'1835: Founding of Melbourne ... ' Book Review

Book reveals Melbourne's illegal settlement ABC TV 'Indigenous' Book reveals Melbourne's illegal settlement Reporter: Hamish Fitzsimmons

Readings Bookstore Book Review

Mark Rubbo Readings 05th July 2011

'1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the conquest of Australia' by James Boyce

Henry Reynolds, in his review in The Age, called James Boyce’s Van Diemen’s Land ‘a fresh and sparkling account of the first generation of British settlement in Tasmania’. The Australian’s John Connor was more circumspect, while acknowledging that ‘it [was] a solid and significant addition to Australian colonial history’.

Arguably one of our most interesting historians, Boyce turns his eye to the settlement of the grasslands of South Eastern Australia and the ultimate dispossession of the original inhabitants. The accepted orthodoxy is that there was little the colonial authorities of the day could have done to stop the wholesale occupation of the lands. Convicts (escaped and emancipated), sealers and sailors – who all crossed Bass Strait to escape the strictures of the Tasmanian colony – were the ones to make the first inroads to Victoria. There, they coexisted with the indigenous population.

The prevailing myth is that it was entrepreneurial farmers who occupied and opened up the native grasslands, in spite of colonial authorities and the disapproval of London. Boyce, controversially, argues that the authorities used this argument to mask their real intentions, which were to open up the fertile plains to the squatters from the sheep industry. Boyce argues that it didn’t have to be this way – and that by allowing squatters to seize vast tracts of land, the colonial authorities not only aided the decimation of the local indigenous people, but led to poor uses of the land and inefficient investment.

This book is an important contribution to the understanding of our history and has relevance to contemporary Australia. ‘Could there be a connection between the ingrained assumption that the squatter conquest of Australia could not have been slowed down and regulated, and the national difficulty in imagining that governments might do the same to coalminers today.’

Mark Rubbo is Managing Director of Readings.

'The Australian' Book Review

Historian pinpoints way stations on the road to indigenous dispossession

Robert Murray The Australian July 09, 2011

'1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the conquest of Australia' by James Boyce

The indigenous population of what became Victoria was decimated by the arrival of white settlers. Painting: Corroboree by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, circa 1800. Source: Supplied

James Boyce's new book suggests the "history wars" may be mellowing and taking a constructive turn.

It uses the often told story of the foundation of Melbourne in 1835 to make the larger point that this was the catalyst for legal grazing spreading throughout Australia in the next 60 years.

It was the critical moment of Aboriginal dispossession, Boyce argues. Most of the continent where people still choose to live had gone over to pastoral occupation within a decade of settlement on the Yarra.

The founders of Melbourne, who came from Van Diemen's Land, were technically trespassers, perhaps even illegal immigrants, because grazing on the mainland was legally confined to within the Limits of Location, about 300km around Sydney. There were also a half-dozen or so other clusters of white settlement around the coast; the rest of the country was legally closed.

British policy had long been to concentrate settlement in a few areas to facilitate administration and law enforcement. But by 1830 a boom in world wool prices and livestock numbers encouraged stock owners, great and small, to flout the law and depasture sheep and cattle far beyond the limits.

During 1835-36 the Sydney and London governments bowed to industry pressure and licensed grazing almost everywhere. At first pioneer "squatters" - the name quickly took on social cachet - decided among themselves the confines of their "stations" but by 1848 the "runs" had legal boundaries and 14-year leases.

Historians - and governments - have usually said the squatting rush was unstoppable. Boyce says governments, particularly governor Richard Bourke in Sydney, did have a choice. One gutsy prosecution of an illegal squatter, especially a big fish, would have stopped the momentum. Capital to support squatting would have been limited unless it was clearly legal to stay.

The "might have beens" of history occupy a huge attic in the sky and there is abundant room for disagreement about how practical or desirable stopping the squatting boom and the rise of Melbourne might have been.

Boyce's strength is how he tracks the evolution in Sydney, Hobart and London of the transformational decision to open the grasslands. Much of what he says sounds like a re-run of the evening news: politicians and bureaucrats grappling with difficult decisions and unwelcome immigrants but in the end following the money to back popularity, revenue, productivity, profits, jobs and the big end of town.

There were concerned words and schemes for Aboriginal welfare but the policies rarely worked for long and most were grossly underfunded. Nor is it clear from this and other accounts that that Aborigines wanted to stop the squatters. We just don't know. But they would surely have wanted the change to be better.

Though a player from the Left in the history wars of a few years back, Boyce avoids the "goodies and baddies" approach. Nevertheless, his sympathies are with the dispossessed Aborigines and the old Yarra-side environment, not with the bigger squatters and their rich backers.

