. The ineffaceable stain of blood is redly stamped upon the pages of this young and favored country’s annals, and all the waters of the Pacific would not wash it out.

And the most awful consideration is, that the heavy responsibility of having dashed that bloodstain upon the page—which now is “like to the ensanguined flower, inscribed with woe”—rests somewhere upon this community.

Yes! It is the Hour of Trial; but it is therefore the Hour of Action; and that dread responsibility will rest, in some measure, upon every man amongst us, if we do not at once exhibit a spirit of earnest, solemn, united, and decisive action.

What is to be DONE? That is the question. With a most earnest feeling of the solemnity of the crisis, and of our own personal responsibilities as men, as citizens, and as Christians, we shall endeavor to answer it. We shall address ourselves to each of the three great parties into which the colony is at this moment divided, —the “insurgent” diggers, the Government, and the colonists at large; but first, we may be permitted a few words respecting our own position as public journalists.

This map, published in a history of Ballarat in 1870, shows the curved stockade.

This map, published in a history of Ballarat in 1870, shows the curved stockade.

Our sympathies and our principles are, in the widest sense, popular; because we believe that political freedom is the inalienable birthright of every British subject; because we believe that whatever aims at securing a monopoly of power or privilege for one class at the expense of other classes, is founded in injustice and wrong; because we desire to see all classes elevated to the same high level of liberty, right, and justice; and because we hold fast the glorious principle proclaimed by the Great Teacher: “For One is your Father who is in heaven, and all ye are Brethren.”

But our sympathies and our principles are also loyal and peaceable —loyal, because we and our fathers have been born subjects of the noblest Sovereignty on earth, and we have always had reason to be proud of our allegiance to its Crown; and peaceable, because we abhor war and bloodshed of every kind, as being inhuman and unchristian in its nature, and hold that the appeal to arms is only to be made in the very last resort, if even then it be justifiable.

Throughout the whole previous course of the feud between the diggers and the Government, our sympathies, as we have often said, were with the former; because we believe the grievances they complained of were real and remediable; and because we believe the Government were culpable in refusing to redress them.

But our sympathy extended no further than the limit of constitutional agitation. The instant the boundary line between legal and illegal agitation was passed—the moment that moral was exchanged for physical force—our feelings recoiled.

We could, as strongly as any of themselves, uphold the claims of the diggers as long as their appeal was made to law and justice; but it is impossible for us to endorse the wisdom or the righteousness of that appeal to arms, which has been so speedily followed by bitter and bloody consequences.

Therefore it is that we now call upon the diggers to stop in their career of revolt. We know their wrongs and their provocations. We know that an almost irrepressible feeling of vengeance springs up within the human heart, when scene such as that at the Eureka Camp are enacted.

The 13 men charged with treason for their part in the Eureka Rebellion.

The 13 men charged with treason for their part in the Eureka Rebellion.Credit:Samuel Calvert

We hold in supreme scorn the hypocrisy which threatens exasperated and armed men with a war of extermination, while it professes to uphold law and order. But we also know that the largest amount of justice is dearly bought at the price of the blood of one human being. We know that the longer the appeal to arms is maintained, the more remote become the hopes of conciliation and redress. We know that a conflict commenced as this at Ballarat has been, may speedily become on both sides a war of sanguinary and relentless vengeance ; and that if it be not stopped at the beginning, there is no predicting what its frightful ultimate issues may be.

Our appeal is now made—not to the power of the brute force at the command of the Government, not to the fears of the ” insurgents,” as they are called—but to the good feeling, the manliness, the sense of justice, the loyalty, the bravery, the Christian principle, of the diggers; and we entreat them in the name of all that is kindly, all that is human, all that is sacred—for their own sakes, for the sake of their friends and families, for the sake of their fellow colonists, for GODS sake—to suspend the strife instantly.

To suspend it instantly ; not in crouching submission to the force arrayed against them—not as men confessing themselves foiled and beaten; but as brave and loyal men, who have been incautiously hurried into taking one fatal step, but who have now discovered their error, and refuse to go further.

And now we turn to the Government—the weak, the blundering, and the culpable Government. How shall they answer to the misgoverned colonists, to the insulted majesty of the British Law, and to the British Crown, to their own consciences, and to Heaven, for their share in this fearful business?

Let us not shrink from stating the whole truth:— the conduct of the government in, first of all, permitting the grievances of the diggers to go unaddressed; secondly, in exasperating them by their connivance at the misdeeds of their subordinate officials, until the diggers were driven the verge of revolt; and then, thirdly, in precipitating the tragic catastrophe of Sunday last by their unnecessary display or military force, and that digger-hunting on Thursday:— is unpardonable, and a heavy reckoning will be required for it from the Government someday.

Reward poster for Peter Lalor (misspelt), and newspaper editor George Black.

Reward poster for Peter Lalor (misspelt), and newspaper editor George Black.

For much less than this, British Ministers have been impeached and condemned, and even British Monarchs have shared a like fate. But it is not for us to pronounce sentence on the Government; and even if it were, the present is not the time for it.

We now demand conciliation, and peace. We demand in the name of outraged law and justice —in the name of violated peace and order—in the name of British constitutional right: by the authority which even Her Imperial Majesty holds in trust solely for her people’s safety—by the authority which Her Majesty has delegated to this Government solely for the safety of the colonists of Victoria—and by the authority of the higher law of God, which transcends all merely human laws— we demand, we say, that the lives of our fellow-colonists shall be no longer endangered by an irritating display of military force—that every concession, short of absolute submission to avowed rebellion, shall be made in order to reestablish peace—that at all hazards further collisions with the people shall be avoided—and that instant measures shall be taken to secure a peaceable redress of all the grievances of which the people complain.

There is a practicable course for the Government to take—and an effective course. We shall hold them responsible for all the consequences that may follow, if they refuse to adopt it.

Lastly, we turn to the mass of our fellow-colonists who, like ourselves, deplore the evils that have come upon the land, and are anxiously desirous for the restoration of peace; but who are not so blind to the misconduct of the Government as that they are ready to endorse the fatal policy which it has adopted. What are they to do?

Two public meetings of the colonists are advertised, to be held today and tomorrow. The first, we predict, will be a dead failure; because it is avowedly got up at the instance of the Government, with the covert design of inducing some of the more respectable citizens to join in upholding .and applauding its proceedings.

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Let the Government be undeceived. There are not a dozen respectable citizens in Melbourne who do not entertain an indignant feeling against it for its weakness, its folly, and its last crowning error: and the only reason that withholds the citizens from joining in a universal and sweeping vote of condemnation on it is, that the momentous crisis demands action of a different kind.

The citizens feel that in this hour of trial everything that can aid in reestablishing peace is imperatively required, while everything that tends to widen the breach between authority and loyalty is earnestly to be deprecated.

When peace shall be once more regained, and there shall be time for deliberate judgment, the citizens will reckon with the Government. Meantime, they will not pledge themselves to support it; and they will not organise themselves into bodies for the purpose of filling the place of that expensive military force, which should never have been sent out of Melbourne.

They do not sympathise with revolt; but neither do they sympathise with injustice and coercion. They will not fight for the diggers; but neither will they fight for the Government. If the Government thinks differently, the experiment of today will completely undeceive them.

But our space is fully occupied, and we must reserve our further discussion of this solemn subject till tomorrow.

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