Eliza Tree: Invasion of the Australia Felix
“Recollections of Squatting in Victoria”
Paintings, Maps & Text
8-10 March, 2014
10am – 5pm
94a Lyttleton St, Castlemaine
Artist talks daily at 11am & 2pm
About the Project:
Old perceptions. New understandings.
Questioning the meta-narrative of “settlement / invasion” of Victoria.
By revisiting early maps, documents and publications I have sought to question the dominant ideologies of colonial times and beyond, which form the base of our understanding of “peaceful settlement” of Australia. My research reveals an extraordinary Indigenous cultural landscape and concealed stories of dispossession.
The early days on the frontier are omitted and conveniently overlooked in favour of a more palatable and heroic view of our colonial past. The settlement of South Eastern Australia in the 1830s and 40s was neither peaceful nor accidental. “Terra Nullius” was a cruel lie that enabled invasion and theft on an extraordinary scale. It was clearly apparent that the Indigenous peoples did own and cultivate their country. This is revealed in early publications, which I re-visited in contemporary times with interdisciplinary and revisionist interpretation.
“It may perhaps be doubted whether any section of the human race has exercised a greater influence on the physical condition of any large portion of the globe than the wandering savages of Australia.” E. M. Curr, 1883.
Even the rare individuals who appreciated and understood Indigenous peoples during exploration and settlement chose to ignore their humanity and justified the invasion on deeply prejudiced values of ‘civilisation’. Major Mitchell, who understood some indigenous language and the complexities of Indigenous culture, chose to proclaim in 1836 that “the natives roam over the earth incapable of civilisation and the only arts they know are those with which to destroy each other.” This statement influenced a wider denial of Indigenous humanity and land ownership – paving the way for invasion on an unprecedented scale” (James Boyce)
Indigenous culture is sophisticated and complex, having evolved over many thousands of years and generations. Adapting and connecting deeply with language, spirituality, customs, lifestyles and technologies interconnected and influenced by the local geography, ecology and climate. We underestimate these complexities as so rarely were the positive aspects of Indigenous life and culture described in the early annals.
South Eastern Australia was heavily populated by Indigenous nations, particularly the Murray Darling Basin. Despite the existence of maps and early records, the majority of Australians remain ignorant of the local clans and tribes which owned and nurtured the land. How rarely we hear the names spoken or the stories of early dispossession, despite being surrounded by Aboriginal words and names. Eg: Canberra, Wagga Wagga, Cootamundra, Wonthaggi, Yandoit, Yapeen, etc.
There is great need that we understand the terrible impact of farming and grazing upon our land and landscapes. The droughts, the floods and ultimately climate change which we clearly continue to perpetrate on the ecology of this fragile continent. One only needs to look at the Murray Darling Basin to witness the continuing impacts of environmental arrogance and ignorance.
The abundance of local environments was underestimated on two levels. The firestick farming practices were conveniently overlooked as was the clear influence of Indigenous practices on the landscape. Secondly, the impact of hard-hoofed animals on the waterways and country is very poorly understood.
A nomadic lifestyle was based on well-understood territory and resources. Seasonal movement ensured maximum abundance and enhancement of the landscape, with Indigenous people being actively involved in burning, cultivating and harvesting a wide variety of natural resources. Food sources included underground plant foods, fresh meat, aquatic resources, reptiles and birds. These were systematically harvested and shared amongst the family groups who lived and travelled together. At times of great abundance groups would gather for extended periods. Many groups had semi-permanent habitations that were returned to regularly, especially on water ways and sources.
Every man, woman and child in South Eastern Australia had a possum skin coat. Unfortunately these were often stolen or traded, being replaced by European woollen blankets of inferior quality and warmth.
Hunting and gathering techniques were many and varied with great understanding of and respect for local resources. Enormous nets were used to catch emus and kangaroos, and as well to capture large quantities of water birds. Fire was used to replenish and expand grasslands that were also rich with tuberous and other plant foods. Trees contained hollows abundant in possums, birds and reptiles. Many of these animals are now extinct or endangered from white settlers’ excessive land clearance and introduced feral animals.
Another misconception is of the waterways, which were previously often a meandering chain of ponds or wetlands rich in herbage and aquatic resources. Eighty percent of found Indigenous artifacts are located close to creeks, rivers and springs. The extent to which these have been affected by hard hoofed animals and agriculture is extreme.
“Pastoralism…required huge stretches of land, the same land that was at the heart of Aboriginal society. The squatters’ sheep and cattle ate up the pastures on which the native game fed, and demolished the yams and mirr-n’yong roots which traditionally served as a staple in the Aboriginal diet…Around Melbourne and in rapidly settled areas, eeling spots, rivers, traditional camping places and sacred sites were fenced off and the Aborigines forbidden entry.
In the interior, waterholes that had previously provided fish, duck and eels were spoiled by sheep or closely guarded by hutkeepers. Aboriginal campsites chosen for their availability of water and seasonal food supplies, were taken over by squatters, who were attracted to them by the same advantages…Wherever the white man went, the native game was eaten out by sheep or shot for sport. Deprived of their former food sources, the Aborigines either starved…or obtained food in some other way from the whites.” Christie, 1979
Revisiting the early times is both fascinating and disturbing. We must acknowledge the Indigenous frontier war against dispossession and theft of lands and culture. It was not Gold that made Victoria, but Land and Water.