Chapter 16 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter XVI

The land and the squatters

Land grants — Who the squatters were — Pastoral districts and licences — Bourke’s policy — Special surveys — The pound per acre system — Gipps’s policy — Conquest of Australia by the colonist — Ridley’s stripper — Farrer’s Federation wheat — John Macarthur and the wool trade — The aboriginals.

Great Britain, by becoming possessed of Australia, assumed the task of disposing of an area as large as three fourths of Europe including Russia. Very much of this country was equal in fertility to the richest soil in the world, and it was capable, given favourable economic conditions, of growing every product that can minister to the necessities or the luxury of mankind. All grades of climate, from tropical to temperate, were to be found within this capacious dominion. All kinds of domestic animals would thrive in it. Many nutritious grasses unknown elsewhere covered its great plains. Immense forests of valuable timber flourished on its hillsides. Its rocks were veined with minerals. A wonderful treasury of precious metals was revealed within a little over half a century.

No one consistent line of policy could have been pursued in making this country available to those who would use it, first because the conditions changed, and secondly because it was only gradually that the possibilities were realized. In the beginning the idea of controlling the whole continent was not in the minds of British statesmen; indeed, they did not know that it was a single continent. Even if they had known, they had no idea of its value. They merely wanted a remote piece of territory for the purposes of a convict colony. If, for instance Napoleon had said that he desired to have a piece of Australia for France when negotiating the Treaty of Amiens in 1800, there is no reason to believe that Great Britain would have objected. The area defined by the Commission of the Governor of New South Wales was quite sufficient for her purpose; and she gave up possessions which seemed to her, then, to be more valuable than this country was.

It would be absurd to blame British statesmen for not pursuing a definite land policy from the commencement, because there was no need for one. There was plenty of room for convicts and settlers, and it seemed no great thing to give a wide expanse to a person to whom the Government wished to be indulgent. Governor Hunter offered 100 acres and a staff of convict servants to every officer who would cultivate. During the administration of Grose and Paterson convicts who had not served their sentences were given slips of paper upon which was written, ‘A. B. has my permission to settle,’ and ‘this slip of paper served them as a sufficient authority to fix wherever they pleased.’ There is record of Governors granting as much as 1,280 acres to the daughters of persons of good standing as a marriage portion. Free grants were made down to the year 1831, when the Colonial Office ordered the substitution of the method of sale by auction. By this time 3,963,705 acres had been granted either freely or at a trifling quit-rent.

When the Blue Mountains were crossed, and the value of the lands beyond was appreciated, capital as well as immigration was attracted. The Australian Agricultural Company, incorporated by Royal Charter under a special Act of Parliament, in 1824, ‘for the cultivation and improvement of waste lands in the colony of New South Wales,’ obtained 500,000 acres for nothing. It was even given coal-mines at Newcastle. Part of the company’s estate was selected after 1831, when Governor Bourke energetically protested against the alienation of so huge an area, but was overruled by his official superiors. The company thus richly endowed still carries on its profitable operations. The Van Diemen’s Land Company, which also worked under a Royal Charter (1825), secured over 400,000 acres for a trifling quit-rent of £468.

The legitimate allocation of land, whether by grant or sale, in large or moderate areas, was disturbed by the unauthorized proceedings of the squatters. The word ‘squatter’ is of American origin, and was used in that country in the latter half or the eighteenth century in very much the same sense as that in which it was at first applied in Australia. A squatter was a person who entered into occupation of land to which he had no title. Later use in Australia has given to it quite a different meaning. A squatter is now conceived as a man who owns or leases a large quantity of land upon which he grows wool or breeds cattle or horses. But in the second decade of the nineteenth century, when the word came into general employment, it signified one who had gone out to the unoccupied territories and had there, without official sanction, built a hut and depastured sheep or cattle, which he had perhaps obtained dishonestly. ‘These persons,’ said a witness before the House of Commons Committee of 1815, ‘are almost invariably the instigators and promoters of crime, receivers of stolen property, illegal vendors of spirits, and harbourers of runaways, bushrangers, and vagrants.’ James Macarthur (the son of John) writing in a similar strain in his book on New South Wales (1837), spoke of ‘persons denominated squatters,’ as ‘mostly convicts holding tickets of leave or having become free by servitude’; they carried on ‘an extensive system of depredation upon the flocks and herds and the property of the established settlers.’

