Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 3, 2011

1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia (2011) by James Boyce

1835This is a terrific book, and not just for Melburnians keen to learn more about their city.

James Boyce is a distinguished historian with an impressive CV, but the best thing about his books and writing is that they are very accessible for non-historians.  He has the knack of writing history for the everyday reader without dumbing down.  I like that.

For those reading this blog from overseas, you need to know that we Australians are a bit ambivalent about our national day.  January 26th 1788 is commemorated as the day on which The First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove,  but this day is also remembered as Invasion Day by many indigenous people and they regard it as a day of mourning.  Outside of Sydney, there is also some muttering about the Sydneycentric choice of date, and there are also those who would rather not celebrate the founding of a penal settlement, especially not one that spent its first night on our shores in drunkenness and debauchery.   At a practical level, since the day falls in the middle of our long, lazy summer holidays, teachers can’t be enlisted to engender patriotic enthusiasm amongst the young.  No amount of fiddling about with the date on which the public holiday is scheduled has been able to muster the sort of hoopla that national days are supposed to arouse in the populace.  For most of us, it’s a day to have a barbecue if the weather is nice, and perhaps watch the same old re-enactment that’s always on the telly (if it happens to be on the news, that is.  Very few of us have ever attended an actual re-enactment, much to the disappointment of the organisers).

All this angst about our national day may well be misplaced, because James Boyce thinks that the real founding of our nation began in Melbourne, nearly 50 years later in 1835.  The illegal squatter camp set up on the banks of the Yarra was the signal for European control over Australia because it was the end of controlled settlement within tightly defined limits.  It put an end to Aboriginal sovereignty and that started the continental land rush.  And what’s more, he thinks that the founding of Australia originated from Tasmania where settlement had reached its limits, not from New South Wales…

Many Australians probably don’t know that the Colonial Office in London had set strict controls on settlement around Sydney.  In those early days, land available for pastoral concerns was officially restricted to the limits of ‘civilisation’, a semi-circle radiating 120 miles out from the township.  There were plenty of illegal squatters outside that boundary but Governor Bourke in Sydney chose to do nothing about it.   Though sympathetic to Aboriginal welfare, he believed in private enterprise and thought that the indigenous people would benefit from the extension of the emerging economy.  (Bourke actually brought in an Ordinance giving Aborigines equality before the law, but this was not a matter of human rights, but rather a hope that it would make them become industrious workers and part of the economy).

However, while he had no philosophical objection to encroaching on Aboriginal lands, Bourke didn’t like the loss of revenue from land being appropriated rather than sold or leased by the Crown.  And he certainly didn’t want ex-convicts taking up land because he wanted a respectable, well-ordered society.  Consequently he applied to London to extend the limits for settlement so that ‘respectable’ squatters could claim land, but London refused.  This was because the government was influenced by then contemporary liberal-evangelical philosophy – which having triumphed on Abolition was now taking an interest in the welfare of indigenous peoples – and that meant not encroaching on their traditional lands.

London, however, was a long way away, and it took months for an exchange of letters to take place.  A lot of illegal squatting went on in the meantime, and even when Bourke did finally receive clear instructions to put a stop to it, he stalled, hoping for a change of policy along with a change of government.  When it came to the illegal squatters bringing their flocks across from Tasmania and setting up pastoral runs at Port Phillip, Bourke didn’t put a stop to that either, thus letting loose ‘the benign spirit of private enterprise upon the vast wastelands of the continent.’ (p32)

That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of this fascinating book.  Boyce explains how it was that Batman and his business cronies from Tassie got away with the foundation of Melbourne on the banks of the Yarra.  It has long been assumed that once these squatters arrived and started to spread out that there was very little that could be done to stop the encroachment on Aboriginal land and its ensuing tragedy, but Boyce argues that this fatalistic view of events isn’t justified:

The invasion by sealers, whalers, and wattle-bark collectors along the coast of Port Phillip was difficult to control precisely because capital investment was diffuse and limited.  The squatters’ movement of flocks and shepherds was another matter altogether.  In this case the significant necessary investment was made by a small group of landowners, officials, bankers and merchants whose interests relied in large measure on their relations with the government.  Highly sought-after convict labour, government office and, above all, land leases and title were in the power of government to regulate and bestow.  (p205)

If the government had made it clear that illegal squatting would result in punitive measures that frustrated investment, the land grab would certainly have slowed if not ceased.  The government failed to exercise its power to withhold leases or sale of land, to bar squatters from prestigious and lucrative government office, or to refuse them the convict labour on which their enterprise depended.  This failure of decision-making is what eroded Aboriginal sovereignty and decimated their numbers because there was soon nowhere left for them to hunt, and indeed nowhere for them to retreat to without intruding on the defended homelands of other tribes.