He has a good leftist nose for who is making money and who is not; he highlights high-level hypocrisy and several conflicts of interest, but not much serious corruption. He puts in a word for the ex-convict battlers who did most of the heavy lifting in early Melbourne.

The great tragedy for the Aborigines was that they died and almost vanished. The indigenous population of what became Victoria has been estimated at 5000 to 15,000 in 1835, declining to bottom at 900 by 1890.

The white population rose from 200 in 1836 to 78,000 when Victoria separated from NSW in 1851 and approached one million by 1890. There is little argument that about 1000 Victorian Aborigines - an estimate Boyce quotes - died in conflicts with settlers, usually over what whites perceived as sheep and cattle theft, and most well before 1850.

He could have been more judicious and given more context. For example, he does not make it clear that most of the lethal conflict was in the hot spots of Gippsland and the southwest rather than with the Kulin of the Melbourne region, where relations were better. He also tends to seize on the environmental despoliation near Melbourne early on and indigenous hunger there as contributors to disease and largely ignores the considerable, though little recorded, integration of Aborigines into station life.

Nevertheless, there is no dispute that tuberculosis, venereal and other diseases and a low rate of childbirth and survival almost destroyed the indigenous population in a generation.

Robert Murray's books include 150 Years of Spring Street: Victorian Government, 1850s to 21st Century.

The Great Southern Land grab
Reviewed by Ross Southernwood

Ross Southernwood Sydney Morning Herald October 2, 2011

John Batman ... put forward the name ''Batmania'' for the settlement that became Melbourne.
ACCORDING to one historical school, after the Phoenicians made Carthage on the North African coast a colony, about 750BC, they paid the original tribal inhabitants rent for the area during the first 200 years of their occupation.

Australia's Aborigines were not so fortunate when white settlement began after the First Fleet's arrival in 1788. Unlike their earlier north African counterparts, they were not offered rent or recompense for their lands. Even earlier they were hard done by; when James Cook discovered the east coast of Australia in 1770 and claimed it for Britain, he did so contrary to instructions. Possession was to be taken ''with the consent of the natives''. It was not. Indeed, it would take more than 200 years for the original inhabitants' land rights to be addressed through Mabo.

In 1835: The Founding of Melbourne & the Conquest of Australia, Tasmania academic James Boyce gives a detailed and uncomfortable account of a key period in Australia's European history, which continually reminds us of the tragic social and humanitarian consequences of expanding white settlement for the continent's original inhabitants.

1835: The Founding of Melbourne & the Conquest of Australia, by James Boyce (Black Inc. $44.95).
Despite the subtitle, Boyce's history is in essence one of Melbourne's foundation and the massive land grab by speculators and squatters that soon followed in what became Victoria.

By the time John Batman, the credited founder of Melbourne, and his cohorts in the Port Phillip Association - formed in the then Van Diemens Land - began arriving from across Bass Strait to the Port Phillip region, some settlements already existed there, consisting mostly of sealers, whalers, wattle barkers and skinners, mainly former convicts.

The Aborigines were of the Kulin federation of tribes, the people with whom Batman and the association might have come to some sort of mutual understanding that whites could use the region's grasslands while respecting the Aborigines' land rights. Evidence of this ''understanding'', judging from Boyce's account, seems somewhat vague and speculative.

Since the association wanted to run sheep and the Kulin hunted there, any such understanding would appear to have been a forlorn hope. So it proved once large-scale migration to Port Phillip from Van Diemens Land for sheep farming and other pursuits began.

Strictly speaking, the initial settlement at what would become Melbourne was illegal, because Port Phillip was part of NSW and British government policy was one of ''limits of location'', which by 1835 extended about 200 kilometres inland from Sydney. It was only after the abandonment of the ''concentrated settlement'' policy that sovereignty over Aboriginal country was asserted and the continental land rush began into so-called Crown lands.

The famous Western District of Victoria would be created as squatters took up runs on the grassed Aboriginal hunting grounds. As the whites and sheep arrived, the native animals moved on, leaving the Aborigines without regular game supplies and forced to seek alternatives by killing sheep and cattle. White-black conflict and Aboriginal dispersal followed.

Despite instances of settlers seeking white authority protection from menacing Aborigines, the vast weight of suffering was borne by the natives in this part of what has become known as Australia's frontier wars. Unsurprising, given the weapons inequality and the whites' possession of horses.

As to how many Aborigines were killed during the Port Phillip conflict, estimates range from 350 to 1000-plus. But, Boyce stresses, no dispute exists that ''a large number of Aboriginal people were slaughtered''. He also discusses how all this could have been different and suggests the poor attitude to land management and usage of that time remains today.

The year 1835 is a date to be remembered and this is a book to be pondered.

1835: The Founding of Melbourne & the Conquest of Australia
James Boyce
(Black Inc., $44.95)