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The Europeans in Australia
Volume Two: Democracy
By Alan Atkinson
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2016 Alan Atkinson
All rights reserved.
Bound by Birth
Among the ancient inhabitants of Australia are its ants. Their millions of cities cover the continent, so that, go where you like, they are underfoot. Ants attach themselves to certain spots, and they move about their landscape with each moment shaped – so it seems to the human eye – by small decisions. They act as if convinced of their right to the earth.
John Hunter, who came on the First Fleet in 1788 and was second Governor of New South Wales, found the antipodean ants to be of various sizes and colours, mainly black, white, and reddish brown, all agile and shiny as they hunted in and out among debris and yellowed leaves. The high-stepping red bulldog ant (Myrmecia gulosa), sometimes an inch long, impressed him most. '[I]f you tread near the nest, (which is generally underground, with various little passages or outlets) and have disturbed them', he wrote, 'they will sally forth in vast numbers, attack their disturbers with astonishing courage, and even pursue them to a considerable distance.' They bite hard. The pain, which Hunter called 'most acute', lingers like a bee-sting.
It may be this species that features in one of the most ghastly episodes of colonial fiction. In James Tucker's Ralph Rashleigh (written in 1845) bushrangers left a constable naked, stunned but alive, pinned to an antbed. Within hours only fragments of flesh remained. 'Them's the little boys', the leading man remarked, 'for polishing a bone.'
Other ants lived among foliage, bark and blossom, falling in showers on the skin of blundering Europeans, especially in summer. Hunter found some in nests built against trees, as big as a large beehive. '[A]nother kind', he said, 'raises little mounts on the ground, of clay, to the height of four feet.' Ants are enterprising. Louisa Meredith, a housewife in Tucker's time, wrote of small black ants (probably Iridomyrmex), which got into every kind of sweet stuff, whatever the barrier. They had fixed lines of communication and day and night, she said, their 'runs' were a moving stream.
One day I observed a bright yellow circle on the ground, and on stooping to see what it might be, discovered a quantity of the golden-coloured petals of a small kind of cistus which grew near, neatly cut up into little bits (about the sixteenth of an inch wide), heaped all around an ant-hole, and crowds of my tiny household foes or their relatives busy in various ways. ... I watched the indefatigable little creatures for some time, until I became quite cramped from my crouching position, and still the same routine of business went on with unabated activity.
She had also seen them at the bottom of her garden, despatching grains of sugar. They were among the keenest exploiters of European settlement.
This volume is designed to watch, like Mrs Meredith, the activities of an eager, mobile species. Had she been able she would have stepped through the circle of yellow cistus and, lit by the blue aperture through which she had come, inspected the palace of the ants. The intention here is much the same.
My subject matter, the Europeans in Australia, set upon the country, ant-like, in a ceaseless stream, increasing with the years. As Louisa Meredith said of the ants, 'their industry was unwearied ... [and] their plans of business ... on a most extensive scale'. Between January 1788, the time of the First Fleet, and December 1815, according to the best record, a total of 15,057 convicts (11,627 men and 3430 women) travelled from Great Britain and Ireland, together with nearly 3000 free people. Many went back again, many died early, but many additions were born here. The European population of Australia at the end of 1815 was said to be a little over 15,000, scattered in interesting patterns over the landscape. Of these, 2000 lived in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). The rest were on the mainland, nearly all within a day's journey from Sydney. At that point among the adult population some four in every ten were still convicts, but of those four at least one had a ticket of leave or, by some other means, was practically free. In short, less than a third of the adults were under penal discipline, and even those might seem to have ambitions of their own.
In 1815 about a quarter of the population were children. Between 300 and 400 were born each year. Australia – its floor of dry sticks and leaves, its walls of endless eucalypt, copper-coloured, grey-blue, dim pink, the ceaseless sound and movement of its birds and insects, the unblinking sky – was their only home. It was a vast theatre, displaying episodes of anthill savagery. However, the remoteness of this country from Europe, its scanty population and cultural poverty, compounded the simplicity of childhood. Children born elsewhere arrived with immigrant parents, and even for them the memory of that elsewhere soon dwindled within the sealed horizon. Minds were closed by more than isolation. Many of the poorer Europeans who came to Australia in the first years – the first White swarm – were the kind of people who, wherever they might live, took their circumstances as they found them, their thoughts shaped by immediate need and their imaginations depending on their own experience. And like the ants, as we see, they might bite hard.
