November 2013

Arts & Letters

Clare Wright’s ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’

By Robyn Annear

The full moon had a lot to answer for

When my siblings and I got too rowdy as kids in suburban Melbourne, my grandmother would upbraid us as “a pack of rooshians”. I grew up using the word myself: rooshian. Not only did it feel good in the mouth, but I’d caught from Gran the tang of righteousness in its delivery, the sense that a line had been crossed. I was in my 20s before I realised that the word had no currency outside our family, and I was calling my own kid a rooshian by the time I discovered its origin.

During the Victorian gold rushes of the mid 19th century, over-taxed and over-policed diggers likened their oppressors – the government and its enforcers – to Russians (pronounced, by some, as Rooshians), at that time the last word in despotism. My gran, growing up in Ballarat in the 1890s, absorbed the lingual residue of the strife that had ignited 40 years earlier at the Eureka Stockade.

In writing the previous paragraph, I fought an impulse to talk up the gold rushes’ place in Australian myth-making as “a furnace of democracy”. It’s a metaphor graven by images such as those on display at Canberra’s Museum of Australian Democracy in Art Is a Weapon, an exhibition of prints by Noel Counihan and others to mark the Eureka centenary in 1954. In broad, Soviet-inflected strokes, they extol the muscular nobility of labour – the miner heaving his pick, the blacksmith at his forge.

Now, what if I were to call the gold rushes an oven of democracy instead of a furnace? Gone are the sparks and the clash of iron on red-hot iron, replaced by an image of domestic production. (And there: how I had to resist belittling domestic with a prefix of mere.) The shift of metaphor changes the story. There’s still transformation, but through strength born of unity – the admixture of disparate elements, with heat applied – rather than heavy blows.

I’m trying too hard, I know. My oven metaphor is laboured and inapt. But might such substitutions as oven or hearth for furnace prompt an imaginative reappraisal of women’s role in Australia’s gold-rush history? In her new book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text; $45), historian Clare Wright asks a belated question on behalf of her schoolgirl self: “Where are we in this story?” It’s a simple but disruptive question that has the power to stir the surface of even the most lacquered of Australia’s founding stories, even that of the Eureka Stockade.

Tensions between gold diggers and the authorities had simmered almost since the Victorian gold rushes began, more than three years before they boiled over at Ballarat in December 1854. The locus of discontent was the monthly gold licence. Its cost, a hefty 30 shillings, payable whether or not the holder found any gold, was cause enough for grievance. More galling, though, was the mode of its administration, which effectively made poverty a crime. Police and government officials were stationed in substantial “camps” on the goldfields, whence they sallied forth on frequent “digger hunts” in search of those without a licence.

William Howitt, the English social commentator, spent two years on Victoria’s goldfields and saw firsthand the disrespect shown by upstart (if not corrupt) officials – those rooshians – towards a population that was, in no small degree, drawn from Britain’s fledgling middle classes. “One of the greatest evils of the digging life,” a law-abiding digger told Howitt,

was the constant and close contact into which [miners] were brought with the police … At home … you know that such things as laws, magistrates, and police exist, and you find the benefit of them, though they seem to pass at a distance from you; but here the man-hunters are out every day … Three and four times a day I have been summoned to show my licence, and threatened with handcuffs if I murmured.

Provocations at Ballarat in the spring of 1854 intensified the diggers’ sense of injustice. At the end of November, they gathered, thousands strong, in open-air “monster” meetings at which they burnt their gold licences and swore solidarity beneath a new “Australian” flag. The authorities responded by stepping up the licence hunts. And so, for the protection of unlicensed diggers, a ramshackle stockade was constructed, enclosing about an acre of ground – tents, stores, mine shafts and all – on Eureka Lead (pronounced leed), a populous part of the goldfield. The Ballarat government camp was by now braced with hundreds of soldiers. At Eureka, the “rebels” armed themselves in their turn, with iron-tipped pikes as well as firearms, and waited for trouble. It arrived at four o’clock on Sunday morning, 3 December. The soldiers smashed the stockade, shot and slashed its inhabitants, then torched the neighbourhood, tent by tent.

The precise number and identities of those killed that morning can never be known. A monument at the stockade site honours the memory of 22 diggers and six soldiers, all of them men. But that is by no means the final count: evidence suggests that as many as a dozen more civilians were killed in the attack. Clare Wright has unearthed accounts that suggest one or more women ought to be listed among the Eureka dead. Where are we in the story? She answers her own question: “women were there too”.

