James Boyce’s 1835: The founding of Melbourne & the conquest of Australia does what all great history should – it unsettles your preconceptions and challenges the received wisdom. This book follows on from his earlier Van Diemen’s Land which detailed the early history of Tasmania aside from the Fatal Shore gulag elements which are so prominent in our historical imagination.
Van Diemen’s Land described the early white history of Tasmania as a contact between an isolated, poorly provisioned European culture with a significant but not decisive technological advantage over the Aboriginal inhabitants. This wasn’t much use when there were few Europeans trying to survive in an unfamiliar but benign environment. In the very early years of Tasmanian settlement, prior to the end of the Napoleonic wars and the commencement of free settler immigration, the convicts and government officials were forced to adapt to the local environment by going part way native to ensure their survival. Early conflicts between the British settlers (invaders) and the native inhabitants came about as a result of conflict for the food resources around the areas of settlement. Equally, the arrival of the British brought about a significant improvement in the quality of native life by providing them with a vastly superior hunting technology: dogs.
Just as the native inhabitants were able to remain outside British domination and improve their hunting capabilities using dogs, so too were the semi-autonomous convicts and ex-convicts able to go bush and live off the land “beyond the pale” with dogs as well. There were undoubtedly killings of Aboriginals taking place using fairly primitive guns in this early phase, but they were more sporadic and isolated incidents. European germs were also taking their toll on the receptive Aboriginal population. After the defeat of Napoleon, Hobart was better connected with the outside world and free settlers began to arrive and take up land grants, placing increasing pressure on both the Aboriginal and convict / ex convict population living off the common land.
The progressive reduction in the Aboriginal hunting range due to land alienation which led to raids on white settlers, the increased British population, base level racism and improved gun technology together with the arrival of Governor Arthur led to the decisive attempt to commit genocide on the Tasmanian Aboriginal population in the late 1820s. This occurred just prior to the closing of the (useful) Tasmanian frontier.
So with all the Tasmanian land handed out to settlers for virtually no return to the VDL government, where could a man on the make go to secure his future? Why, over Bass Strait of course. The trouble was that this land was controlled by the New South Wales government which had imposed limits of orderly settlement extending only about 120 miles from Sydney.
Bass Strait had been occupied for fishing purposes by whalers and sealers since 1798. Many of these whaling parties kidnapped or bought Aboriginal women to look after the camps, often as slaves. Some itinerant camps had been set up along the Victorian coast and there had been at least two aborted settlements: at Sorrento in 1803 which had relocated to found Hobart, and at Westernport in 1826. The extension of VDL control over the Furneaux group in the late 1820s pushed some sealers north across the Strait – “Gone to Westernport”. The Henty’s settled at Portland in 1834 where Major Mitchell was astonished to find them during his explorations of Australia Felix. William Buckley had escaped from the Sorrento settlement and been living among the Victorian Aboriginal population for over 30 years. Victorian Aborigines had plenty of forewarning of the coming of the whites, and European diseases had already taken their toll on the population.
John Batman was not an isolated chancer sailing over Bass Strait on a land grab. He had planned the expedition for some time, was well resourced and had the backing of significant figures in Van Diemonian society, possibly up to and including Governor Arthur. Arthur was prepared to turn a governmental blind eye as plans were made to settle Melbourne. His reports to Sydney and London lacked any sense of urgency in seeking to stop the venture and often suggested complicity. Equally, when he finally became aware of what had happened, the NSW Governor Bourke used deferral and deflection in his communications with London to implicitly guarantee that the illegal occupation would become a fait accompli. Victoria was then opened up to occupation both from the south and overland from the north along Major Mitchell’s line.
Batman thought that a treaty with the Aborigines would enable him to defend his land grab more effectively with the Governments in Hobart, Sydney and London. It also offered him some hope of establishing an undefended beachhead in Aboriginal territory. The Melbourne tribes appreciated that the whites were coming and may have seen a deal with Batman as a meaningful recognition of their rights which gave them some control over white immigration.
In any event what transpired in the first five years of white settlement at Melbourne was the equivalent of a mid 19th century blitzkrieg, “one of the fastest land occupations in the history of empires” (Richard Broome). By 1841 the Supreme Court Judge Willis was confident in asserting the property rights of a squatter paying a lease to the Crown defending ‘his land’ against an ‘invading’ black whom he had confessed to killing. In a very short space of time Victoria’s Aboriginal population had been robbed of their land, harassed, shot, subjected to disease and the ravages of alcohol and pushed to the margins of settlement where they were expected to die off quietly. If the word genocide can be considered appropriate for the VDL assault on the Aborigines, how should we consider the Victorian experience?
Boyce’s history is well informed on the environmental constraints facing both black and white Australians and on the debates around frontier history. His book is a reminder that the legacy of historic decisions remain with us, and that there was a time (however brief) when decisions could have been made differently leading to different outcomes. The NSW Government could have refused to recognise illegal land grabs in line with the policy of orderly settlement, could have provided meaningful protections for Aborigines, and could have slowed the rush to occupy land until there was a Government authority in place to manage the process. The fact that none of these things occurred was as a result of conscious Government decisions; even if they were only decisions not to act against illegal land grabs and not to punish white violence against the Aboriginal populations.
An additional theme in both Van Diemen’s Land and 1835 is the writing out of mainstream history of the VDL convict and ex-convict class. Batman’s equivocal status as Melbourne’s founder is due to his being a son of a convict who lived with an ex convict partner and died young of syphilis. More specifically, it was very convenient for the squattocracy to be able to look back at settler and Aboriginal conflict and point out that many of the bullets were fired by VDL ex-convicts. The fact that the prime beneficiaries of these (unpunished) actions were the absentee squatters themselves in no way stopped them from blaming the VDL ex-convicts for the demise of the Aborigines, or from trying to ban the migration of undesirable ex convicts from VDL in 1852. This is how the powerful rewrite history to serve their ends. It is to James Boyce’s credit that he has sought to redress the balance on behalf of those written out of the triumphalist accounts by the Port Philip gentry.
It was no doubt a small pleasure for Boyce to discuss the roles of the founder of Melbourne and the protector of Aborigines – “Batman and Robinson …”
In the words of one of Melbourne’s favourite sons “Do yourself a favour!”