Squatting, apart from these dishonest characteristics, was a natural consequence of the absence of a land policy suited to the changed conditions. As long as the Government gave land away to applicants possessed of capital, and to others whom it wished to benefit, persons who were not so favoured regarded the great areas beyond the mountains, which were not bestowed, as available to those who chose to occupy them. It was useless to try to restrain settlement within prescribed limits while there was valuable grassed land stretching for hundreds of miles beyond the official boundaries. The landless drove far afield in defiance of regulations. They were trespassers in the eye of the law, but ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’ was not a sign which could be blazoned upon the heavens and made legible across half a million square miles; and, if it could have been, the early squatters would have taken no notice of the warning. Moreover, the wool raised by the squatters was a valuable product, and the more of it produced the greater the prosperity of the colony. ‘As well attempt to confine an Arab within a circle traced on sand, as to confine the graziers or wool-growers of New South Wales within bounds that can possibly be assigned to them,’ wrote Governor Gipps in 1840.

But it was clearly necessary to impose some rule in regard to the occupation of these outlying lands. Governor Bourke therefore devised the mode of dividing the area whither the squatters had wandered into ‘pastoral districts,’ and of granting licences to the occupants of ‘runs,’ for which they were charged a small fee based upon a computation as to the number of sheep which a particular run would feed. The granting of grazing licences suited the squatters, because, while the licence fee was not heavy, it guaranteed them in the occupation of the lands upon which they had entered. Bourke’s policy, instituted in 1836, was afterwards embodied in a statute by his successor, Gipps.

Much commotion was caused among the land-owners in 1835, when doubts were expressed as to whether the whole of the land grants made in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land since the very beginning of settlement were not illegal. The lords of thousands of acres trembled at the prospect. The point was first raised in Hobart that these grants had not been made in the name of the King but of the Governor. The practice was commenced in the time of Phillip, and had been continued by every successive Governor. When the law officers of the Crown in England were consulted, they gave it as their opinion that the whole of the grants from the foundation of New South Wales were invalid. The insecurity was removed by the passing of an Act in 1836 (6 William IV, no. 16), ‘to remove such doubts and to quiet the titles of His Majesty’s subjects holding or entitled to hold any land in New South Wales.’

The regulation imposed by the Colonial Secretary in 1831, that land should be sold at the minimum price of 5s. per acre, continued till 1838, when the price was raised to 12s. because that was the minimum fixed in South Australia, and it was clearly impossible to make a success of that colony if its lands were sold for more than double the price for which as good or better land could be obtained in New South Wales. The Wakefield Principle was then occupying much attention in England, and it especially affected the judgement of a committee of the House of Commons before which its author gave evidence. This committee, as well as the Land and Emigration Commissioners appointed to advise the British Government on colonial land questions, were of opinion that all land, except town land, whatever its quality might be, ought to be sold at a fixed price of £1 per acre. Instructions were accordingly sent out that this price should be charged.

Governor Gipps, who thoroughly understood the land question, and was a singularly able officer, protested that the rule was unwise, and he took upon himself to disobey it. The English Commissioners, in fact, and the English Government following their advice, had failed to observe the great difference in value between country lands and lands close to a town. These Commissioners, who had no practical experience of colonial conditions, actually made the regulation that any person depositing £5,120 might have a special survey made of 5,120 acres, or eight square miles, of country anywhere they chose in specified districts of New South Wales, except within five miles of a town. A few men of wealth, who had a shrewd idea that Australian lands near to towns would become exceedingly valuable, at once lodged their applications; and £40,960, representing eight instances of the kind, was paid down before Gipps peremptorily declared that he would have no more of such foolishness, and refused to allow any more special surveys to be made. As it was, one of the eight fortunate men, Henry Dendy, obtained for his £5,120 eight square miles in the present Melbourne suburb of Brighton, and was offered £15,000 for his bargain before he had been twenty-four hours in Melbourne or had even marked out the area he wished to select upon the map. Another special survey purchaser, Elgar, selected his eight square miles close to the Melbourne suburbs of Kew, Hawthorn, and Camberwell. Lord John Russell, the Colonial Secretary at the time, had the good sense to recognize that Gipps had acted rightly in stopping the special surveys even contrary to instructions; and in 1842 the Crown Lands Sale Act was brought into force, under which lands were to be sold by auction with a minimum (not a fixed) price at £1 per acre.

