The Eureka Stockade and Early Democratic Reform
As explained in the previous chapter, expensive gold digging license fees and the perceived improper exercise of government authority caused stir among gold diggers in Ballarat, Victoria, in 1854. In reaction to the disorder, additional policemen and soldiers were called in to control or subdue the gold diggers, who upon encountering the government forces, quite interestingly, responded not with direct violence, but by forming a political branch called the Ballarat Reform League. Through this organization, they then petitioned the government to both abolish the detested mining license and give all men the right to vote.
The Eureka stockade
The argument for voting rights was that all men should have a say in the making of laws that they were called to obey. However, the idea of one man, one vote was rather foreign in 1850s Australia, and an aggressive government response to the diggers’ defiant stance was expected. Therefore, in the spirit of standing up for individual rights at any price, diggers armed themselves and swore an oath to resist unjust government policies. The most committed gold diggers also built a makeshift fortification, the Eureka stockade, and entrenched themselves therein.
Unwilling to give in to the diggers’ political demands, and unsettled by diggers arming themselves, the authorities ordered an armed attack on the Eureka stockade. Government forces, thereafter, easily overrun the stockade, since only a small number of diggers were in place to defend it at the time of the attack. Still, the fighting left tens of people dead, with diggers bearing the brunt of the death toll.
In spite of their defeat at the Eureka stockade, the gold diggers’ cause would soon succeed. Public outcry over the attack on the stockade, and large support for miners’ rights in general, prompted the state government to heavily reduce the mining license fee and give all men voting rights. Democratic reform, thereby, had come to Victoria, albeit not for women.