There were numerous children on the two ships, Ocean and Calcutta, which anchored in October 1803 at Port Phillip, on the south coast of New South Wales. The parents were among nearly 500 men and women who anticipated living in that wilderness – at Sullivan Bay, just inside the harbour's mouth – for the rest of their lives. George Harris, who went with them as deputy surveyor-general, sent home to his mother his first impressions of the wildlife. He was much troubled by ants, mosquitoes, and sandflies. The country also teemed with black swans, 'in flocks of hundreds', and with pelicans, ducks, pigeons and smaller birds – 'some ... extremely beautiful'. On 17 November 1803 the authority of the lieutenant-governor, David Collins, was proclaimed by the public reading of his commission. A week later Ann Thorne, a soldier's wife, gave birth to a boy who was christened 'William James Port Phillip'. In February, the site being found unsuitable (there was no fresh water), the party moved to the mouth of the Derwent River, on the south-east coast of Van Diemen's Land, where a settlement had been formed from Sydney, the first on the island, some months before. The boundary across which they sailed, Bass Strait, was later to be a vital highway for the Europeans in Australia. Catherine Potaski was born as they rode at anchor in Risdon Cove, in the interval before her mother was carried ashore. She grew up around the campsite – eventually a town – that was named after Lord Hobart, Secretary of State for the Colonies. Her father was John Potaski, a convict, probably a native of Poland, who had brought to the Antipodes his wife and their infant, English-born son.
By July 1804 there were nineteen children under ten years old at the Derwent. By September 1807 there were forty-seven. Their horizons were dense and narrow and they were not open-minded humanitarians. Variety of life among animals must have meant more to them than variety among their own species. Catherine Potaski, exploring the smaller aspects of her universe, might have learnt about ant architecture, ant commerce and ant anger. Ants were one of a number of species easily recognisable even to the most unlearned new arrivals. (Did this little girl know, as anyone from Cornwall might have told her, that ants bore the souls of babies who died without baptism?) It was likewise comforting to find at the Antipodes 'our old friend' the crow, looking the same though sounding different. 'He sings the "quaw, quaw" as in Britain,' said one newcomer, 'but the last quaw is lengthened into a horrible scream and seems to end in a pitiful groan.' Scholars thought that crows talked among themselves and with this idea an early writer about bush life in Van Diemen's Land listened to three in a tree above his head. No doubt children did the same. Given the smallness of the settlement, it was difficult to walk far without coming to some wilderness of feathered discussion, particularly along creeks and rivers where birds were legion. Anyone splashing in the rivers, on island or mainland, set off the 'feathered savages' living along the banks. '[S]uch a yelling, screaming, shouting, laughing ... it is at first difficult to believe', said one traveller, 'that such sounds do not proceed from human throats.'
Kangaroos (foresters, wallabies and kangaroo rats) were more strange and, like crows, innumerable on the Derwent. Their peculiar habits were part of the theatre of camp life and they provoked laughter in children. 'They are the most innocent animals that I know of ,' said a ship's captain. Newly captured, he said, they would eat flowers and berries from your hand. Easily killed, they were delicately flavoured, and kangaroo meat was sometimes cooked in what came to be called a 'sticker up', with slender pieces threaded on a stick and hung across an open fire. They also yielded the 'hand-somest leather for boots and shoes that can be found'. Such foot-wear was easily made up on marches through the bush.
This was bushmanship, as learnt by the first Australian-born generation. So was knowledge as to what native fruits were edible and how to find your way home. A story was told at the Derwent of one of their girls who went to London, where she was separated from her friend in the heart of the city. Finding herself 'bushed' (a later colloquialism), 'she gave breath to a shrill and prolonged "Cooie" ... to the no small amazement of the passers-by'.
Children probably learnt such skills, and the associated language, before they knew much about the European mysteries of reading and writing. Among their teachers were the Aborigines. In 1810 it was proposed in the Sydney Gazette that Aboriginal and European children should, as far as possible, grow up together. The Black children would then become like their playmates, but at the same time they should be taught 'to honour their [own] parents, [and] to esteem their relatives', and the little Europeans should learn their language. In fact, a type of intimacy already existed, but it was deeply ambivalent. At times it was fond and familiar, and some said that the 'unusual levity and wildness' of White children was learnt from the Blacks. But it was also terrifying. In 1834 Lancelot Threlkeld, a missionary in New South Wales, constructed a list of nearly two dozen Aboriginal words commonly used among Europeans, probably taken from dialects around Sydney. They included cudgel (tobacco) and wicky (bread), both items valued by the Blacks. But they also included woomerrer, boomering, mogu (axe), gummy (spear), gibber (stone), hillimung (shield) and jerrund (fear). (The spelling was Threlkeld's.) Such a list suggests that when White and Black talked together it was often about fighting.
