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A new class : they would not settle for less

2 February 2019 139 views No Comment

The Squatters

Barry Stone


2019, pp. 245, $29.99


It’s tricky writing about the European settlement of Australia. One has to keep in mind the fact that the successes of settlement were predicated on the damage inflicted on the peoples who lived here first.

Barry Stone’s The Squatters is a fine piece of carefully researched popular history. And there’s no doubt that the story of Australia’s pastoral pioneers is fascinating.

Stone tells the epic tale of those mainly British settlers and selectors who spread across Australia claiming land, constructing windmills and fence-lines, dry-stone walls and storehouses, livestock yards and droving routes, a number of which are still etched in the earth today.

In so doing, these settlers opened up the possibility of a life of wealth and prosperity undreamed of in the old world – even though they were, in the eyes of the real locals, invaders.

In this vast continent, on one level all that was needed at the beginning, Stone notes, was “to pack your belongings onto a bullock dray, journey beyond the reach of Sydney’s meddlesome authorities, mark out a parcel of land, claim it for yourself and your descendants, populate it with sheep or cattle, and forge a future.”

The experiences of Australia’s early pastoralists were extremely varied. While some of the industrious and indomitable settlers succeeded hugely, countless others succumbed to depression, drought, fires, flood and disease.

A number of those European settlers who were both extremely able and fortunate became a class of their own: a squattocracy, which spread across southeastern Australia, occupying an area the size of Western Europe. 

To these lucky pastoralists, and their sons and daughters, the Antipodes truly became an ‘Australia Felix’ (happy Australia) a name given in 1836 by the Scottish-born explorer, Thomas Mitchell, to the lush pastures of western Victoria.

In his evocative short story ‘The Hero of Redclay’, Henry Lawson disparagingly referred to this new rural elite as “scrub aristocrats”. Indeed by the mid-1800s they had developed many of the trappings, unsavory and otherwise, of a privileged class.

This involved the establishment of pastoral empires running thousands of head of stock, providing wool for export and meat, which was essentially for domestic consumption until the advent of refrigeration in the late 19th century.

As Stone usefully summarises it, these pastoral pioneers provided the impetus for a rural juggernaut that laid the foundations of a prosperous, but deeply divided, Australia.  

Evocatively, Lawson recalls a ball at the local town hall, where “the scrub aristocrats took one end of the room to dance in, and the ordinary scum the other!”

As Stone pungently puts it,“pastoral families gathered together in gilded dining rooms, while white employees ate in the kitchen – and (occasionally) Aborigines on the benches outside.”

To maintain control of their properties, many grazing families intermarried. A few even combined to boast their own artillery batteries, as Stone puts it, “in the unlikely event there should ever be a proletarian revolt!”

More likely, given most of the squattocracy claimed to own the land and the livestock, was conflict with Aboriginal clans.

Stone agrees that indigenous Australians neither passively accepted the loss of their traditional lands, nor, as some early anthropologists suggested, “mutely died” at the hands of armed settlers, who were often aided by the so-called native police.

Many Aboriginal warriors, including the Kalkadoons from around the Mount Isa region, valiantly fought back, with considerable success. This was until settlers and police massacred the Kalkadoons at ‘Battle Mountain’ in 1884.

Stone correctly concludes that the story of European settlement of Australia, “cannot be told without reminding ourselves that many settlers who ventured into the great unknown in search of a livelihood did so with blood on their hands.”

At the same time, The Squatters is acaptivating account of how, for a privileged few, vast wealth and bounty was achieved against the odds. It was, a world invaded and shaped, as Stone writes, “by a rare breed of pioneer, who created a new and powerful mythology and, in the process, forged a nation.”

A photographic highlight of this book is a portrait of Queensland pastoral workers outside their bark hut in 1870, taken by the famed Australian geologist and photographer Richard Daintree (1832-78). Another illuminating snap,‘The Pioneers Wife’, features a selector and his wife burning the forest on a newly marked block of land.

But for me the standout is a photograph taken in 1891, a year that heralded the great pastoral strikes throughout Australia.  It is a group portrait of the white inhabitants and buildings at Victoria River Downs Head Station in the Northern Territory, that usefully illustrates an excellent and aptly titled chapter – Kings In Grass Castles’: Settling The Top End.

These elite pastoralists ruled a divided kingdom, and the divisions remain evident today. Despite the admiration we may hold for our early settlers, it’s impossible to consider their achievements without counting the costs.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, February 2-3, 2019, review, Books pp. 18-9.

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