‘1835’ by James Boyce

James Boyce, 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2011.  212 p & notes

At last! I thought when I finally got my hands on this book.  In fact, three ‘at lasts!’  I’m almost sure (nothing is really sure these middle-aged days!) that I read about this book at the beginning of 2010 when publishers were spruiking the books that were about to appear during the year.  I waited throughout 2010 but no sign of it.  And now- here it is.  And ‘at last!’ I thought because in the closing chapters of excellent previous book, Van Diemen’s Land, James Boyce clearly signalled that, just like Tasmanian settlers themselves, his own  thoughts about Van Diemen’s Land crossed the strait as well.  And ‘at last!’ again  I thought because in reading about the early history of the Port Phillip District – for example in A.G.L. Shaw’s A History of the Port Phillip District – you find yourself wondering if Port Phillip will ever get itself off the ground.  Navigators just kept sailing past it, missing the bay completely; Collins picked up sticks and decamped for Hobart after a short time, and the aborted and rather half-hearted  attempts to establish a settlement on Westernport Bay sputtered away fitfully.  Like a car with a flat battery, the Port Phillip settlement just didn’t seem to be able to turn over and take off for decades.

Boyce describes the arrival of squatters coming across from Launceston in 1835 as “a brazen act” that “would shape the history of Australia as much as would the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788” (p xi). It’s a big claim:

…the policy turmoil which followed the establishment of a squatters’ camp in 1835 had an significance far beyond the baptism of a great city.  In this place, at this time, ‘Australia’ was born. (p. xiii)

As might be expected from the title, Boyce starts his book in the year 1835, which he approaches from a range of perspectives: by locating us in the deep time of the Yarra River, and then  amongst the smaller black/white encounters along Bass Strait in the decades prior to 1835 through the unregulated and largely undocumented whaling, sealing and wattle-bark industries.  After this largely geographical perspective he then moves on to explore the political mindset of the three groups of players during 1835: – the financiers, pastoralists and adventurers in nearby Van Diemen’s Land who formed themselves into the Port Phillip Association ; the governors in Sydney under official British instructions to limit settlement to the area adjacent to Sydney ; and the Colonial Office and lobbyists representing opposing evangelical and pastoral interests in London.

It’s important to remember that there was no inevitability about the Port Phillip district being considered as part of New South Wales.  In terms of distance, it was far closer to Van Diemen’s Land than it was to Sydney- it still surprises me when driving down near Lakes Entrance that you’re just as likely to find local Tasmanian stations as Victorian ones on the car radio.  Governor Arthur, whom Boyce suggests was influential in the whole Port Phillip Association endeavour, certainly was in no hurry to let Sydney know what was going on across the strait.

Indeed, as Boyce suggests,  this policy double-speak pervaded the whole endeavour.  Batman’s so-called ‘treaty’, was as Bain Attwood also suggests in his recent book Possession, a legal fiction, but Boyce claims that it was not meaningless, either to the Port Phillip Association, or to the Kulin leaders who putatively ‘signed’ it. Adopting the slow-motion, close reading that Inga Clendinnen used to such good effect in Dancing with Strangers,  Boyce traces the pedigree of the treaty in colonial thinking generally and in the actions of both black and white protagonists in that first year.  There was an intricate dance of go-slow and evasion between all the political actors involved, in Port Phillip, Hobart, Sydney and London, that exploited all the silences and ambiguities of correspondence at a distance.   Had the Colonial Office, or its representatives in Sydney really wanted to suppress the Port Phillip settlement in line with the espoused policy of closer settlement,  they could have used policy to do so. It could have punished squatters for illegal possession by banning them from future land purchases; it could have with-held convict labour from them and it could have equipped Aboriginal Protectors with the authority to award or strip leases depending on the treatment of the Aboriginal tribes already there.  There was, he claims, a choice involved, and the governments here in NSW and the British Govt through the Colonial Office,  chose to do none of these things.

