Review: Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

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Clare Wright wins the 2014 Stella Prize for her history of the Ballarat goldfields, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.

This book is bold. A bed-time story this ain’t. Its prose slaps you around the face to make sure you are paying attention. It is assertive and provocative. It sucks you into the time that was, on the Ballarat goldfields of the mid-nineteenth century.

The history of Victoria’s gold rushes and the Eureka Stockade is one of Australia’s well-worn foundational stories. Each year the story is told in school classrooms throughout Australia and children dutifully do their Gold Rush project with varying degrees of interest. Students are told about the flood of people from all over the world rushing to Australia to find gold. They learn about the crowded diggings, about the mass communities of tents which suddenly appeared only to be taken down in great haste when rumour told of a find of gold somewhere else. The lessons go on to tell the story of the miners’ grievances about the compulsory miners’ licence and their complaints about their treatment by authorities on the gold field. They culminate in the rebellion known as Eureka Stockade and the deaths of miners and soldiers after a raid on the Stockade by government forces.

This story could be interesting but the only memory I have of my grade five Gold Rush lessons is how deadly dull they were. One of my daughters didn’t see the point of the project at all.  Yet to my surprise a few months ago the same child, now an adult, told me how much she enjoyed reading an academic article about the Gold Rush for her first year university history course. The article was by Clare Wright, the author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. I was aware of the impending release of her book but the fact that Wright’s academic writing had excited a student who had a personal history of thorough disinterest in Gold Rush history made me eager to read the book.

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Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright (Text Publishing, 2013).

Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright (Text Publishing, 2013).

Clare Wright set out to write women back into the history of the Ballarat Gold Fields and the rebellion now known as the Eureka Stockade.  Yet this book is much more than an account of the few weeks leading up to the violence and its aftermath. This book is successful at engaging the reader with this history because so much care and space is given to sharing the context in which the Eureka Stockade took place. This helps the reader understand the women and men of the goldfields as real people.

The Ballarat goldfields were international. There were the Americans, the Irish, the Germans, the English, the Italians and Scottish among others.  The local Aborigines and the large Chinese population on the goldfields made their presence felt also. I love the fact that Australian historians over the last twenty years or so take in account the lives of Australian settlers before they arrived in Australia. They may not have brought many possessions with them to Australia but everyone brought with them something very important that affected the rest of their lives in Australia. They brought their culture, their beliefs and personal histories.

Wright gives us a taste of the lives of some of those who migrated to Australia and traces their long journeys by ship to Australia. In doing so she renders these people as more complete and more complex than the caricatures we were introduced to in our primary school classrooms and continue to hear about in the potted histories of the Eureka Stockade in our popular culture.

Wright argues that what migrants brought with them from their old countries was important in shaping the Ballarat goldfields:

… the ideas, aspirations and language of the old world seeped into the porous new cultural and political landscape. Seen from this angle, the Victorian gold rush doesn’t represent a new dawn in Australia’s young history so much as the long dusk of Europe’s age of revolutions.

p. 51

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka tells of settlers abandoning everything in a stampede to the goldfields elsewhere in the colony. As Wright remarks, some left their wives “in the forsaken towns like the soapy ring around a bathtub”. This is the traditional view of the goldfields in Victoria, that these were largely male-only places.  Yet as Wright points out, many men brought their wives with them and some women travelled independently to the goldfields. In January 1854, just eleven months prior to the Eureka Stockade 45% of Ballarat’s residents were women and children. Wright is concerned that even today the histories of this episode largely ignore the presence and influence of women on the gold fields.

Most dreamed of material wealth but as Wright observes, they also aspired to a new way of living. A whirlwind disrupted society on the goldfields, inverting and challenging traditional social mores. At her Sydney book launch last week Clare Wright said she felt that what happened on the Ballarat goldfields was a sociological revolution not a political revolution.

Gender roles were challenged and changed. “Instead of digging for gold, young Henry was left shovelling his own shit”, observed Wright in her book about a man who could not find a wife or afford to hire a woman servant.  “I’m a first-rate washerwoman, or if the lasses like, washerman…” confessed Henry when writing to his mother about his domestic arrangements. Some like Henry were forced to take on roles normally reserved for the other gender.  Others, particularly women, chose to change the way they carried out their everyday lives.

Wright tells us about women who ran businesses, mined for gold and were picky about who they were going to marry. Women could earn more money than their husbands. Wealthy women dressed down while working class women with new-found wealth dressed up. On the gold fields women changed their clothes for something more practical. For some this meant donning male garb.

