Peter Lalor lost his left arm struggling for democracy in Australia in the 1850s. But he went down in history as a folk hero and pioneer politician.
In 1854, Irish-born Peter Lalor led what was known as the Eureka Stockade Rebellion in Victoria, an event sometimes called “the birth of democracy” in Australia. First declared an outlaw, the amputee eventually became speaker of the Victoria Legislative Assembly.
Lalor and the other rebels were poor prospectors in the Victoria gold fields. Few struck it rich. Most lived hand to mouth, huddling in tents and working dank underground mine shafts.
The miners – who called themselves “diggers” – had no say in the Victoria Legislative Council, which required them to buy an expensive license to hunt for gold. The diggings were on government land miners were not permitted to buy.
Lalor called the license an “odious pox tax” in a letter “to the colonists of Victoria,” published in the Argus, a newspaper in Melbourne, Victoria’s capital. Lalor wrote the letter while he was hiding from authorities.
“The diggers were subjected to the most unheard of insults and cruelties in the collection of this tax, being in many instances chained to logs if they could not produce their license,” he said.
In effect, Lalor and the other miners argued that the license was taxation without representation. Miners weren’t eligible to vote or run for the council.
“The diggers…had no means of having their grievances redressed in a constitutional way,” explains an entry about Lalor in the online Dictionary of Australian Biography.
In an attempt to placate the miners, the Council reduced the license fee in 1853.
“But the law was administered tyrannically, and even brutally and unjustly,” the dictionary explains.
“I have often known men to be asked for their license four or five times in the course of a day,” Lalor also wrote.
He added that many mine shafts filled up with water, compelling “the diggers frequently to change their dress; in doing so they very often leave their licenses behind; under such circumstances should they be visited by the police, they are dragged wet and dripping as they may be, to the prison, like common felons. The scarcity of gold made the diggers feel those evils more keenly.”
In 1854, anger among the diggers exploded when a local court exonerated a hotel owner who killed a miner. Miners burned the hotel in retaliation.
They also organized the Reform League and called for an end to licensing. In addition, they demanded the rights to purchase land and to have representation in the Council.
The government refused the diggers. As a result, a few miners burned their licenses; members of the Reform League agreed to buy no more licenses.
Police and troops showed up to enforce the law.
“The police and military came out to look for licenses; a digger who, I presume, had no licence, was running away, when an officer of police ordered his men to ‘fire on him’ to ‘shoot him down’ and he was fired at,” Lalor wrote.
That afternoon, Lalor addressed a crowd of enraged miners, whom he described as “brave and honest men, who had come thousands of miles to labor for independence.” Lalor explained, “I knew that hundreds were in great poverty, who would possess wealth and happiness if allowed to cultivate the wilderness which surrounded us…and with the burning feelings of an injured man, I mounted the stump and proclaimed ‘Liberty.’”
Lalor called for volunteers to step forward and to be organized in companies. The miners collected weapons and barricaded a hilltop, calling their fortress the “Eureka Stockade.”
The diggers sewed their own flag and hoisted it above the stockade. The dark blue banner was emblazoned with silvery-white stars in the shape of the Southern Cross constellation.
The miners elected Lalor their leader.
“I shall not shrink,” the Australian Dictionary of Biography online quoted Lalor’s response to the miners. “I tell you, gentlemen, if once I pledge my hand to the diggers, I will neither defile it with treachery, nor render it contemptible with cowardice.”
Lalor also authored an oath of allegiance for the Eureka Stockade miners: “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”
Defend the barricade the miners did, against troops who attacked before dawn on Dec. 3, 1854. “There were about 70 men possessing guns, 20 with pikes, and 30 with pistols, but many of those men with fire-arms had no more than one or two rounds of ammunition,” Lalor said.
The attackers, who outnumbered the miners, apparently suffered few losses. But they killed 14 miners and wounded 20 more, eight of whom died, Lalor’s letter said.
fLalor was among the early casualties.
“I received a musket ball (together with two other smaller bullets) in the left shoulder, which shattered my arm, and from the loss of blood I was rendered incapable of further action,” he said.
One of the miners helped Lalor escape the stockade and hid him in a pile of wood “out of view of the military and police,” he said. “While in this position the latter passed several times within a few feet of me.” Lalor managed to reach the nearby bush and hid the rest of the day.
After dark, he returned to the diggings, where a friend helped him reach the home of a priest. Doctors amputated Lalor’s arm at the shoulder the next day. According to legend, he regained consciousness during the operation. Lalor supposedly noticed a doctor on the verge of fainting over the bloody mess the bullets made of Lalor’s shoulder. “Courage! Courage!” he shouted, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. “Take it off!”
A price was put on his head – 200 pounds reward to anybody who would help authorities find and arrest him. There were no takers. The public clearly backed the miners.
Reform followed. Ultimately, all charges against Lalor were dropped. A few of the Eureka Stockade miners were tried and found not guilty; the rest received amnesty.
In 1855, Lalor was named to the Legislative Council. The next year, Victoria adopted a new constitution creating a two-house parliament and granting almost all men, including miners, the vote. In 1856, Lalor was elected to the Legislative Assembly, or lower house, of the new parliament. He served until his death in 1887 at age 55. He was speaker of the assembly from 1880 to 1887. The Melbourne suburb of Lalor is named for him.
Meanwhile, in his letter in the Argus, Lalor wondered why the government forced men to risk and lose their lives to receive justice.
“Is it to prove to us that a British Government can never bring forth a measure of reform without having first prepared a font of human blood in which to baptise the offspring of their generous love? Or is it to convince the world that, where a large standing army exists, the Demon of Despotism will have frequently offered at his shrine the mangled bodies of murdered men?”
Berry Craig is a correspondent for O&P Business News.