Since it fluttered above a group of rebellious gold miners at the 1854 Eureka Stockade, the flag of the Southern Cross has become a symbol of democracy and defiance.
Now carefully preserved at the Art Gallery of Ballarat in Victoria, the flag, and the National Heritage-listed Eureka Stockade Gardens, remain potent symbols of Australia’s only revolution – a battle that was over in less than 30 minutes and claimed 38 lives.
Whether the revolution is interpreted as the birth of Australian democracy or a middle-class tax revolt, it was without doubt a defining moment in Australia’s history.
Did you know:
- At 30 shillings per month (the equivalent of three dollars per month in Australian decimal currency), the miners licence on the Ballarat goldfields of 1854 was twice the average weekly wage.
- The battle of the Eureka Stockade on 3 December 1854 lasted less than half an hour, but it claimed 38 lives – 33 miners and five soldiers.
- The Eureka flag was sewn in silk by three women and first hoisted at Bakery Hill in 1854.
- Eureka Oath of Allegiance: 'We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties'.
Australia's Heritage: National Treasures with Chris Taylor is also available for purchase from the NFSA Online Shop.
For centuries revolutions have changed the world – the French revolution, the Russian revolution, the sexual revolution and even more recently the computer revolution all big events that altered the way we live.
Australia had a revolution once, didn’t even last 30 minutes, and still debatable just how much it changed us and both sides of the political spectrum claim it as their own. But you know what, it was our revolution, and it gave us a symbol that still resonates today.
That National Treasure, now has pride of place in the Art Gallery of Ballarat in Victoria.
This is the Eureka Flag, or what’s left of it. I never really realised how big it is and because of its fragility it needs to be kept in very controlled lighting conditions here.
Now in 1854 this ﬂag ﬂew above a bunch of disgruntled miners when they staged an anti government uprising on the goldﬁelds of Ballarat. History tells us they lost the battle. Legend tells us they set Australia on the path to democracy. But what exactly was it that they were ﬁghting for?
When gold fever hit Victoria in the 1850s, men ﬂocked there from all over the world to make their fortunes from the earth. But there was a price to pay in advance, regardless of how much gold you found. It was 30 shillings a month which was about twice an average weekly wage. The gold ﬁeld commissioners called it a mining licence. The miners called it an unjust tax on labour.
But one thing was clear, no licence, no mining. Licence crackdowns by police were frequent and often brutal. Pre-unions, the diggers were at the mercy of autocratic and often corrupt authorities.
On November 29th 1854, the diggers gathered at a spot known as Bakery Hill, hoisted the ﬂag and swore an oath, to stand truly by each other and ﬁght to defend our rights and liberties. The Southern Cross became a symbol of deﬁance, the Eureka Flag against the Union Jack.
The events of the next few days are commemorated in the National Heritage listed Eureka Stockade gardens in Ballarat. When military reinforcements were called in from Melbourne, the miners built themselves a crude stockade. Now nobody’s exactly sure where it was, but we think it was probably somewhere ‘round about here. It wasn’t much more than a huge ring of mining timbers piled up, but it gave the disenfranchised diggers a sense of purpose and it also got right up the noses of the authorities.
At dawn on December 3rd less than a hundred and 50 diggers were inside the stockade when government forces stormed it. The revolution was over in less than half an hour. It claimed 38 lives, 33 miners and ﬁve soldiers.
American writer Mark Twain called the Eureka Rebellion the ﬁnest thing in Australian history, another instance of a victory won by a lost battle.
When 13 miners were tried for treason this ﬂag was presented as evidence against them – obviously not very compelling evidence because they were all acquitted. Later that year the mining licence was replaced by a miner’s right, which among other things meant that they could vote. The big question now was which way would they vote.
As Director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Gordon Morrison is the custodian of the Eureka Flag.
You actually ﬁnd that there are these two different viewpoints, right from the very start. There’s the people who think that the diggers were real downtrodden workers, the sort of working class, but there’s also a very strongly held view- point that they were – they were really the incipient businessmen of the – of the community. They were after their gold,
they really resented the taxes.
To some, the Eureka rebellion was the cradle of Australian democracy, to others it was simple a middle class tax revolt. Sometimes the signiﬁcance of an historical event is not what happened, but what we like to believe happened. It’s all about deciding where history stops and where the legend starts. Whichever way you choose to look at it, the Eureka Rebellion is regarded as a deﬁning moment in Australia’s history. That makes the ﬂag that ﬂew above it, a National Treasure.