Swearing Allegiance to the Southern Cross, by Charles Doudiet. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The roles traditionally apportioned to women in the Eureka story have mostly been of the non-speaking sort: helpmeet, mourner, mopper-up. (A vocal exception was Anastasia Hayes, whose reaction to her husband’s arrest after Eureka – “If I had been a man, I wouldn’t have been taken by so few as these” – was widely reported.) Women’s most prominent, albeit anonymous, act of participation was to make the Eureka flag, the iconic Southern Cross. Even that contribution has been downplayed and contested – Did a man design the flag? Might a tent-making firm have manufactured it? – though expert opinion now strongly favours the view that it was the work of women.

In personalities such as commentator and agitator Ellen Young, Clara Du Val Seekamp of the Ballarat Times newspaper, and theatre proprietor and philanthropist Sarah Hanmer, Wright introduces us to unsung stars in the Eureka firmament. They were there. True: not there, with pikes raised at the barricade. But there, at the forefront of the democratic movement that led to Eureka and beyond it. Not just supporting, but leading.

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka offers us a full cast of flesh-and-blood women who belong in any telling of the Eureka story, and in any account of Australian goldfields life. Wright’s needlewoman-ish eye for detail adds colour and clarity to the elaborate and particular fabric of the Ballarat community. The sly-grog shops, the clinging clay, the punch-ups, the blokeyness of the whole set-up – that’s all still there. But it’s offset by a recognition that, far from being a rarity at Ballarat, women accounted for up to 25 per cent of that goldfield’s population at the time of Eureka. Breast pumps were on sale, as were baby clothes, and the storekeeper selling them was likely as not a woman. Most striking of all, practically every woman named in Wright’s narrative – and there are dozens of them – was pregnant or had just given birth at the time of Eureka. I admit to feeling a flicker of unease at the words that conclude Wright’s preface to her book: “The great gift of Eureka … is that the story of women’s effort, influence and sacrifice is both politically correct and historically true.” Political correctness, a gift? What does that imply for this book and its intent? That question resurfaced from time to time as I read on. For instance, Wright leads us to consider the possibility that, in their vengeful rampage after storming the stockade, soldiers may have committed acts of rape: “what other spoils of war might these unbridled young men have seized? There are subtle intimations of still more ‘unmanly acts’ perpetrated amid the chaos and terror, acts that Victorian sensibilities preferred to consign to the reader’s imagination.”

Though Wright speculates and fulminates, no firm evidence – nor even persuasive hearsay – is forthcoming. The same goes for domestic violence. Wright appears to accept the Victorian goldfields’ (alleged) reputation as “the wife-bashing capital of the world”. But the evidence she offers, even intermixed with modern social theory, seems hardly sufficient to support any such infamy. In direct contradiction, we read numerous commendations of the gold-rush husband as a type. One digger’s bride advised women considering emigration to Victoria that “the worst risk you run is that of getting married and finding yourself treated with twenty times the respect and consideration you may meet in England”. Even a man who regarded diggers as brutes conceded that “I must do them the justice to admit that they prove themselves at least men where a woman is the case.” And my own research into life in Melbourne before the gold rushes suggests that a combination of strong liquor and nothing-on-TV made brawls between family and neighbours endemic among the drinking classes – with women doing a fair share of the damage.

In her depiction of domestic life on the diggings, though, Wright evokes the indignities and infelicities peculiar to a canvas community, where neighbours hear every note of conjugal discord or passion: childbirth, babies, illness, death, mourning and, of course, sex. Add the shadow-play of canvas dwellings lit from within and, really, who needed TV?

As she sets the moonlit scene for the clash at the stockade, Wright floats a kooky yet charming notion. Many of the stockaders, after nightfall, had headed home to their own tents outside the “stringybark citadel”. Why? A full moon hung over Ballarat that night – lighting the soldiers’ path – and, by the principles of lunar menstrual synchrony (which Wright admits are “controversial”), “Female humans’ biological blueprint is to release eggs when there is the most light in the night sky.” In an era before electric light, that meant a full moon. Wright imagines Ballarat that night as “a community in heat”, thrumming with “the hormonal magnetism” of some thousands of ovulating women. And she rues both that her documentary informants were too ladylike to mention the state of their mucus and that “Hobart Town Poll”, Ballarat’s best-known bawd (“who might have been relied on to call a cunt a cunt”), didn’t publish a memoir.

“Women would not stay down,” says Wright in the book’s closing paragraph. And yet stay down they did – her “forgotten rebels” and their daughters – thanks chiefly to the fruits of inexorable ovulation. An epilogue charts the post-Eureka lives of the book’s leading players, and those women who didn’t die young, of childbirth or its aftermath, went on to bear seven, nine, eleven, even twelve children.

The full moon had a lot to answer for.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

Zealous Gold Diggers, Bendigo, by ST Gill. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria

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