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After participating for the last two years in commemorative events for the Eureka Rebellion, it seemed natural that I would attend the 150th anniversary commemoration. One of my fears was that the event would be watered down to an occasion for generating tourist dollars around Ballarat. Equally, I was afraid the history of the event would be watered down and over simplified. Both of these happened to some extent, but perhaps not to the extent of my worst fears.

Dawn Panorama - Eureka Stockade 150th anniversary in 2004

Accommodation in Ballarat seemed to be booked out, although there was always room for camping. Some trade unionists did so in Eureka Park, which was a fitting reminder of how diggers lived 150 years ago. Restaurants also seemed pretty full around town.

An enterprising entrepreneur had set up a fast food van in Eureka Park. They had a constant stream of customers all weekend.

The events I attended did not, in the main, over simplify the history. But the reporting I saw on television, radio or in print still suffered from simplifying the history to remembrance of a rebellion against unjust mining licences.

Perhaps the major concern was the attempt by politicians and others to depoliticise the event. To rip the heart out of Eureka. The Eureka Stockade was a political event, and remains so today, much to the chagrin of many conservatives.

The union movement were prominent over the weekend in proclaiming the Eureka rebellion as part of their heritage. And there are strong grounds for this claim. Craft unionism was still in an early formative period in the 1850s. Some of the diggers were chartists like JB Humffray or George Black. Others like Raffaello Carboni were radicals and revolutionists from the revolutions of 1848 in Europe. The Irish diggers had direct experience of British colonial despotism. Many of the diggers would become union members and organisers in later years, like Monty Miller.

Probably due to a shortage of labour caused by the gold rush, stonemasons achieved an 8 hour day in Melbourne in 1856. A world first. The Operative Stonemasons’ Society was founded in Melbourne in 1850.

Thursday 6pm December 2: A Night Under the Southern Cross

At the Eureka Memorial. Organised by the Electrical Trades Union (ETU). Songs, stories and performances ‘celebrating 150 years of freedom and a fair go.’

My family and friends drove up from Melbourne. We stayed at the Eureka Stockade Caravan Park, which is close to Eureka Park, right next to the swimming pool. After our meal, we put the children to bed and some of us wandered over to the memorial where the Trade Union organised concert was in progress. Shane Howard performed ‘Solid Rock’ and several other songs. People warmed themselves beside two fires in drums on the memorial.

Friday 4am December 3: Reclaim the radical spirit of the Eureka Rebellion

A pre dawn commemoration at the Eureka Memorial marked the anniversary of the attack on the Stockade. Fifty or sixty people gathered around in a circle. Graeme Dunstan, organiser of the Eureka dawn walk, arrived to setup his banners and lanterns. After a short introduction by Joe Toscano, of the Anarchist Media Institute, we took turns in talking on the meaning of the Eureka rebellion and its relevance today. A powerful, direct and moving experience. Everyone was given an opportunity to express their feelings. All viewpoints were listened to.

Pre-Dawn Panorama - Eureka Rebellion 150th anniversary vigil in 2004

After dawn, the ‘Reclaim the Radical Spirit of Eureka’ banner became a popular spot to be photographed beside. Many people also stopped to read the honour roll of the thirteen men found not guilty of high treason.

Friday 6am December 3: Official dawn commemoration ceremony

The official dawn commemoration ceremony was held at the pond in Eureka Park. The story of Eureka was narrated by iconic Australian actor, John Flaus. It also featured a welsh choir, a naval brass band, didgeridoo and clap sticks.

I heard criticism that the official ceremony did not pay sufficient respect to the original indigenous inhabitants and having two ‘aborigines’ dressed in possum skins on a pontoon in the middle of the pond seemed pretty tacky. Five fires burned in the lake, and as sunrise ocurred the fires one by one were extinguished, to the sound of the Welsh choir and a solo singer and the Naval brass band dressed in naval whites.

The television news got their 30 seconds of visuals, radio stations got their sound grabs and the audience got their theatrical spectacular. The best special effects were provided by nature: the crowd watched the colours of the dawn sky, the light change on the people and the Eureka Stockade Centre with its enormous Eureka flag banner.

