Agitations at Buninyong

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Buninyong, 1862. Federation University Historical Collection (Cat. No. 18400)
Buninyong Gold Discovery Obelisk, 1923, Federation University Historical Collection (Cat. No. 1603)
Ballarat Reform League Inc. Monument at Buninyong, 2012. Photograph: Clare Gervasoni
Plaque on the Ballarat Reform League Inc. Monument at Buninyong, 2012. After the discovery of gold at Buninyong in August 1851 the government announced that the diggers would be charged a large licence fee. The injustice of that decision sparked a public protest here at the diggings. 'Buninyong 26 August - Tonight for the first time since Australia rose from the bossum of the ocean, were men strong in their sense of right, lifting up a protest against an impending wrong, and protesting against the Government. (Melbourne Argus, 20 August 1851) Photograph: Clare Gervasoni

Agitation in Buninyong 1851

GOLD (From the Geelong Advertiser)

Buninyong, 26th August I was at the “Diggings” listening to the many complaints as I went around from cradle to cradle. The Intelligencer had furnished the diggers with the Government Proclamation No. 2, imposing the Licence Fees. The subject had been warmly discussed, and it was resolved to hold a public meeting that very night. It was a novel and exciting scene. At the entrance of every tent was a blazing fire, which every now and then shot up a lurid flame, disclosing for a moment the dark figures hovering round it; then sinking, it would leave the bush in darker obscurity than ever.

About eight o’clock there was an unusual stillness, when from one of the central tents came a voice convening all the gold diggers together. From tent to tent the cry was taken up, until it went the whole round of the encampment. A gun was then fired, and within minutes from forty to fifty as picturesque-looking individuals as ever ornamented canvas, assembled round a large watch-fire kindled beneath the gloomy stringy bark trees. The Proclamation of His Excellency the Governor was then read from the Intelligencer by fire-light and was listened to with the profoundest attention. One by one it was commented upon, calmly and dispassionately, but with strong earnestness; under the canopy of heaven, in the dead silence of the bush, with the pale stars looking down upon them, did these men weigh and ponder upon the act of the Government. One man said that he was a free man, and a hard-working man, willing to pay his fair share to the Government, but he could not and would not pay thirty shillings a month for a Licence to get an honest livelihood from his labour. He was much applauded, and several said that he spoke their feelings, and they would act in the same way.

Another said that he worked very hard, and he could not get his rations by gold digging, “and how” said he “can it be expected that I can pay a shilling a day to the Commissioner? It’s a burning shame to expect it.” “It’s more than the squatter pays for twenty square miles,” said a third, “But you are a poor man,” retorted a fourth, “They’ll drive us to Bathurst,” said another, “and then let Port Phillip look out for labourers. I spent every halfpenny I had in fitting myself out for the diggings and now I am to be taxed before I have even been here a week, or had an opportunity of getting any of it back again.” ”You should have gone to California, Jim; the Yankees don’t do it in this here fashion.” “This is Port Phillip d y’see?” rejoined another. “What’s the use of Separation!” said another. “Here is a specimen of independent Government! I should like to know what right the Government has to tax us £18 a year before the Council sits! What’s the use of voting in members if the government can do as they like, they’ll make it six-and-thirty pounds next; of course they will if they sees their advantage in it; there’s no two way about that; I’ll ding my cradle first.” “That’ll only be serving yourself out,” replied another. “I propose we get up a memorial to Mr La Trobe, and that we all sign it.” “That’s my opinion,” said a stout man, pushing forward “a gentleman advised us to do that today, and to get some respectable inhabitants to put their names to it, and a magistrate to sanction it.”

“That’s no use at all,” said another; “we meet here tonight round our own fire; we are honest men, and we want our rights and nothing more. Let us act for ourselves, and pass resolutions, and not waste our time in sending memorials that’ll just be laid aside, and there’s no end of ‘em. I propose first, that we elect a chairman, and then let any man propose his resolution, and put it to the meeting; that’s the way to do business (Bravo! That’s the way to do business and no mistake.) We don’t want to fly in the face of Government, but if the Government don’t act honestly, let us show them up through the Press to the people, who, he was sure, would see them righted.”

And so one after another they delivered their sentiments. I was never more struck with a scene in my life, and something whispers to me that it will be an important one. It is a solemn protest of labour against oppression – an outburst of light, reason, and right, against the infliction of an effete objectionable royal claim, brought forward to crush a new branch of industry, whose birth was heralded by large rewards, and whose death will be laid at the door of the Government.

