TRANSCRIPT: Remarks at the John Joseph Memorial (Bendigo, Victoria)
White Hills Cemetery, Bendigo, Victoria
Consul General Kathleen Lively: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Kathleen Lively, I am the United States Consul General in Melbourne, I will be your MC for today’s ceremony.
It is my distinct pleasure to welcome you all here today. I’ll start by welcoming our dignitaries: first, the Ambassador of the United States of America, Ms. Caroline Kennedy; the Member for Bendigo, Ms. Lisa Chesters MP; the Member for Wendouree, Ms. Juliana Addison MP; the Mayor of the City of Greater Bendigo, Councillor Andrea Metcalf, and Councillors from the City of Greater Bendigo; the Mayor of the City of Ballarat, Councillor Des Hudson; the Youth Mayor of the City of Greater Bendigo, Ryan Peterson; the President of Eureka Australia, Mr Eric Howard AM, and Committee Members of Eureka Australia; and Ms. Santilla Chingaipe. Distinguished guests.
I acknowledge that we are on Dja Dja Wurrung and Taungurung Country. I pay my respects to their Elders past and present and express our gratitude to them in the sharing of this land. I also express my sorrow for the personal, spiritual, and cultural costs of that sharing and my hope that we may walk forward together in harmony and in the spirit of healing.
We are also here today in the spirit of healing to recognize John Joseph, a Black American who died in Australia in 1858 and was a key actor in one of Australia’s most significant political uprisings, the Eureka Stockade.
John Joseph has been largely forgotten from the story of Eureka, and lies here in an unmarked grave at White Hills Cemetery.
This amazing story of an American at Eureka is a great example of the U.S.-Australian relationship, which pre-dates both the abolition of slavery in the United States and the Federation of Australia.
So how do we all find ourselves here today? Well, in late December of 2013, more than nine years ago, Mr. Martin Callinan of Bendigo, who I believe is here with us today, and whose great-great-great-grandfather fought alongside John Joseph at the Eureka Stockade, contacted the Australian Ambassador to the U.S. at the time, the Hon. Kim Beazley. Mr. Callinan recommended that John Joseph’s grave be marked, and his contributions be celebrated as a symbol of how both Australians and Americans are bound together in the shared ideals of the defense of liberty.
The letter found its way to the DFAT Victorian office, and then found its way to us at the U.S. Consulate in Melbourne, back in 2014.
I want to acknowledge both the DFAT team’s Susan Cole, and the Consulate’s own Head of Public Affairs, Gab Connellan, who both approached me with this story when I arrived in Melbourne in late 2021.
While there was always interest from the Consulate to do something, it seemed it was never quite possible to get the project over the finish line.
We approached the Embassy and Ambassador Kennedy agreed that the time was past due to recognize the contributions of John Joseph, and provide him with a memorial on the site of his unmarked grave.
Working with organizations such as Eureka Australia, DFAT and Remembrance Parks, we were able to provide this permanent recognition of Mr. Joseph.
This ceremony is the culmination of that long overdue recognition. In the United States, February is Black History Month, and we couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate Black Americans and their contributions to both the U.S. and Australia than this.
I’d now like to introduce Santilla to speak. I was introduced to her soon after my arrival and she filled in the rest of John Joseph’s story for me. She’s a filmmaker and an author, whose work explores colonialism, slavery and post-colonial migration in Australia. You might have seen her 2021 film Our African Roots on SBS TV which explores Australia’s forgotten black history, including that of John Joseph. It’s still available to view and I certainly welcome you to take a look at that.
Welcome very much, Santilla.
Santilla Chingaipe: Thank you very much Consul General Lively for that generous introduction, and I also want to thank you and Ambassador Kennedy for the invitation to be here with you all. Good afternoon everyone.
I have to say, I’m pretty humbled to be here on the unceded lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung and the Taungurung Peoples of the Kulin Nation, to pay tribute to a man who contributed significantly to the foundation of this colonized country.
When I left my house this morning, I noticed that it was raining. It’s not raining in Bendigo, but it was certainly raining in Melbourne this morning. And in my culture, rain on the day of an event is a very good omen. It’s seen as a blessing from the ancestors of their approval, and I’d like to think it was John Joseph rejoicing in the afterlife. And as somber as today’s event is, it is also a celebration.
On the drive here, I wondered what John Joseph would have made of this scene. People traveling from near and far to commemorate his life and legacy. It’s hard to know.