More than 2,000 people attended, many with Eureka flags. Students from Heidelberg primary school were present. Many union banners, in particular the CFMEU and ETU flags waved in the slight breeze, as the sun slowly rose striking the Eureka sail on the Eureka Stockade Centre.

Union members trickled back to the Memorial Hall for breakfast. Unionits from Eureka Tiles across the road walked out of their factory to join their fellow unionists in Eureka Park. There was disgust that the Bracks Labor Government chose not to make the day a state public holiday for the 150th anniversary.

Dawn Panorama - crowds commemorate Eureka Stockade 150th anniversary in 2004

Friday Morning 9am December 3: March to Cemetery

People marched under the ‘Reclaim the Radical Spirit of the Eureka Rebellion’ banner to the old cemetery to pay respects and visit the Diggers memorial and the Soldiers memorial.

The cemetery provided another opportunity for people to speak about what Eureka meant to them. The diggers memorial was erected on the 22nd March 1856. The column bearing the names clearly states that the men who are buried in this common pit were killed as a result of ‘resisting the unconstitutional proceedings of the Victorian Government’.

Some thirty diggers are known to have lost their lives, although it is thought that many severely wounded were carried away and later died, but their numbers are not known. Prof John Molony estimates that perhaps fifty diggers and five police died as a result of the attack on the Eureka Stockade.

At the soldiers monument 50 metres away a tree grows next to a substantial marble monument that was built by the Government of Victoria, we are told in 1879, at the request of the citizens of Ballarat. The inscription on the monument states that the soldiers died “whilst attacking a band of aggrieved diggers in arms against what they regarded as a tyrannous administration.” A further inscription below the first implies that the miners had died for nothing, as the demands they fought for, were granted constitutionally by the Victorian Government not long after the revolt.

Two versions of the same event, with the later version supplied by the Victorian Government. There is a struggle going on for writing the history of the event just 25 years after it occurred.

The battle fought between the troopers and stockaders was reputed to be over within fifteen minutes. The newly formed (1853) Victorian Police then proceeded to butcher anyone they found including the wounded, the dying, even innocent bystanders, for up to an hour in the stockade and surrounding area. This is why there have been recent calls for the Victorian Police Commissioner, Christine Nixon, to apologise to the people of Victoria for such barbarity and butchery by the Victorian Police.

Leaving the soldiers memorial I stopped for a moment at the monument to James Scobie, whose death, and the subsequent acquital of Hotel owner Bentley, contributed to the agitation at Ballarat.

The march then continued to Ballarat Base Hospital where a delegation visited a union organiser inside. After a long wait the march continued down the main street of Ballarat to Bakery Hill.

BLF Green Ban saved Bakery Hill

One of the interesting historical facts mentioned on the march, is that the Builders Labourers Federation put a green ban on this site to stop the development of a McDonalds restaurant directly on the site. McDonalds subsequently developed close by, but it is by the actions of builders labourers and their union that the historical site of Bakery Hill, the gathering and meeting place of the Eureka miners, is preserved for future generations. One day the BLF will have a small plaque commemorating their roll in safeguarding the history of Eureka.

At Bakery Hill a decision was taken for 2005 to march to Bakery Hill and the cemetery. The oath was then affirmed by all present. The march then proceeded back to Eureka Park and joined a picnic/barbecue organised by the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU).

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Trade Union Choirs entertain Union picnic

In a long tradition of union picnic days, the CFMEU had provided a jumping castle, train rides, and a farmyard petting zoo for the entertainment of children. Musical entertainment included Shane Howard and Trade Union choirs.

In many ways the union commemoration brought to mind the coming together of Unions and Friendly Societies that ocurred frequently at the end of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. These events were characterised by marches and parades followed by athletics carnivals and festivals to entertain families and children of members. These events provided the social glue that built solidarity and unity. Such social events are all too infrequent in our atomised society.

Saturday: 2pm 4 December: Official commemorative march of the diggers

From Bakery Hill to the Eureka Stockade site the march traced the route the diggers took 150 years ago on November 30 1854.