Certainly there was violence for European children to see and remember and they had reason to fear the Blacks. The very fact that Aborigines lived among them made brutality, when it happened, more terrifying. It might add to the callousness of daily life. On the Hawkesbury, near Sydney, in 1797 two Aboriginal boys, known as Jemmy and little George, aged about fifteen and eleven, were murdered by Europeans – tied up, shot and chopped about with a cutlass – in revenge for the killing of two neighbours. The Blacks, too, seemed to turn without warning from the sharing of meals to the shedding of blood. They rarely killed White children, but they moved in a way that sometimes must have given the settlers, young and old, a sense of being under the eye of hatred. In May 1805, for instance, on separate occasions the huts of two Hawkesbury families were surrounded and attacked. The Aborigines seem to have waited until the father was gone, but both times they let the mother and children escape. Sarah Stubbs was told by her enemies that they would not hurt her, but they carried all her things away. Elizabeth Lamb and her three small children could see the Blacks close by for 'some considerable time'. They seemed harmless. But then they climbed a stony outcrop, lit fires among the rocks, and picking up the flames suddenly descended on the house.
On the Derwent during the first two years of settlement the small farmers (free immigrants) were usually on friendly terms with the Aborigines, who worked for them and traded crayfish for bread and potatoes. But there was also scattered violence and a number of deaths on both sides. During the following decade Aboriginal babies were often stolen and by 1820 large numbers lived and worked in farming families. More than thirty had been baptised. They lived as a lesser breed among Europeans of their own age, going about their work, as Mrs Meredith might have said, as 'household foes'.
The children of the invaders, embedded in such circumstances, were not likely to take an expansive view of the world. On the other hand, they were not uneducated. The first full inquiry into their aptitude and schooling took place in 1819–21, as part of a survey of life in the Antipodes commissioned by the government in London. The commissioner in charge, John Thomas Bigge, was accompanied by an assistant, or secretary, Thomas Hobbes Scott, and it was Scott who paid attention to the White children. He found them a singular race; the boys and young men brave, articulate and well informed about their own world, and also manageable, he said, 'when treated with mildness'. Being manageable, they were also teachable. Rich ex-convicts were supposed to have 'a great contempt for wisdom acquired through the medium of books', but it did not follow that they wanted their children to be illiterate. The Reverend Richard Cartwright, chaplain on the Hawkesbury, testified that parents were eager to have their offspring educated, 'whatever may be the irregularity of their own lives'. They came to school for unpredictable periods between about four and twelve years old.
It was common for children in and around Sydney to turn up with more or less regularity, but less so in Van Diemen's Land, where the schools themselves were few and teachers inferior. In New South Wales by the 1820s about four in every five young native-born men and three in every five women knew (at least) how to sign their own names, which was a marked improvement on their parents. In Van Diemen's Land the girls especially lagged behind and only two in five could sign. Everywhere girls usually spent less time at school than boys and many could read without being able to write.
With such knowledge, in whatever degree, and with family stories, came an awareness of the mother country. Young crows were thought to learn from their elders about old nesting places they had never seen. The same was true of the Europeans in Australia.
Hobbes Scott, Bigge's assistant, found here a dominion of adolescents, and he was charmed with the effect. 'They are conscious of their freedom,' he said, 'and tho' having daily the most horrid examples before their eyes [that is, the behaviour of the convicts] are rarely if ever infected by them.' Bigge called the young people 'quick and irascible, but not vindictive'. The girls were said to be 'excessively rude and boisterous' and according to Bigge those in the Female Orphan School at Parramatta, near Sydney, were particularly wild – 'their tempers and dispositions are not very easily controlled'. Other observers were more kind. The faults of the native-born girls, so a gentleman said, were part of their 'simplicity of character' for, 'like all children of nature, [they are] credulous, and easily led into error'.
From 1810 to 1821 the Governor of New South Wales (still including Van Diemen's Land) was Major-General Lachlan Macquarie. His successor was Sir Thomas Brisbane (1821–25). From about the end of Macquarie's time the character of the native-born, male and female, was one of the leading topics of educated conversation, especially on the mainland. It was their 'simplicity of character', their image and their self-image as 'children of nature', which made them seem especially interesting. They were a new variety of humanity, as curious as the wildlife in this remote corner of the world. Educated Britons of a previous generation had looked to alien communities, especially 'noble savages' at the edges of the empire (including Aborigines), with the hope of finding the essence of human nature. Now there was a growing interest in the poor and primitive at one's own doorstep, people who could be thought of as simple versions of oneself. Fellow Britons, from Britain to the Antipodes, were intriguing now for their own sake.
Excerpted from The Europeans in Australia by Alan Atkinson. Copyright © 2016 Alan Atkinson. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
STILL THEY KEPT COMING,
1 Bound by Birth,
2 The Well Read,
3 Making a Name,
4 Convict Opinion,
5 'A Most Extensive Scale',
THEIR METHOD OF UTTERANCE,
7 Men and Women,
8 Black and White,
9 God and Humanity,
THE MASSES UNPACKED,
10 Feeding on Stories,
11 Digging Deep,
12 Ink and Affection,
13 Railway Dreaming,
14 To Feel as One,
15 Our Outer Edge,