The £1 per acre system continued to be followed until the colonies entered upon the enjoyment of representative government, when they were at liberty to legislate for their lands as they pleased. The Legislative Council of New South Wales thought the price too high, and, moreover, they objected to the provision of the Crown Lands Sale Act which gave to the Governor the administration of the revenue produced by the sales. Half of it had to be spent in immigration, the balance on public works. But the Council considered that itself, and not the Governor, should have the disposition of the money. The probability is, however, that the interests of Australia were conserved by maintaining a rate which seemed excessive in respect to many lands at that time. If the land had been sold at a lesser price, very much larger estates would have got into the possession of very few men than was actually the case.

The later period of the governorship of Gipps was embittered by his quarrel with the Council on this question; but he kept a stiff back, and was well supported by the Imperial Government. The unpopularity which came upon him in consequence of his firm administration of the law in what he believed to be the enduring interest of the country has been reflected in some books of Australian history, especially in such as were written at the time or not long after the controversies in which he figured. But he was, in truth, a singularly able and a most conscientious and high-minded Governor. His modest claim on the eve of his departure, ‘I have laboured to the best of my ability to advance the true interests of this land,’ will be confirmed by any fair student of his rule. Probably Australia has had no abler Governors than were Sir George Gipps and his predecessor, Sir Richard Bourke.

It was inevitable that mistakes should be made in the distribution of the great quantity of land which was available in Australia. Candour, too, requires the admission that much of what may seem to a later age to have been a policy of prodigality was not wholly unwise when it was adopted. One generation cannot always anticipate the needs of its successors. It has to do its best in the circumstances confronting it. The denunciation of the evils of large estates was a common theme in Australian politics in the first decade of the twentieth century; but the case presented itself in quite a different light to the people of the first decade of the nineteenth. Then the desire was to get men for the land; later the desire was to get land for the men. It was not until about 1820 that the idea dawned upon some English statesmen that land had been too lavishly given away. ‘Large grants of land to individuals have been the bane of all our colonies,’ wrote Under-Secretary Goulburn in the year just mentioned, ‘and it has been the main object of Lord Bathurst’s administration to prevent the extension of this evil by every means in his power.’ But, as we have seen, the granting of large areas was continued for some years after 1820. Lord Bathurst’s spasm of moderation did not affect his successors.

The conquest of Australia by the colonist has been accomplished by very hard work aided by science and ingenuity. In many instances land which at first seemed incapable of profitable cultivation has, by the application of special methods, proved to be of valuable quality. In Victoria there is a territory of eleven million acres which in the early years was regarded as a wilderness, and which Mitchell the explorer described as ‘one of the most barren regions of the world.’ It consisted chiefly of a thick tangle of scrub called mallee, interspersed with sand. Down to very recent times it was looked upon as hopeless country. But skill and labour have converted this great territory into a well-populated place of settlement, rich in yields of wheat and liberally stocked with sheep and cattle. ‘Dry farming,’ evolved by Australian grain-growers, by taking full advantage of the slight rainfall in districts where the climate is comparatively arid, and by special modes of culture, has enabled plentiful crops to be produced on land which without these means would have been impossible for wheat cultivation.

Very early in the settlement of South Australia the idea occurred to John Ridley, an ingenious mechanic and miller, that it would be possible to make a machine to reap. In 1842 there was a plentiful harvest, but there were not sufficient labourers to gather it. Prizes were therefore offered for improvements in agricultural machinery. The result was that in 1843 Ridley invented his stripper, the first harvesting machine in Australia. It was as far removed from the perfected stripper-harvester of to-day as was Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ from the modern locomotive; but it enabled ten or twelve acres to be reaped in a day by one man and two horses, and it greatly decreased the cost of wheat production. Ridley refused to take out a patent for his invention. He sold as many machines as he could make with his very limited resources, but sought no reward beyond his profit on these. Now, Australian harvesting machines are in use wherever in the world climatic conditions approximate to those of the country of their invention.