After the crowds gathered on Bakery Hill a warm welcome was extended to the crowd, which included representatives from some of the countries whose citizens took part in the Stockade. The speaker then said that questions had been raised about the presence of many trade unionists carrying union banners. Unions had originally excluded many people, women, aboriginies and Chinese, said the speaker, but over the years the unions had become more inclusive, we should follow their example. Eureka, he said, belongs to all Australians. One group however was not mentioned at the start of the march. There was no speaker from the aboriginal community and no acknowlegement or respect paid.

Next Peter Lalor, a descendent of the miners leader at the Eureka Stockade in 1854, led the crowd in affirming the Eureka oath.

Professor John Molony provided a narration on the story of the Diggers March at a number of points of interest. When the march reached the Eureka site, details were given of the women’s sewing circle who put together the Southern Cross flag, and the more recent sewing circle that prepared many of the banners for commemorating the event.

The march ended with lunch and entertainment around the Eureka memorial.

Professor John Molony ended his narration with information and history of the Memorial and the importance of Eureka for Australian republicanism.

Sunday 3.30am 5 December: Eureka Dawn Walk

A reflective and meditative walk with hundreds of purpose built candle lanterns. It traced the route of the soldiers on their march from the Government Camp in Ballarat, along the river, to their assault on the Eureka Stockade that fateful Sunday morning 150 years ago. Over a thousand people took part in this event, now in its seventh year, and one of the more popular commemorative events.

Several stops were made on the walk for an actor to narrate the story of the Eureka Stockade as a piece of storytelling theatre. The narration was accompanied by a sole fiddler, which created an evocative atmosphere in the dark of the early morning.

At the end of the march at the Eureka pond in Eureka Park, the ‘Leading Light’ was invited to make a speech to the assembled people.

Last year Dr Joe Toscano was appointed the ‘Leading Light’ for his work in commemorating the history of Eureka; in defending the Medicare system; and as a long time anarchist, radical activist and broadcaster defending human rights and civil liberties. There was no controversy about his appointment.

This year Terry Hicks was appointed the ‘Leading Light’ for his fight for simple justice for his son, David Hicks, who has been held and tortured by the US military without charge in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Terry Hicks has been outspoken on the threats to civil liberties by the ‘War on Terror’, and the Australian Government’s acquiesance to the US military treatment of Australian citizens imprisoned by the US.

Of the three US citizens held after the rebellion had been put down in 1854, two were released on the intervention of the US consul. One of those released was a key lieutenant in the insurrection. A third, John Joseph, an afo-american from New York, was left in custody and stood trial for high treason, and was subsequently acquitted.

The Melbourne radio shock jocks and the gutter press Herald Sun launched attacks on the appointment of Hicks as the ‘Leading Light’. Labor Premier Bracks and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer soon joined the raucus chorus condemning the appointment of Hicks saying it made the event political. Bracks even condemned the route of the Dawn walk showing his ignorance and contempt for the popular commemorative event.

Some of the Eureka descendants were also critical of the appointment, while others welcomed and supported Hicks as raising important issues of civil liberties and justice in the tradition of the Eureka rebellion.

There were murmurs of disquiet about Terry Hicks being the ‘Leading Light’ in the crowd, which erupted in one person interjecting while Hicks was speaking, accusing him of hijacking the event and ‘making it political’. Equally, there were calls from the crowd for Terry Hicks to be allowed to finish: ‘Let him speak’.

According to event organiser, Graeme Dunstan, the ‘Leading Light’ appointment is meant to raise current issues of human rights, civil liberties, social justice and democratic action. The role is there to stimulate and motivate public discussion on current political issues, to make the tradition of Eureka relevant to current events.

It is a directly political role, and the attempt to reduce it to be without controversy speaks poorly of our present political leaders who are acting more like Governor Hotham and Commissioner Rede and the political tyranny of 150 years ago.

The speech by Terry Hicks was followed by an affirmation of the oath of the miners of Eureka:

“We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”

This was followed by a simple breakfast of a sausage on bread cooked by the Eureka Stockade Memorial Association. The memorial oration was given and the combined trade union choirs sang songs of struggle and of freedom.

Buses were provided to shuttle people back into Ballarat.

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