As Wright clearly demonstrates women were not only present on the gold fields but they actively participated in the campaign to change government policy regarding mining and enforcement of laws in the mining areas. The proprietor of Ballarat’s most popular theatre, Sarah Hanmer, was the largest donor of funds to support efforts to support the protest movement. Ellen Young wrote stirring poetry in newspapers to urge the miners on. Clara Seekamp was the editor of Ballarat’s most widely read newspaper in the aftermath of the violence. Her editorial flair during this period suggests that she had been involved in editorial duties at the newspaper in the crucial lead up to the Eureka Stockade.

“Eureka was a youth movement” argues Wright. She brings the reader’s attention to the young age of the average gold field resident and suggests that the social revolution which took place in Victoria in the 1850s is akin to the baby boomer era of the 1960s. The Ballarat gold fields in the 1850s were a place of social experiment and upheaval. Traditions were adapted, ignored or provocatively discarded.

While the Wright’s goal is to write women back into the story of the Eureka Stockade she does not fall into the trap of excluding men or relegating them to minor roles. This book adds to our understanding of the men who were in Ballarat at the time as much as it contributes to our understanding of women’s history.

By bringing women into the history of the Eureka Stockade Wright creates a more complete and complex picture of the times. She humanises the history. The men that Wright talks about in her book are interesting people not cardboard cut-outs. Including women in the story allows us to better understand the men’s vulnerability and their concerns. Wright portrays men who wanted to provide adequately for their families but were impotent to do so in the face of disease, the refusal of the ground to yield the treasure the men sought and the inept and unjust actions of the government. She argues their actions must be considered in light of their distress and desperation to look after their wives and children who were on the goldfields.

Reflecting on the men’s state of mind after the soldiers’ raid on the Eureka Stockade and the many deaths in the violence that took place in the darkness of the early hours of 3rd December 1854, Wright says:

… these men could not even defend their wives and families from danger, let alone their companions, when push came to deadly shove. It was the final indignity.

p. 420

Wright does not neglect the stories of the officials and soldiers living in the government camp either. She applies the same attention and care she gives to the plight of the miners in order to share the difficult living conditions in the cramped camp and the tensions between various officials working from this base. “There was more pissing on posts happening in the Ballarat Camp than all the chained guard dogs of the diggings could manage in a month of Sundays”, observed Wright about the conflicts between various government officials in the government camp. Social relations in the government camp were strained by the bickering among the army and civilian government hierarchy. The living conditions were rough and crowded. It was not a happy place.

Research

As I have little background in the history of the gold rushes I will leave it to others to assess the specific arguments Wright makes about the Eureka Stockade and life on the Ballarat goldfields. I have some more general observations about what I have divined from the book about Wright’s research and analysis.

Ellen Campbell, the grand-daughter of the Assistant Resident Gold Commissioner at the Ballarat Goldfields attended the Sydney launch of the book. She is pictured here with the author, Clare Wright.

Ellen Campbell, the grand-daughter of the Assistant Resident Gold Commissioner at the Ballarat Goldfields attended the Sydney launch of the book. She is pictured here with the author, Clare Wright.

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is written for the general reader but is backed by the kind of thorough research that you would expect in an academic book. Wright is sensitive to the fact that the story of the Eureka Stockade holds great importance to many people. She says she wishes to “reinvigorate the story” by showing that this story of democracy includes women. “I have no desire to scoff at its centrality to our national mythology, or to deride those who have devoted themselves to the task of building a legend.”

One of the features of Wright’s historical research is how she draws on family histories as well as popular and academic histories of the event.  Wright has not only relied on the documents which are publicly available. She has also drawn on the documents held privately by some of the descendants of Eureka Stockade as well as the stories handed down orally through the generations. In her introduction Wright shares the emotion that still lives on in the families whose ancestors’ lives were connected with the Eureka Stockade.Family history and local history are two streams of historical work which tend to be disconnected from the work of academic historians, yet family and local historians do much valuable work which academic historians can draw on.

It would have benefitted readers if Wright had given more discussion about why she decided to draw upon the stories that have been verbally passed through the generations. It is good to see historians who are prepared to incorporate oral tradition, but there is a lot behind this. Just as a documentary source can be unreliable, so too can a story has been handed down from parents to their children. On the other hand a spoken story can speak a truth that was never recorded or kept on a piece of paper. What criteria did Wright use to decide whether to include these stories?

There are other stories which left me wondering about the strength of the evidence. Wright shares the story of Mary Faulds who gave birth during the massacre at the Eureka Stockade yet the reference given is to a publication written in 1995, not to a nineteenth century source. She speculates about the reason why so many men left the Eureka Stockade on the night of the violence. While she cites a couple of journal articles and a book about women traditionally ovulating on nights of a full moon, she admits there is no historical evidence that this may have been what attracted the men away from the Stockade on the night. I was left wondering why this story was included in the book.