Wheat itself has been improved by Australian experiments in cross-fertilization, in the same ways as the methods of cultivating and reaping it have been. William Farrer, a graduate of the University of Cambridge, where he won distinguished honours in mathematics, came to Australia in bad health, and settled down to farming in New South Wales. He was much interested in the breeding of new varieties of grain, and conducted a series of experiments, during nearly a quarter of a century, with a view to producing wheat-plants that were peculiarly suited to Australian conditions. He developed thirty-three varieties of wheat, the best known of which was named Federation, made available for farmers in 1902. Farrer’s experiments, resulting in the growth of grain of high milling quality, from a plant able to resist rust and other diseases, and to give prolific yields in the Australian climate, have benefited the wheat farmer to the extent of millions of pounds sterling. Incidentally Farrer altered the colour of the Australian landscape during the harvest season; for, as a wheat-expert has observed, ‘the golden yellow characteristic of old-time Australian harvest fields has been gradually changed to a dull bronze through the ever-increasing popularity of Federation wheat.’

Sheep-breeding was the first important industry of Australia; and wool was produced in 1922-3 to an export value which exceeded £57,000,000. Yet Sir Joseph Banks, in 1803, confidently expressed the opinion that sheep would not thrive in New South Wales, that the grass was too coarse, that the climate and soil were not especially adapted for wool-growing, and that there was no good reason for encouraging the experiments of John Macarthur. Whether Macarthur was the very first man to introduce sheep for wool-growing has been disputed. A claim for priority has been made for the Rev. Samuel Marsden. But certainly Macarthur’s energy and intelligence applied to wool production demonstrated how great an industry it might become.

Macarthur, in 1794, three years after his arrival in Sydney, purchased some Bengal ewes and lambs which produced a fleece more like hair than wool. These he crossed with some English wool-bearing rams, with the gratifying result that the lambs produced a mingled fleece of hair and wool of good quality. In 1797 he bought some Spanish sheep, merinos, from the Cape of Good Hope, taking care to guard the breed against deterioration. Carefully crossing some of his Spanish rams with his mixed breed, he noticed a remarkable improvement in the weight and quality of the fleeces of the progeny. So he persevered in this line of experiment, with such remarkable results that when he went to England in 1803 his name was already well known by the woollen manufacturers of Yorkshire, who manifested the liveliest interest in the prospect of New South Wales becoming an important source of supply for their industry. In 1801 the heaviest fleece shorn in New South Wales weighed only 3 1/2 lbs., but in 1802 Macarthur was producing fleeces of fine quality weighing 5 lbs. (That was a marked improvement on anything known at that time, though the average weight of the Australian fleece was over 7 lbs. in 1922.) His wool was worth 3s. per lb., whereas coarse wool brought only 9d. per lb. By 1803 he possessed a flock of 4,000 sheep, all bred from his Spanish rams. In 1809 his wool was sold by auction in England at 5s. 6d. per lb. He continued to breed from merinos only, and was the only person in New South Wales who did so, others looking to the sale of their sheep for mutton, whilst he devoted his skill exclusively to the production of fine wool. So eager was he that every sheep’s back should produce its utmost of wool that for a time he would not allow his family to have a mutton chop; and so we find Mrs. Macarthur, in a letter to a friend in England, after describing her husband’s beloved flocks, saying, ‘You might conclude from this that we kill mutton, but hitherto we have not been so extravagant.’ John, however, she added, had promised that the family might have some mutton the next year. The descendants of John Macarthur’s original merinos are still kept apart from the other sheep at Camden Park, an exclusive family of sheep-aristocrats; though in truth the merino has been much improved by later breeders, and the best kind of modern fine wool-producing sheep is superior to the interesting stock of which Macarthur was so justly proud.

