Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Train Reading - S H Roberts the Squatting Age in Australia, 1835-1847

I have been reading S H Roberts the Squatting Age in Australia, 1835-1847 (Melbourne, 1935).

Roberts (1901-1971) had a quite remarkable career as an academic, university administrator including long serving Vice Chancellor at Sydney University and writer. He was keenly interested in international affairs.

D. M. Schreuder notes that his most famous book, The House that Hitler Built (London, 1937), was based on meetings with Nazi leaders, attendance at their rallies and his own teaching knowledge of central European history. He exposed Hitler's Reich, condemned the persecution of the Jews, and warned that Germany was likely to involve the world in war. Aimed at the common reader, the book was translated into a dozen languages and reprinted many times.

I will write a little more on S H Robert's broader career at some point. At this stage, my interest lies in Robert's interpretation of certain historical events relevant to my own research.

Like all of us, Roberts was a man of his time. This can create difficulties in reading.

The Aborigines do have a place in his book, he recognises the facts of sometimes Aboriginal resistance, notes the absence of specific Aboriginal history, but the book is still written very much from a then European perspective of the Aborigines and very much from a squatter viewpoint.

Views change. The Roberts who wrote in 1935 was the same Roberts who strongly welcomed the graduation of Charles Perkins, the first Aborigine to complete a degree at his university.

Roberts also writes from an Australian Liberal Whig perspective. Intolerant of the Tories, pro-Australian, attracted by the myth of the Celt, he is strongly against those in early colonial society who wished to re-create the new colony along stratified, hierarchical, lines.

Roberts' book spans the early history of European settlement of New England. This was then squatter country. Supported by wool, this was also (to use a modern phase) bubble country. By this I simply mean that the ready availability of speculative capital fuelled a boom. The Australian tradition of boom and bust began very early.

Much of my recent research has been Aboriginal focused. I needed to do this to provide a solid grounding. Robert's book provides a picture from the other side.

Robert's analysis of the early politics of the colony, including relations with Westminster, is quite masterly. You can see why his writing  had such an influence because he translates complexity to simplicity.

What a wonderful story it all is.

Governor Bourke, the somewhat romantic Irishman, who played such a role in establishing civil liberties in what was still a penal colony. Then we have Governor Gipps whose term coincided with drought and economic collapse. Gipps was clearly a difficult man, but after reading Roberts I have far more sympathy for the difficulties he faced and indeed for the man himself.

I am researching and trying to write from a New England perspective. Developments in the often (always?) fractious goldfish bowl of Sydney are relevant only to the degree that they affect the New England story. This is counter history because it is written from the other side of the conventional fence.

Roberts' picture of the rise of wool, a key element in the story of colonial New England, is very Australian in its wording. But it actually looks at the rise from the perspective of the English and German wool industries and in the context of the industrial revolution.

The English wool industry, one of the drivers in the English economy and a key source of the wealth that gave England its power, simply collapsed in the face of German and then Australian colonial competition. The wool growers of Saxony and Silesia in their turn were swept away by Australian wool.

You see what I mean by a wonderful story?

The great Australian and New England squatting families, the huge firms that supported them, were built not just on the bones of the original Aboriginal inhabitants, but on the desiccated corpses of the English and German wool industries. In turn, those squatting families were to be swept aside by Australian economic change.

In the intervening period, they created a life style whose influence still lingers in Australian thinking. Their money funded not just great homes, but also key institutions, not least the New England University College. They also gave us writers such as Judith Wright and Patrick White, to use examples from New England's great squatting families. And they gave us the wine that we Australians now like to drink.

One of the reasons that I so dislike the guilt age that has (to my mind) so come to dominate Australian history, is that it creates a huge barrier between us and our past, Aboriginal as well as non-Aboriginal.

In writing about what Aboriginal New England I want to say what was, but also present an Aboriginal perspective. Equally, in writing about the squatting age in New England, I want to write about what was, but also present a squatting perspectives.

Most of all, I want to tell a story that will make New England history accessible to those who have no connection with New England or indeed Australia at all. 

Just a bit of a challenge!


Anonymous said...

How odd- I was quite sure that I was the only person in Australia to be reading this book! I enjoyed your post- I've also written about it (and linked to you)

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, RJ. It is nice to find another person with shared interests! I look forward to reading your post.