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Issue #1617      November 6, 2013

Culture & Life

When Australia really became a nation

The capitalist media in Australia frequently declares that this country “became a nation” when boatloads of Australian and New Zealand soldiers were rowed ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula by British sailors and left to make their way off the beaches under withering fire from the Turkish defenders. The ANZACs’ mission was to capture the peninsula and force the Dardanelles, thus allowing the Royal Navy ready access to the Black Sea and Southern Russia.

The scheme was one of Winston Churchill’s and from his point of view had the merit (if it succeeded) of achieving several British strategic imperial interests in one fell swoop: it would divide the Central Powers (Turkey would be separated from Germany and Austria-Hungary) with whom Britain was then at war – it would allow the Royal Navy to support British claims to Black Sea oil and Donbas coal and iron (they belonged to Russia but there was a war going on and who knew how it might turn out?) – and control of the Dardanelles and the Black Sea might allow British possessions in Egypt and India to be linked overland via the Middle East or even southern Russia. Churchill was close to City of London investors who had long had their eyes on the resources of southern Russia.

But whatever its strategic possibilities had been, the botched landing at Gallipoli, the British inability to force the Dardanelles, and the fierce defence of their land by the Turkish soldiers, meant that in a relatively short time the invaders had to withdraw. Churchill’s imperialist scheme had come to nothing, but it had cost the lives of thousands of young men. In Australia’s case they had all been volunteers, who had been told that they were going to fight a barbarous aggressor, who hated the British Empire (that bastion of civilisation) and lusted after our land and our women. Well, after all: the authorities could hardly tell them they were going to fight for British coal and iron interests, could they?

Which is why the capitalists’ claim that being put ashore on the wrong beach in a doomed attempt to achieve the impossible somehow “made Australia a nation” is just so much eyewash. Whatever way you look at it, the Gallipoli landings were a fiasco and the invasion of the peninsula was defeated. No, that did not and never could “make Australia a nation”. Besides, that had already been achieved more than half a century earlier, but in circumstances the ruling class would rather no one remembered.

That momentous even was the Creation and Defence of the Eureka Stockade at Ballarat in December 1854. Victoria was still in the grip of a gold rush that had already lasted a couple of years. To meet the expense of “securing order” on the goldfields and to build up the state Treasury, the Victorian government imposed a license fee on all diggers.

In 1854 the licence fee was £12 per annum, but as Arthur Wilberforce Jose said in the Illustrated Australian Encyclopaedia of 1925, “to miners barely making rations the payment of £12 per annum was impossible”. A sense of injustice was wide-spread across the Victorian goldfields, and there had already been riots at Beechworth and Castlemaine.

Then in October, a miner was killed at a hotel in Ballarat. His brother accused the publican, an ex-convict from Tasmania (like many of the goldfields police). He was charged but discharged when the case came before the bench. The miners were furious, and established first a committee and then the Ballarat Reform League, with JB Humffray (a Welshman) as its first secretary, and Peter Lalor (an Irish digger), Frederic Vern (a Hanoverian), Raffaello (an Italian teacher of languages), Timothy Hayes (an Irishman) and George Black (“an Englishman of good education and considerable intelligence”).

Meanwhile the government sent fresh troops to Ballarat who infuriated the crowd by marching in with fixed bayonets. The crowd set upon the soldiers and injured three or four. A few days later, at a mass meeting held at Bakery Hill, the miners’ leaders reported back on their fruitless attempts to negotiate with the government. Vern proposed burning the obnoxious licences and the meeting resolved to burn all licences and to protect anyone arrested for not having one.

The next day, mounted troopers were ordered to make a “specially vigorous” licence-hunt, but were driven off with a volley of stones. Peter Lalor was elected leader and under a blue flag bearing the emblem of the Southern Cross, the miners swore their historic oath “to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties”. An area of about an acre of the Eureka claim was hastily enclosed with piled up timber, mining slabs etc. A deputation was sent to the Commissioner to demand the release of that morning’s prisoners and the cessation of licence hunts. The Commissioner refused, saying that the agitation was only “a cloak to cover a democratic revolution”. (And he wasn’t having any of that thank you very much.)

On the Friday, men were busy in the stockade, drilling or strengthening its structure. But there was no ammunition and little food within the stockade so on Saturday many men left to search for these commodities. Spies informed the government of the depleted state of the stockade’s defences, and at about 4.30 on Sunday morning nearly 300 soldiers attacked the miners. Five of the attackers were killed, but 16 miners were killed and at least eight others died of their wounds. One hundred and fourteen prisoners were taken but all were released without charge, except for 13 including Hayes and Raffaello who were charged with high treason. A reward was offered for Lalor, Black and Vern. Eventually all those charged were acquitted without being called on to defend themselves. It was a complete victory for the miners. But also for a clever ruling class.

For some of the miners’ leaders had hoped to make the diggers’ protest movement into a push for a republic. In Australia at that time, this was premature. However, by its democratic ideals, notions of solidarity, and faith in the workers, the Eureka uprising became a shining light for the Australian working class ever since.

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