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

Black Inc, pp.256, $29.95, ISBN: 9781863955683

Despite the importance of Melbourne in Australia’s politics, commerce and development, there has been surprisingly little written about its early history. Most people who live in Melbourne have probably never seen the riverside plaque which marks the spot where the founders of the city came ashore, and there is not even much said about it in school history courses.

Boyce, a Tasmanian academic and historian, is a good person to rectify this. 1835 — the title refers to the year in which white settlement began — is revisionist in tone, but not aggressively so; it is more about filling in blanks than ‘correcting errors’. And Boyce does a good job of integrating primary sources, from government documents to eyewitness accounts of events, into his broad narrative.

He makes the point that the area around the Yarra was hardly uninhabited prior to 1835. There was already an indigenous population of considerable size, mainly the clans of the Kulin tribe. Far from being wandering nomads, they were settled and organised. John Batman, the person who can most probably be seen as Melbourne’s founder, commented on the sophistication of their fish traps on the river, for example.

It is remarkable to learn how much the topography of the area has changed. In 1835, the land between what is now the CBD and the sea was wetlands. The Yarra was a tidal river, salt water up to the current site of Queen’s Bridge. The spot which is now the Southern Cross train station was once a hill, called Batman’s Hill. Most of the trees that make up the city’s green spaces, and which today seem a natural part of the landscape, were imported.

Interestingly, Batman and his band, representing a group of Tasmanian investors called the Port Phillip Association, were not the first white people the Aboriginal tribes had encountered. Small parties of sealers and whalers had been around for a while, and had even established settlements on the coast. They seemed to have been a uniformly brutal bunch, so when Batman proposed an agreement with the Kulin tribes, allowing settlement of a small number of white pastoralists in return for supplies, the Aboriginal leaders accepted. Boyce believes that the Kulin fully understood the nature of the agreement, and that Batman was sincere in making it. But events soon began to move out of his hands.

The trigger for white settlement was the demand for land, especially land that was suitable for sheep. Batman and his group came from Tasmania, where the supply of land was running out. The open grasslands of the Port Phillip area were ideal, but the original idea was for a small development, privately financed and solidly profitable.

Ironically, it was the nature of the country that meant that the plan unravelled quickly. Very different to the hardscrabble territory of Botany Bay, the country around the Yarra favoured prosperity, to the degree that it quickly attracted more and more people — who, of course, wanted more and more space. The founding of Melbourne, Boyce notes, was essentially a land grab.

It all happened remarkably quickly. When Thomas Mitchell arrived in late 1836 after an overland journey from Botany Bay, he found a settlement that was already turning into a town. In fact, Boyce notes that the trail blazed by Mitchell was a vital spur to Melbourne’s growth, allowing a new wave of immigrants.

Mitchell’s arrival also presaged government involvement, although administrators struggled to find legal tools to control the expansion. It became a matter of guiding the flood. A private-sector land rush became a government-sanctioned land rush. From 1837 to 1842 the white population of the area grew from about 1,000 to 20,000, and the number of sheep increased thirty-fold. The frontier of white control advanced by about 160 kilometres a year to the west and north.

For the Kulin, the impact was devastating. Violence and disease were bad enough but the real damage was done by the loss of the food and water resources that went with the land. A decade after the first white landing, there were only a few hundred indigenous people left. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that any survived at all. There were plenty of well-meaning people who were concerned about the decimation of the Aboriginal population, and there were official Protectors. But too often they could do little but wring their hands, given the speed of the expansion. When good intentions collide with reality on the ground, good intentions usually lose.

Boyce acknowledges that the white settlement of the area, so fast and comprehensive, was in many ways a remarkable achievement. But the human cost, he says, was huge, and he wonders if there might have been another path. He speculates that a stronger, more determined government, if backed by the authority of London, might have curtailed the ambitions of the pastoralists. People less driven by dreams of conquest and commerce might have been more willing to find a means of cohabitation. Maybe, maybe not. For better or worse, that sort of historical speculation has to go into the ‘roads not taken’ category.

One does not have to subscribe to the black-armband view of history to see Boyce’s point. However successful Melbourne has become, however prosperous and important, the fate of the indigenous people of the Yarra region — indeed, the entire country — can only be described as haunting. It was haunting then, and it haunts us still.

Derek Parker is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.