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Constructed on the afternoon of Saturday 2 December, the Eureka Stockade was a breastwork of wooden slabs reinforced with carts about four feet high. It hemmed in about an acre of land a short distance from the charred remains of Bentley’s Eureka hotel.
Police Constable Henry Goodenough, an undercover agent for the government, had infiltrated his way into the stockade under the pretence of being a fellow digger. Having witnessed their preparations, including drillings, speeches and the search for ammunition, Goodenough reported back to the Camp all that he had learnt regarding the future outbreak. However, at this point the diggers were still hoping that a peaceful resolution could be made, and as a result Peter Lalor had called for a deputation to be sent to Resident Gold Fields Commissioner Rede in the hope of dissolving the stalemate. The deputation was to explain that the diggers would return to work as normal on the proviso that prisoners would be released and assurances given by the Commissioners that licence hunts would be abandoned. Father Smyth, Raffaello Carboni and George Black were chosen as the deputees. Their journey proved to be in vain as Rede dismissed their requests.
In an effort to keep the peace, Father Smyth, unbeknown to others in the stockade, returned to the Camp still believing that there could be some way of reconciling the dispute with Rede. Once more he appealed to the Commissioner to drop the licence hunts until higher authorities had reached a decision, only to have his pleas rejected yet again.
Returning to the Camp, Smyth wrote a letter to Hotham in an effort to convince him that further unrest could be avoided should the Governor agree to the demands of the diggers. Hotham later replied to Father Smyth, informing him that his duty was to enforce the laws of the Crown, and that until the Commission had decided otherwise, he would continue with the licence hunts.
The battle brews
Anticipating the likelihood of a battle, approximately three to four hundred unarmed diggers had made their way from Creswick, and in support, they joined the ranks of diggers already at the stockade. Father Smyth, alarmed at the determination of the diggers to seek justice, expressed concern and appealed to them to attend mass the following day. His invitation was met with a less than receptive response. Far from expecting a fight, the attitude in the stockade that Saturday evening was relaxed. A number of diggers had left their posts to return to their tents; many of them had been drinking, while others had simply gone to bed. Overall, approximately 120 men were left within the stockade to act as sentry for that evening. Lalor had retired for the night without placing anyone else in charge.
A few kilometres away in the Government Camp the mood was quite different. Busily preparing for their attack on the ‘insurgents‘, the authorities had issued a public notice stating that no lights were to be allowed after 8 pm and should anyone fire any weapons, they would be fired at directly by the police. Commissioner Rede had already notified the relevant bodies in Melbourne regarding the impending attack on the stockaders, maintaining that in order to successfully crush the diggers they should be contained within the stockade.
That evening, paranoid that spies had infiltrated the Camp, both Commissioner Rede and Captain Charles Pasley secretly discussed their strategy for the upcoming assault on the stockade. By now, their men were armed and a route to the stockade had been devised with the aid of Commissioner Amos. By 3.30 am, soldiers and police officers had taken their positions as planned, only 300 yards from the stockade. Captain Thomas had instructed his troops to spare any person who did not show signs of resistance; the troops outnumbered the stockaders two to one.
Slaughter at Eureka
At 4.45 am on Sunday 3 December, the sentry posted to guard the stockade fired a warning shot to alert the other diggers of the attack. The diggers, who were all still asleep, were largely caught unprepared for battle with the government forces. The stockade had been successfully surrounded, with Captain Wise’s contingent of the 40th regiment covering the northern side of the stockade, a smaller group in position to the west and a larger group moving in from the east.
Lalor, who was first on the scene, made a desperate attempt to assemble his men into some semblance of order. Standing upon a stump, he ordered his men to hold fire until the troopers advanced closer towards them. While in this vulnerable position, a couple of bullets struck Lalor in the shoulder. Advising his men to flee, Lalor hid among a pile of slabs. He later had his wounded arm ampuated.
Carboni awoke in his tent outside the stockade hearing the gun shots, and consequently did not participate in the actual fighting. Frederick Vern fled the scene, while James McGill, responsible for organising tactics, had been sent on an errand and was not present.
Realising the futility of the situation, many diggers tried to escape the scene of carnage. The Canadian, Captain Ross, had received a fatal gunshot wound as he stood at the foot of the flagpole where the symbolic Southern Cross flag flew. Minutes later, Constable John King made his way to the flagpole and tore down the stockaders’ symbol of unity and freedom.
Although the duration of the battle was recorded as being twenty minutes, the confusion and chaos that accompanied the carnage lasted until 7 am on the Sunday morning. The authorities, on the advice of Commissioner Rede and Captain Thomas, began the process of rounding up and arresting all those present.
By then, news of the battle had reached Melbourne and Lieutenant Governor Hotham instructed that proclamations be printed and distributed throughout the city. Meanwhile, various reports were written by Captain Thomas, Commissioner Rede, Charles Pasley and Police Magistrate Charles Hackett, in relation to the events that had occurred that day.