Category Archives: Australia

Hopefulness amid the burning sands of Libya

In colonial times, understanding of Libya (to judge from newspaper evidence) was strongly influenced by references to that region in classical and biblical literature. For the most part Libya was thought of as a vaguely defined southern region of heat and burning sands.

The travels of Herodotus included Libya and Egypt; he wrote of Libya in connection with theories as to the origins of the waters of the Nile, and noted the size and beauty of the long-living Ethiopians who inhabited the southern part of Libya. The temple of Jupiter Ammon, visited by Alexander the Great, was in the deserts of Libya, near great pillars of salt. At one time Carthage held sway from Libya to Spain. After the Roman conquest of Carthage, Libya became one of the major sources of grain for supplying the city of Rome. ‘The parts of Libya about Cyrene’ was a well-known phrase from the New Testament story of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). By ancient custom the Bishop of Alexandria had authority over Egypt, Libya and the Pentapolis (five cities with Greek origins, including Cyrene and Berenice, modern Benghazi). Some argued that, according to biblical prophecy, Russia would occupy Egypt, Ethiopia and Libya in the last stages of the power struggles before the prophesied battle of Armageddon.

Literary allusions seemed to fill people’s minds even when Africa was being opened up by exploration. A report by Dr. Livingstone (1813-1873) from Ujiji, dated 1 November 1871, mentioned Libya in connection with a story thousands of years old, that an admiral of the Pharaohs had sailed round Libya with the sun on his right hand (that is, around the south of Libya from east to west) and was not believed. (Ujiji was where Henry Stanley found Dr. Livingstone on 28 October 1871.) Present at the British Association meeting in October 1874 was ‘Dr. Schweinfurth, who returned lately from a romantic expedition into the Desert of Libya.’ Not only was Libya fabled and romantic but the expeditions that went there were likely to have an aura of romance.

When W.C. Wentworth wrote his poem ‘Australasia’ for a Cambridge poetry prize in 1823 (published in the Sydney Gazette in 1824), he lamented the convict origins of New South Wales but offered the consolatory thought that the Roman empire, which stretched ‘From Libya’s sands to quiver’d Parthia’s shore,’ had even more disreputable origins.

Libya is the focus of a poem which appeared in the Melbourne Argus in 1852. Nicholas Mitchell, in ‘The Oases of Libya,’ developed the theme that ‘Nought wholly waste or wretched will appear | Through all the world of Nature or of mind.’ There is always hope in the midst of sorrow, happiness in the midst of desolation, stars to illuminate the darkness, faith to alleviate gloom. The oases of Libya are a case in point, ‘plots of verdure’ that gladden the traveller. The very first sight of them, and the fragrance that comes on the breeze, give relief to weary pilgrims. The fresh leaves, the birds, the mossy rocks, the green grass, the trees and vines and fruits, the flowers, bring luxurious thoughts, ‘While skies more clear, more bluely seem to glow, | To match the bright and fairy scene below.’

Herodotus: Sydney Morning Herald 14/7/1863, p. 2; Australian 5/8/1842, p. 2 (Ethiopians). Temple of Jupiter Ammon: ‘Salt’, Colonial Times 10/8/1847, p. 3. Carthage: Queanbeyan Age and General Advertiser 15/6/1865, p. 4. Grain supplies for Rome: South Australian Advertiser 19/6/1866, p. 2; cf. Launceston Examiner 11/12/1850, p. 4. Pentecost: Mercury (Hobart) 13/6/1871, p. 3. Bishop of Alexandria: Sydney Morning Herald 9/6/1843, pp. 2-3 at p. 2. Armageddon: Sydney Morning Herald 8/2/1854, p. 5. Dr. Livingstone: Rockhampton Bulletin 3/10/1872, p. 4. British Association and Georg August Schweinfurth (1836-1925): South Australian Register 26/10/1874, p. 6. ‘Australasia, written for the Chancellor’s Medal, at the Cambridge Commencement, July 1823, by W. C. Wentworth, an Australasian’, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 25/3/1824, p. 4. Nicholas Mitchell, ‘The Oases of Libya’: Argus 7/8/1852, p. 4.

Some European views of Japan in the nineteenth century

References to Japan in nineteenth-century newspapers in Australia are spasmodic and provide a very incomplete view of that country. The word ‘japanned’ occurs frequently in advertisements in connection with a variety of articles that were subjected to that lacquering process. As for the people, lifestyle and cultural achievements of Japan, there was a strong inclination to believe that European culture and attainments were significantly more advanced.

