Reviewed by Rod McLary
The Eureka Rebellion – more commonly known as the Eureka Stockade – was a key event in Australian history and is considered to be highly significant in the development of Australian democracy and identity. The rebellion in 1854 came about partly because of the licences which gold diggers were obliged to purchase and to produce at any time when demanded by the Gold Commissioner’s police force. The extensive corruption existing amongst the police and judiciary was also a source of much angst amongst the gold diggers.
On 30 November 1854, under the leadership of Peter Lalor, the diggers marched to the Eureka diggings [named after a deep lead of gold] and constructed the stockade. On 3 December 1854 – a Sunday which meant the diggers were unprepared as they believed there would be no attack on the Sabbath – the authorities attacked the stockade. Twenty-two diggers and five soldiers were killed and the battle was over in twenty minutes.
However, the Eureka Stockade achieved its aims when in March 1855 all the demands of the diggers were met. Peter Lalor became the first MLC for the seat of Ballarat and the diggers were given eight representatives on the Legislative Council.
It is against this backdrop that Bruce Venables has set his novel. The novel places a number of disparate characters from the United Kingdom, the United States and China deep in the heart of the goldfields after they [separately] survive trials and tribulations to get there. All the characters are running from something or someone.
John Farrington – a Captain of the 3rd King’s Own Dragoons and a hero of the Anglo-Sikh Wars – is injured in a duel and is obliged to leave England to save his life. Master Feng – an operatic impresario – is accused of treason and, along with his star ‘The Emperor’s Nightingale’, is forced to leave China to avoid punishment by death. Cate Shearley and her young son Jack are forced out of the United States by Cate’s narrow escape from a murder attempt by a deceiving lover.
Each seeks refuge and a new start in Australia and is attracted by the promises of riches to be made from gold. Over time, these individuals come together as a group and along with two or three others – Kit – an American fresh from the Californian goldfields and filled with revolutionary fervour; Rhodesy – a giant of a man who often steps into affrays to protect his friends; and Stupid Ho – a Chinese servant whose sharp wits belie his unfortunate nickname – form strong protective friendships. John’s and Cate’s friendship deepens into an intense relationship which adds a frisson of sexual excitement to the story.
But, the real story is the story of the Eureka Stockade and the author provides considerable information about the developing tensions on the goldfields – tensions created by a corrupt police force and the cruelty displayed by police officers towards the miners. Added to the mix are graphic descriptions of the Chinese miners and the atrocious conditions in which they lived.
The author relies on conversations between the key characters to describe to the reader the events leading up to the Stockade. The characters are placed in different contexts – Cate is running a hotel and later a travelling troupe of actors and musicians, Master Feng lives in the Chinese camp, and John and his friends are on the goldfields – and this allows different perspectives to be described at some length. It is unfortunate that this is achieved through rather clunky dialogue between the key characters. One example of this dialogue is the following:
There are over one hundred thousand souls out on the western goldfields, who were looking forward to the arrival of the new Governor after suffering the ruinous administration led by Charles La Trobe! There are thousands of men out there with wives and children who long to settle permanently in Victoria and take up farming and other worthwhile pursuits.
These words are spoken by Kit from the United States where ‘universal suffrage is an inalienable right [and] my country is the land of the free and home of the brave’.
While these conversations go some way towards informing the reader of the history of the goldfields and the causes of the rebellion, they do not make interesting fiction. I would suggest that the author wanted to write about a key event in Australian history but mistakenly chose the format of a novel to do so. The story of the Eureka Stockade is gripping in itself and does not need the surrounding fiction to sustain it.
However, for any reader unfamiliar with the history of the Stockade and wishes to know more about it, this novel is a reasonable place to start. It combines historical fact with fiction and to some extent redeems itself with a heart-warming conclusion better left for the reader to discover.
Bruce Venables was born in Hobart and was a member of the Tasmanian Police Force – later he joined the Royal Hong Kong Police. In 1984, he began his writing career and has written a number of books as well as film and television scripts.
By Bruce Venables
ISBN 978 0 143 78239 1