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Flag of our fathers?

26 January 2013

9:00 AM

26 January 2013

9:00 AM

Eureka: the unfinished revolution Peter FitzSimons

William Heinemann Australia, pp.696, $49.95

This massive book begins by informing us, with questionable grammar and accuracy, that ‘Like most Australians the saga of the Eureka Stockade is in the very marrow of my bones …’ as though this petty skirmish, which, to be brutally frank, I doubt many Australians exposed to modern methods of teaching history have heard much of, is something like the Katyn Massacre is to Poles.

The book is subtitled ‘The unfinished revolution’ though Eureka was not a revolution at all, and seems pretty well finished to me. Australia can surely take some pride in the fact that when it was over there seemed to be a general willingness to let bygones be bygones and to move on to Next Business. The government more or less admitted it had been wrong.

The author tells us breathlessly: ‘How exciting I found it that, far from being an isolated “local tax revolt” as some of its deriders [sic] would have it, the Eureka rebellion was nothing less than the flowering of a broad international movement towards democracy, a flowering that put Australia at the very prow of democratic change throughout the world.’

It wasn’t, of course. The Eureka Stockade was a protest against oppressive bureaucratic regulations that got out of hand. It was not an ignoble cause, and the diggers had a good deal of right on their side, but neither was it a great crusade. It was a one-off protest and nothing remotely like it occurred again. Australia would be a leader in social reforms but these came many years later.

Still, it is hard to see how the loss of life at Eureka could be justified or glamourised. Indeed, for the many Irish Catholics among the rebels, it could not have fulfilled the church’s conditions of a ‘just war’, one of which is a reasonable prospect of success.

Reading between the lines, it is possible to gather that the rebellion, riot or whatever it was called, was badly organised, and many did not take it seriously. There was no proper military disposition of the rebels, who, if they had been serious, would have started a guerrilla campaign. Many of the diggers did not join in, and apparently many were drunk. The author claims a relatively large number of the rebels were American, but that this was hushed up at the time. If that is true, it helps underline Eureka’s atypical nature.

The battle is described in prose it would be an understatement to call purple:

With each passing moment, now well after six o’clock, the growing light illuminates an ever more ghastly scene. Pikes, spent balls and pools of blood showed where the contest had been most deadly. Some diggers have gushing, gaping wounds in their abdomens and the haunted eyes of men who know they are about to die. Others, who just an hour ago were living and breathing and talking, are now no more than grotesque corpses, their hideous grimaces a testament to the agony with which they met their deaths.

What would the author have left to describe Waterloo, let alone the Somme? How much more effective is Churchill’s simple vignette of the Iron Duke of Wellington so uncharacteristically breaking down and weeping at the Waterloo casualty lists.

One of the better things about the book is its comprehensive set of maps.

If Eureka was anything ideological, it was right-wing, a protest by self-employed capitalist miners against a stupid government that, in oppressing miners for revenue, was killing the golden goose. If it was a revolt, it was an anti-socialist revolt against the overweening state, and a warning that the diggers — the independent entrepreneurs of their day — should not be pushed too far. The author is quite correct that the Liberal party has been very slow to seize the Eureka Stockade for its own mythology, but then the Liberals have seldom been very bright or imaginative in the culture wars.

The author appears to have been influenced by Manning Clark in his passion for weak jokes and pseudo-classical and Biblical style and clichés, as well as in mystifying sentences, freighted with detail of no interest, like the description of John Batman: ‘A native of Sydney, born of a convict father of wild disposition — from whom he inherited his passions for drinking and womanising, though not necessarily in that order…’ Who cares what order they were in?

Manning Clark himself could have written sentences of such silliness as: ‘Batman — trying hard not to look at their naked breasts, though they didn’t seem to mind, gave [Aboriginal women] blankets, necklaces, looking glasses, a tomahawk, some apples and handkerchiefs (in case they were caught short with a runny nose).’ Sure it wasn’t the Joker?

Except when describing the heroic diggers, and especially when writing about government officials or squatters, the book — all written in the present tense — adopts a kind of prolonged sneer which soon becomes tiresome. Further, someone should have told the author that the unnecessary use of italics for emphasis in narrative passages died out with Queen Victoria.

The author, in conclusion, wants a new flag and a new citizenship oath for the 21st century: ‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and to defend our rights and liberties.’ I must say it sounds just a bit yucky to me. An accidental arrangement of stars has no sacred significance. Les Murray’s proposed preamble to the Constitution, which failed at referendum, was more effective.

The author states the book’s subtitle of ‘The unfinished revolution’ means ‘independence has still not occurred.’ Why? Apparently because Australia has not adopted the Eureka Flag. This is, in the most exact sense, superstition. ‘Our flag’ is the book’s final laconic sentence.

Australia acquired the essential component of independence — its own army — with Federation in 1901. Australia is completely independent, and personally I find the flag Australians fought under at Gallipoli, Tobruk, Timor, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan, and under which Australia itself achieved development as a peaceful and prosperous continent, to be ‘our flag’ more than any other.

Hal G.P. Colebatch’s latest book is The Modest Member: The Life and Times of Bert Kelly.

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