Thus in 1825 the Australian newspaper reprinted a letter to the editor of the Singapore Chronicle in which the writer commented on the language and ideas in several newspapers in the Australian colonies. According to the writer, the newspapers showed a range of regrettable linguistic developments in Australian English; however, they also offered evidence of ‘the rapid advancement of a country destined at some future day in all likelihood to alter the whole frame of society in Eastern Asia, and to give law to China and Japan.’

According to the Sydney Gazette in 1829:

In the island of Japan, we have the example of a people, who having attained a high degree of civilization and knowledge of the arts of life, have nevertheless abstracted themselves from intercourse with foreign nations. … There [in China], as in Japan, society appears to have attained a point at which all further progress and improvement have been arrested.

A small indication of the ignorance, or prejudice, which affected views on the ‘Far East’ may be found in an article on the history of printing, published in the Colonial Times in 1827, according to which Japan did not obtain the art of printing until the sixteenth century, subsequent to its invention in Germany in 1457.

There was, nevertheless, a recognition that Japan produced impressive manufactured goods. In the Sydney Monitor in 1828 a contributor is quoted as saying that Sydney is a place where,

… if you have but the money, you may procure any thing that convenience requires, and indulge if you please, the most capricious freaks of fancy, from the clumsiest Dutch toys, to the exquisite manufactures of China and Japan.

In quoting this passage the writer of the article disputes the possible implication that the items are widely available, but there is no criticism of the view that manufactures from China and Japan are typically, and in contrast to some items of European origin, ‘exquisite.’

Letter to the editor: ‘Comparisons are —’, Australian 20/10/1825, p. 2. Knowledge and civilization: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 10/3/1829, p. 2. Printing: Supplement to the Colonial Times 12/10/1827, p. 2. Manufactures: Sydney Monitor 23/8/1828, p. 3.

Japan, 15 June 1896: earthquakes and a tidal wave

In April 1892 the Adelaide Advertiser printed a description of ‘the great earthquake of 1891’ from a letter written by an agent of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company at Hiogo, Japan, and forwarded to the company’s Adelaide office. The writer described the earthquake as ‘the greatest seismic disturbance of the present century. The first and most severe shock occurred at 6.40 a.m. on October 28 and lasted about three minutes…’ During those few minutes nearly 10,000 people were killed and nearly 20,000 injured, and nearly 130,000 buildings were destroyed and over 50,000 partially destroyed (the writer gives exact figures).

The shock was accompanied by a low rumbling sound, the earth was violently shaken, and moved like the surface of a pool of water agitated by the wind, although the morning was perfectly bright and calm. … The earthquake was felt from Sendai in the north to Nagasaki in the south, over an area of 92,000 square miles, but most severely between Kobe and Tokio, the centre being the Nagoya-Gifu plain, one of the Japan’s great gardens.

Five years later there was another major upheaval, this time centred further to the north-east. By way of a ship that came directly from China and Japan, a report arrived in Australia a few weeks later of ‘the subsidence of a huge area off the northern coast of Japan.’

On Monday, the 15th June, the whole coastline of Iwate, Miyagi, and Aomori Prefectures, and of Rikuzen Province, a stretch of land measuring from 150 to 200 miles in length, was inundated by a tidal wave. Hundreds of houses have been swept away and probably thousands of lives lost. … There is unfortunately no room to doubt that the nation has to mourn a devastation almost, if not quite, equalling the terrible earthquakes in Central Japan in 1891.

The tidal wave was ‘preceded or accompanied by great seismic disturbances.’ The affected area stretched ‘from Sendai Bay on the south to Hachinohei and the eastern head of Aomori Bay on the north.’ The event was ‘a crushing catastrophe.’ Details to hand ‘suffice to make it clear that the country is face to face with little less than a national disaster. The feeling of the people is that the year promises to be a dark one.’

1891 earthquake: Advertiser (Adelaide) 23/4/1892, p. 4. 1896 earthquakes and inundation: quotations are from the report as printed in Sydney Morning Herald 21/7/1896, p. 6; see also Brisbane Courier 25/7/1896, p. 9.

Earthquakes in Japan: some nineteenth-century reports

Nineteenth-century newspaper reports show how gradual the process could be of assembling information about distant events, even in an age when communications were becoming more sophisticated. A reader might wait two months or more for an extended account of a major incident, and the report when it came might be, for all its striving for detail, rather sketchy. In the case of natural disasters, attempts to explain causes reflect the imperfect scientific knowledge of the day, and reveal a tendency to find in an event the work of a higher power and a pattern of responsibility and punishment.

Earthquakes in Japan were known to be frequent. Particularly large earthquakes in 1855 and 1891, for example, were remembered as exemplifying the susceptibility of Japan to major upheavals.

