CLARE WRIGHT The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. Reviewed by Annette Hughes
This book restores women’s place in an iconic period of Australian history in a tale of grit, suffering and determination.
On the cover of the hardback of Clare Wright’s Stella-Prize-winning history is a fragment of the Eureka flag. Tattered and yellowed now, the familiar image of its eight-pointed star overlays the junction of two crossed bands of the same colour, on a deep blue background. Up close to the real thing, and not the cheap plastic replicas, it is impossible not to notice the fine, practised needlework, the ‘flat felled seams done by hand’. No bloke did this. I always wondered who the seamstress was.
Now I know she was not alone. Now I know that not only she, but 8800 of the almost 20 000 souls on the clamorous Ballarat goldfields in the summer of 1854 were women and children, part of ‘a lively pulsating swarm … [of] tents and stores on the flats, on the hills, in the gullies, everywhere one cast his eye’.
Wright begins with a funeral, setting the scene with the skill of a novelist, and as ‘the bodies of those killed in and around the [Eureka] Stockade were being ceremoniously transported by horse-drawn carts to the nearby burial ground’, relates what a young digger recorded in his diary:
One of the coffins trimmed with white and followed by a respectable and sorrowing group of women was the body of a woman who was mercilessly butchered by a mounted trooper while she was pleading for the life of her husband.
Her name was not recorded, not in government files, not in Lawlor’s list of heroes, not in any inquest, nor in the newspapers. Her name is not on the monument to the fallen in the Ballarat cemetery. She was never eulogised. She was certainly left out of Dr Hambrook’s speech, which, at the first anniversary of the Stockade, urged a crowd of 500 to remember those who ‘left the bosom of their families, the comfort of the domestic hearth, to live among strangers – dependent on their own manly energies for subsistence …’
One hundred years later at the Eureka centenary celebrations, women were still pointing out the elephant in the room of the masculinist version of what happened the day they hoisted the Eureka flag on the Ballarat diggings. One hundred and fifty years later, Clare Wright has settled things once and for all in this sweeping tale of hope, grit, struggle and determination by the women of Eureka to build a just and democratic future for their families beside their men.
Wright asks us to spare a thought for Sarah Skinner in May 1854. Drowned under a persistent wet season, much of the tent city had been abandoned for higher ground, but not by poor Sarah:
[She lay on her] … rude cot in her own flimsy tent, listening to the wind lash the useless fly as she struggled to deliver her baby into this sodden world. In a delirium, driving rain can sound like fire. For Sarah, everything burned. Her brow ran with sweat. The tender, swollen skin of her vulva stretched like taut canvas. A final push sent a searing tear through her perineum. She screamed; the baby wailed. Their tandem howl floated into the spectral blaze of the night.
There are no accolades, or speeches or eulogies for that kind of heroism – not only to face childbirth unaided in such a place but also post-partum infection: if that didn’t kill you, the treatment would. There is certainly no heroism in the sight of her husband standing by, ‘frantic with worry, as ineffectual as a handkerchief in a tempest’. Given the hazards of childbirth, it is remarkable that ‘for the rest of the nineteenth century there was never as much per capita procreation going on as there was in [Ballarat in] 1854.’
The richness of Eureka lies not only in the vivid imagery of Wright’s writing but also in the threads of multi-coloured narratives of several women’s interrelated lives; their trials, hopes, dreams and disasters all played out in the great theatre of goldfields life. We meet Sarah Hammer, who ran the Adelphi Theatre, and who was central to the cultural life of the community; Catherine Bentley, who lost her hotel in the riots, and Clara Seekamp, who became the editor of the Ballarat Times in 1855 and who published Ellen F Young, the Ballarat poet, who, at 44 years old, was a senior citizen among the youthful diggers. All Wright’s heroines of Ballarat are forthright and vocal, strong and resourceful. They had to be, to survive not only camp life, but also for their stories to endure long enough for Wright to give them voice, ‘forcing us to re-imagine life on the Victorian goldfields and to interrogate the received wisdom of a masculinist Eureka’.
The book’s richness lies too in the minute detail of Wright’s delicate stitching together of facts: ‘Who knew that stores on the diggings sold breast pumps … or that dances and balls provided paid childcare?’ She digs into court proceedings too that reveal the shocking levels of domestic violence in the camp, and into the ships’ arrival lists, to get a feel for the mix of migrants who arrived in their thousands at the southern Eldorado.