The rapid and successful development of Australia has been facilitated by the fact that the aboriginals who occupied it before the advent of the white race were not an organized, warlike people. They did, it is true, cause some annoyance when population was sparse, but they never were at any time a serious menace, as were the Maories to the New Zealand colonist or the fierce Bantu tribesmen to the South African. They committed murders, but were incapable of anything like military aggression.

How many aboriginals there were in Australia at the time of Phillip’s foundation of Sydney it is impossible to compute. Philip thought there were probably 1,500 in Botany Bay and the environs of Port Jackson. It was estimated that there were about 6,000 in the Port Phillip District in 1837. There certainly were far larger numbers in the warmer north, west, and east, than in the south. They were a people so low in the scale of human development that they had no domestic arts or domestic animals. They had not learnt to make pottery from clay, or to extract metals from the rocks, or to cultivate the soil, or to develop grain and fruits, or to build houses. They lived on fish, kangaroo, opossum, roots, and wild plants. They hunted and fought with spears, waddies, and boomerangs. Even the bow was beyond their invention, though they made string from hair or fibre for their fishing-nets. It is greatly to be regretted that their tribal organization was not studied by competent observers in the early years of the settlement. Nearly all the really valuable ethnological work amongst them has been done in recent times, principally by Howitt, Fison, Roth, John Mathew, and especially F. J. Gillen and Baldwin Spencer. That work has revolutionized our knowledge of primitive human relationships; so that an eminent authority on classical studies writes the apparent paradox — which, however, is the simple truth — that the modern student who would understand prehistoric conditions in Greece has to go to Australia.

In the beginning the aboriginals were not aggressive. They did not resent the landing of the white people in their country. Their natural inquisitiveness made them somewhat of a nuisance, perhaps, and they were thieves from the white man’s point of view because, having no notion of property, to take what they wanted was natural to them. But conflicts between blacks and whites were inevitable, despite the desire of some Governors to be just and humane. The decay of the aboriginals in the settled districts proceeded very rapidly, from three main causes: from actual destruction by killing, from disease and drink introduced among them by the whites, and from the perishing due to the change of life necessitated by the limitation of their hunting-grounds. Philanthropic methods failed to keep them alive, though honest efforts were made to protect and foster them. Sometimes incidents occurred which suggest that these efforts ran counter to popular feeling. A French man of science who visited Sydney on the staff of the ship Uranie in 1818 related in a book which he published about the voyage, that wealthy inhabitants of the city who entertained the officers gathered together a company of aboriginals armed with clubs, and set them fighting, giving them liquor to incite their ardour. Two of the savages were killed, and, says the observer, ‘their corpses were carried out and tea was served amidst the laughter of the assembly.’

The worst features of the fading out of the native race arose from sheer brutality and treacherous murder by white settlers and their convict servants. Governor Brisbane permitted the shooting of aboriginals in batches. It was said that they committed outrages; but barbarities perpetrated upon them provoked them to revenge. The lowest depth of mean homicide was reached by some settlers who systematically gave natives arsenic in wheaten cakes, porridge, or other food. They murdered under the guise of kindness. The Rev. Dr. Lang, writing in 1847, stated of his own knowledge and that of other independent witnesses that this had been done, and G. A. Robinson, who became the chief protector of aboriginals in Port Phillip after his Van Diemen’s Land experience, alleged that poisoning was undoubtedly one cause of the decrease of the aboriginals. It was perhaps inevitable that the native race should fade away in the parts of the country where the white population became thick. They were not a people who could be absorbed or adapted to civilized life. But the tragedy of the process was very grim and hateful.

The best estimates counted the aboriginal population of Australia in 1925 at about 63,000, but these resided chiefly in the interior of Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory. There were fewer than a thousand in New South Wales; only about 100 in Victoria. The figures for New South Wales and Victoria are certainly more reliable than are those for Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia, where there is much difficulty in forming estimates. In these two states, where the decline can be accurately measured, the black population is fading out of existence very rapidly, and within the present generation will probably cease to exist. Elsewhere, though the decline may be less rapid, it is only where aboriginals are preserved by; special missionary exertions that their numbers are maintained.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 175-187

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