Yet I believe that speculation does have a role in histories if clearly and carefully communicated to the reader. Wright does this by posing questions which reminds the reader that while she is confident of her analysis the history of the Ballarat goldfields and Eureka Stockade is by no means complete. We will never have a definitive history because so much was left unrecorded.

Writing

The writing style is a refreshing feature of this book. It is not the safe, equivocal and wordy writing typical of academe. The language Wright uses reflects the rambunctiousness of the times. At times it is rough and tempestuous. The author is having a conversation with the reader with all the passion and care that you would expect from someone who has spent ten years immersed in this research.

Much is written about the importance of book covers but other aspects of the visual presentation of a book are also important. The visual presentation of writing conveys meaning as much as well as the words that are used. The fonts used for chapter headings in this book reflect the subject matter and the type of language used in the book.  Chapter titles are big and bold, as in your face as the author’s prose was at times.  This book does not hold back.

Quotations from primary sources are presented in italics but without quotation marks. Wright explained at her Sydney book launch that she had got this idea from Kate Grenville’s, The Secret River. Like the writing style, the use of italicised quotes signals to the reader that this book is different and makes them sit up and pay attention.  I found that this had the effect of turning the volume up on the words. They spoke loudly to me while reading whereas a traditional presentation of quotes makes the quote sit more seamlessly with the author’s prose. Given the fact that this book is about how the residents of the goldfields challenged society in so many ways, I appreciated this presentation. However, I don’t think it would work so well if the book was about a more conventionally behaved group of people.

This book is written for a public audience, yet it is to the credit of the author and the publisher that they have treated the readers with respect by including extensive endnotes. These endnotes are worth keeping an eye on while you read the book as they have interesting asides and discussions about the evidence that has been drawn upon. Make sure you read this with two bookmarks, one for the page you are reading and one for the respective page of the endnotes that you are reading.

“As a historian your pact to the reader is not to make things up”, observed Clare Wright at the Sydney book launch. One way a historian signifies this commitment is by citing references throughout the text to historical sources used. Endnotes are the author’s gift to other researchers and a sign that the author wants to hold themself accountable for the work that they have done.

The presence of endnotes increases the value of a book. I’m sure there will be many family historians as well as other historians who will be sifting through these endnotes looking for sources that will help them with their own work.

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This book takes me back a few years to when my daughter in grade five refused to do the Gold Rush project. I was stuck in the middle between my obstinate child and her teacher who was putting the pressure on me to be a good mother and make my child complete it. After days of trying to make the required project happen I came up with what I thought was a persuasive argument. “The teacher wants you to tell her what you know about the Gold Rush”, I explained to my nine-year old. “Well, I can recommend some books that she should read”, was my obstinate child’s retort. I sucked in my cheeks and tried to detach myself from the peals of laughter rolling around my head.

Now I wonder. Is this the book about the Gold Rush that my daughter would recommend to her grade five teacher?

Further Information

A review copy of this book was supplied by Text Publishing. 

Awards

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

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17 thoughts on “Review: Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

    • It would be great if you could write a review of this book, especially as you are from the Ballarat area. Dr Anne Beggs-Sunter from the University of Ballarat mentioned a couple of other books about women on the Ballarat goldfields in her review of Wright’s book, Bringing women back in.

      It will be interesting to see whether general histories of the gold rush will draw on these books and provide a more balanced depiction of that history.

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  1. Great point about the unreliability of oral tradition, Yvonne. We grew up believing we were related to Peter Lalor, which we liked to think explained some family members’ rebelliousness. It turns out, the story was a family myth: he was distantly connected, but only by marriage.

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    • That is a good example Elizabeth. There are so many families with stories like this. It is the reason why we need to treat claims about having famous ancestors with a considerable degree of sceptism unless independent evidence can be found. On the other hand oral history should be taken seriously. Paper records can also be unreliable or simply missing. People may not have documented things at the time because they regarded the matter as of no importance such as the work of women. Or the story may have been taboo eg mental illness, birth outside wedlock etc. A parent may have let a comment slip or told a story to a child when they were older that was never written about. The child might have recognised the importance of the story and passed the story on to their children… The issues are weeding out the fanciful stories from the legitimate and stripping the inaccurate elements from the legitimate stories. I don’t know much about oral history but I would imagine that historians who do work with oral histories would have some kind of methodology to deal with these issues.

      Was your family on the Ballarat goldfields in the early 1850s?

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