I was also thinking about what kind of funeral he would have had, if at all. He lies in an unmarked grave within this cemetery, and I wonder if those close to him attended? If those close to him attended the funeral? And was it a dignified send off? Was he eulogized? Did his loved ones in America ever find out about his death, or even about his life in Victoria?
Many questions without answers. With no known descendants here in Australia, and scant details about him outside the Eureka Rebellion within the archives, much of who John Joseph was remains a mystery.
This is the compounding tragedy of John Joseph’s life, and others like him, who for so long have gone forgotten, erased, or silenced because of racism.
I’ve been tasked with talking about a man who many know little about and who was buried here more than 160 years ago. I learned about John Joseph several years ago when I began researching the lives of people of African descent in colonial Australia. And as Consul General Lively mentioned he was— his story was featured in a documentary I wrote and produced called Our African Roots.
And what I discovered and later shared in the program were the facts of his life: He is described as a tall and powerful man of African descent who was likely a sailor from the United States. But exactly how tall, we don’t know. And depending on which source you look at, his hometown is listed as either New York, Baltimore or Boston.
And he likely made his way to Australia via Britain and jumped ship and walked to the Victorian goldfields in the hope of making his fortune. And if you came in from Melbourne, it’s a pretty long walk. And it’s in this part of Victoria, in nearby Ballarat, that he finds himself running a sly grog tent in 1854. Sly grog, for those unfamiliar with this Australian colloquialism, is illicit alcohol, which he sold to the miners.
We can only guess at John Joseph’s motives for joining the disaffected miners when they finally revolt against the extortionate licence fees and the bullying tactics of the police. The miners soon prepare for battle. When their hastily-built stockade is attacked by hundreds of British soldiers, John Joseph is on the front line allegedly armed with a double-barrelled shotgun that he unleashes upon his assailants.
John Joseph’s comrades describe him as being “in the thick of the fight” and acting with a degree of dignity in battle worthy of a revolutionary martyr. As the British redcoats overrun the stockade, John Joseph is alleged to have fired a shot which fatally wounds Captain Henry Christopher Wise, the British officer leading the offensive.
On the rare occasion we hear from John Joseph in his own words, from the archives, he admits that he was apprehended within the stockade, but that his tent had been previously pitched within the area. He was a stranger at Ballarat, he says, and had never had an aggressive weapon in his hand or took part in the hostile proceedings. He had his license with him at the time of his arrest. And despite denying any involvement, he is arrested and charged and along with twelve of the defeated miners tried in court for treason. John Joseph is the first to be prosecuted. And we don’t entirely know why, but newspapers speculated at the time that it was because the authorities thought a white jury would convict him because of his skin colour. The trial records are a litany of racial stereotypes. And despite his attempt— And despite this attempt to portray him in a negative light, it takes just 30 minutes for a jury to find him not guilty.
Much like his life prior to the rebellion, it’s difficult to know what it looks like after his acquittal. What we do know is that just a few years later—in 1858—he dies in his 40s from a suspected heart attack and is buried here in Bendigo.
But even with these facts, it’s still challenging to make sense of John Joseph as a person who was loved by those who knew him, and who he also loved. Much of what’s recorded is written by people who would have been unsympathetic to John Joseph – people in positions of power who wrote about him the way they saw him: a Black man, who to them, wasn’t intelligent and was guilty simply because of his skin colour.
Standing here at the cemetery where he’s buried, it’s hard to not be emotional. When I was asked to speak here today, I couldn’t quite believe that we would be honoring John Joseph like this. That people heard about his story and outraged by the injustice he experienced in his lifetime, strongly believed his life mattered enough to be acknowledged publicly. While John Joseph is not my direct ancestor, as an African-Australian who has made this country my home, I stand on his shoulders and others like him who endured circumstances that in many ways, I’m shielded from today.
In John Joseph’s lifetime, racism was so rampant that there were no consequences to protect him from it. The racial discrimination act was yet to be enshrined into law, and I’m sure many people back then wouldn’t have imagined that John Joseph’s role in the Eureka Rebellion would be celebrated in this way.
This is the triumph of John Joseph’s legacy: that people like me can stand here, speaking in my own words. A privilege that was largely denied to him, but of which so many of us are grateful for. I can’t imagine what John Joseph must have been feeling during that period, and the fact that even when he disputed his own personal involvement, his words were not enough to protect him from the racist infrastructure that was determined to convict him – a Black man – of a crime he objected to having anything to do with.
The triumph of his legacy is that on days like today, we can correct the historical record to say that John Joseph was treated unjustly and his life should be understood within the context of the times that he lived in. While it doesn’t change the circumstances of his experiences while he was living, it’s my hope that this ceremony enables his spirit to rest easy. Thank you.