The first effect of the manifesto has been to disperse the diggers from the Buninyong gold-field. They were willing to work at a present loss for a prospective gain; but they have expressed a unanimous resolution not to persevere with works requiring a great outlay of labour to make them profitable for a government, before the worker and toiler could receive one farthing of compensation for his time and trouble. Let the “blue-shirts” and “cabbage-trees” have fair play. They are “pioneers” of the day – the advanced guards of enterprise, working in the damp and chill, and exposed to every hardship; they have sacrificed their “household goods,” and given up all for a life of toil in the wilderness: their mission is for the development of the mineral resources of the colony, to which they were instigated by the Press and the people; they interfere with no rights, clash with no interests, impede no progress, injure none, great or small; - but, on the contrary, they stand out in bold relief in the front of society, and proclaim abroad that they won a harvest from barrenness, and riches from poverty!

That they wrenched gold, by labour, from rocks – a wealth but which for them would never have been heard of; for it is to hard working, not to scientific men, that the gold discovery is attributable; and their reward is “prohibition” and “proscription. And a trampling underfoot of the rights of labour.

It is “taxation” without representation” – an imperial edict to raise an indefinite sum, by an absolute and unexplained levy, to be applied Heaven only knows how or where! What is a five per cent taxed burgess compared to one of these men paying £18 per annum? In this edict is a gross innovation: a principle is involved here, and the sooner it is nipped in the bud the better will it be for all classes. Another meeting of the diggers was held last night, when the following resolutions were submitted and carried nem con.: -

1. That it is the opinion of this meeting that the determination on the part of the Executive Council to impose a fee of 30s per month per man, for a licence to search or dig for gold, at the present time, is both impolitic and illiberal, and is calculated to check, if not altogether stop the research that is now being made to open up the mineral resources of the colony. That the individuals composing this meeting, have been led, by highly coloured representations, to expend a considerable sum of money, in order to furnish a proper outfit to enable them to pursue their researches for gold in the neighbourhood of Buninyong: that they have prosecuted for several consecutive days such research, but that though gold has been discovered in the locality, it is found to be distributed in minute particles that it will not pay for the labour in working.

2. That it is the opinion of this meeting, under the circumstances of the case, that an indulgence of some little time should be granted by the Executive Council to the searchers for gold in and around Buninyong, before they be called upon to pay so exorbitant a fee.

A desire was then expressed that the resolutions should be inserted in the Geelong papers; three tremendous cheers were given for the Press which were echoed from the surrounding forest; the men retired to their tents, and I mounted horse, and rode slowly through the deep gloom to Buninyong, pondering on the way, the strange scene I had witnessed, and the stronger vicissitudes to which human life is subjected. Here, a month ago, was but bush and forest, and tonight for the first time since Australia rose from the bosom of the ocean, were men strong in their sense of right, lifting up a protest against an impending wrong, and protesting against the Government.

Human progress in Port Phillip – like her vegetation – is rapid: let the Government beware, lest like her timber, it prove rotten at the core, whilst it carries a healthy exterior. Buninyong, 27th August. [1]


From the Geelong Advertiser, September 1851

The tents are struck - the tribes of cradle-men, and the tin dish, have dispersed to the neighbouring tiers - bark huts look desolate, and the gunyas are deserted. The diggers have retired to the mountain recesses, and it requires no ordinary skill to discover them. "They have adopted a Parthian warfare, and retire before the advancing Commissioner and the Imperial edicts, to the gullies of the interior, and the remote water-courses, where they hope to pursue their honest avocations uninterrupted by tyrannical task-masters. The old scene is nearly tentless; but as an exposition of the tendency of "our Government," it displays a telling lesson that will not soon be forgotten. If the Government be powerless to create, it is powerful and prompt enough in destroying, and if birds could speak, as they are reputed in Eastern apologue, there is not a laughing jackass in the bush, but would cachinnate a peal in honour of his Excellency.... The diggers have flitted, and ... wherever found they are animated by the same feelings, and earnest in the expression of their indignation at the attempt of the Government to suspend operations here. ... And how much more it would have rebounded to the credit of a Government to have thrown a protection around those whose intellects were in advance of those who governed them, than to have come down upon them like a "wolf on the fold." His Excellency has bruised his government.

... the eagerness with which every report of discovery was hailed by the public, was a warranty of the deep interest taken by them in the question, and naturally so, for the gold question is a national question, and to the nation it must be referred, to be adjudicated upon, and not be mercilessly extinguished by Government Janissaries. Straws show which way the wind blows, and the genius of the Government is displayed in the Hun-like onslaught it has made on the industry of her children.[2]

Eureka Related Buninyong Residents

James Johnston

Mary Ann Ronalds

Thomas Young

Also See

Ballarat Reform League Inc. Monuments Project

Eureka - The Buninyong Connection, by Anne Beggs Sunter
  1. The Argus, Saturday 30 August, 1851
  2. Geelong Advertiser, September, 1851