In December 1891 the Maitland Mercury reported a recent earthquake in Japan as affecting an enormous area and causing unprecedented havoc. As well as giving details of the scale of destruction, the article referred to the behaviour of the Japanese in response to the disaster:

To all this instantaneous and almost incredible ruin the Japanese oppose a cheerful and invincible fortitude. Panic there may have been during the fearful ten or twelve minutes while the land surged like a sea beneath their feet, and all the works of their hands toppled like a house of cards upon their heads. But in the midst of this widespread desolation and bereavement they maintain their customary demeanor, and accept the inevitable with laughing stoicism.

The writer sought to place the event in a longer historical perspective:

It is noted as a remarkable coincidence that the news of the terrible earthquake in Japan should be published in London on the 136th anniversary of the great Lisbon earthquake, when in about eight minutes most of the houses in the Portuguese capital and upwards of 50,000 inhabitants were swallowed up. The latest calamity in Japan brings up the total number of earthquakes and earthquake shocks recorded in the present century to about 130…

According to the article, the most fatal so far in the nineteenth century were those at Naples, 1805; Algiers, 1516; Aleppo, 1822; South Italy, 1851; Calabria, 1857; Quito, 1859; Mendoza (South America), 1860; Peru and Ecuador, 1868; Columbia, 1875; Cashmere, 1885; Corsica, Geneva and other towns, 1887; and Yun-nan, China, 1888. Even more destructive were earthquakes in preceding centuries at Naples, 1456; Schamacki, 1667; Sicily, 1693; and Jeddo, Japan, 1703. Among these the greatest loss of life occurred at Jeddo, when that city was ruined and some 200,000 people died.

Edo, also spelled Yedo, Yeddo and Jeddo, was the name of the city now called Tokyo.

In February 1892 the Mercury (Victoria) described the November 1891 earthquake in Japan in the light of details that had come to hand in the meantime. It was suggested that the earthquake was ‘the result of actual explosion somewhere in the bowels of the earth.’ Where the shocks were most severe, over an area of 500 square miles, nothing could withstand them; double that area was violently but less destructively shaken; ‘and even in the capital, 170 miles distant, the earth movements were of a kind to which there has been no parallel since the great Yeddo earthquake thirty-seven years ago.’

The Jeddo earthquake of 11 November 1855 was reported at length in the Perth Gazette eight months after the event. Some analysis was drawn from the San Francisco Herald:

… it is possible that the report exaggerates the real facts. Indeed, the destruction as given is so vast and appalling that one is tempted, through the sympathies of a common humanity, to doubt it and to hope for a less fearful account. But, when it is remembered that Jeddo is reported by some as containing a mil<l>ion of inhabitants, the wide-spread destruction is not impossible. It will be remembered that the Russian frigate Diana was wrecked [la]st year at Simoda by an earthquake, which was terrific and very destructiee [sic]. And it is said that at the same place the shock which was so destructive at Jeddo was severe.

The San Francisco Herald added:

The advent of the Americans, French, English, and Russians into Japan has been accompanied by natural phenomena of such an uncommon character that the Government and people may not very unnaturally connect the two as judgments sent upon them.

Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser 22/12/1891, p. 5. Mercury and Weekly Courier (Victoria) 4/2/1892, p. 3. Jeddo, 1855: Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News 25/7/1856, p. 3.

What would it be like to be a platypus?

The platypus is strong, vigorous, capable and successful in its natural environment. Platypus numbers have undoubtedly been reduced by human interference in their habitats. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the platypus among species of least concern, but according to information on the IUCN Red List website:

Still more information about population numbers and monitoring are crucial, especially for a long-lived species such as the Platypus where a lack of recruitment can be masked until a dramatic population crash occurs as adults reach the end of their lifespan.

When Europeans first encountered the platypus, they did not know what to make of it. George Shaw referred to it as platypus anatinus (broad- or flat-footed; duck-like, duck-billed) in an article published in 1799. An alternative scientific name (platypus having already been used of a beetle) was adopted by Johann Blumenbach in 1800, ornithorhynchus paradoxus, bird-snouted and paradoxical. Also used was platypus paradoxus. The accepted designation now is ornithorhynchus anatinus.

After half a century of exposure to the animal there was still doubt as to its appropriate classification. According to R. Montgomery Martin in his History of Austral-Asia, first published in 1836:

It is difficult to say whether the platypus (ornithorhyncus paradoxus) should be classed as an animal or a bird; it has four legs like a quadruped, and a bill like a duck, and, according to very general belief, lays eggs, and suckles its young.

