Saturday, May 20, 2023



The Cross of the South

On 3 December 1854, during the Victorian gold rush, the gold miners at the diggings in Ballarat rebelled, caused by various grievances, including the cost of mining permits (the government having imposed harsh fees to try to force the miners back to their regular jobs); brutal enforcement of the requirement to have the permits on their person, even when the miners were working in water; oppression and the fact that the force of soldiers and constabulary was included oppressive ex-convicts and miscreants.

There had been a preceding period beginning in 1851 of peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience.  The October 1854 murder of a gold miner, however, and the burning of a local hotel (which miners blamed on the government), ended the previously peaceful nature of the miner's dispute. Open rebellion broke out on November 29, 1854, as a crowd of some 10,000 swore allegiance to the Eureka Flag. Gold miner Peter Lalor became the rebellion's de facto leader, as he had initiated the swearing of allegiance.

The flag under which the miners fought at the stockade at Eureka is today on display at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, which has the ownership of the remnants:

The miners at the goldfields of Ballarat in 1854 were a mix of nationalities, religions and political allegiances but all united in their opposition to the corruption and brutality to which they were subject. One miner, an Italian named Raffaello Carboni, was at the front of the rebellion and subsequently wrote a firsthand account of the events and what led to them. He was not present at the attack but did observe it.

Carboni wrote of the flag under which the miners gathered:
There is no flag in Europe or in the civilised world half so beautiful... the flag is silk, blue ground, with a large silver cross; no device or arms, but all exceedingly chaste and natural.
He also recorded the oath of Peter Lalor, on bended knee with head bowed and one hand holding the edge of the flag:
We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.
What better oath for the miners to take. A collection of miners of different creeds, colours, faiths, political allegiances and origins swore not to a political entity or to a divine being, but to the Southern Cross above them, the constellation under which they toiled, lived and slept, the stars from which they took bearings for directions. An oath to stand by each other for their rights and liberties, under a flag which for the first time in Australian history stood for independence, fairness and freedom.

The battle took place at the Eureka diggings, named after the “Eureka lead”, a deep seam of gold being mined by the diggers. Under the leadership of Peter Lalor they constructed a stockade covering about an acre of ground. The authorities could not allow a treasonous rebellion and attacked at dawn on Sunday, 3 December 1854. Whereas the miners had had 1,500 men present on the Saturday, only 150 were present on the Sunday in the belief that an attack would not take place on the Sabbath.

The Battle of Eureka Stockade ended the short-lived rebellion on December 3.

A group of 13 captured rebels (not including Lalor, who was in hiding) was put on trial for high treason in Melbourne, but mass public support led to their acquittal.

Several reforms sought by the rebels were subsequently implemented, including legislation providing for universal adult male suffrage for Legislative Assembly elections and the removal of property qualifications for Legislative Assembly members. The Eureka Rebellion is controversially identified with the birth of democracy in Australia and interpreted by many as a political revolt.

The following is a poem by an anonymous poet, describing the events:

The Cross of the South

‘Twas the month of December, the year ‘54
When the men of Eureka rebelled;
When they swore that the flag that they’d made for themselves
Hither proudly aloft would be held.
Oh, the miners took arms in the stockade that day,
The bold words passed from mouth to mouth –
‘We will stand by this flag and the stars that she bears,
White stars of the Cross of the South.’

Though the hot blood of heroes ran fast in their veins,
There was but one man they obeyed!
And the hero of heroes they chose from their ranks,
Peter Lalor, their hero they made.
Peter Lalor said, ‘Now you must stand by your guns,
Fear not the cannon’s fierce mouth;
For I see that the soldiers are gathering now
To tear down the Cross of the South!’

Captain Thomas, he charged the Eureka Stockade
With three hundred troops by his side;
Fire and steel met them there and they fell back again,
But the first of the miners had died!
And the smoke of the battle had scarce cleared away,
When the soldiers came charging once more!
And the miners were killed as they stood round the flag,
Or fell from the wounds that they bore.

Bold Peter Lalor lay shot on the ground
Where the soldiers had left him for dead!
The flag that he loved lay there by his side,
The white starts all stained with the red!
Peter Lalor, he rose on his knees in the dust,
These wild words poured from his mouth –
‘You can murder us all in black tyranny’s name,
But you can’t kill the Cross of the South.’



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