Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
The Squatters by Barry Stone is a thoroughly researched history of a particular group of early Australian settlers. It contains a lot of facts and figures about sheep and cattle in the various early settlements. Many statements are supported by written evidence from the actual time of settlement.
The content of the book is broken up into eight chapters focussing on particular areas of settlement from which the intrepid went further inland. The history of these areas of development is undertaken chronologically tracing the movement of people and livestock. Each chapter is about settlement in what we know today as the various states. The layout of the book is easy to follow and each chapter is broken up into smaller blocks of information adding to the ease of reading. Adding interest are black and white photos from the time located at the beginning of each chapter.
It is fascinating to read where free settlers came from and where livestock was sourced, as squatters and legitimate land holders tried to work out what beasts could produce the end product required in a place where weather conditions were so variable and uncertain. I also found it interesting that these squatters were operating in all parts of Australia at approximately the same time in our history.
Not being overly interested in the statistics I found each chapter remarkedly similar to the previous one with just the names of the people and locations differing. However, there were also different obstacles that had to be faced depending on the location. When the Gulf country was being opened up, settlement was achieved at the point of a gun and it is estimated that between 1881 and 1910 over 600 indigenous people from nineteen different Indigenous language groups were killed (194).
There is no doubt that the squatters and pastoralists of the 1880s who, to many, have appeared to sit as ‘ageing patriarchs over vast swathes of our nation’(203), had faced many problems to reach this status. They went into the unknown and suffered floods, drought, disease, and watched their animals, which they had undergone great endeavours to acquire, perish before their eyes. They came here with little knowledge of the continent’s climate and its soils, not knowing whether a river that was low was that way because it was always low, or would soon be high again. ‘Hardship was a kind of winnowing which in time bred a pastoral elite (203). But it must be remembered that pastoral empires did not emerge overnight and that they could crumble very easily in the face of adverse conditions.
After the speculative land boom peaked in 1883 only the large landholders survived the many bankruptcies and bank closures, world wide depression, the Federation drought (1895-1903), dust storms, bushfires, disease and high unemployment. By the end of 1901 (the year of Federation) many of the great pioneers of the Australian pastoral industry were gone. But this era of the pastoral squattocracy did much to foster that aspect of independence that has since permeated so much of Australian society (218) as the spirit of the bush.
According to the author, the first glimmer of one of the most fundamental ideas about what it means to be Australian can be traced to Van Diemen’s Land in 1805. We are taught that this was a penal colony of the worst kind, a place of deprivation and hopelessness and if one tried to escape the bush was a death sentence. But, if one could acquire a dog that could hunt, ‘the bush became a haven, a place of freedom and self-realisation’(91) the ideals which are found so often in the writings of Lawson and Paterson. It was interesting to read that it was the freed convicts and their descendants who came to constitute a large percentage of the general population in this colony and they became prosperous and happy. For some Van Diemen’s land was ‘Eden-like’ and for many more there was a comforting certain ‘Englishness’ about this part of Australia.
This book contains a very comprehensive account of a group of early Australians who did much to create the Australian identity of 20th Century times and as such is an important document. However, it has to be kept in mind that it is an academic book and therefore contains information more important to historians and not to the general public looking for an entertaining read.
By Barry Stone
Allen & Unwin