It seems strange that the platypus was not given a name derived from an Aboriginal language. Governor Macquarie’s report of June 1815 on his tour across the Blue Mountains refers to the ‘water mole, or paradox’, the latter term evidently being an everyday application of the scientific term paradoxus.

In ordinary speech the term ‘platypus’ apparently took quite a long time to establish itself at the expense of other terms. Even ornithorhynchus entered common parlance, as we can see from the novel A Love Story, by a Bushman, published by George Evans in 1841, where we read:

The guest had little difficulty in recognising the uncouth form of the ornithorhynchus, or water mole.

The term ‘duck-billed platypus’ or more simply ‘duckbill platypus’ became popular as an alternative to ‘water mole’, even though there is only one platypus. Another expression in early use was ‘duck-mole’ or ‘duck-bill mole.’ No doubt there were regional variations in terminology.

Hunted as ‘game’ or investigated for its zoological and anatomical peculiarities, the platypus seems often to have been treated more as a resource or a curiosity rather than as a living, thinking creature. Certainly it is a difficult animal to get to know, with its shyness, the time it spends in water or in a burrow, and its tendency to crepuscular and nocturnal habits. Perhaps it could be found more frequently on land before the introduction of the fox.

Hunters no doubt had little time for the psychology of the platypus. One of the collectors who showed an interest was George Bennett, author of Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia, published in 1860. He caught a number of platypus at different times and tried to keep them in captivity, observing their habits and interacting with them. He was able to stroke the young ones, which behaved somewhat like puppies. He tells us (p. 136):

They would sport together, attacking one another with their mandibles, and rolling over in the water in the midst of their gambols; and afterwards, when tired, get on to the turf, where they would lie combing themselves, until the fur was quite smooth and shining. It was most ludicrous to observe these uncouth-looking creatures, running about, overturning and seizing one another with their mandibles, and then, in the midst of their fun and frolic, coolly inclining to one side and scratching themselves in the gentlest manner imaginable.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Ornithorhynchus anatinus. George Shaw, Naturalist’s Miscellany; Or, Coloured Figures of Natural Objects, Drawn and Described Immediately from Nature, vol. X, London, Nodder, 1799, with two plates by Frederick Polydore Nodder. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Abbildungen naturhistorischer Gegenstände, vol. 5, no. 41 (‘Das Schnabelthier’, the duckbill). But note J.F. Bertuch (ed.), Bilderbuch für Kinder, Weimar, Verlag des Landes-Industrie-Comptoirs, 1798, vol. 3, no.80 (Das Schnabelthier, Ornithorhynchus paradoxus), discussed on the National Library of Australia website. Robert Montgomery Martin, History of Austral-Asia, comprising New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Island, Swan River, South Australia, &c. (Martin’s Colonies), London, Mortimer, 1836, p. 111; there is an extract in ‘Literature and science: Mr. Martin’s Austral-Asia’, Colonist 26/10/1837, p. 6 (Platypus capitalised), and a similar passage in his History of the British Colonies. Governor Macquarie’s tour: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 10/6/1815, pp. 1-2. Love Story extract: Australasian Chronicle 7/8/1841, p. 2. Duck-mole: ‘A glossary of the most common productions in the natural history of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land’, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 28/1/1826, p. 3. Duck-bill mole: ‘To all my sensible townsmen’, Australasian Chronicle 24/9/1840, p. 2. George Bennett, Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia, being Observations Principally on the Animal and Vegetable Productions of New South Wales, New Zealand, and some of the Austral Islands, London, Van Voorst, 1860. A. H. Chisholm, ‘Bennett, George (1804-1893)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 85-86, and online. Cf. David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vol. 2, London, Cadell and Davies, 1802; Harry Burrell, The Platypus: Its Discovery, Zoological Position, Form and Characteristics, Habits, Life History, etc., Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1927; repr., Adelaide, Rigby, 1974.

Inheritors of the consequences

When the British Government took possession of territory on the continent of Australia, it did so confident in its strength of arms and documentation. These were capabilities which the Aborigines lacked. The battle was very uneven and the outcome predictable. The newcomers, believing that they had the superior and stronger culture and resources, were not minded to negotiate a general agreement with the Aborigines over matters of ownership and government of the land and its peoples.

A notable exception to this attitude was the attempt by John Batman to establish a form of treaty with Aborigines in the Port Phillip area, where he wanted to take up grazing lands. The treaty document survives, with its symbols supposed to represent marks of agreement by Aboriginal chiefs. The treaty was a device designed partly to demonstrate peaceful co-existence with the Aboriginal population, but partly also to assert private rights over land not granted by the Crown.

