Eureka Dawn Oration

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Presented by Dorothy Wickham, Eureka Stockade Memorial, Ballarat, 6 am, Sunday 4 December 2005

151 years ago the people of Eureka fought for their democratic rights and freedoms. They objected to the unjust administration of the goldfields such as the tax on work before any work was even undertaken. I would like to take this opportunity today to acknowledge the part of Henry Seekamp, the editor and owner of The Ballarat Times, who married the actress Clara du Val in 1854 at Ballarat.

Seekamp wrote that the disturbances at Eureka were only the trunk of the elephant, meaning of course, that there was much more under the surface than was visible. The editorials in his paper were full of energetic criticisms. He was charged and gaoled for Seditious Libel the day after the Eureka battle.

Dorothy Wickham at the Eureka Stockade Memorial, dawn, 04 December 2005. Photography: Clare Gervasoni

Sedition laws, defunct for nearly half a century, have recently been brought to our attention when proposed changes were included in the Anti-Terrorism Bill introduced on 3 November this year.

After pressure from backbenchers and factions of the public such as journalists, intellectuals and artists, Attorney General Phillip Ruddock assured the House that he would ‘undertake to conduct a review of the sedition offences’.

Under current Australian law it is an offence to engage in Seditious Intention, Enterprises, or Words. The current law specifies that any person who, with the intention of causing violence or creating public disorder or a public disturbance, writes, prints, utters or publishes any seditious words, shall be guilty of an indictable offence punishable by imprisonment for 3 years.

The newly proposed laws reiterate the current sedition laws. They also increase penalties, introduce concepts such as recklessness, and extend the laws to cover all foreign citizens.

The sedition laws were exercised during Eureka. One of the earliest prosecutions in Australia for sedition was the action taken by the Government against Henry Seekamp here in Ballarat 151 years ago. He was arrested on 4 December at the offices of his newspaper on charges of Seditious Libel. The newspaper carried the caption that the editor had been arrested.

Seekamp was a slight, sickly man who fought with the pen rather than the sword. His editorials were fiery and contentious, filled with the sentiments of the English Chartists such as J R Stephens or Thomas Carlyle.

John Basson Humffray and Henry Holyoake, two well-known Eureka identities, shared the same Chartist ideals as Seekamp.

These sentiments were echoed in the Charter of the Ballarat Reform League. They welled up at the Monster Meetings held on the 11th and 29th November just before Eureka battle.

Nearly half the Diggings attended these meetings. The Monster Meetings, it was reported attracted 10,000 people. There were only 20,000 on the diggings, so that, in today’s context, of Ballarat’s population of around 80,000, that would mean a rally of 40,000 people – or half the population. When you consider the large rallies held recently about the new industrial relations laws, where around 5,000 attended, you can imagine the welling up of feelings and emotions at the Monster Meetings associated with Eureka.

I believe these meetings included men, women and children. The causes being fought for were pertinent to all family members. The Ballarat Reform League, in essence, sought a democratic and egalitarian society. It sought a reduction in licence fees, a say in the parliament, and a just administration of the goldfields, as well as other reforms, for the everyday man, woman and child.

These points were echoed in Seekamp’s editorials in The Ballarat Times. He passionately condemned the administration of the Ballarat goldfields and glorified the miners’ opposition. The Resident Commissioner of the Goldfields Robert Rede had sent a copy of The Ballarat Times to the Chief Commissioner in Melbourne writing:

‘I enclose you a copy of The Ballarat Times which points to Wednesday as a day on which something will occur. I request that the leading article may be laid before the Attorney General for his opinion as it appears to me highly seditious and under existing circumstances, such language should be stopped if possible’.

The battle occurred here, on this spot, not long after Rede’s protesting letter.

After Eureka around 120 men were arrested and 13 of these were charged with High Treason. Only Seekamp was charged with Sedition. He was convicted of Seditious Libel on 23 January 1855 and sentenced to 6 months gaol. It is the view of many that had the 13 others who were charged with High Treason been charged with Sedition they too would have served a gaol sentence like Seekamp.

Clara Seekamp ran the paper in her husband’s absence. She was the first female editor in Australia and possibly the first in the world. Her editorial style remained steadfast and continued the ideas of the Ballarat Reform League.

Susan Kruss has written a poem about Clara Seekamp. She has vocalised what Clara’s thoughts at the time of Eureka may have been. I would like to share an excerpt with you.

I got such a shock to see bodies

not acting but real dead eyes

looking up so fixedly

I had not imagined it being so awful

wives sweethearts children cried over them

Henry began the Stockade edition

We knew they’d arrest him for saying

that diggers have rights next morning

they seized him and took him away

I’m sure I’ll never forget what I saw

But I’ll see them right yet I’ll take on

being editor just as Henry would do I will

mention ‘sedition’ – the charge laid against him-

‘liberty’ and ‘oppression’ will be in each edition

the voice of the people cannot be silenced

by silencing one for the press is the voice

of the people and will not be silenced while I can

go on though I’m sure there’ll be those

shocked by a woman as editor who’ll oppose

every word that I write with some scorn

I see in The Argus this morning they hope that

my husband will soon be released and relieve

the goldfields of Ballarat from the dangerous

influence of a free press petticoat government.

The Argus expressed this sentiment on 31 January 1855 writing that it hoped that a lenient sentence would be given to Mr Seekamp to enable his quick return ‘to his editorial duties’. Clara’s editorials were described by The Argus on at least one occasion, as outspoken, startling in tone, and liberal and energetic in their use of words such as ‘sedition’, ‘liberty’ and ‘oppression’.

The people at Eureka 151 years ago fought for equality, liberty and freedom. These are ideals that should never be eroded. As a tribute to the people of Eureka we should always be vigilant to ensure for everyone the right to freedom of speech.

Long Live the Spirit of Eureka!

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