Friday, December 01, 2006

Eureka: Rebellion Beneath the Southern Cross

Today marks the 152nd anniversary of the heroic Eureka Stockade on the Ballarat goldfields in the then British colony of Victoria.

Armed miners gathered beneath a rebel flag comprising the stars of the Southern Cross, visible only in the night skies of the Southern Hemisphere, linked by firm white bars indicating the strength of unity.

They knelt together and repeated this oath: "We swear by Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties".

Although the colonial authorities stormed the Stockade and killed 22 miners, the Eureka rebellion has engraved itself on the collective memory of progressive Australians.

What then is the contemporary significance of the Eureka flag?

In the first place, there is the tradition of Eureka. A strong sense of the past, and of the continuity between past and present, adds enormously to its impact as a contemporary symbol.

It is true that the original flag was trampled in the dust of the defeated stockade and taken home by trooper John King, with whose family it remained until 1895;thereafter being kept in a back room of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery until its formal presentation as a display item in 1973 by Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

However, the events at Eureka were remembered at the founding of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association in 1874 and of the Amalgamated Shearers Union in 1886. Francis Adams, who linked the labour struggle to the Eureka rebellion, celebrated the formation of the Australian Federation of Labour (1889) in a passionate verse:

"Fling out the Flag! And let friends and foe behold for gain or loss,
The sign of our faith and the fight we fight,
The Stars of the Southern Cross!"

On 29 August, 1890, at the beginning of the maritime strike, 30,000 people gathered at a mass meeting on the Yarra bank in Melbourne and roared with approval at the speakers standing on a platform "decorated with the Eureka flag and the Eight Hours Banner".

A year later, a thousand armed shearers drilled at their Barcaldine, Queensland strike camp, wearing "blue bannerets with the Southern Cross". The Eureka flag flew high over their camp. Henry Lawson was inspired to write his immortal "Freedom on the Wallaby" (see post above) and he and other nationalist writers of the nineties drew strength from Eureka’s anti-colonialism.

During the fight against conscription in the First World War, 86-year old labour activist Monty Miller toured Australia, his rallies being promoted thus: "Eureka 1854 to IWW 1917: Sixty Three Years Fighting For You!"

At the height of the pig iron dispute in 1939, Pt Kembla wharfies burnt their Register cards and swore the Eureka diggers’ oath of loyalty.

In 1951, campaigners against Liberal PM Menzies’ anti-Communist referendum used the Eureka flag as the mast head on their paper "Liberty". In 1954, 20,000 people attended the Centennial Celebrations at Ballarat, celebrating the democratic and labour causes.

The initial stages of the anti-Vietnam and anti-conscription struggles of the 1960s saw little reference to the Eureka flag. Instead the symbolism was drawn from pacifist, and increasingly, socialist and revolutionary sources.

It was during the anti-US bases movement in 1973 that the Eureka symbolism was revived. The "Long March" protesters arriving at the North West Cape base in Western Australia burnt the US flag and scaled communications towers outside the perimeter of the base, using these as flag poles for the Southern Cross.

Sympathetic US marines at the base, who reported having been fed stories that Whitlam was a communist who was going to nationalise the supermarkets, smuggled a Eureka flag inside the base and had it flying over their headquarters the next day.

Not long afterwards, the militant Builders Laborers Federation (now the CFMEU) adopted the flag, carrying it with them on strikes and demonstrations and using it in all their literature.

Organisations of the Worker-Student Alliance, then active in factories and universities in Adelaide and Melbourne, also adopted the flag and it became a regular sight at a wide rage of protests and demonstrations.

The biggest boost to the use of the Eureka flag was the CIA-engineered dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975. Recognising that Australia was still enmeshed in the web of imperialism, organisations calling for genuine Australian independence proliferated and the wave of subsequent protest engulfed tens of thousands across the political spectrum.

Writing of those times, republican small-l liberal Donald Horne remarked "I had never before worn a political badge – "Independence for Australia", it said, with the Eureka flag on it… It was a coming out occasion, a declaration".

As demonstrations against Governor-General Kerr and new Prime Minister Fraser continued, the Eureka flag grew in popularity. Some newspaper reports talked of protests "wondrously covered with a canopy of Eureka flags" and a fascinating assortment of posters, bumper bar stickers and clothing, featuring the Eureka flag, appeared throughout the country.

Indeed the very popularity of the flag caused some problems, with right wing racist and anti-immigrant organisations attempting to capitalise on the flag’s uniquely Australian character to promote a racist chauvinism.

In reality the flag was the first truly multicultural symbol in Australia’s history. Coming from all quarters of the globe in search of gold, the Eureka rebels comprised a wide cross-section of nationalities and ethnicities. The dead included Irish, Prussians and Canadians, whilst among the thirteen rebel leaders put on trial by the colonial authorities were an Italian, a black Jamaican and a black American.

Nevertheless, this unity of peoples against oppression was incomplete, reflecting the immaturity of the proletariat in Australia. Large numbers of Chinese had also come to the goldfields. They were potential allies of the miners and had good cause to sympathise with rebellion against British colonialism in Australia, having seen how their own country had suffered at the hands of the British during the First Opium War (1839-42). However, little attempt was made to communicate in a constructive fashion with the Chinese.

Today, the Eureka flag is synonymous with anti-imperialism, republicanism, and working class solidarity and struggle. In a country with a large and growing immigrant population striving to realise the ideal of "many peoples, one nation", this flag has more to commend it than the official national flag which still carries the Union Jack in the top left corner.

1 comment:

haisanlu said...

Great article I especially like the fact you mention the multi racial character of Eureka I did not know about the two black brothers of Eureka put on trial !

No racist or fascist scum can claim this workers flag of many peoples one nation.

Greetings and successs to Austraian comrades on Eureka day.