At the very end of Clare Wright’s vivid, ripping-yarn about the forgotten women at Eureka, she signs off with a little imprint in askew letterpress; ‘Printed and published by Mrs Seekamp Ballarat’.
Clara Seekamp took over the running of her husband’s newspaper, the Ballarat Times after he was arrested and jailed for sedition following the Eureka Stockade on December 3rd 1854. Before his arrest, the Seekamps advertised the first unfurling of this ‘Australian flag’.
Readers will have wearily spotted the Eureka standard hoisted again on Saturday over the crowd of ‘Reclaimers’ at rallies around the country. Indeed so many national symbols were paraded – Australian and Aboriginal flags, boxing kangaroos, swastikas – it was like a float of signifiers had been declared by the Reserve Bank with all the ensuing moral bankruptcy at full flutter.
The co-option of the Eureka standard by the far right is nothing new, but since Reclaimers have unfurled it anew as the symbol of their exclusionary nationalism, it’s only fair to clarify the ensign they gather under to defend their idea of Australia and the purported freedoms they claim are being threatened by Muslims.
The original Eureka flag was 4 meters long. It was snipped into patch trophies and carried off by the redcoats who had shot down 30 or more men in a surprise dawn raid – and cut them through with cutlasses and bayonets, and fired their tents. As Wright uncovers in her startling The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka a woman and baby were also killed, and others wounded.
Clara Seekamp may have helped to sew the flag. Wright conjectures it was most likely sewn by women. It is estimated that many hands took 60 hours to flat-fell seam some 58-metres.
But Seekamp sutured its symbolism to Australian identity with more than fine even stitches, and beyond her involvement in its first hoisting, for this feisty woman was an acute political analyst and an adept leader-writer.
When then Governor Charles Hotham attempted to dismiss the rebels at Ballarat as ‘foreigners’ she challenged him in her broadside with words that should reverberate today, ‘What is it that constitutes a foreigner?’
Rather than be credited a reply she was swiftly dismissed by colonial men unaccustomed to such spirited rebuttals from a woman. As Wright records, her style was belittled as “violent” and “startling” and as the “dangerous influence of a free press petticoat government”.
Undeterred, Seekamp evoked a patriotism that might put the Reclaimer’s to shame, thronging under the ensign she and her Husband defended in mortal peril. We can quote her in full thanks to Wright, an historian alive to the significance of a woman barred from voting using the press to assert her voice in public and leave her impress on Australian political institutions:
‘What is this country else but Australia? Is it any more England than it is Ireland or Scotland, France or America, Italy or Germany? Is the population, wealth, intelligence, enterprise and learning wholly and solely English? No, the population of Australia is not English, but Australian. Whoever works towards the development of its resources and its wealth is no longer a foreigner but an Australian, a title full as good, if not better than that of any inhabitants of any of the geographical dominions in the world. The latest immigrant is the youngest Australian’.
While her husband did time for defending the freedoms the Reclaimers screech as their undivided entitlement, Mrs Seekamp was moved to remember the more than 20 nationalities who were involved in the Eureka uprising.
In appropriating their ensign the Reclaimers localise themselves in political origin, Eureka. Their nationalism is the gussied up spectacle of historical amnesia and political incoherence cathected through shoving, pointing and aggro.
The Reclaimers imagine a political community of equal players whose equality is measured only by sameness and can only be articulated defensively, against some confected difference. Uniformity is the marker of inclusion, and difference stands in for attacks on a nationhood they imagine religiously, as sacred to self, and binding their membership.
What they gathered to find and express on Saturday was some notion of community that mobilises under the Eureka flag, an ensign of horizontal national comradeship which is, like their fantastical foe, a purely imagined cultural artifact. It is Muslims that will fragment and split this imagined coherent identity, not Hockey’s cuts, not Pyne’s deregulation of higher ed, not their increasing exposure to an insecure labour market.
Ironically their nationhood is being imagined religiously in response to the evacuation of this cloistered group-membership by rationalist secularism. It’s almost kinship they converge around, wanting to occupy a localised identity that is territorialized by faith in nationhood.
Mostly it’s a righteous whiteness that pretends it is racially neutral, the national norm, the standard, signified by a new social kind, the Reclaimer, a new typecast to whom Mrs Seekamp would not give her imprimatur.
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