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The Eureka uprising - the birthplace of Australian democracy

By Macgregor Duncan - posted Friday, 3 December 2004

Today Australia will remember the 150th anniversary of the Eureka uprising. Yet never before in our history has Eureka been more marginal. Many perceive the Eureka legend as having been appropriated by extreme groups, and having little relevance to modern Australia.

In its place, Australia has grasped hold of the Anzac legend, in the hope it might serve as our central story. But Gallipoli was no revolutionary war or civil war fought on behalf of universal principles. It was a small, failed campaign in a mostly pointless war to maintain the increasingly dysfunctional idea of balance of power at the heart of Europe. Anzac has little to say about national origins and independence, democracy and institutions or self-confidence and maturity.

Australia should re-elevate Eureka to its previous position as a central legend of Australian nationalism, standing for those distinctly Australian values - egalitarianism, mateship, fairness - together with democracy, freedom, republicanism and multiculturalism.


According to H.V. (Doc) Evatt, “Australian democracy was born at Eureka”. Robert Menzies repeatedly wove Eureka into his speeches and said that the uprising was an “earnest attempt at democratic government”. Ben Chifley wrote, “Eureka was the first real affirmation of our determination to be masters of our own political destiny”. Gough Whitlam prophesied, “An event like Eureka, with all its associations, with all its potent symbolism, will [come to] acquire an aura of excitement and romance, and stir the imagination of the Australian people”. And the US author Mark Twain once described Eureka as “The finest thing in Australian history - a struggle for a principle, a stand against injustice and oppression”.

In recent decades, Eureka has been appropriated by a number of hard-left unions (including the notorious Builders' Labourers Federation in the 1980s), and by certain right-wing nationalist groups (such as National Action in the 1990s). But the mere fact that fringe Australian groups have co-opted a national story should not prevent us from reclaiming it. These groups no more own the story of Eureka than veterans groups own Anzac, or the racing fraternity owns the tale of Phar Lap.

The historical contours of the Eureka uprising are familiar to most of us. At the height of the gold rush, the Victorian colonial government doubled the cost of a miner's licence to mine for gold, and the goldfields administration began to carry out more licence checks. These changes raised the ire of the diggers and led to the establishment of the Ballarat Reform League. Soon, the miners burned their licences, unfurled the famous Eureka flag (said to have been hand-sewn by three women on the goldfields) and vowed to defend themselves and their families against harassment from the authorities. On December 3, 1854, the 40th Military Regiment launched a dawn attack on the ramshackle Eureka Stockade, and crushed the army of miners in minutes, resulting in the deaths of 22 diggers and 6 troopers.

Importantly, Eureka was a revolt of independent free enterprise against burdensome taxation. It was not - as many might assume - a collective of militant trade unionists protesting against the exploitation of labour.

The Eureka uprising is remarkably similar to that seminal event in the move toward US independence, the Boston Tea Party, which saw the aggrieved American colonists protest against “taxation without representation” by hurling British tea into Boston Harbour. Eureka was a struggle for democratic rights against arbitrary colonial rule, which ultimately won for the miners political representation on the goldfields and eventually the franchise within the colony of Victoria.

The miners' protest at Eureka, and the political results that they achieved, in turn inspired that other great movement in the history of Australian democracy, the women's suffrage movement of the 1880s and 1890s. This is why Australians, men and women alike, should celebrate Eureka as the birthplace of Australian democracy.


Another remarkable feature of the Eureka uprising was the ethnic diversity of the miners. At the Eureka uprising, there were Canadians, Irish, Swedes, Italians, Germans, French, Jamaicans and Americans (both black and white). Raffaello Carboni, an Italian-born leader of the league, called on all miners “irrespective of nationality, religion or colour to salute the Southern Cross as a refuge of all the oppressed from all countries on Earth”. Given the evident acceptance of ethnic diversity on the goldfields, it is bizarre this episode now serves as the inspiration for Australia's racist right-wing nationalists.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Eureka uprising - at least for the purposes of modern Australian national identity - was the strong strain of republicanism prevalent amongst the miners. In 1848, revolutions that had swept through Europe, and republican tracts, were also becoming more readily available throughout the colonies. The fact the Ballarat Reform League dared fly the Eureka flag and possibly even drafted a declaration of independence suggests the Eureka uprising was the first conscious step in the direction of Australian republicanism and Australian independence. As the Ballarat Times wrote in 1854, “The League have undertaken a mighty task, fit only for a great people - that of changing the dynasty of the country”.

The key to elevating Eureka lies in linking together the story of the uprising - including the values and the principles of the miners - with the new and updated values of modern Australia.

It is about providing a link with the past so that Australians are reminded that the Australian project is a continuing enterprise, tracing its origins back well over a century. Eureka is important to Australia's future sense of nationalism because it is an exciting story, laced with meaningful values and symbolism. Obviously, Australian nationalism can never be reduced to just one legend, but Eureka offers great potential to a nation floundering for a national story.

There are many ways we could incorporate the Eureka legend and its trappings into our everyday lives. Australia Day - currently called “invasion day” by many Indigenous Australians - could become December 3. Our rather limp citizenship oath could be revitalised with a fragment of the bold Eureka oath: “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and to defend our rights and liberties.” And when we become a republic - as we surely some day must - what better flag to choose than the Eureka flag?

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 29, 2004. This is an edited extract from Imagining Australia: Ideas for Our Future (Allen and Unwin, 2004).

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About the Author

Macgregor Duncan is an adviser and entrepreneur in the clean energy sector. He was formerly the Vice President of Global Corporate Development at Better Place, the electric car infrastructure company. Prior to that he was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, and a corporate lawyer at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York. He is a graduate of Adelaide, Princeton and Harvard Universities, and was the co-author of Imagining Australia: Ideas For Our Future (Allen & Unwin, 2004). He lives in New York.

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