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Issue #1749      September 21, 2016

The legacy of Eureka

An interview in labour history

In light of the attacks on organised labour in Australia, the Guardian’s Marcus Browning talked to Peter Lalor, the leader of the 1854 armed insurrection by miners at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat, about the uprising and its legacy how he perceives changes in Australia since.

The short, broad-shouldered Irishman sat erect on the edge of his chair, the mark of a musket powder burn on his forehead and the stump of his arm at his side. Marcus asked him to discuss his specific role in the rebellion.

PL: I don’t want to talk about my part in it alone or above the others. It was a mighty act of defiance by us all.

MB: Perhaps you could begin by giving us a picture of the developments leading up to the construction of the stockade and the insurrection.

PL: Well, as you might know, the Victorian government had imposed a 30 shillings a month licence fee on us miners who were digging the goldfields at Ballarat. This was so they could wield more control over us and eventually force us off the goldfields and back to giving our labour to the colonial employing class for a bloody pittance.

In order to extract the licence money they put together a special force of armed police, not a few of them ex-convicts. This force used what were called “digger hunts”, where they would raid a section of the diggings and demand to see every digger’s licence.

Those who could not produce them on the spot were taken into custody, sometimes being chained to logs or trees until the hunt was over and they could be taken before a magistrate.

The penalty for failing to produce the licence was five pounds, a big sum of money for us miners whose only possessions were our pick and shovel and tin dish and the clothes on our backs.

MB: Many historians claim that in fact you weren’t strictly workers at all, but men seeking individually to enrich yourselves, to “be your own boss”.

PL: Well, hindsight is a fine thing, as they say, and I’m in a position to have more than my share of it. It’s true that we weren’t wage earners, but many of us were from the working class nonetheless.

The emergence of the big mining companies soon put an end to our working independently for ourselves and turned us into wage slaves.

That now is part of the history of capitalism. Marx himself, though he was far away in Europe, saw the significance of the events at Eureka (of course we didn’t have Marx or Lenin or Engels to refer to at the time).

Marx could see that in demanding the abolition of a direct tax on labour and the abolition of property qualifications to vote or be members of parliament, the diggers were actually fighting for the same things which had led to the declaration of independence of the United States of America.

There was a difference, however, that he noted, and it was – I’ll quote the man – “that in Australia the opposition against the monopolists united with the colonial bureaucrats arises from the workers.”

We weren’t conscious of that, you understand. Our struggle was sparked by an economic need and as it developed our main political aim became the ending of the power of the unelected royalty and their underlings.

MB: So you had no voting rights?

PL: No. The franchise was based on property qualifications and most miners had no property.

MB: Where did things go to next?

PL: All this didn’t happen overnight. It was a long campaign where we put forward a number of demands, including the basic Chartist demands for electoral reform. But it was to no avail.

Things really came to a head when digger James Scobie was murdered near the Eureka Hotel in Ballarat by the publican, an ex-convict who was friendly with the police. There was no stopping things then. There was a fury among the diggers and they stormed the pub and burned it to the ground.

That’s when we formed the Ballarat Reform League and set down our demands. On November 29, 1854, thousands of us Ballarat diggers met and burned their licences. A savage diggers hunt began. About a 1,000 of us marched to Bakery Hill, in the Eureka district, and built the stockade.

MB: What was the background of the agitators? Were they experienced in politics?

PL: There were a lot of people who came to the diggings, hundreds of thousands. Among them were French socialists, German republicans, English Chartists and Irish rebels. Altogether a small group in comparison; still we had a strong influence.

MB: How did it compare to other uprisings in the colony?

PL: It was the first major uprising against British rule in the history of the colony. There was a mutiny in 1804 by Irish convicts at Castle Hill, near Parramatta, that was brutally put down and the convicts hanged on the spot.

MB: How was the attack on the stockade carried out?

PL: Early on the morning of December 3 they launched their attack on us when our numbers were down. They outnumbered us two to one. It was a bloody and ruthless attack and we fought back with all our might but they overwhelmed us. Some estimates put the deaths at more than 30.

We killed five soldiers and an officer. Some of us, including myself, escaped. Others were captured and charged with treason and sedition.

MB: Looking back, what do you see the rebellion having achieved in the history of Australia?

PL: In the short term we made certain gains. The ordinary folk in the colony were sympathetic to our cause and supported many of our demands. Those charged were either acquitted or had their charges dropped. When myself and others came out of hiding there were no charges put against us.

The following year, 1855, the miners’ licence was put in the dustbin and a new document called the Miner’s Right was introduced, costing only one pound a year and containing the right to vote.

Two years later manhood suffrage was granted for the election of the Legislative Assembly.

MB: And the long term?

PL: While we were not a class in our right, our organisation and actions were an example for the development of the Australian working class.

Our uprising in many ways was spontaneous but it nonetheless showed the necessity of having a force that is conscious of the need to act in their own class interests.

You know, understanding that – understanding the need for collective action – is the basis of the organised working class.The trade union movement in Victoria was just emerging at the time of the stockade and those class conscious workers rallied around the miners.

Their first victories for the eight-hour work day were achieved in 1856.

MB: And what of its political influence?

PL: I think the uprising’s most valuable political lesson was that it revealed the nature of the state. We defied the state and brandished our fists and our collective power at it. The ruling class, then as now, will tolerate no such actions.

The state, as Lenin said, is “a machine for keeping the rule of one class over another” and you can see at a glance that this is true in the great and proud history of struggle of Australia’s working class.

It was there in the strikes of the 1890s, when the ruling classes tried to push the economic burden of the ‘90s depression onto the toilers.

You’ll recall there was the maritime strike because of the attack by the Steamship Owners Association on steamship officers who had the audacity to form a union and affiliate themselves with the Trades Hall Council.

Combined with the struggle by the wharf labourers it was nothing less than an attack on the right of workers to organise in a union.

There was the great shearers’ strike at Barcaldine, the miners’ strike in Broken Hill, both in ‘92. The members of the Industrial Workers’ of the World who were framed and jailed during WW1, the police protection of scabs and strike breakers in the 1917 general strike.

There were the attacks on and arrests of striking timber workers in 1929 and the shooting down of coal miners at Rothbury that same year.

The police bashings and eviction of impoverished tenants during the Great Depression, the state acceptance and protection of the fascist New Guard in the 1930s, the use of troops by the Labor government to break the coal strike of 1949 ... the list is endless.

To this day it continues – the collusion between government and employer in the attack on the Maritime and Construction unions, the struggle by the mine workers against the likes of BHP and Rio Tinto’s attempts to wipe out trade unionism.

MB: It does give the lie to much of the history written of Australia as an essentially classless society mostly free of conflict, doesn’t it?

PL: Yes. There’s always the military and police and the law courts brought into the fray. But you know, it’s a wonderful fighting tradition we have here, a tradition that shows the unstoppable optimism of we ordinary working people, no matter how dark the day may seem at times.

We can marvel at the resilience and strength of people, and look back to 1854 and see how far we’ve come and perhaps know better the road ahead.

Next article – Taking Issue – Costly health care and defending the revolution

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