Consul General Kathleen Lively: Thank you very much, Santilla, it was lovely. Ambassador Kennedy.
Ambassador Caroline Kennedy: Thank you and I also would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and acknowledge their elders past, present and emerging.
I especially want to thank Kathleen Lively and Gab Connellan for their persistent effort which has made this ceremony possible. And I am proud to lead a Mission with such outstanding members. I want to congratulate Santilla, for your foundational work on the African diaspora, including John Joseph.
I am especially grateful here for the presence of descendants of the Eureka Stockade who set this process in motion and for your commitment to history, justice, and remembrance. I am honored by the presence of many elected officials and local leaders who have joined in this moment of reflection.
The story of John Joseph and his trial is one set in his time and this place – but it is also a story for our time.
The battle that unfolded at the stockade in Ballarat is an iconic moment in the history of the Australian labor movement and Australian democracy. It led directly to miners’ representation on the Victoria Legislative Council, followed two years later by the secret ballot and adult male suffrage.
Americans can be proud that John Joseph played a pivotal role in the story – proud of his courage in the fight and his role in the trial and its aftermath – but we must also acknowledge the American context that shaped his fate.
Perhaps the most dramatic parallel is that at the same time thousands of Black men were seeking their fortune in the California gold rush just as John Joseph did here. Few made it rich, but many were able to build new lives and start businesses. Joseph came from the East Coast of the United States to seek his fortune here selling concessions in Victoria which was producing one-third of the world’s gold at that time.
The Eureka Stockade occurred 21 years after the Slavery Abolition Act began the gradual emancipation of enslaved people in the British Empire, but in the United States, 1854 was a year of extreme violence. Congress passed the Kansas- Nebraska Act allowing for the extension of slavery into the western states, triggering violence and setting the United States on the path toward a civil war in which 700,000 soldiers were killed.
Just a few months before the Eureka Uprising, in a speech in Peoria, Illiinois, Abraham Lincoln condemned the Act saying, “Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it …Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south — let all Americans – let all lovers of liberty everywhere – join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and keep it, forever worthy of the saving.”
But instead in 1857, the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision, confirming that Black Americans were not U.S. citizens. Indeed, at the time of the Eureka uprising, while the U.S. Consul in Australia offered assistance to the other Americans put to trial, it offered no help to John Joseph.
It’s small but significant consolation that Joseph was tried by a jury and represented by lawyers here in Australia – basic rights of due process that the U.S. Constitution also guaranteed, but not to African Americans. It’s hard to imagine the elation Joseph must have felt being carried around the city and cheered by a crowd of 10,000 – and seeing the major impact of his acquittal on the rest of the trials, on miners’ rights, policing, the administration of justice and the governance of Victoria – before becoming impoverished, forgotten and buried here in an unmarked grave.
His story is one for our time too 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 are included. We can be inspired by the courage of the miners and renew our commitment to justice for those who have been left out and left behind. We can take heart from the recognition that great progress has occurred while recognizing that there is much more to do. We can hold our governments accountable to their democratic promises and we can hold ourselves accountable for creating a more just and honest world.
It’s a privilege to serve my country here in Australia – The United States has no closer or more important ally. Our countries each have a complicated history, but we are united by bonds of shared sacrifice, common values, and a commitment to a peaceful future. Peter Lalor, the uprising’s Irish leader, may have said it best: “We swear to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”
That is what Americans and Australians have done, and I know the best is yet to come.
Consul General Kathleen Lively: Thank you, Madam Ambassador.
The Ambassador is going to unveil the plaque. And I’m sure everybody will get to take the chance to read it, but basically it says:
In memory of John Joseph 1831 – 1858
An African American man who traveled from the United States to the goldfields of Victoria, Mr. Joseph took his place alongside many Americans fighting for democratic rights at Ballarat’s Eureka Stockade in 1854. Of hundreds arrested, Mr. Joseph was one of only 13 charged, and faced trial in Melbourne for high treason. Over 10,000 people gathered to witness his not guilty verdict and Mr. Joseph was carried through the streets in triumph.
He lies buried here in an unmarked grave.
[The plaque is unveiled.]
Consul General Kathleen Lively: We would also like now to invite Ambassador Kennedy to plant an American Oak tree in honor of John Joseph. So she’s going to get the big shovel…
[Ambassador Kennedy plants tree]
Consul General Kathleen Lively: Fantastic.