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A new class : they would not settle for less

2 February 2019 No Comment

The Squatters

Barry Stone

Allen&Unwin

2019, pp. 245, $29.99

By ROSS FITZGERALD

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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