Lazy Luddite Log



I rarely buy books, preferring to borrow them, but a while ago friends gave me a big boffo book voucher and one of the books I purchased was the history text The Forgotten Rebels Of Eureka by Clare Wright. More recently I got to see the author do a presentation on her book and had my copy autographed. My interest in the era possibly stems from my mother (whose Anglo-Celtic ancestry in Australia is traced to the 1850s gold rush) telling me of this important chapter in history. What both book and presentation helped drive home for me is how the following truism is very much mistaken - history is written by the victors.

It would be more accurate to say that secondary sources are written by the victors while primary sources are written by everyone. But even that is a simplification. What we find as we look at both history and the history of history is that it is presented from many perspectives and which ones dominate shifts over time. Forgotten Rebels Of Eureka is a case in point. Wright decided to examine the Eureka Stockade story from the perspective of women and found a huge amount of information to draw on in the public record. Everything from personal correspondences to ship manifests told a story that had been overlooked rather than deliberately suppressed. But we are playing here with shades of grey.

I could argue that the history of Eureka from any perspective has been overlooked and contrast it with the story of (say) Ned Kelly. There have been far more regular depictions of Kelly in popular culture because our society seems to value vigilantes over rebels. I could also say the legacy of Eureka has been deliberately distorted and refer to the existence of both militant trade unions and extremist nationalist groups adopting the Eureka flag despite the fact that the Eureka Stockade rebels were self-employed entrepreneurs of multi-national background engaging in a modest tax revolt as a last resort. In all these cases it has been the actions of many autonomous perspectives that have resulted in the mixed perceptions we have of Eureka. Nobody has successfully monopolized the role of story-teller. So now onto part of that story.

Life on the 1950s goldfields was difficult for everyone both in the civilian settlements and the government compounds that ruled over them. The population exploded overnight as all those entrepreneurs (who in many ways were more like gamblers) flocked to central Victoria to find gold and a better way of life. The government soon decided that there were too many men and too few women. Any functioning community must have a mix of characteristics but in this case the opinion arose from the patronizing notion that women calmed the more savage natures of men. The sexist roles of the Victorian Era had men striving while women mollify. Functional demarcations like that tend to go hand-in-hand with power imbalances but in this there also lay the potential for change.

Government policy fostered the migration of more women to the goldfields and that included a growth in family life. With it came domestic violence. However a community living in tents is one with scant privacy and this in part may have resulted in greater exposure of the problem. There are records of a surprising number of women taking legal action against abusive men and sometimes even succeeding. But they did more than just stave off violent men or seek to influence gentler men. Women also took an active role in shaping and driving the community.

Some traded with the local Wathaurung - possum-skin cloaks became a valued commodity that was both warm and striking. Some worked alongside partners on digging claims. And some decided to sell the skills and services necessary to a growing population. In the next few paragraphs I will focus on a few of the more note-worthy and enterprising women of the goldfields.

* Jane Cuming is one of the few women acknowledged in older secondary sources. Her background in England included involvement in the Chartist movement for political reform. The goldfields harboured many such ideological aspirants originating in both Europe and America. Cuming was part of the Eureka Stockade revolt and five decades later sat front-and-centre in its reunion photograph.

* Martha Clendinning decided to operate a general store from part of the family tent. Many women did likewise and were soon bringing more money in than their mining husbands, a development that caused tension and jealousy. Having your own income is a key part of garnering a degree of autonomy but it can also undermine masculine egos conditioned to think their worth comes from bringing home the bacon.

* Clara Seekamp helped her husband edit and publish a newspaper - the Ballarat Times - and while he was indisposed she became sole controller of its content. Both of them were keen on seeing better conditions and improved justice on the goldfields. It should be hardly surprising that critics of the paper were all-the-more scathing of it for the fact that a women had a hand in its content. But it was read nonetheless and had an impact on the civic life of the goldfields.

* Ellen Young submitted content to papers such as the Ballarat Times. One of the things Victorian society did allow of women was creative writing and Young submitted poetry. Her compositions focused on political matters and she eloquently argued in verse for British Law (with its pretensions to decency and justice) to be consistently and truthfully applied in the goldfields. She expressed the popular opinion that the polity should be what it was intended to be rather than that it be replaced by something more radical. The poetry of Young was popular with both women and men.

* Sarah Hanmer was owner and operator of the Adelphi Theatre. The goldfields population craved recreation and makeshift public venues like the Adelphi provided just that. Hanmer was a performer herself but as an older woman took more of a background organizing role. Some of the shows performed were pure entertainment. Others however took the form of satire (always a safer way of expressing dissent) targeting the political issues of goldfields life. Hanmer became affluent and donated some of her profits to local causes. As politics on the goldfields became more tense she hosted benefits supportive of those seeking reform. The Adelphi became a site in which like-minded locals could meet and agitate during interval. The importance of such settings cannot be overlooked in the cause of change.

The Eureka Stockade revolt itself was a failure. But the spirit of cultural and political change it reflected in the population went onto drive democratic reforms in the colony of Victoria and beyond. Most of the direct benefits of that change went to men despite the involvement of women in those efforts. It was only later that women worked together specifically for their own emancipation from oppression.

The powerful seek to present themselves as more powerful than they truly are. This is an effective way of preserving power positions and both oppressor and oppressed sometimes collaborate in fabricating the fiction of hegemony. We tend to imagine the past as a time in which the elites were so much more powerful than they are now. And hand-in-hand with that comes the impression that those lacking power had none at all. But an examination of the personal lives of those associated with the Eureka Stockade story complicates this impression. In this handful of anecdotes we see how even a small share of power can be parlayed into more and that over time this can result in lasting change.

There is a Museum Of Australian Democracy At Eureka and I think I shall have to visit it one of these days. Hopefully once there I will find some of the names discussed here also displayed there.