Batman’s treaty with the Aborigines is dated 6 June 1835. On 26 August His Excellency Major-General Sir Richard Bourke, K. C. B., Commanding His Majesty’s Forces, Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of the Territory of New South Wales and its Dependencies, and Vice-Admiral of the same, &c. &c. &c., issued a Proclamation to make clear that he was having none of John Batman’s stratagems:

Whereas, it has been represented to me, that divers of His Majesty’s Subjects have taken possession of vacant Lands of the Crown, within the limits of this Colony, under the pretence of a treaty, bargain, or contract, for the purchase thereof, with the Aboriginal Natives; Now therefore, I, the Governor, in virtue and in exercise of the power and authority in me vested, do hereby proclaim and notify to all His Majesty’s Subjects, and others whom it may concern, that every such treaty, bargain, and contract with the Aboriginal Natives, as aforesaid, for the possession, title, or claim to any Lands lying and being within the limits of the Government of the Colony of New South Wales, as the same are laid down and defined by His Majesty’s Commission; … is void and of no effect against the rights of the Crown; and that all Persons who shall be found in possession of any such Lands as aforesaid, without the license or authority of His Majesty’s Government, for such purpose, first had and obtained, will be considered as trespassers, and liable to be dealt with in like manner as other intruders upon the vacant Lands of the Crown within the said Colony.

This was a unilateral assertion of rights which took no account of the Aboriginal view of the matter. The concept of ‘vacant lands of the Crown’ ignored the very existence of Aborigines, let alone their needs and rights. In these respects Governor Bourke’s Proclamation arguably had even less moral authority than Batman’s treaty, particularly if Batman had indeed managed to secure a meaningful expression of good-will and co-operation from the Aborigines with whom he sought to deal.

To what extent might Aborigines of that time be amenable to letting the newcomers use the land over which they had roamed for thousands of years? Robert Dawson, in his Present State of Australia (page 12), offers some interesting evidence, which reflects the psychology of the Aboriginal who guided him from Newcastle to Port Stephens and whom he named Ben. He had promised Ben rewards for his efforts and Ben was delighted with the gifts, so much so that, in uplifted and expansive mood, he offered Dawson a great deal in return:

On the following morning I went on board the schooner, and ordered on shore a tomahawk and a suit of slop clothes, which I had promised to my friend Ben, and in which he was immediately dressed. They consisted of a short blue jacket, a checked shirt, and a pair of dark trowsers. He strutted about in them with an air of good-natured importance, declaring that all the harbour and country adjoining belonged to him. “I tumble down pickaninny here,” he said, meaning that he was born there. “Belonging to me all about, massa; pose you tit down here, I gib it to you.” “Very well,” I said: “I shall sit down here.” “Budgeree,” (very good,) he replied, “I gib it to you;” and we shook hands in ratification of the friendly treaty.

Dawson does not represent this as a legal transaction, as Batman might have. He would have been less than honest to do so, given the naïveté of the Aboriginal inhabitants, ignorant as they necessarily were of European habits of mind and techniques of diplomacy. But he was no doubt encouraged by the level of good-will which had been generated.

However, whether there was good-will or ill-will, the fact remained that the newcomers were not going to relinquish their plans for possession and use of the land, whatever the Aborigines might think; and the Aborigines were not equipped to develop the sort of strategies needed to beat the British at their own game.

Robert Kenny has argued that Batman’s treaty need not be interpreted (as it usually is) as a mere ruse. Batman’s dialogue with the Aborigines raises the question of whether the usurpers of the land could have entered into genuine negotiations with the traditional occupants, as Batman did to an extent, so as to make the outcome fair. What was actually done, Kenny argues (p. 38.10), poses moral problems for all concerned then and now, since we are all ‘inheritors of the consequences.’

State Library of Victoria, Batman’s treaty (including images). National Archives of Australia, Documenting a Democracy, Governor Bourke’s Proclamation 1835 (UK) (including images and transcription). Cf. ‘Government Gazette’, Australian 8/9/1835, p. 3. Robert Dawson, The Present State of Australia, London, 1830, p. 12. Robert Kenny, ‘Tricks or Treats? A Case for Kulin Knowing in Batman’s Treaty’, History Australia 5 (2), 2008, 38.1 to 38.14.

From railways to resources

It would be hard to imagine Alexander Johnston, railway contractor, involving himself in the sort of idealistic scheme which William Lane promoted under the name ‘New Australia.’ If Mr. Johnston had been involved in such a scheme, one could readily imagine him making a success of it. He certainly would not have neglected to organise the money and machinery necessary to make it work.

