1829-1864 | VIC | Journalist & publisher
Seekamp was the first Victorian journalist jailed over editorial principles and the only man to serve a prison term as a result of the Eureka Stockade. The fiery English migrant established Ballarat's first newspaper, The Ballarat Times, in March 1854 and turned it into a clarion for the diggers in their protests at government corruption. He was charged with seditious libel, jailed for six months and released after three months following a monster petition from the people of Ballarat.
Henry Seekamp in 1854 became the most famous and infamous journalist Victoria had so far known. He died ten years later, a bottle often in his shaking hand. But his prestige is rising, and some admirers now hail him as the most forthright of the founders of the movement to make Australia a republic.
He is said to have been born in London in 1829, but this is not certain: his surname is certainly German. Reaching Victoria in August 1852 to search for gold he soon became a journalist and published his first newspaper in March 1854. Copies of his Ballarat Times were expensive and circulation was small, though some copies passed from hand to hand until they were tattered.
Seekamp himself covered the politics of the goldfields which now held more than 20,000 people, mostly young men. In September 1854 he was secretary of the committee which proposed to build a free Ballarat hospital. A constant champion of the rich-poor goldfield, he declared that Melbourne and its officials were exploiting its wealth and bullying or ignoring its miners.
Short and thickset, Seekamp is said to have hated humbug and especially “yabber yabber”, then a vogue phrase of Aboriginal origin. His own political prose was extravagant at times, but many of his sentences were compelling, eloquent and even pithy.
As the dispute between the Victorian government and Ballarat’s miners became hotter, the boy-faced editor applied the heat. He thought Victoria should be independent of Britain. After the rebelling miners had raised their Southern Cross flag, he predicted that it “shall triumphantly wave in the sunshine of its own blue and peerless sky over thousands of Australia’s adopted sons.” He almost invited bloodshed: the gathering clouds of popular indignation will burst “like a whirlwind” and perhaps sweep the government away. In the event of civil war, he predicted, the government’s 500 troops would not be able to subdue 5000 ‘free men’.
On Sunday 3 December 1854, after the miners were surprised and quickly defeated at the battle in the Eureka Stockade, Seekamp prepared a special edition for the following day. He added his own verbal clap of thunder: “this foul and bloody murder calls to high Heaven for vengeance, terrible and immediate.” Almost all copies of the paper were seized by the police and burned.
Seekamp, about to escape to Bendigo, was arrested. Escorted to Melbourne, along with other political prisoners, he was tried in the Supreme Court for sedition. Found guilty on 23 January 1855, he appealed and lost. Sentenced to six months in prison, he was released after three. Of all the armed men arrested in the rebellion, he was the only one to serve a prison term. In essence the pen was deemed to be sharper than the bayonet.
Back in Ballarat he resumed his work as editor, his wife Clara having served in his absence. Within a year he clashed with the first international celebrity to visit Australia, the actress and “spider dancer” Lola Montez. He accused her of immorality. In public she hit him over the head and shoulders with a short horsewhip; and he retaliated physically. In his own town he was no longer a hero and was pelted with oranges and apples by spectators who had once admired him.
In July 1856 he appeared in the Geelong Circuit Court on yet another charge. A libel he had penned and printed was reckless, and he was heavily fined. In public he had become unmanageable. In private his wife could not manage him, and soon they parted. She outlived him by 44 years.
After selling his Ballarat Times newspaper at a profit he was not often seen in Ballarat. He disappeared from public view for months on end. In 1860 he edited a small newspaper at Twofold Bay on the far south coast of NSW, his brief reign ending in litigation. In his wanderings he finally reached the continent’s most remote gold town, Clermont in tropical Queensland, where he died peacefully on 19 January 1864.
Opinions about him will always differ. Most will probably view him as a brave, impetuous journalist who held up liberal precepts in one hand, with perhaps the stain of blood in the other.
Geoffrey Blainey is an historian who has written histories of Victoria, Australia, and the world. His first book was published in 1954.
Portrait of Lola Montez, who had a public spat with Henry Seekamp.
From The Ballarat Times.
Henry Seekam and Lola Montez fighting. Wood engraving published in Punch, 1856. Courtesy State Library Victoria
'Swearing allegiance to the "Southern Cross"', 1854, watercolour & ink on paper. Courtesy Art Gallery of Ballarat, Purchased by the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery with the assistance of many donors, 1996.
'Seekamp, Henry (1829-1864)', Anne Beggs Sunter, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Anne Beggs Sunter
History of Ballarat, W.B.Withers, Ballarat, 1870.
Lucky City, Weston Bate, Melbourne University Press, 1978.
An Eyewitness History of Australia, Harry Gordon, Adelaide 1976.
Ballarat Star, esp, 31 October 1860, 29 June 1861.SA Register, 21 July 1856.The Argus, Melbourne, 24, 27 January 1855.