Boyce takes up a second theme that he foreshadowed in his chapter in Van Diemen’s Land entitled ‘Victoria’s Van Diemonian Foundation’.   There was, he claims, a deliberate policy both in the Colonial Office and in Sydney to dilute the influence of the small, bush-savvy Tasmanian ex-convicts who flooded across the strait as shepherds and labourers.  By blaming ex-convict shepherds  as the main threat to Aboriginal tribes, Sydney and the Colonial Office and the behind-the-scene evangelists, championed the more ‘respectable’ large, NSW-based pastoralists as the means of civilizing and incorporating Aboriginal people into the settlement endeavour.  The pastoralists, already a powerful lobby group, were only too pleased to reap the benefits of this portrayal.    Boyce’s argument is not couched in the Marxist terms and language of Martin Sullivan’s earlier Men and Women of Port Phillip, but there is a strong class dynamic at play nonetheless.  In this regard, Boyce’s argument needs to spill out of the 1835 chronological straitjacket he has confined himself within.  For example, although Boyce does not mention it, in succeeding years the decision to hold the first land auctions in Sydney rather than in Melbourne itself played to the interests of Sydney pastoralists and speculators, and the early constitutional arrangements for elections to the Legislative Assembly favoured Sydney-based candidates for Port Phillip seats.  This process of expunging the VDL-based nature of Port Phillip society was set in play in 1835 and intensified in the years following.  But because his book focuses on the first year of settlement in Melbourne,  his account gives more prominence to VDL than the longer-term perspective suggests.

Boyce closes his book by asserting that the land rush and dispossession that so quickly followed the settlement of Port Phillip was not inevitable, even though it was portrayed that way by Governors and the Colonial Office at the time and is still portrayed that waytoday.  His final chapter engages in an exploration of ‘what-if’.  I’m always wary of ‘what-if’ (even though I enjoy it!)- I see it as a guilty pleasure but ultimately a sterile pursuit because the reality is that it didn’t happen.

I’m likewise  a bit uncomfortable about his closing observations that extend his observations about government decision-making, or the lack thereof, during the settlement of Port Phillip  into a discussion of climate change policy today.  His argument has been strong and  persuasive throughout the rest of the book but I don’t know if it can stretch this far into the realm of present-day politics.  Although ‘doing nothing’ or failure to act (are they the same thing?) might be the end result, I’m not sure that it always springs from the same impetus. It might be a deliberate delaying tactic; it may be quite self-conscious; it may be because some actions are literally unthinkable and certainly unvoiceable because other imperatives are more important, or it may reflect a failure of imagination.  I’m not convinced that failure to act on climate change and failure to act to suppress illegal possession are the same thing.  It’s a debate worth having, I suppose, and perhaps that was his purpose in introducing the question at all.

This book is well-written, clear, engaging and forceful in its claims and well worth reading.   As a Melburnian, it nudges you into a different place to look at your city’s history, and that’s a bracing and exciting thing to do.

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One response to “‘1835’ by James Boyce

  1. I recently read this book, too. Like you I found the What if at the end problematic. I like counter-factual history. I think it makes one think about the timescale and timelines and examine the detail of history more closely. What I don’t like in Boyce’s book is the genesis of Indignant history, a far more common species than historians allow, because it is a form practiced by both the left and the right. I suppose Boyce is writing his history to placate his modern sensibility and it probably is a fearful thingto encounter the ruthlessness that permeated the frontier.

    I have been reading up on Scottish history up to the middle 19th c, and especially with regard to the Act of Union 1707 and the clearances of the mid to late 19th c,there is a strong element of Indignat history. Scotland in 1700 was a failed state in both an oldand a modern sense of the word. The Act of Union rebuilt the capital base of the state- £400,000 of English money to pay off debts and compensate the fools who threw their money into the Darien Venture, it gave the Scots access to the empire and all its trading possibilities, and restored good government. Yet Scottish historians will continue to counterfactually moan about it.

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