The events of the next few months formed a crisis in the history, not only of Victoria, but of Australia. Naturally there is much dispute concerning them, and, as the following account is taken chiefly from Sir Charles Hotham’s reports . . . .
Featuring Edward Jenks
Previously on Gold Discovered in Australia. Now we continue.
Time: February 12, 1851
Place: Lewes Pond Creek
Just at this moment an event occurred which rendered it impossible for the Government to maintain its position unimpaired with the scanty forces at its disposal. In the middle of September, 1853, the total abolition of the license fee was seriously proposed in the Legislative Council of New South Wales. The news flew like wildfire to Victoria, where the diggers had hitherto looked upon the colonial legislatures—in which, it will be remembered, they were not yet represented–as their natural enemies. It seemed to them now that they had everything in their own hands, and it became clearly impossible for the Government, in the existing temper of the diggers, to exact the full amount of the license fee. A proclamation, hastily published with a view to allay excitement, by an unfortunate omission in the printed copies led the public to believe that the total abolition of the license system was contemplated by the Victorian Government. A select committee of the Legislative Council reported unfavorably upon the system. The Government made the best of a bad bargain, and accepted a fee of forty shillings for the three months ending November 30, 1853; and, on the following day, the Legislative Council passed a new Gold-fields Act, which greatly reduced the fees for diggers’ licenses, while it substantially increased those demanded for permission to open stores at the gold-fields. It also provided for the grant of leases of auriferous lands, at a royalty of not less than 5 per cent., and gave legal sanction to the customs regarding the “claims” of diggers, which had gradually grown up to regulate the rival interests of neighboring miners. Offences against the act were to be decided upon by the magistrates; but the accused might demand a court of at least two members, and there was to be an appeal to General Sessions.
These measures were partly successful in restoring order, but it was obvious that the gold-fields contained men who were averse to a peaceable settlement. Notwithstanding that the number of the elective members of the Legislative Council was more than once increased; that, with the full consent of the Home Government, a bill was being prepared for the introduction of responsible government; and that the material condition of the diggers was being rapidly improved, the Lieutenant-Governor had, in January, 1854, to report the formation of a “diggers’ congress,” which obviously had for its object the supersession of the ordinary government.
Latrobe retired from office in May of the same year, and one of the first points noticed by his successor, Sir Charles Hotham, was the existence of an agitation against the Chinese at the Bendigo diggings. Notwithstanding the enthusiastic character of his reception in his progress through the gold-fields in September, the new Governor soon had to face serious disturbances.
The events of the next few months formed a crisis in the history, not only of Victoria, but of Australia. Naturally there is much dispute concerning them, and, as the following account is taken chiefly from Sir Charles Hotham’s reports, it is possible that the acts of his opponents may not obtain strict justice. But it is admitted on all sides that Sir Charles acted with the most perfect good faith; and the accounts given by the insurgents are far too contradictory and prejudiced to receive much credit.
On the night of October 16, 1854, a miner named Scobie was murdered, or at least killed, at the Eureka Hotel, near Ballarat. The Eureka Hotel was a place of no good repute, kept by a man named Bentley, who, as well as his wife, was (it is said) an ex-convict from Tasmania. Suspicion fell upon the couple, and they, with a second man (named Farrell), were arrested by the magistrates, but almost immediately released for alleged default of evidence. The dismissal of the charge excited a storm of indignation in the camp, and a body of diggers at once proceeded to wreck the hotel and lynch the accused. In the latter object they, fortunately, did not succeed, and so rendered themselves liable only to charges of riot and arson, instead of the more serious charge of murder. Four of the ringleaders were, through the prompt measures of Sir Charles Hotham, shortly afterward arrested, and committed for trial. But the accusations of partiality against the officials were too strong to be resisted, and a board of inquiry hastily instituted by the Governor disclosed the ugly facts that Dewes, the magistrate who presided at the hearing of the charge against the Bentleys, had been in the habit of borrowing money from residents, and that Sergeant-Major Milne, of the police force, had been guilty of receiving bribes. The officials implicated were at once dismissed, and the Bentleys and Farrell rearrested and convicted. But the Governor very properly declined to release the arrested rioters, who, shortly before Christmas, 1854, were convicted and sentenced to short terms of imprisonment.
Meanwhile, more disturbances had occurred. Though a commission upon the general condition of the gold-fields was holding its inquiries, in November many diggers again refused to pay the reduced license fees, and, on the 30th of the month, a serious riot took place. The military were called out, the Riot Act was read, and there was some shooting. Eight captures were made, but the lesson had not been severe enough, and a state of open war ensued. The diggers entrenched themselves in a fortified camp known as the “Eureka Stockade,” openly drilled their forces in the presence of the authorities, and levied horses and rations from unwilling miners in the name of a “commander-in-chief.” At the same time they issued a long political manifesto, which, while it did not avowedly disclaim allegiance to the Crown, contained proposals to which no regularly constituted government could ever have assented.
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