Tag Archives: Melbourne

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.