Victoria: with a description of its principal cities, Melbourne and Geelong/Chapter 5

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Victoria: with a description of its principal cities, Melbourne and Geelong by Henry Butler Stoney
Chapter 5: The Ballaarat Disturbances, and their Cause

CHAPTER V.

 "Oh! it is excellent
To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
 Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne'er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder—nothing but thimder.

* * *

 Oh! but man, proud man,
(Drest in a little brief authority;
Most ignorant of what he's most assured,
His glassy essence), like an angry ape,
Flays such fantastic tricks before high Heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal."

Shakspeare.

ON the first discovery of the Gold Fields, the colony, till then in an infant state, grew so greatly into note and importance from the immense influx of emigrants rushing to the new-found El Dorado, that with all justice it may be said to have overgrown itself, and had not the means within its grasp to check either the disorders likely to arise from such a mixed community of adventurous spirits flocking to its shores, or to place within bounds those whom, at the exigency of the moment, the Government placed in positions of trust and authority;—in fact, all was (to continue the metaphor) in an infant state, and needed some experience before its rapid growth could assume a steady bearing as to its internal and political economy.

Government, representing the royalty of England, as by law established, possessed a prerogative sway over all mines of precious metals; and, using this right, passed a law prohibiting the digging of gold under certain rules and provisoes. These were on the onset deemed moderate, and were willingly attended to. The principal feature of the Act was fixing a license tax, whereby no one could dig for gold without paying the sum of 30s. per month for the same. Each claim was measured where the digger wished, but restricted to 12 feet square; but if not occupied or dug upon within four-and-twenty hours after being measured for the first claimant, his right therein was forfeited; still, he might choose any other locality under the same rule.

To the different localities where the gold was supposed to exist were appointed Commissioners, with large salaries, who issued the license fees, and superintended the carrying out the provisions of the Act. Power was granted to the Commissioners to direct the police force to visit daily, or as often as they pleased, the diggers, and compel them to show their licenses,—a power which was but too often used vexatiously; but still, as there were many who endeavoured to elude the paying of the license fee, it was necessary that a continual watch should be kept over the diggers. To the licensed digger was granted a power to change his locality as often as he pleased during the month. As long, therefore, as the generality of the find of gold on the plains was remunerative, no discontent was felt in paying for the monthly renewing of the license fee; but when some, with less fortune, sank claim after claim, and found but little gold, then the tax was deemed oppressive,—and in that motley crowd of all nations in the world many were found whose ideas of liberty and the restraint of a Government were limited. These malcontents used every means in their power to fan the flame. It happened also that other abuses crept in, and many of the Commissioners, being inexperienced and unable to cope with the difficulties which beset them, did not or could not act with prudence suitable to the occasion, or entirely free from partiality.

Although much might be said on both sides of the question, there is still little doubt that abuses of authority did occur, as well as acts in defiance of that authority, which perhaps exasperated the power, and caused it to be used to its limit, which was at once set down by the factious as tyrannical and oppressive. Every exertion was made to check those evils; but all was unavailing, for the spirit of disaffection was abroad, and could not be so easily lessened or destroyed. The Government also, finding that, from the increase of the digging population, and the flow of wealth amongst them, disaffection was on the increase, found it necessary to augment the police force to restrict them; and, finding that the outlay for this service exceeded the return from the tax, resolved to increase the fee from 30s. to £3 per month. Mr. Earp, who was at Ballaarat at the time, thus describes it:—

"During the evening we commenced making acquaintances, and found that the serious evil of discontent was prevalent, owing to the ill-advised measures of the Colonial Government, who passed an Act doubling the license fee. A second Act had called upon all the diggers to act as constables, under the penalty of being considered rogues and vagabonds, and being treated accordingly. It was generally understood to be the effect of a clique in the Assembly, who, alarmed at a petition which had been presented, praying for a revision of the electoral lists, had contrived to get this Bill pushed through the House, making the fee, moreover, to be paid by every one employed in any way in connexion with the gold, whether digging or not. Meetings had been held, and the diggers resolved rather to resist the fee altogether, than to pay the increased one, and the consequence has been that both Bills have become dead letters. The feeling of irritation against the Government, however, still existed, and committees have been formed to protect the interests of the great body of the miners. Speaking of the double license fee—which, by the by, is not a tax upon gold, but upon the chance of obtaining it—it seems a piece of injustice likely to cause serious disturbances amongst them. After this Act had miscarried, orders were issued to prohibit the sale of all spirits within the bounds, with one or two exceptions; ostensibly to put a stop to sly grog-selling, so as to keep the diggers from drinking together. A whole brood of informers instantly sprang up, and acts of the grossest injustice were every day perpetrated in the name and by sanction of the law.