Alexander Johnston (1839-1916) had emigrated from Scotland in 1856. He had been in Queensland for a time, then came to New South Wales. As partner and contractor he was involved in a number of construction projects, including tramways in Sydney, a section of the railway between Goulburn and Cooma, construction of cattle yards at Homebush, parts of the Nepean water supply, and water works in Melbourne. With his accumulated wealth he was able to invest in and contribute to a number of enterprises which benefited from his experience in the fields of engineering, geology and project management.

In the 1890s, while the ‘New Australia’ colonists were trying to establish an ideal society in Paraguay, Alexander Johnston was helping to open up the North Shore of Sydney to investment and development. He was associated with a private syndicate (the North Sydney Tramway and Investment Company) responsible for construction of the North Shore (or Long Bay) Suspension Bridge (which gave the suburb of Northbridge its name) and the opening up of new land. Progress was not without its problems. There was a protracted period of delay caused by complications over ownership. Finally in 1912 the bridge was handed over as a gift to the New South Wales Government. The elaborate stone superstructure remains. Although the old metal deteriorated and a concrete arch now supports the weight, the structure is still referred to informally as the suspension bridge.

Political developments to the north of Australia offered a new field for enterprise. The British Government had long been wary of French designs in the Pacific. Then in 1884 Germany annexed the north-eastern part of New Guinea. Britain responded by proclaiming a Protectorate over the south-eastern portion, which was extended to neighbouring islands. This gave a new context for imperial and colonial action in suppressing lawlessness and fostering business expansion in the region. The discovery of gold on some of the islands off the east coast of New Guinea in the 1890s prompted a gold rush in a number of places, including Woodlark Island (also called Murua) from 1895 onwards. Despite the difficulties of the climate and the problems of disease, many individual prospectors took up claims. There were reports from time to time that the gold was giving out; whether this was an entirely objective assessment or a way of deterring possible competitors, the methods of extraction being used were fairly primitive and the gains were necessarily limited. Circumstances were ripe for a man like Mr. Alex Johnston, one of the directors of the Woodlark Island Proprietary Gold-mining Company, formed in 1899, to buy up small prospectors and introduce technically advanced methods to locate, identify, mine, process and transport gold and other deposits, and so prove that the riches of Woodlark Island and elsewhere were far from exhausted.

It was an era when able people, energetic and optimistic, were expanding the reach of investment and technology, with profound implications for political and economic control over land, resources and populations, in Australia and elsewhere.

‘Death of Mr. A. Johnston’, Sydney Morning Herald 17/6/1916, p. 11. Gold on Woodlark Island: e.g. Sydney Morning Herald 31/8/1897, p. 6. Sydney gold syndicate: e.g. Advertiser [Adelaide] 18/7/1899, p. 5; Sydney Morning Herald 21/12/1899, p. 9.

Under his own vines and fig trees

In the 1830s the term ‘New Australia’ found its way into the Western Australian Parliamentary record, evidently through the imperfect substitution of ‘Australia’ for ‘New Holland’. There was a wry suggestion that it might be some new plan devised by the Home Government; but it was clearly an inadvertence. We also read in a newspaper shipping report of December 1846 that, ‘The Henry and Elizabeth was moored off Woolwich September 1st, to take on board female convicts for New Australia.’ Perhaps this was a confusion of ‘New South Wales’ with ‘Australia’. The Henry and Elizabeth certainly came to Sydney, where we find her in May of the following year about to leave for London.

The expression took on novel associations in the 1890s, when William Lane (1861-1917) and his followers from various places in Australia attempted to set up a utopian community in Paraguay under the name ‘New Australia’. It might be thought a crazy and unnecessary scheme, when Australia itself was still relatively in its infancy, to give up hope there and seek to found a ‘New Australia’ in South America. The aim was to establish a model society along socialist and communist lines. However, the project was poorly managed, Lane was difficult and doctrinaire, the settlers disagreed among themselves, there were splinter groups, some left to form other settlements elsewhere in Paraguay, including one called ‘Cosme’ (a fresh initiative by Lane), while many disillusioned colonists, faced with the realities of the task, just wanted to come home. It was a brave scheme that turned into an embarrassing failure.

William Lane had seen difficult economic circumstances when he was growing up in England, and then later in Canada and the United States. In Australia he gained a wide reputation as a radical journalist and in trade unionism and politics. Dismayed by economic and social conditions in Australia and the difficulties of achieving improvements, and already influenced by utopian thinking, he sought followers for the New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association. The first contingent of over 200 colonists left Sydney on the Royal Tar on 16 July 1893, with Lane as their leader, accompanied by his wife, his four children, his brother John and John’s wife.

