Beneath the Boulevards
James Boyce’s '1835: The Founding of Melbourne & the Conquest of Australia'
John Burtt, 'Batman's Treaty with the Aborigines at Merri Creek, 6th June 1835', c.1875. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.
The beauty of Melbourne’s wide boulevards, its opulent architecture and magnificent parks remind us of the extraordinary wealth and confidence of nineteenth-century Victoria. Melbourne’s edifices are bigger and grander than their counterparts in Sydney, reflecting the comparative wealth of the two cities at that time. Until I read James Boyce’s new book, 1835: The Founding of Melbourne & the Conquest of Australia (Black Inc, 288pp; $44.95), I knew little of Melbourne’s origins. Sydney’s beginning as a grim and brutal penal colony is well known to all of us – especially to the citizens of Victoria and South Australia, whose colonies, as they often remind the rest of us, were not founded as prisons.
Boyce’s tale builds on his 2008 work Van Diemen’s Land, and appropriately so, for Melbourne was founded by Van Diemonians. That book showed how thoroughly systematic had been the genocide of the Tasmanian Aborigines. Those left alive were shipped off to a camp on Flinders Island, where they all in due course died. This contrasted with Boyce’s narrative of the convict experience. We had all been brought up with tales of horror from Port Arthur but the truth, as related by Boyce, was that for many convicts Van Diemen’s Land was far from a hardship post – at least compared to what they had left behind in England.
His history of the foundation of Melbourne is similarly revisionist. Yes, there were no convicts at Port Phillip (although there were a great many ex-convicts); the settlement was started entirely as a free enterprise venture without government sponsorship, and with a treaty with the local Indigenous tribe. A model settlement, you might think, compared to the brutality of Van Diemen’s Land. But that was only ever a half-truth.
Van Diemen’s Land in the first few decades of the nineteenth-century was the most wealthy British colony. Those riches were derived not simply from the decimation of the local Indigenous population but also from the pastoral bounty of millennia of firestick farming. By 1835, however, the pastures through the middle of the island were occupied, and additional grazing country would require labour and capital-intensive land clearing.
There was another world elsewhere, and not too far away, either: across Bass Strait lay the open, well-watered grasslands of Port Phillip. Of course, the rich landscape and abundant game meant that the area around Port Phillip – indeed, throughout what is now Victoria – was heavily populated. The open country made it hard for Aborigines to hide from or outrun the armed settlers.
The Colonial Office in London wanted the governors in Australia to confine settlers to designated boundaries. But local governors, such as George Arthur in Hobart and Richard Bourke in Sydney, wanted to open up the country, and encouraged the squatters as they moved further and further into the traditional country of the Aborigines, depriving them of their lands and driving them out with violence if they sought to resist.
Moving large numbers of sheep and cattle across Bass Strait was a major financial risk. Without express British government authorisation, the Van Diemonian conquistadors would not be able to call on military forces to defend themselves against attacks from the Indigenous population and, even worse, there was the risk they would be treated as trespassers and ordered off their new estates by their own government.
With the abolition of slavery in 1833, there was now a growing concern, particularly among the evangelicals in the ruling Whig party in Britain, about the mistreatment of indigenous peoples throughout the Empire. In light of the genocide in Van Diemen’s Land, the syndicate assembling the Port Phillip Association was eager to ensure the care of the Aborigines. The two key principles, therefore, in the rules of the association were, firstly, to proceed on the basis of a treaty with the Aborigines that would protect their welfare and, secondly, that no convicts would be allowed into the settlement. (Much of the blame for the mistreatment of Aborigines had been sheeted home to the convicts.)
It appears that when John Batman crossed over to Port Phillip and met with the Kulin people they reached some kind of genuine understanding. Boyce concludes on the evidence that Kulin elders “agreed that a small group of Britons could access the grasslands of Port Phillip in exchange for goods and protection”. Given their abuse by sealers and whalers, the Kulin had a vested interest in securing some protection. Boyce writes that, from Batman’s point of view, “in considering a costly private scheme which involved the colonisation of some of the most heavily populated grasslands in Australia by a small group of hopelessly outnumbered whites without military support or official backing, the practical necessity of a negotiated agreement with the Aborigines was paramount”.
Boyce contends that Batman and the Kulin people had a common interest in limiting the number of white settlers at Port Phillip and that, if the white men had stuck to the deal, it would have been a shrewd bargain on the part of the Aborigines. But the treaty was short-lived. Bourke issued a proclamation declaring it of no force or effect as against the Crown and he wrote to London seeking authority to permit wider settlement, arguing that he had no practical power to prevent it. “How may this Government turn to the best advantage a state of things, which it cannot wholly interdict?” he asked. With mounting enthusiasm in Van Diemen’s Land for what John Dunmore Lang described as the “Australian El Dorado”, it did not take long for London to change its policy.
With the settlement now official, emigration to Port Phillip exploded. Governor Bourke visited the settlement in March 1837, approved Robert Hoddle’s grid design for the township and – in what surely must be one of the great missed opportunities in Australian history – called the town ‘Melbourne’ after the British prime minister, rejecting an earlier proposal to call the settlement ‘Batmania’, in which case its citizens would presumably have been ‘Batmaniacs’.
There were tussles between the government, who claimed all the land belonged to the Crown and squatters, who, writes Boyce, “argued that ‘these wilds belong to us, and not to the British government’ because ‘they are our rightful and first inheritance’”. The land rush was as frenzied, and as lucrative, as the gold rush that followed shortly after. Squatters, supported by mounted police, used lethal force to keep Aborigines off their newly acquired sheep runs. Eighty per cent of the Indigenous population of Port Phillip had been killed or were dead within 30 years; from all five clans of the Kulin nation that had entered into the treaty with Batman, only 200 individuals remained.
Without government approval over a new holding, a squatter could not be assured of protection and, above all, could not get the secure title to enable him to finance his pastoral empire. It suited the convenience, and the financial interests, of the British – both in London and in Australia – to reluctantly conclude that no power could stop the spread of the squatter and the consequent driving out of the Aborigines. So they didn’t try, and the consequence was the end of Aboriginal Australia as it had existed for the previous 40,000 years.
But could it have been otherwise? Could white settlement have been kept within limits? Boyce is unequivocal: “The truth is that while there were the usual scattering of callous brutes and compassionate saints among both the squatters and their workers, individual actions were much less significant in deciding the fate of the Aborigines than was the policy decision to open Aboriginal lands to unrestricted white settlement.”
His lesson, and it is a sobering one, is simply this. When governments say doing the right thing is ‘too hard’, what they are really saying is that it is more lucrative, or expedient, to do the wrong thing. Our forebears preached protection of native people and the blessings of Christ while they largely destroyed a people and a way of life.
So if you ever walk quietly along Robert Hoddle’s wide boulevards or along the banks of the Yarra, tamed to look like an English river, listen carefully. You may hear the weeping of the Kulin – betrayed, dispossessed, but not yet quite forgotten.