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The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, by Clare Wright.

December 19, 2014

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, by Clare Wright.  Text Publishing (2013), Kindle Edition, 560 pages

AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS

A carefully researched, highly readable account of a definitive incident in Australian history which revises the traditional narrative to include the significant involvement of women.

In 1854, violence erupted when disgruntled miners stood up to British soldiers in the goldfields of the Australian province of Victoria. Some lost their lives in their rebellion, and the protest has become an iconic moment in Australian history and culture. Still taught in the grade schools of the country, the clash is described as that of brave, freedom-loving men banding together to take the first steps toward national independence.

Clare Wright sets out to modify that story by claiming that women were a significant force in the goldfields and in the Eureka Rebellion. She has poured through hundreds of documents written by men and women who lived in the goldfields to demonstrate that women were not only present, a fact already known by historians as her bibliography makes clear, but that they played important roles in the mining community and that individual women articulated the miners’ grievances and worked for their cause.

For Wright, as for other young historians, history is not something confined to ivory towers. She holds a position at LaTrobe University, and her academic work includes her Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne, a well-regarded book about the women who ran pubs in colonial Australia, and a variety of articles on topics relating to mining, women’s history, and the history of drinking. In addition, she has been deeply involved in television productions as a creator, consultant, and performer of a variety of programs. Her documentaries include Utopia Girls: How Women Won the Vote, and The War That Changed Us about World War I. She is also a frequent speaker and contributes regularly to various Australian journals and newspapers.

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka has garnered high praise, earning the Stella Prize for Australian women writers over well-known novelists. In part, her book has been well-received because she writes in a casual style that attracts non-academic readers. While much academic writing presents arguments for and against the merit of different interpretations, Wright focuses more simply on the stories she has discovered, letting the evidence speak for itself. Her documentation is thorough, but she does not belabor the mistakes she sees in previous historians’ views.

What Wright does in this book is grounded in the social history which has grown in popularity in recent decades. The politics and decisions of colonial leaders are described, but they are not in the foreground. Instead Wright tells us about the lives of everyday people in their variety and complexity. Hers is an inclusive story combining many voices. Migrants to the goldfields had come from all over the world, not simply from the British Isles, but even from America and China. Some were from educated, professional families and others had few resources. While life in the mining camps tended to reduce people to a common level, actually finding significant amounts of gold quickly created new divisions. By 1854, poverty was rampant in the gold fields. Wright also describes the Indigenous people whose land was being taken and mined. They remained at the edges of the camp, ready to sell fur coats and blankets to freezing miners.

By focusing on the women who came to the Victorian goldfield, Wright expands our understanding of daily life in the camps that clustered around Ballarat from the time the digging began in 1851 through the rebellion in 1854.  She notes that by 1854, about 30,000 individuals lived in the region which included the tents at Eureka.  About a third of the inhabitants were women and children, a much higher proportion than had been present than in the recent gold rush in California. The women who came were both wives and single women, some of them as eager for adventure as the men or as eager to discard their pasts and start again. The majority were young. Marriage and informal unions proliferated and the camp was swamped with babies. Wright tells about what it meant to be a woman in the mining field with details of births, deaths, rapes, and domestic violence which are left out most history books. Living in tents, women also assumed new responsibilities. Some were “diggeresses” laboring alone or next to their husbands to find the elusive gold. Others opened small shops or offered their services cooking or doing laundry. Often they were the ones providing for their families and allowing the men to dig for gold, a role reversal that worried some of the men. The presence of the women and children made clear that male miners had responsibilities as husbands and fathers to add to their other worries.

As more and more people swarmed into the region, conditions deteriorated and discontent brewed. Divisions grew between the Camp where the families of colonial administrators, soldiers and police lived, and the Flat inhabited by the miners’ families. The taxes required of both men and women to dig and conduct business were an irritant, especially when enforced by belligerent and arbitrary soldiers. Other complaints added to the unrest. Diggers wanted land around the camp so that they could grow adequate food. They wanted a voice in the governance of their community and an end to police brutality. They wanted justice and what they declared as their rights as English men. A woman writer, a woman editor, and a women theater manager played key roles in defining their demands. Fear grew as the numbers of soldiers increased and violence broke out. Both miners and soldiers were killed as well as at least one woman.

What Wright has accomplished is to add yet another story to our growing understanding of how and why women have mattered in our past and need to be included in our accounts as something more than passive figures in the lives of others. This is the first time I have read about the Eureka Rebellion, and I lack the expertise to assess Wright’s book in terms of what else is known about conditions around the violence. I respect the care which she has taken with primary sources, however, and the vast numbers of details she provides about the camp. I can only applaud her work.

I strongly recommend this book to many readers, not only in Australia but globally.  It is an excellent example of how focusing on women can change and enrich other histories.  It has recently been released as an ebook making it easier for non-Australians to find.

The cover of her book features a part of the flag featuring the southern Cross which women sewed for the rebels of Eureka.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2014 2:08 pm

    This is definitely going on my TBR list! I’ve been wanting to read more about Australian women since the second season of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries arrived on Netflix. 🙂 Sadly, most of the Australian books you blog about aren’t available at my library & my new library doesn’t allow free ILLs. So I’ll have to hope this one is more widely available!

    • December 20, 2014 10:53 am

      I’ve had trouble getting Australian books also, but more and more are becoming available as ebooks for decent prices. I paid about $10 for this one in paperback form B&N—after waiting a year after it came out in Aust.

      Sorry you don’t have free ILL in your new place. I rely heavily on it. I’d been wondering about your ability to satisfy your broad reading interests there.

  2. December 20, 2014 7:47 am

    Lovely seeing someone not Australian review this, Marilyn. You’ve done a nice job. The important thing for non-Australians to realise is that this is not a definitive history but a complementary one exploring, as you say, women’s role which has hitherto been largely ignored and unknown. I enjoyed Wright’s engaging, evocative style, too.

    • December 21, 2014 10:39 am

      Thanks for your comment. Maybe I should have emphasized more the fact that this book supplements what has been written.

      • December 21, 2014 2:23 pm

        I don’t think there are shoulds … Besides writing from one’s own perspective. The title hopefully suggests that anyhow?

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