By James BoyceNon-fiction Black Inc. Books
1835: The Founding of Melbourne & The Conquest of Australia
This history of Melbourne grew out of a history of Tasmania – James Boyce’s previous book, Van Diemen’s Land. The pressure to settle Victoria first grew out of the colony across Bass Strait, where overcrowding and a hunger for land made its business interests and would-be settlers covetously eye the grasslands of Port Philip.
In the narrative history style that made Van Diemen’s Land so compelling, taking an original, questing perspective, Boyce tells the story of Melbourne’s birth as an illegal settlement – and how it laid the foundation for the wider European settlement of Australia by forcibly changing government policy.
Boyce describes the situation in Van Diemen’s Land and the conflict between the governors both there and in New South Wales (keen to expand beyond their strictly defined boundaries) and the government in London, just as keen to limit settlement – partly due to a growing concern about the mistreatment of indigenous people in the colonies.
Popular claims that the fledgling Australian governments were helpless to prevent the illegal settlements on the Yarra are disingenuous. In reality, it was in their self-interest to turn a blind eye, and so they did.
1835 gives new national significance to the settlement of Melbourne – and shows the politics of the fledgling colony (including the treaty between John Batman and the Kulin nation) in all its complexity.
While the story of Melbourne’s foundation has been told often, this work enlarges its significance to show how an illegal camp on the Yarra served as a bridgehead for the pastoral conquest of Australia. A feature of the work is the expanded frame of reference: Boyce traces the interaction of decision-makers in London, Sydney and Hobart to establish that this was a crucial moment in colonial policy, to disclose how the occupation was sanctioned and document its explosive effects. Carefully plotted and closely argued, this book enlarges our understanding.
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The Howard era may be over and the combatants in the history wars may have retreated for now, but mainstream understanding of Australia’s foundation and common perceptions of European occupation are still points of public contention.
Enter James Boyce. One of Australia’s most interesting historians, his crucial contribution to debate about indigenous dispossession and the effects of colonisation in response to the publication of Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History was followed up by the highly acclaimed Van Diemen’s Land. In his latest offering, 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia, he takes the reader slightly further north and into Kulin country.
In beautifully clear and careful prose, neither polemicising nor ignoring the contemporary politics of the subject matter, Boyce examines the events, personalities and politics of that crucial Strait-crossing with a keen eye and a remarkable capacity for nuance.
The European presence in the grasslands of the Kulin, the swift invasion of the south-east and the founding of the city of Melbourne pivoted primarily on the events of that one year and the actions of a handful of men. ‘Socially suspect’ due to his convict heritage and the venereal disease already eating away at his face, John Batman’s desire to acquire new property across Bass Strait was hampered by the particular social relations and politics of the time. From the perspective of the Europeans, ‘to settle in Port Phillip,’ writes Boyce, ‘was to trespass on crown land and commit a crime.’ It took audacity, ambition, financial backing and political nous to change this ‘well-known and indisputable fact’ and Boyce follows these developments closely, examining the relationship between Batman and the other members of the Port Phillip Association, Governor Bourke in Sydney and the influence of London on the band of ‘private adventurers’ that eventually landed in Port Phillip in 1835.
The most striking thing about this book – and Boyce’s writing more generally – is his ability to knead his way into the details, carefully weighing the evidence with a delicate scale, considering the implications of social context and political motivation. The chapter on Batman’s ‘Treaty’, the agreement reached between Batman and the Kulin that is oft-cited as a legitimising factor for the founding of Melbourne, is perhaps one of the most nuanced and powerful parts of the book. Wholly rejecting the argument that the Kulin had consented to transfer ownership of hundreds of thousands of acres of their land for Batman’s proposed yearly tribute of blankets, clothing and flour, while nevertheless suggesting that something of huge significance had indeed happened at the creek that day, Boyce strikes a careful, precise blow on lazy presumption. There is an alternative way of interpreting the events of that day, he claims, and the narrative he offers gives us the briefest glimpse of what might have been.
And it is the shadow of what might have been that really drives this book, particularly in the face of what was. In particular, the figures relating to the expansion of the British occupation in the south-east after the decision was made to sanction the squatter invasion are truly astounding. From a situation that was ‘less a case of Aborigines “coming in” to the British camp than a small group of Britons “coming in” to Kulin country’, in the space of just five years the European population had swelled to twenty thousand people, an estimated 1.4 million sheep and a frontier that was growing to the west and north ‘at a rate of around one hundred miles a year’. Kept from their lands by squatters, their food sources scarce or ruined by introduced livestock, guns and dogs, indigenous people were rendered starving and destitute.
At the centre of 1835 is the thesis that it was not, as is often suggested, beyond the colonial government of the time to halt the land-grab that set the swift and devastating conquest of south-eastern Australia into motion. ‘The rapid spread of Britons and their animals during Melbourne’s first year,’ writes Boyce, ‘was a direct consequence of the response taken by the governments of Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales to the squatter invasion.’ In his final chapter, Boyce brings this argument to the fore, challenging the determinism of previous accounts of this period in Australia’s colonial history and the lack of political and governmental agency in the face of the market that these accounts imply. There were choices made here, Boyce argues, and it is crucial – ‘for historical accuracy, moral honesty and future freedom’ – that we recognise them for what they were.
A fascinating, sophisticated and sobering account of the seeds of this city and the dramatic transformation of this entire land, 1835 is a truly remarkable book.
Stephanie Honor Convery was an official blogger for the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2011 and 2012. She is a blogger for Overland and also has her own blog, Ginger and Honey.
Stephanie’s work has been featured in Overland, Meanjin and on ABC’s The Drum. She has just completed her first novel.
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