The battle of the Eureka Stockade has an enduring place in the Australian consciousness and is heralded by many as the birth of democracy in Australia.
In 1854, gold miners and their supporters protested what they saw as unjust regulations and law enforcement imposed by the colonial government, including the prohibitively expensive gold licence.
Unrest built for months across the central Victorian goldfields, but especially in the busy goldrush settlements of Bendigo and Ballarat. They were angry at the restrictive rules around mining, land ownership and the right to vote.
Tensions continued to rise as the protesters felt the government was ignoring their demands.
Finally, the miners and their allies met and agreed to resist the authorities by building a timber stockade at a strategic position on the Eureka Lead, in the heart of the gold mining area of Ballarat East and with a clear view of the road from Melbourne.
Before dawn on 3 December 1854, 276 soldiers and police marched from the government camp in the centre of Ballarat to confront the rebels.
Only 120 people were at the stockade when the soldiers and police arrived as they were not expecting an attack on a Sunday morning.
The battle was swift and deadly – it was over within 20 minutes.
Six soldiers were killed and 22 rebels were registered as casualties. The exact death toll remains a subject of debate but has been estimated as being as high as 60.
There was a heavy military presence in the town immediately after the battle and more people may have died during this time. Those who survived either fled and went into hiding or were arrested.
Thirteen rebels were tried for treason, 12 were acquitted and charges against one were dropped.
The battle at Eureka, known as the Eureka Stockade, resulted in an investigation into the administration of the goldfields, called a Commission of Enquiry. This enquiry recommended the abolition of the despised monthly miners’ licence.
In 1855, the miners won the right to vote and further democratic reforms followed.
As Mark Twain wrote after his 1895 visit to Ballarat, the Eureka Stockade “is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle”.
Source: Eureka Centre Ballarat
Main image: A reinterpretation of Ballarat’s Eureka Stockade at Sovereign Hill’s AURA sound and light show
Explore the social history and cultural impact of the Victorian gold rush and honour the stories of the men and women who risked their lives in the fight for miners’ rights