I loved reading this book as much as I loved Barbara Tuchman’s The Distant Mirror for its power to completely immerse the reader in the time, place and physical experience of another era. Like Tuchman, Wright can conjure up the smell of woodfire and the stink of sweat, dogshit and the damp bedding of camp life, all of which clings to your senses as she leads you though the great dramatic social and political ferment of world events that underpinned the exodus from Europe to anywhere – especially a goldfield at the bottom of the known universe.
The 1840s had been a decade of extreme economic, political and social turmoil in Europe. In Ireland from 1845 to 1852 over a million people died in an Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger). At least another million refugees fled, sparking an unprecedented mass migration to the New World.
People arrived at the diggings with nothing but a tent and a few shillings ‘thinking to pick up gold as soon as they land’. When faced with the reality of 1854’s hard winter and the ‘crushing, irrefutable, seemingly irredeemable poverty’, they added their voices to the tide of disaffection, resentment, and distrust of authority rising from the ‘damp, putrid fields of Ballarat’. Added to that mix was the Crown’s unrelenting enforcement of the hated licence fee of 30 shillings a month:
… entitling individual miners to a claim of twelve feet by twelve and the right to take wood and water from the land … it amounted to a capitation tax, in fact; in effect, every person resident on the diggings was required to pay the fee regardless of their success in finding gold … Because so many of the heads to be taxed rested on the shoulders of women and children, an exemption was written into the regulations.
Women who did not have children or only resided with their husbands did not have to pay, but anyone else who derived an income from being on the goldfields, including storekeepers – many of them women operating tiny shops from the front of their tents, selling baby clothes, or bread in a bid to stave off destitution – had to pay the same as a big store on the main street.
The only ones completely exempt were the other forgotten players in this story, the Wathaurung people. So recently dispossessed of their country by pastoral squatters in the 1830s, their population was drastically reduced from ‘an estimated 3240 members of the 25 Wathaurung language groups’ to just ‘255 Aboriginal individuals … in the Ballarat region’ in 1861. One year after gold was discovered in 1851:
… the luxuriant lands of the Wathaurung had been stripped of vegetation to become ravaged earth, honeycombed by holes … But this was nothing compared to the avalanche of human endeavour that was about to descend.
During that dreadful decade, the population of Victoria exploded from 77 000 to half a million; a plague of locusts to the Wathaurung. The wood and water for which the government claimed the infamous licence fee was their livelihood.
The stories of the Wathaurung on the goldfields are second-hand – no primary sources, no official records. They are observed only through the lenses of European diarists. Wright tries to rescue them from the shadowy edges of her narrative, finding diary entries stating that some had shown prospectors where to find deposits in exchange for food and blankets, and that there was a local trade in possum-skin cloaks.
As Wright suggests, history gleaned from primary sources throws up more questions than it answers. If in the space of three years a horde of ravening whitefellas descends on your country, cutting down every tree and devouring every mouthful of available game, you are going to be pretty desperate to feed your family, but would you sell their only protection against the elements? Are the diarists reliable? Did they buy those cloaks fair and square? Bruce Pascoe suggests otherwise in his book Convincing Ground. Claim jumping was rife on the gold fields among the miners – what chance would the Wathaurung have of obtaining justice if the miners themselves had no ‘shred of confidence’ in Victoria’s finest.
Eureka offers a fresh body of scholarship to bring us up close and personal to the women of the goldrush:
… the material and documentary residue of their lives is everywhere: clinging to dusty files at the Public Record Office, trapped within the yellowing pages of newspapers, transmitted by generations of descendants … the women of Eureka felt an unbreakable bond of belonging, with an epic community and influential history, and they wanted their participation recognised and remembered.
Now we know that those ‘hot-tempered, freewheeling gold miners … were actually husbands and fathers, brothers and sons’, and that ‘the soldiers who were firing upon civilians – including women – were themselves husbands and fathers, with wives and babies crouched not two miles away within a sand-bagged government camp’. Now we know who the midwives were at this so-called ‘birth of Australian democracy’.
Now that Wright has brought her forgotten heroes out into the light in this remarkable book, it is impossible to maintain what she calls the ‘false premise of masculine independence and autonomy’, this Boy’s Own adventure view of history, ‘particularly when the voices of women who were actually there can readily drown out the myth’.
Eureka is a brilliant addition to the historical record and certain to become an Australian classic, one which answers conclusively Wright ‘s overriding question of our past:
Why haven’t we gone down this road before? … Why didn’t I or my classmates ever think beyond the words in our textbooks? Why did not one of us ever think to ask, where are we in this story?
Clare Wright The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka Text Publishing 2013 HB 512pp $45.00
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