Joseph Banks thought Botany Bay a suitable place for a penal colony, and with prisons in England overflowing Prime Minister Pitt soon got the transports happening.
From the late days of the eighteenth century almost to the end of the nineteenth over 165,000 convicts were sent to Australia. You can read a fascinating, if disturbing, account of this in Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore. Now in The Bush, Don Watson has written a superb book about the next steps in settlement of Australia: the land grabs by squatters, the destruction of most of the natural environment, the murder and exploitation of the indigenous people. Somehow out of this, a myth arose, the myth of The Bush and its brave, dry, laconic male inhabitants.
All this was constructed on the myth of ‘Terra Nullius’ – an empty land with no inhabitants. But for those who were not blinded by longing for the orderly and small scale green of England, the signs of occupation and care for the land were everywhere to be seen:
…we find numerous references to a landscape that in its open orderliness and beauty looked like a ‘gentleman’s park’…places so much like European parks it was easy to think some banished civilization had made them. These parks had meadows, some of 4000 hectares, ‘waving with …grass’, ‘velvet like grass’; parks that looked like a field of corn; were ‘decked with flowers’…
The Aborigines who made these parks also made wells for people and dams for animals shaded by shrubbery and ‘apparently by art’. They had well-worn paths. They had ‘villages’ of stone or timber huts, ‘winter wurlies…built with mud in the shape of a large beehive’…
Major Mitchell saw the signs of occupation, Ludwig Leichardt even spoke about ‘systemic management.’ But the great machine of Colonization rolled on. The hubris of the white man who always thinks he knows better destroyed so much of the abundance of this country that we now have severe problems with drought, dust storms, mice and rabbit plagues, salinity and a general drying up of natural resources through over-development and mining at all costs.
On many occasions while reading this book my eyes were filled with tears; not just for the young aboriginal girls raped by the new settlers, not just for poor children like Bert Facey who were whipped almost to death by half-mad fathers, but for the land itself. The title of Xavier Herbert’s famous book says it all: Poor Fellow my Country.
Here is Watson’s account of Lake Tyrell at Sealake:
The scrub that once surrounded the lake has gone. The sandhills that were once covered with Murray pines were all cut down a century ago. The spectacular blue-winged parrots and regent parrots that used to flock among them disappeared. By day, lake and sky seem to be as one, an unbroken chain of being. The effect is even more intense on a clear night when there is water in the lake. Then the lake acts like a ‘gigantic mirror’ with ‘every star in the firmament’ reflected in it, and to stand in the water ‘is like being suspended in space’….The Boorong people who lived there knew astronomy from studying the stars reflected in the brine. They saw the drama of Creation and the creators in the constellations, the mythical characters and tales from the Dreaming: the mallee fowl, emu, red kangaroo, snake, brolgas, possums. The 100 million stars of the Milky Way were the smoke of the ancestors, the Nurrumbunguttias, now living in the heavens.
Not long ago an elderly man, a dear friend, said to me in all seriousness, ‘I consider the settlement of Australia to be one of the great achievements of Western Civilization.’ I am glad he is not still alive to read the story of cruelty, greed and destruction that is the true story of the settlement of Australia.
At no point does Don Watson rave and rant. In a moderate voice and in elegant prose he lets the story speak for itself. Highly recommended for any reader with an interest in Australia.
We hear his American Journeys is pretty good too.