John Joseph was put on trial for leading a miners’ rebellion seeking less taxation and more representation. His legacy was forgotten — until now.
The unmarked grave of John Joseph must have been stepped on a thousand times, by miners from his own era of gold-hunting 1850s Australia, and then by generations of future fortune seekers.
No one seemed to care much about the Black American who had helped forge Australian democracy, who had been tried for treason by the British colonial authorities and whose acquittal sparked a street celebration in Melbourne, where he was carried shoulder-high into a sea of 10,000 people.
Mr. Joseph’s legacy simply faded, like a puff of dust on Australia’s arid plains, which is where he ended up. In the scruffy town of Bendigo. In a cemetery called White Hills near Chinese, Irish and Jewish migrants. Most of them had gravestones, hard and heavy. He did not.
Until last month, when Caroline Kennedy, the United States ambassador to Australia, unveiled a new plaque with a shiny American flag and a summary of Mr. Joseph’s life.
“His story is one for our time, too,” she said at a formal ceremony with a crowd of American and Australian officials. “As we face this history, we can ask ourselves, who is missing from today’s narrative? And what is our responsibility to make sure that they’re included?”
A Bendigo historian to her left held a crinkled page from the archives showing that Mr. Joseph was buried on July 25, 1858. His memorial service began nearly 165 years later, and more than 168 years after the Eureka rebellion — the uprising that had propelled him to prominence after miners seeking a more just government clashed with British troops, leaving around 30 people dead and leading to the arrest of Mr. Joseph and more than 100 others.
Why it took so long for him and his burial site to be recognized is partly a familiar story of racism and erasure. Australia’s birth as an independent nation included a “white Australia” program started in 1901 that barred nonwhite immigration, and the policy was fully dismantled only in the 1970s. Even now, scholarly interest in Australia’s multiracial past is limited, and the country has still failed to negotiate a treaty with the continent’s Aboriginal inhabitants.
But while historians have tended to overlook figures like Mr. Joseph — and he may not have sought the spotlight in the first place — his actions and the public’s response still paved the way for reforms that made Australia more democratic.
In death, he left unanswered questions, and one remarkable legal triumph that still resonates. He was accused — a Black man, American — of fatally shooting a British officer in the 1854 rebellion. His fate seemed sealed. But an all-white jury set the Black man free. Mr. Joseph died a few years later with no known descendants. And a handful of Australians spent a decade fighting to honor him.
“It’s almost laughable, right?” said Donald Betts Jr., a former Kansas state senator who lives in Australia and came to the ceremony to celebrate a fellow Black American immigrant. “It makes you want to cry at the same time.”
From America to Australia
Who was John Joseph?
News accounts from the time of his trial said he came from Boston, New York or maybe Baltimore. Historians believe he reached Australia’s goldfields after working the seas — a common occurrence at the time, as mariners jumped ship to search for gold.
A place called Ballarat, north of Melbourne — that was the place to be. Gold had been discovered there in 1851. The world soon arrived, with around 6,000 new miners (diggers, as they came to be known) showing up in town every week at the boom’s peak.
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When Mr. Joseph set foot in Ballarat a few years later, the town was teeming with activity and tension. The easy gold found by panning was gone. The government did not allow the miners to own land on the goldfields, or to vote, so the town was a tent city of the disenfranchised, marked by noise, mine shafts and flags marking different enclaves.
Many Americans arrived from the California gold rush, and there were plenty of Europeans, but the miners came from all over, representing a wide range of ethnicities and religions.
“There are Hindus, there are Maori, and people from Africa, too,” said Clare Wright, a history professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne and the author of “The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.” “And they’re all there for the same thing: to find gold.”
In debt and hoping to reduce migration, the colonial government imposed a monthly license fee in 1853 that most diggers could not afford. Seeking bribes or payback, corrupt police officers checked for the licenses in raids that sparked outrage and led to a merger of violence and politics.
In October 1854, a Scottish miner was killed at the Eureka Hotel in Ballarat. When the accused was exonerated — he was the hotel’s owner and a friend of the constable — a group of miners burned down the Eureka and were arrested.
A few weeks later, after another license hunt by the police, an Irishman named Peter Lalor tried to unify Ballarat’s miners under one thing they saw every night, the stars of the Southern Cross. He unfurled a flag with the constellation and led an oath: “We swear by the Southern Cross, to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”
Peter Fitzsimons, the Australian author of a 2013 book about Eureka, called it “our version of the Boston Tea Party, an uprising on the basis of ‘no taxes without representation.’”
What the men craved was not revolution, but rather the right to buy land and vote.
“They wanted to be able to have a seat at the table,” Professor Wright said. “They didn’t want to overthrow the table.”
But they did expect a fight. Grabbing timber from mine shafts and horse carts, they built a fort, the Eureka Stockade. Families and workers ended up behind the fence line. John Joseph did, too. In his 30s, older than most of the miners, he was a recent arrival to Ballarat, running a business under a tent selling refreshments.
When 300 British soldiers and police officers appeared at 3 a.m. on Dec. 3, Mr. Lalor reportedly called on the Americans, whom he trusted to be loyal. “California rangers to the front,” he shouted. And there was Mr. Joseph, witnesses said, with a double-barreled shotgun.