Boyce argues that the  ‘conquest of almost all of Victoria’s vast grasslands in less than a decade, and almost all of eastern Australia in a single generation, didn’t occur in spite of policy or political action, but because of it.  Politics was not overwhelmed by the market, but drove the resource rush.  While some level of violence or suffering could not have been avoided, with sufficient political will the colonisation of Port Phillip could have been properly regulated, the Aborigines could have been better protected, and the land settlement process dramatically slowed to allow time for cultural adaptation and change.  Policy-makers could not have prescribed peace, but they could have bought time.

What is also interesting, is the way Boyce has linked this historical land grab to the current resource boom in Australia.  He thinks that

perhaps the most pressing public-policy issue of our time is the necessity to rein in the continent-wide resource rush that began with the seizure of the grasslands in 1835.  Could there be a a connection between the ingrained assumption that the squatter conquest of Australia could not have been slowed down and properly regulated, and the national difficulty in imagining that governments might do the same thing to coalminers today?   If Guy Pearse is right that it is ‘our inability to imagine something different [which] is digging us deeper into danger as the immensity of the climate crisis hits home’ then it is not Aborigines alone who live with the dangerous legacy of the political decisions made after the founding of Melbourne in 1835.  (p207)

BVan Diemen's Landy some oversight, I didn’t get hold of a copy of James Boyce’s first book, Van Diemen’s Land but on the strength of this one, 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia, it’s now on my wishlist. Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Black Inc. Agenda series)  I do, however, have a copy of  Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History (edited by Robert Manne) because I bought it at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival.    This book is an important contribution to the ‘History Wars’ (1996-2007) and is a rebuttal of Windschuttle’s claims that much of Australia’s Aboriginal history is fabricated.

Boyce wrote the feature article in Whitewash, demolishing Windschuttle’s book as full of errors, which he (as did historian Geoffrey Blainey) said were the result of shabby, biased research which ‘reflects a pre-determined national political agenda’ (p17).   For that article alone, Boyce deserves the admiration of anyone interested in Australian history…

Author: James Boyce
Title: 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia
Publisher: Black Inc, 2011
ISBN: 9781863954754
Source: Personal library, purchased at Readings $44.95

Fishpond: 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia
You can read more about this book at ABC Unleashed.


  1. Lisa, this a timely post for me. I recently read David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon (but have not blogged about it yet). You have provided some useful context here. Thanks.


    • You’re welcome, Fay. I’ll look forward to seeing the review:)


  2. Lisa, I confess an utter ignorance as to Australia’s history – and think I should get a copy of 1835 to give me some insight. Thanks for the review!


    • Thanks, Debbie. Australia has so much in common with Canada, I think maybe I should read some of your history too!


  3. […] 1835 (James Boyce) – Thanks to a review by Lisa of ANZ LitLovers LitBlog. […]


  4. […] 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia & The Conquest of Australia, James Boyce, see my review […]


  5. […] 1835: The Founding of Melbourne & the Conquest of Australia by James Boyce, see my review […]


  6. […] suspect that Flanagan has read James Boyce’s magnificent 1835, the founding of Melbourne and the conquest of Australia.  In a book about truth and lies and how we delude ourselves, Flanagan’s demolition of […]


  7. […] haven’t mentioned non-fiction authors!  The most prominent is James Boyce whose history 1835, The Founding of Melbourne (2011) is as much about Tasmania as it is about the settlement in Victoria. He is also the author […]


  8. […] history 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia which I reviewed here. What Pascoe’s book offers is an Indigenous point of view about these and other events, […]


  9. […] The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia by James Boyce, see my review (it’s now available in […]


  10. […] the Repressed History of Colonial Victoria makes a perfect companion for James Boyce’s 1835, the Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia.  (Follow the link to my review, especially if you don’t know much about the settlement of […]


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