The Eureka Rebellion was an uprising of miners against government troops and is popularly remembered as the birthplace of Australian democracy. The primary concern was the perceived corruption of local administration, particularly in Victoria. The questionable acquittal of Bentley, a publican whom was widely believed to be responsible for the death of miner Scobie, provided the momentum to form the Ballarat Reform League. The later arrest of three men involved in the burning down of Bentley’s hotel increased anti-government fervent within the movement.
The backdrop to such anger and frustration lies primarily in relation to harsh financial burdens that were placed upon the miners and later others whom exercised any trade or calling on the goldfields. Licence fees were 30 shillings a month and enforcement was not only rigorous but also inconvenient. The officials whom administered the goldfields were often corrupt. Hotham, acting under pressure from the London, increased licence checks from once a month to twice weekly.
The Reform League campaigned for democratic rights as stated in their November 11 Declaration including demands for representative government, manhood suffrages, no property qualifications of members of the Legislative Council, the payment of members and short duration of parliaments. Such demands were based on the declared inalienable right of man to be represented by the justice system that he is to abide by. Those whom were not part of the upper social strata that dominated the government system believed that laws were being made to accord nicely with ‘selfish ends and narrow minded views’. The League declared that the administration of justice was based on the ‘false assumption that law is greater than justice’ and instead sought to reform the law to incorporate justice within its core.
Lastly, the Reform League sought to pressure the government to ‘unlock the land’ to small farming settlement. Fahey contends that land was subject to an upper class monopoly, particularly for wealthy squatters. This further alienated the lower classes of society because private property was considered to be a means of self-realisation and freedom.
Whilst Hotham did concede to the introduction of a miners’ representative in the Legislative Council, he refused to free the men responsible for burning down the hotel. Confronted by this refusal, as well as the reinforcements of British soldiers that had been sent in, the League met on Bakery Hill on 29 November to burn their licences and swear allegiance to the Southern Cross to ‘fight and uphold [their] rights and liberties’.