One of the colonists was Wallace B. Brock, who had worked as a prospector and miner in Broken Hill and elsewhere. In June 1895 the Broken Hill newspaper the Barrier Miner published a letter from him, written in Paraguay. He was impressed with the scenery, the productivity of the land, and some of the progress made in the settlements, but there was a need for money and machinery. ‘With these two things this country could be made one of the greatest places on the face of the earth.’ There is talk of getting a large loan. ‘If this can be done we will go ahead, and in three years this place will be a paradise.’ But he advises against going to the settlement at the moment, for ‘it is an awkward place to get away from.’

Two years later Wallace Brock was back in Broken Hill. The Barrier Miner observed in October 1897: ‘The men who formed the New Australia colony in Paraguay came back more silently than they went.’ The newspaper had managed to get some comments from him after rumours spread that New Australia had collapsed because of ‘wine and women.’ This was rubbish, said Mr. Brock. Lane had thought that socialism could be made a success by changing human nature. But the project had foundered over practical issues, especially bad management, lack of money and knowledge, and the distance to markets. The location was good: in the back country of Paraguay one could grow everything requisite, whereas ‘in the back country of Australia one would be fortunate if one could produce a gooseberry on 20 acres without irrigation.’

This turned out to be a strangely prescient comment. Fifteen years later, in July 1912, the official opening occurred of irrigation works at Leeton, and Mr. Wallace Brock was there as one of the settlers. Back in 1895 he had written from Paraguay of the plentiful fruit in the New Australian colony. The season for oranges had just begun and ‘there seemed to be no end of them.’ Now on the plains of the Riverina he helped Mr. C.A. Lee, who as Minister for Works in the New South Wales Government had been responsible for founding the Murrumbidgee irrigation project, plant an orange tree.

In the course of its report of the occasion, the Sydney Morning Herald described Mr. Brock’s background under the heading ‘The old socialism and the new,’ and reported the contentedness of a man who after much wandering had become a settler in the new irrigation area which the New South Wales Government was providing: ‘“This is a miner’s dream – to retire to a life under his own vines and fig trees,” said the hardy ex-miner, now turned farmer.’

‘New Holland’ and ‘New Australia’: Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal 10/6/1837, p. 916. Convicts for ‘New Australia’: Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser 26/12/1846, p. 2; cf. Moreton Bay Courier 6/2/1847, p. 4 (a similar report, attributed to the Sunday Times of September 6). William Lane: Gavin Souter, ‘Lane, William (1861-1917)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 9, 1983, pp. 658-659, and online. Letter from Wallace Brock: ‘New Australia. Letter from a recent arrival’, Barrier Miner 29/6/1895, p. 2. After his return: ‘New Australia’, Barrier Miner 23/10/1897, p. 2. Murrumbidgee project opening: ‘Water for the land. Barren Jack floodgates open. Great Murrumbidgee scheme. Official ceremony’, Sydney Morning Herald 15/7/1912, p. 7.

After the railways, the water problem

The work of extending a system of railways across New South Wales was spread over many years, largely because of the need to finance such a large scheme in stages. The line from Goulburn to Cooma, for example, cost well over a million pounds. Once such works were completed, there was the question of what should be done next.

It was obvious that climatic conditions presented the country with major challenges. The availability of water was very variable. Drought was frequent and severe. The persistent dryness of much of the land, and alternating patterns of drought and flood, were extremely frustrating. Given the magnitude of the problem, could successful responses be devised that would provide farmers and pastoralists with stable conditions from year to year?

In October 1886 the Queanbeyan Age reported a speech delivered in the NSW Legislative Assembly by Hon. Edward O’Sullivan, the member for Queanbeyan. Mr. O’Sullivan argued that, ‘we had already done our duty to the people in the matter of railway construction, and other public work, and the next great national work which would have to be undertaken would be that of the conservation of water and distribution of water.’ The entire community suffered, in inconvenience and expense, through not having a national scheme for these purposes. It was a case of human ingenuity against the forces of nature:

We must, in fact, show that human intelligence was superior to nature by initiating a comprehensive scheme of water conservation and irrigation.

This meant storing and diverting water, creating irrigation systems, and multiplying wells, tanks and dams. Mr. O’Sullivan was optimistic that this could be done. There were already natural features to assist. The snow in the Snowy Mountains provided water that could be diverted into the Murrumbidgee and the Murray, for example. There were natural reservoirs such as Lake George that could store flood-water. Private enterprise had already shown on a small scale that irrigation could increase yield and support stock. Other countries, such as India and Spain, had successfully employed irrigation systems with rainfall at similar or even lower levels.

