Lalor, Liberty and Leadership – The Eureka Rebellion

original-eureka_flag_size8Tuesday saw the 159th anniversary of the Eureka Rebellion, at which 22 miners and 6 soldiers were killed in a clash over political representation and grievances related to taxation and permits (amongst others).
Although the miners ‘lost’ the rebellion, all of their demands were met within a year:

Yet, ere the year was over
Freedom rolled like a flood:
They gave us what we asked for
When we asked for it in blood.
– A Ballad of Eureka

Aside from questions around the use of violence in protest, which is not for discussion here, the ultimate ‘success’ of the rebellion shows the power of a small group of people who tapped into the prevailing wind of public opinion, and were prepared to take action where others were not. In Peter Lalor the rebellion had a figurehead, but this was leadership by a group, and arguably sowed the seeds for democratic government in Australia.

Lalor was feted as a hero of democracy and was, a year later, elected to the Victorian Parliament, but what kind of leader was he?

By all accounts he was a rousing and persuasive speaker who spoke the language of support for the many over the few:PeterLalor

“We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties”
– The Eureka Oath

However his later decisions to oppose white-male suffrage in Victoria, to attempt to use Chinese miners to break the miners’ strike in Clunes, and to support those seeking to limit improvements in working conditions suggests an opportunism which left many of his supporters feeling betrayed.

No doubt Lalor was courageous and committed, but after the rebellion ended he hid amongst sympathisers, rather than making a stand by joining the 13 others on trial. Lalor appears a contradictory character, more loyal to personal ideals than to any single other cause.

Which do you value more: a leader who follows their own path in the face of opposition, or one who picks an angle and represents it consistently even when they personally disagree?

The Eureka Rebellion was a key moment in Australian history, and a catalyst for an incredible amount of progress towards the open, democratic and relatively equitable society that exists today, but there was still a lot of work to do – it took over 50 years for women to be granted the right to vote in all states, and it wasn’t until the 1960s – over 100 years after Eureka that universal suffrage was introduced, including Indigenous Australians.

True liberty is hard-won, and in most cases requires pressure from below and leadership by and on behalf of the people. Mostly it is social and attitudinal change which makes the impact rather than an isolated incident. We need people like Peter Lalor who are prepared to stand above the crowd and fight for their rights, but we equally need those who stand amongst the crowd, starting conversations, challenging injustice and fighting for the rights of others.

Any thoughts? Disagree? Join the conversation!
(Disclaimer – limits of space, expertise and time dictate that this is not a full picture – if I’ve missed something important, let me know…)

– Luke



3 thoughts on “Lalor, Liberty and Leadership – The Eureka Rebellion

  1. Lalor the radical quickly became Lalor the conservative. One year after the Eureka Stockade he changed his parliamentary seat as he would not win in Ballarat.

    J.B. Humffray was another Ballarat Reform League leader who was voted into Parliament at the same election as Lalor. He believed in moral force rather than violence, stayed true to his ideals, had the longest street in Ballarat named after him, and had his tombstone erected by public subscription (he died a pauper). Why is it that hardly anyone knows his name? He is one of my very favourite figures in Australian History.

    • Thanks for the comment Clare – that’s really interesting about Humffray. So why is Lalor so lionised? Do we as a society always have to have a figurehead? If so, do we pretty much always get the political leaders we deserve?
      As a relatively new arrival to Australia, I have a lot to learn about Australian History, so thanks for the links!

  2. Sounds like a great topic for a thesis! Maybe it’s because Lalor was the leader at Eureka, had an arm amputated and got the girl. Maybe it’s because he became speaker of the house, and coupled with his name being reported around the globe in relation to the Eureka Stockade he was clearly in the public eye, Maybe it’s because he accrued a lot of money and lived in a swanky house on the Church Street Hill in Richmond. Maybe others have some better ideas.

    If any one is interested in pursuing this topic we have an interesting folder of items related to the Eureka Stockade, and a number of good books, in the Geoffrey Blainey Research Centre (top floor E.J. Barker Library). Some of them can be viewed online at (put Eureka in to the search facility on the left of the page)

    We also have in interesting mapping project going which aims to find the actual location of the Eureka Stockade. See

    This coming December is the 160th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade so expect some celebrations.

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