Gunfire pounded for 15 minutes. The authorities set fire to tents, to flush out insurgents. More than 20 diggers died. At least four soldiers were also killed in the battle. Capt. Henry Wise, the most popular officer in the division, was shot in the knee and died a few days later from an infection.
Mr. Joseph was blamed for his death.
A Triumphant Trial
Of the 125 miners arrested in the smoke and flame after the clash, only 13 were charged. At least two Americans caught up in the mess received legal assistance from the U.S. Consulate.
Mr. Joseph did not.
The United States did not grant due process to African Americans at home in the 1850s — a point of national shame noted by Ambassador Kennedy in her speech. Overseas, the U.S. government treated Mr. Joseph like a nonentity.
He was the first to face trial in February 1855, in Melbourne, the Colony of Victoria’s capital, partly because prosecutors believed he would be the easiest to convict. He pleaded not guilty, insisting he had arrived in Ballarat after the Southern Cross gathering and was simply in town to make a living.
Over a few days of testimony, witnesses placed Mr. Joseph on the front lines of the battle. His lawyers argued that in the darkness before dawn, it was impossible to identify who fired.
But since the charge was treason, not murder, they mostly focused on intent. Appealing to the racist stereotypes of the age, they argued that Mr. Joseph was too much of a simpleton to have committed high treason.
According to one of his lawyers, his client “declined to be made a hero of,” though among the diggers, he was seen as an ally. Raffaello Carboni, an Italian Eureka leader who spent time with Mr. Joseph in jail before trial, said that Mr. Joseph had a “warm, good, honest, kind, cheerful heart” and “a sober, plain-matter-of-fact contented mind.”
The jury seemed to reach a similar conclusion. The group returned quickly from deliberations, finding Mr. Joseph not guilty. Pandemonium filled the courtroom — around 10,000 people had packed the courtroom and the streets to hear the verdict. And Mr. Joseph was treated like a victorious general.
“On emerging from the courthouse, he was put in a chair and carried round the streets of the city in triumph,” wrote The Ballarat Star, a local newspaper.
All the other trials ended in acquittals or dismissals. The government soon gave in to the diggers’ broad demands. Miners would be allowed to buy land; men would be given the vote.
In a dispatch from London, Karl Marx, the father of communism, described Eureka as distinct from the American Revolution because the uprising had been “initiated by the workers.”
And then Eureka faded. The diggers went back to digging. Mr. Joseph moved on to Bendigo, another mining town, where a neighborhood called California Gully, marked today by low-slung Victorian houses, suggests there were plenty of Americans nearby. But there is no known mention of Mr. Joseph in local newspapers after his trial in 1855.
Three years later, at 41, he died, probably from a heart attack, based on hospital records. No one knows if he was mourned by friends at the grave, or if his relatives were notified.
An Unmarked Grave
Martin Callinan’s great-great-great-grandfather was an Irish miner who fought at the stockade. His own father had taken him for walks in the White Hills Cemetery, explaining that somewhere beneath their feet lay the body of a Black American freedom fighter.
In 2013, he wrote a letter to Kim Beazley, Australia’s ambassador to the United States, urging more recognition for Mr. Joseph. He said he never heard back.
Eureka had become a boutique and often divisive subject. In the 1990s, the local Southern Cross flag signaled support for unions, workers’ rights or Communism; more recently, it has become associated with right-wing white nationalists.
“It’s been used by some complete nutters,” Mr. Callinan said. “That confuses a lot of things.”
Inside the U.S. Consulate in Melbourne, Gabrielle Connellan, a cultural affairs specialist, held firm to the idea that Eureka was about fighting tyranny. She repeatedly shared Mr. Callinan’s letter and suggested doing something for Mr. Joseph.
Over the past year, intense discussions around race and history in America and Australia added urgency. White Hills agreed to find the location of Mr. Joseph’s grave. Ambassador Kennedy found time in her schedule.
“The stars just kind of aligned,” said Kathleen Lively, the U.S. consul general in Melbourne.
She acknowledged that the bureaucracy had been slow. Punctuating the point, a quote from Mark Twain appeared at the bottom of Mr. Joseph’s gravestone, praising the Eureka rebellion as “a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression.”
He wrote that line after visiting the goldfields in 1895.
Santilla Chingaipe, an Australian journalist who featured Mr. Joseph’s story in a documentary about the country’s forgotten Black history — also the subject of a book she’s writing — called his eventual day of recognition bittersweet.
She spoke at the event, then watched as descendants of the Eureka fighters eagerly helped Ms. Kennedy plant a new American oak tree at Mr. Joseph’s grave.
“How wonderful is it that John Joseph gets to be acknowledged, and so publicly,” she said, standing a bit apart from the crowd. “But I’m also going, ‘Wait, it’s taken a foreign government to recognize something that played a foundational role in Australia’s history.’”
“Australia is still stuck on this idea of a very monocultural identity,” she added.
Especially for Americans like Mr. Betts, a lawyer who moved to Australia more than a decade ago with his wife, Mr. Joseph’s story arrived like a shooting star. What a revelation: Australian history is Black American history, too.
“African Americans that are living here in Australia — we now have a connection to Australia,” he said, smiling at the gravesite. “And here,” he added, “they exonerated a man!”
“There is a time and season for everything,” Mr. Betts said. “This season was for the revealing of John Joseph and the telling of his story.”