2020Australia Felix – Made by Aborigines

27 June 2020

One of the great truths of the British occupation of Australia is naturally the price the Aborigines paid, but the land itself suffered too as described in A History of the Port Phillip District the 1830s and 1840s as the Squatters spread making the greatest land grab for wool and cattle runs of Major Thomas Mitchell’s self-described – Australia Felix

It was not, when the squatters came, the land “as God made it. It was as the Aborigines made it”. The Aboriginal firing had pre-adapted the region for grazing and some districts suffered when the regular burning stopped. The removal of the Aborigines meant a change in land use and in the effects of that use on the land itself. It was not long before some squatters noticed the appearance of land degradation, though for the moment it did not cause much concern. Livestock with hard hooves had begun to trample over soils that had long been used only to the daintier feet of marsupials, and sheep were cropping the native pastures close to the ground. Curr noticed the grass and the broadleaf succulents like pig-face and the annual herbs which had provided the Aborigines with vegetables were slowly dying out, and less nutritious introduced grasses replaced them; as the deep-rooted perennial grasses disappeared, the soil, “trodden hard” by stock and no longer bound by the grassroots, had less protection from the sun. Our herbaceous plants began to disappear, wrote John Robertson of the Wannon. The clay left perfectly bare In the summer cracked in all directions. There were hundreds of landslips and ruts 7 to 10 feet deep and equally wide where the ground two years before it been covered with tussocky grass like a land marsh. Livestock muddied the rivers and pools. Domestic dogs and cats went bush and attacked both sheep and native animals; Curr complained of a kangaroo plague when the Aborigines no longer preyed on them, and Fyans deplored the disappearance of other game. The felling of trees for timber and firewood, or simply to clear the land, began to cause soil erosion — which quickened as the practice of ringbarking began in the 1840s became more widespread. It seems a pity the pastoralists ignored the advice which landscape gardener Thomas Shepherd gave in 1836 

In place of cutting down our splendid forests right forward without distinction, we have only to thin out and total tastefully arrange … to produce the most pleasing effects. The country could by this means, at a very small cost with less labour than the indiscriminate destruction of our native trees, present an exterior to the eye of the stranger …. such as no other country in the world, I believe, could furnish …. Not an acre of ground would be lost — sheep might feed on our lawns and parks…

But clearing went on — and the new settlers were changing the landscape from “made by Aborigines” to “made by British” with both improvements and damage as in the past … and without forgetting what we had done to the Aborigines and the destruction of their civilisation.