Thursday, November 15, 2012

1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia, by James Boyce

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

James Boyce’s gripping 1835 examines in fine detail the haphazard and shambolic manner in which the Port Phillip area was usurped from its original indigenous owners. Questions of legal trespass and weak government are raised to dispute the generally accepted theory that it was hopelessly inevitable that Europeans would take Aboriginal land and exploit it for commercial gain. In laying out the failures of government to uphold the law, Boyce invites readers to imagine a different Melbourne to the one we live in today.

As the title suggests, this history of Melbourne very much concentrates on the year 1835 when the Port Phillip District was taken over by squatter-entrepreneurs. At this time, in 1835, appropriating any land in the Port Phillip area was officially seen as illegal, an act of trespass. The word from England was that no one was to settle in the area and disrupt the way of life of the indigenous peoples.

What this history seeks to demonstrate is that word and deed did not act in unison. The British Parliament may have proclaimed a policy of keeping clear of Aboriginal lands, or at least treading very carefully, but in fact the very opposite occurred.

Essentially the Tasmanian government, under Governor Arthur, sponsored and promoted the idea of pastoralists taking up residence in Port Phillip and exploiting the area’s superb natural resources. Men like John Batman and John Fawkner pushed ahead, risking trespass, and set up camp. Famously, Batman entered into a treaty to ‘buy’ the Port Phillip area, but as James Boyce states, this notion is nonsense. The more probable agreement with the Aborigines was for Batman’s party to have access rights to the land, not ownership.

Once several European parties had established themselves in Port Phillip, the question remains, why didn’t the authorities act or at least declare the squatters as illegal occupiers? The response from government, especially New South Wales’ Governor Bourke who had jurisdiction over the area, was to basically shrug his shoulder’s and see the settlement of the Port Phillip District as basically inevitable.

With no strong Government sanction, a huge land grab was on. It turned out be one of the quickest colonisations in the British Empire’s history. Aboriginal people were speedily pushed off their traditional lands while the pastoralists hungry livestock grazed. Skirmishes broke out between the Aborigines and settlers. As the food sources for the Aborigines dried up (the yam daisies that constituted a staple of their diet were destroyed by European livestock), so too did their numbers. All it took was a couple of years and most the original population of Port Phillip had died. Those left behind were often in a state of severe malnutrition.

This book could really be subtitled ‘a moral history of Melbourne’. Boyce examines in minute detail the legal and moral position of the European settlers. As mentioned above, Government used words of high principle to state a position that argued for the careful preservation of Aboriginal life and the non-trespass of their lands. The British Government wanted to see itself as upholders of the rights of indigenous peoples, backed up by British law. Yet within months of the trespassers having landed, it all collapsed. The desperate race was on to appropriate land. In pre gold rush Melbourne, it was land that was the gold. Boyce asks the question, could it have been different? Rather than see the land grab as simply inevitable, why couldn’t Government at least have regulated land usage in Port Phillip?

1835 is written in a thoughtful prose that examines the big questions of history. The book travels at a careful pace that demands concentration and imagination, but rewards with its fascinating insights. The descriptions of Melbourne’s natural landscape in 1835 (often with contemporary quotes) are breathtaking. Melbourne’s grasslands and the wide range of native plants and trees make the pre-European Yarra area sound like a Garden of Eden.

If you want to re-imagine Melbourne before European hegemony, and contemplate the legal and moral questions of its settlement, then 1835 will keep your mind in a state of wonder for days after you have turned its last page.

1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia, by James Boyce. Published by Black Inc. ISBN: 9781863955683  RRP: $29.95