"At this time endeavours were made, amongst the more moderate party, to establish a mint for the purpose of coining gold, and thereby avoid the enormous tax we pay the mother country in the shape of freight and difference of price. The excitement on this subject was very great, and the democratical party skilfully took advantage of these times of excitement to inculcate and spread abroad their peculiar notions; thus a feeling of discontent took possession of the people, and I have no doubt will soon burst forth against the Government. A little consideration, a slight exertion of common sense, would avert this, and conciliate a great mass of the Australian settlers. But no, the Government measures are in the hands of a clique who will involve the social edifice in a blaze."

Thus wrote a gentleman of moderation and education some time previous to the outbreak; and, from our own observation, we have every reason to believe his representation was perfectly correct; for it was a natural effect that a rich gold country should draw together a reckless population, and thus, a venturous character, to say the least, was imparted to the society, which every good citizen must have deplored. It is true, we write of the past, when a negligent and feeble Government by its laxity complicated and fomented the evils. The social constitution of the colony was in a most wretched condition. Crimes of the most fearful character abounded on all sides; the roads swarmed with bush-rangers, the streets with desperadoes of every kind. The police were cowed, or leagued with the actors in the outrages. Witnesses and prosecutors were bribed, or intimidated from appearing.

This is, doubtless, a painful picture; but still there is little doubt that such was the case. We write to inform, not to mislead, and to give a just picture of the causes which led to the outbreak. The leading journal of the day speaks of it even more unfavourably; and from every source of information that came within our reach we received similar accounts. Among the twenty thousand inhabitants of a populous Gold Field, there must have been a nearer approach to the idea of a republican equality than has perhaps ever before been manifested elsewhere. There must have been a certain consciousness of independence in power, and an intolerance of constituted authority, promptly expressed. This must have been the case when we consider that, amongst the more enterprising class, who constituted the vast majority of the diggers, there were found many who had been repealers, chartists, and socialists,—the warm-blooded Italian, the determined, free-thinking German, and the liberty-declaiming American, always sympathizing with any rising discontent, aiding and abetting any undertaking to overturn the restraints put on them by law. It is obvious, therefore, that such a population called for a good system of government, and for a most prudent administration; for, even if the police force had been at all analogous to such a body at home, the objectionable system of the daily or hourly visit to the digger, uncongenial as it was to the feelings of the free man, might yet have been administered in such a way as to produce little more than what is felt at paying taxes everywhere. The people at the Gold Fields were made to feel that the police occupied the position of masters over them, and their general demeanour carried out the feeling.

Forming our opinion from the great majority of the most moderate men of those times, we cannot come to any other conclusion; and, from the opinion of the Board of Inquiry, there is but little doubt of the power being used imprudently. The license-hunting was then, in fact, the great grievance of the Gold Fields.

Still, other circumstances tended to separate the people from the local Government. Constant disputes were daily brought before the Commissioners, relative to the digging claims. These were often of a complex nature, and difficult of solution, and from the state of mind in which the people were then, it was not very surprising that the discontented party should charge the Commissioner appealed to, with ignorance, injustice, or partiality.

A right idea of the outbreak cannot be formed without taking into consideration the proportion of foreigners at Ballaarat A considerable number also were from the south and west of Ireland. These were the most active in getting up an armed resistance, which seemed traditional amongst them. With all this in the character of the population at the Gold Fields, and in the treatment they received—sufficient to explain an event so rare as armed resistance by British subjects to British rule—it is to be remembered that only a small portion of the people joined in the movement, and, perhaps, not even one-tenth, under the influence of immediate excitement, were disposed to take up arms; and but for the digger hunt on Thursday, the 30th of November, it is likely that there would not have been either arming or drilling,—but of this we are not competent judges, and can only write of the opinions set afloat.

