Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

The place for a village – some thoughts on Victoria’s early history

Last week in the hiatus between my fevered consumption of fairy tale re-tellings and resuming serious manuscript edits, I started researching my next project. I say started, in reality, I have been reading about life in the early days of the Port Phillip District for years. Reading, without making notes or marking maps, leaving what next in the periphery of my head.

On Wednesday, I pulled down a pile of books and shifted gears.

For me, research is the prime stimulus for my creative process. I start with characters chattering in my head. I have a vague sense of where they lived and what their inner issues are. How I work out these issues – the nuts and bolts of events and scenarios – tends to spring from research.

My next novel will be set in the Port Phillip District of the then Colony of New South Wales. I therefore decided to ‘start’ my research by re-reading A history of the Port Phillip District: Victoria before separation.

In 1842, the Port Phillip settlement was ‘officially’ only about four years old. Two earlier attempts and been made to settle the region. One at a site close to modern day Sorrento. The other in Western Port. In between, sealers and whalers plyed the coast, various surveys and explorative expeditions were conducted and, ahead of the law, men started to transport sheep and cattle across the straight from Van Diemen’s land.

I am always amazed, post Mabo – the landmark High Court case in which indigenous land title was recognised – to read the attitudes of Australia’s early settlers. Here are some thoughts that struck me this week:

The colonisers saw the land entirely in terms of its usefulness to them. Consider this 1831 newspaper quote, written in relation to the Hume and Hovell expedition.

“…discovery of a vast range of country, invaluable for every purpose of grazing, and agriculture – watered by numerous fine streams, and presenting an easy inland water course extending from Port Phillip and Western Port to the settled district of Bathurst – thus refuting the previously adopted opinion, by which this line of country had been denounced as inhabitable and useless…”

Did anyone notice an omission in that passage? Like some kind of recognition that the land was already inhabited?

Many who did recognise the indigenous land title did so from their own agenda. There were no official treaties with Australia’s indigenous people – unlike those made with the Maori’s at Waitangi and by the Quaker William Penn with the ‘Indians’ of Pennsylvania – apart from a treaty made on behal of the Port Phillip Association, in which Batman claimed to have purchased 500,000 acres of land North of Melbourne in return for blankets, knives, tomahawks, scissors and mirrors (even as a child, I wondered at the ludicrousness of such an exchange).’

Setting aside the illegality of Batman’s processes and that clan land was non-transferable, held in trust for future generations, the treaty did seem to be recognising indigenous rights to the land. Indeed, the Association expressed a desire to found a colony on ‘principles of conciliation, civilisation, philanthropy, morality and temperance.’

However, when you take into account that Batman’s treaty was made on behalf of a group of capitalists who were seeking to appeal Governor Arthur, who had repeatedly urged a such treaty on the Colonial Office, and that, in Van Diemen’s land, Batman had a record of ‘much slaughter’, it becomes apparent that they were were merely dressing their actions in a ‘philanthropic disguise’ in order to gain the support of the humanitarian lobby in Britain.

In the end, Batman’s treaty was declared void.

It conflicted with the Imperial position that Australia was terra nullis – an unoccupied territory.

There were individuals who recognised aboriginal land rights from the outset. When discussing colonial attitude towards Australia’s indigenous people’s it is not uncommon to hear sentiments such as: ‘Oh, well, were men of their time.’ It is gratifying to note that, from the outset, there were individuals who recognised aboriginal land title. These men were not saints. They were active participators in the colonisation process. Like us they had personal lists of bigotries and short sightedness. But in this respect, they saw clearly. In A history of the Port Phillip District, Shaw lists them. It seems appropriate to acknowledge them here.

  • Bishop Broughton,
  • Quaker visitors James Backhouse and G.W. Walker,
  • The Wesleyan, Joseph Orton,
  • The Presbyterian, John Dunmore Lang
  • Surveyor, Charles Tyers
  • Aboriginal Protectors Robinson and Dredge (does anyone see the irony in the appointment of aboriginal protectors in an unoccupied territory)
  • Settlers like, Gideon Lang, William Howitt and William Westgarth
  • Pamphleteer and newspaper editor, George Arden
  • Soldier and author, Colonel William Mundy
  • Under-secretary James Stephen
  • And…finally, not until 150 years later the High Court of Australia



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1 Comment

  1. That list makes me feel so sad – it’s too short a list to represent so many people in a period of time when protection was so needed – and yes; the irony is heavy indeed.

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