Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Eureka Stockade and Its Flag

The Eureka Stockade and Its Flag

Australia Day inevitably raises the issue of what the Australian flag should be. My own feeling on the matter is that we should simply drop the Union Jack and keep what remains, based on the principle that our flag should not contain the flag of another country:

It is sometimes suggested that the flag of the Eureka Stockade be adopted as our national flag and we couldn’t do better.

Irrespective of the issue of any change to Australia’s national flag, the story of the Eureka Stockade and its flag is a fascinating and moving one.

The Eureka Stockade:

The discovery of gold in Ballarat in 1851 touched off a goldrush that saw 25,000 miners there by 1854. Conditions were harsh and primitive, made worse by the government requiring expensive licences to be bought for the right to mine, 30 shillings per month (twice the average weekly wage). One view holds that the high licence fees were a deliberate ploy to drive people back to the land and farms. The fees were enforced by police and soldiers, most of whom were ex convicts The police and soldiers were brutal and, together with the government officials, were often corrupt. Escalating tensions and a number of incidents saw the miners make a stand 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. 22 miners were killed in the battle, together with 5 soldiers. None of the persons charged were convicted, an inquiry resulted in reforms and Lalor was subsequently elected to Parliament. He died in 1889 aged 72.

The Flag:

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 (above). 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 lead 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.

After the Eureka Stockade:

During the battle, the flag was torn down by Trooper John King. It was hacked by sabres and peppered with bullets. King allowed pieces to be taken as souvenirs. The flag remained in the possession of the King family until it was loaned to the Ballarat Art Gallery in 1895. There was scepticism as to whether this was the real Eureka flag and it was subject to conservative disapproval, today’s attitude of admiration for the Eureka rebellion not being the outlook of the past. In the 1930’s the flag was “re-discovered” by one Len Fox but authentication did not occur until 1996 when sketchbooks by Canadian Charles Doudiet were put up for auction at Christie’s. His sketches of the stockade and the battle included a sketch of the flag, corresponding with the remnants at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. Both the remnants and Doudiet’s sketches are on display. In 2001 the King family transferred ownership to the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. In 2006 the National Trust declared the remains of the flag an Australian icon.

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