There was already in progress in New South Wales a Royal Commission on the Conservation of Water (10 May 1884 – 9 May 1887), set up ‘to make a full inquiry into the best method of conserving the rainfall, and of searching for and developing the underground reservoirs supposed to exist in the interior of the colony, and also the practicability, by a general system of water conservation and distribution, of averting the disastrous consequences of periodical droughts.’ Mr. O’Sullivan drew on some the findings of the Royal Commission to support his arguments.

These were some of the early efforts that eventually led in the twentieth century to the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the extensive use of irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin, and other water conservation and irrigation measures.

We are in a better position now to judge whether ‘human intelligence’ is ‘superior to nature.’

‘Water conservation and irrigation’, Queanbeyan Age 9/10/1886, pp. 2-3. ‘Royal Commission on the Conservation of Water’, NSW State Records. Bruce E. Mansfield, Australian Democrat: The Career of Edward William O’Sullivan, 1846 – 1910, Sydney, Sydney University Press, 1965; idem, ‘O’Sullivan, Edward William (1846-1910)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 11, 1988, pp. 106-108, and online. ‘Mr Edward William O’Sullivan (1846-1910)’, NSW Parliament website.

The cause of liberty

In June 1887 came news that Sir Henry Parkes on behalf of the New South Wales Government had ordered that no meetings, concerts or theatre entertainments be held on Sunday evenings. This created a sensation. On the evening of Sunday 12 June a large crowd assembled in Macquarie Street, Sydney, next to St. James’ Church, to hear speakers condemn the order of prohibition. The Sydney Morning Herald estimated that some six thousand people were present. One of the speakers, Mr. J. Norton, seconding a motion which condemned the action of Sir Henry as a ‘tyrannous usurpation of power’, said that he was there as a Christian, that Christians and secularists had to combine to fight some things, and that this was a crisis when ‘liberty of opinion, speech, and action were threatened.’ He believed the occasion would be ‘the democratic awakening of this country’ and that ‘The people would remind those men who were casting their eyes back to the days of the convict chain and the prison gang that the principle of democracy had developed, and the old order of things had passed away.’

Prison chains were a particularly powerful symbol in a colony founded on convictism, representing a loss of liberty and dignity and arousing feelings of shame and resentment. When a photograph of aborigines in chains appeared in the Herald in 1927, there was a quick response from J.W. Ferrier, General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, condemning the police practice of chaining aborigines, even innocent ones brought in for questioning. The method had been described in an article which appeared earlier that year entitled ‘Cattle spearing: How natives are captured’. The writer explained that, after a long and difficult chase in the desert, ‘The police arrest the men, chain them together, neck to neck, about six feet apart, with a dog chain, and take them to the nearest magistrate.’

Mr. Ferrier referred to two books by the nineteenth-century missionary Rev. J.B. Gribble (1847-1893), Black but Comely, or, Glimpses of Aboriginal Life in Australia (1884) and Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land, or, Blacks and Whites in North-west Australia (1886). Gribble had been furious in his condemnation of white treatment of the native population, but he had come to grief through launching an unsuccessful court case against some of his detractors (June – July 1887). The case and its outcome emboldened those who were unsympathetic towards the indigenous population, and influenced debate for decades.  In 1896, for example, a letter-writer to the West Australian (the newspaper Gribble had taken to court) discussed the case and argued that reducing aborigines to semi-slavery was a matter of practicality and taking away their country was ‘merely another instance of the survival of the fittest.’

Indigenous inhabitants were thus faced with a population from abroad that could rejoice in its own rights to liberty and democracy while failing to extend these rights fully to those whom it found inconvenient. The ‘crisis’ of June 1887 was a shocking moment to those who valued the freedom to spend Sunday evenings the way they wanted. But out of sight, away from the concerts and theatres, there was a far more tragic and long-lasting crisis in the affairs of inhabitants whose cause was easily forgotten and repeatedly neglected.

Prohibition protest: Sydney Morning Herald 13/6/1887, p. 4. Photo of two aboriginal men in chains: Sydney Morning Herald 12/3/1927, p. 13. Letter of J.W. Ferrier: Sydney Morning Herald 19/3/1927, p. 11. ‘Cattle spearing’: Sydney Morning Herald Saturday 12/2/1927, p. 11. Gribble case: cf. ‘Anglican history in Australia’, sub-section ‘A white church’, Anglican Diocese of Perth website. Enslavement: West Australian 27/10/1896, p. 10.