Many who read of those disturbances may be led to imagine that the general character of the Gold Field population was turbulent and ungovernable. We know, however, such was not the case, and the State of Cheswick's Creek, a Gold Field only fifteen miles from Ballaarat, evidences this; for there, during the very time of the prevalence of these exciting events, profound tranquillity prevailed, though it contained an equally numerous population.

The police force in that district consisted of only eight mounted and eight foot; such a force was obviously inadequate for the due discharge of the legitimate purposes of a police amongst a population of 20,000, and containing among them, from the last rush thither, a large population of Van Dieman's Land immigrants. The system of digger-hunting was not here adopted, and the good feeling of the people was manifested in a most pleasing manner during the disturbances. On the very day of the outbreak there were but three policemen in the camp, when it was reported that fifty men were on their way from Ballaarat to take it. The Commissioner rode down to the field, and, calling all the diggers round him, told them that he anticipated an attack; that their property to a large amount was in the gold tent under his charge, with only three men for its defence. Between two and three hundred men immediately stepped forward and offered their services as special constables. This occurrence shows that the diggers, under a good system, fairly administered, would be an orderly and peaceable class, as at Cheswick's Creek they proved themselves so, under the system administered in a fair and kindly manner.

How far this estimate of the character of the diggers is correct, it is impossible to say; there is no doubt but that there were many faults on both sides; but even if the diggers were in error, or, if this opinion of them is greatly exaggerated, the circumstance that they, holding the police force in abhorrence, were constantly brought in contact with its members, might account for the increasing irritation that prevailed; for the effect of the license system exposed nearly the whole people to this contact, and they, feeling that they were unjustly detested for doing their duty, became more strict in the discharge of it. In many places the tone and feeling were very different, and the quiet and respectable part of the population suffered little personal inconvenience from their presence. The people and their protectors were thus, generally speaking, in a state of constant though seldom open warfare. Now and again the chronic feeling of irritation broke out; and the famous cry of "Joe"—a name given to the police, and the use of which, at length, from the excitement it caused, was looked upon as almost treasonable—had the effect of widening the breach, and augmenting still further the strictness and severity of the officials.

Although in a former chapter we alluded to the anti-convict question, as a principal cause of disaffection amongst the community at large, and the system of compelling all the diggers to have licenses, and to produce them at any moment when called on; yet the more immediate and particular cause of the popular outbreak at Ballaarat was the circumstances attending a Board of Inquiry upon an obnoxious individual, the proprietor of the Eureka Hotel, a Mr. Bentley. It appears that his hotel had been the rendezvous, as far as we can learn from the public papers of the day, of a host of infamous characters, and it was said that many acts, contrary to the good order of society, had been there committed, without any interference to check them by the local authorities. Amongst other things it was stated, that an unfortunate man of the name of Scobie was there murdered, and it was on this account that the Board of Inquiry was ordered to assemble, and Bentley brought to justice. Either from the default of witnesses, or partiality, we are not competent to form an opinion, but on his first trial at Ballaarat, he was declared to have come through the investigation without suspicion or a stain upon his character. The populace, however, became excited, and, believing that Bentley and his party were guilty, set no bounds to their indignation, but, in Lynch-law style, took the law in their own hands, attacked and burned down the Eureka Hotel, and would not permit the authorities to interfere. Bentley and his compeers were again brought into court, and all found guilty of manslaughter on this occasion, from evidence of the most undeniable character. Here, of course, the matter might have ended, had not the people been stimulated by demagogues and political firebrands, who stirred them up to the belief that nothing short of a regular rebellion would obtain for them impartiality and justice from tribunals pictured to them as composed of administrators open to bribery, and supported in acts of treachery and duplicity. It was in consequence of such appeals that leaders stepped forward to enrol volunteers as train-bands, so as to be in a position to resist, by force of arms, the power of the Government, who, with blindness so common to the supremacy of law, allowed such meetings and formations of rebel bands to continue; and it was not until after repeated notifications of the determination of the populace, that they at length determined to send to Ballaarat their whole available force—soldiers, marines, and sailors—under the command of Sir Robert Nickle, the General commanding; but ere they arrived there, the first blow was struck—people and military were engaged in a deadly conflict.