Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Storming Eureka - 160 years on

Today is the 160th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade, a key event in the development of Australian democracy and Australian identity.

The Eureka rebellion came about because the goldfield workers (known as 'diggers') opposed the government miners' licences. The licences were a simple way for the government to tax the diggers. Licence fees had to be paid regardless of whether a digger's claim resulted in any gold. Less successful diggers found it difficult to pay their licence fees. The Eureka rebellion is considered by some historians to be the birthplace of Australian democracy. It is the only Australian example of armed rebellion leading to reform of unfair laws.

Although the 1854 Eureka Stockade insurrection was as atypical as it was dramatic, it was responsible for forcing republican and revolutionary language into more common use.  Shortly before the Eureka insurrection, an American present wrote:

the people are on the eve of a revolution ... Folks here are republican enough in their ideas, though they do not wish you to think so.  The bone and sinew of the country are the workingmen, and they feel a great desire to take care of themselves.
 On the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, Americans generally believed that ultimately Australia would also become a republic.  The organisation, “Young America”, hoped that Australia would follow the lead of the United States and become a republic.  Franklin Pierce was elected President of the United States in 1852 on the “Young America” platform.  “Young America” believed that the “manifest destiny” of emerging nations was to be, among other things, republics. This idea was picked up by Jackie French in her novel, The night they stormed eureka. 

I was fortunate to hear Jackie French speak at the 2014 National History Teachers’ Conference in Brisbane. French is the third Australian Children’s Laureate, with her post taking in 2014-15, the position having been shared previously by Alison Lester and Boori Monty Pryor.

Jackie French published her first book, Organic Gardening in Australia in 1986, which has been followed by more than 140 titles, spanning non-fiction, picture books, collections, children’s, YA and adult, and incorporating fantasy, contemporary and historical fiction. Her books have garnered more than 60 awards. However, she has become particularly well-known for her time-slip novels such as Somewhere Around the Corner, Daughter of the Regiment, Macbeth and Son, and The Night They Stormed Eureka.
Jackie French’s junior fiction novel The Night They Stormed Eureka (2009) starts when Sam, a teenage girl, seeks refuge in a cemetery after having run away from her mother’s abusive boyfriend. In mental and physical pain, Sam imagines what life would have been like for the family of Percival and Elsie Puddleham, their names and dates carved on a headstone she shelters near. The depth of Sam’s longing for love and comfort reaches across the years to meet a yearning for a lost child, and she finds herself in mid-19th century Ballarat, not long before the bloody battle at the Eureka Stockade. Now in 1854 Sam finds a warm, inviting home with the Puddlehams who run “the best little cook shop on the diggings”. The Puddlehams dream of buying a luxury hotel with velvet seats, while others seek freedom from the government, with its corrupt officials and brutal soldiers.

But it was a time of great unrest among the miners on the diggings and Sam is swept up in the Eureka Rebellion, an iconic event on our national heritage landscape. As the summer days get hotter, and the miners’ protests are ignored with catastrophic results, Sam experiences at first-hand the power of a united stand, which will change her life forever. French’s recreation of the uprising against the British is not the Eureka of history books. She does not know if she’s changed the past or if it was another past. This was French’s way of showing that many of the history books have got it wrong about Eureka. In Sam’s Ballarat the Eureka rebellion was really about turning Australia into a republic, rather than an uprising of miners over compulsory mining licence fees. And while there were only 120 men left in the stockade when it was eventually stormed, in The Night They Stormed Eureka this was because thousands were lured to different parts of the camp through trickery.

Taking a fresh look at our past and recreating historical events is a thread that runs through many of French’s books resulting in the blending of historical events with contemporary characters, like Sam, who create a bridge for young readers into the past. At the end of The Night They Stormed Eureka, Sam awakens in the graveyard to a concerned friend and worried teacher who, suspecting she was homeless, have been looking for her. Experiencing Eureka has changed Sam and, for the first time, she reaches out for help. What she learns at Eureka is that when you stand together, you can change the world.

Jackie French’s fresh look at an event entrenched in our national heritage will touch and surprise every reader on an event that almost turned us on the path to republicanism.


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