Marxist Interventions

The squatters in colonial Australia


For sources click here and a separate window will open.

After the gold rushes, the land became a crucial battleground.

The pastoral industry entered a new, prolonged growth phase. Banking and the finance system grew, channeling capital to the graziers; commerce blossomed and the population grew steadily, ensuring larger markets; railways stretched inland from the port cities to bear the wool more quickly to the sea.

Investment and technological development boosted productivity. Specialist contractors were now available to excavate a dam, raise the homestead, build fences and washpools. Although stations initially kept close to the major rivers -- the Murray, the Murrumbidgee and the Darling -- by 1890 they had spread far into lands once considered uninhabitable. There was no stopping the squatters.

Few of these came from working class backgrounds. Some got their capital on the gold fields, most got it from family sources. Nevertheless, many could be considered genuine pioneers, braving hardship to make their fortune, and quite a few struggled to survive on small runs. As Geoffrey Dutton writes:

‘The image of the squatter riding around on his thoroughbred watching the workers toil is one that some squatters ... would like to have had believed of them, but anyone wanting to verify it had only to look at their hands.’

Like the early capitalists Karl Marx described, they strove tirelessly to accumulate assets and led austere lives; for them, spending money on personal consumption was only a ‘robbery perpetrated on accumulation’. (Marx: 555) ‘Big’ Clarke, even after becoming Victoria’s biggest landowner, continued to wear a dirty old overcoat. Another of the great squatters, ‘Hungry’ Tyson, once declared that he hadn’t got rich by ‘striking matches when there was a fire to get a light by’. According to Banjo Paterson: ‘He just had this instinct for making money and for keeping it ... When he had become a very rich man, he could never get over the old bush habits. He never stopped at an hotel in the bush, and he very seldom went to a house, even when it was wet.’ (Paterson: 576-7).

Among these pioneers were several women. Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcomb established Boronggoop station near Geelong in 1841 and ran it until Drysdale’s death in 1853. ‘Indeed, in later years Miss Newcomb was wont to declare: ‘Tell me what a man can do that I cannot."’ Including racist abuse: Mrs Buntine, whom we know from the gold fields, also reappears here, a ‘great big rough looking woman’ in possession of a Gippsland station. Deciding on one occasion that the blacks on her run were becoming ‘cheeky’ and demanding too much meat, she ‘saddled her horse, took down a stockwhip, rounded up the Aborigines like a mob of cattle, and drove them across country into the sea at Ninety Mile Beach ...’ (Cannon 1974: 54, 72)

Driven by the implacable logic of capital accumulation, the squatters inflicted immense damage on the native flora and fauna, and on the land. Over-cropping, over-grazing, reckless clearing of forests resulted in deserts, erosion and worsening droughts.

Having once gouged wealth out of the land, they began to settle down. In Victoria by the 1860s, ‘the squatters no longer worked with their men, for they now formed a wealthy and aristocratic section of the community. They had become country gentlemen. Many built large and lavish bluestone or granite mansion homesteads’ such as Werribee Park. (Garden: 130) Novellist Anthony Trollope, who visited Australia in the early 1870s, joked that on NSW sheep stations in 1873, ‘100 000 sheep and upwards require a professed man-cook and a butler to look after them; 40 000 sheep cannot be shorn without a piano; 20 000 is the lowest number that renders napkins at dinner imperative.’ (Wheelwright and Buckley: 109)

This incipient gentry now began to cast aside austerity and simplicity, and sought to become as exclusive as possible. Bathurst, having been settled quite early, was one of the first country areas to experience this process. Here, two elite geographic areas could soon be identified, one to the north and northeast of the town and the other to the south and southeast, while Louisa Meredith identified the village of Bathurst itself as the habitat of the ‘second division’ which the gentry avoided. (Quoted K Fry 118)

In Queensland, ‘The squattocracy of Darling Downs, the Logan and the Brisbane Valley … exerted sway over Brisbane, Ipswich and the other small towns far more then squatters could over Sydney … In Brisbane in the mid-1840s, the only significant group separating the ruling class from the working class was a small group of petty bourgeois traders and artisans who also represented a service class for the pastoralists.’ (Thorpe 136)

Joseph Furphy later recorded the mentality of the rural elite, relating how a gentleman’s son had isolated himself from his class by his democratic attitudes. ‘For there is no such thing as a democratic gentleman; the adjective and noun are hyphenated by a drawn sword.’ (Furphy 205) In the bush inns the squatters drank in one room, the workers in another, and no love was lost on either side. Edward Curr entered one pub looking to hire some labour, but several of the drunken labourers present ‘threatened to assault Curr when they discovered he was a squatter.’ On the other hand there were squatters who saw drink itself as a weapon of class power. ‘Were the habits of the working classes more temperate,’ wrote the Murray River pastoralist Henry Haygarth, ‘labour would be far dearer and scarcer than it is,’ and Neil Black from the Western District agreed: ‘If they did not go regularly to the Grog Shop we should have no labour at all; they would save and have properties of their own.’ (Quoted Cannon 1974: 50, 52,53).

In more genteel venues the social gulf was equally obvious. Henry Lawson described ‘a ball at the local town hall where the scrub aristocrats took one end of the room to dance in and the ordinary scum the other.’ (Lawson 319) In many places, a chalk line on the floor kept upper and lower orders apart.

The ladies on stations were important in enforcing class distinctions. Consider Rachel Henning at Exmoor station in Queensland. ‘Only the family and close friends ate in the dining room: all white employees ate in the kitchen, and all black employees ate on a bench outside the back door. Rachel felt that any friendliness toward the poorer farmers in the district would encourage them to borrow tools, horses and oxen and even bring their children to tea, so she refused to mix with them at all.’ (Cannon Life in the Country: 182-3)

In the northwest of the continent, white servants were fewer; and black women took their place, frequently trained and dressed to mimic their white counterparts. White ladies stood aloof from them, relieving loneliness as best they could through occasional contact with their social equals on other stations. ‘Mrs Maley … so alone and worried for her child while her husband was away, did not turn to her female servant for comfort. Her diary shows that she spent much time scolding her.’ Women often managed the entertainment of guests including who was invited and who was not, and helped police the pecking order at balls and racing meetings. (Hunt 49, 41)

Marriage was again a vehicle for entrenching class power. Graziers tended to marry relatives to keep control of property, particularly after Victoria passed the Married Women’s Property Act in 1874. The pastoral elite also had notions, not unusual among stock breeders, of systematically breeding a superior class of ‘pure merino’ human beings (though sometimes such efforts produced in-bred idiots). A study of 19th Century Queensland has shown complex kinship linkages extending from the family of Commissioner J.T. Bigge through the owners of the Queensland National bank to the prominent premiers A.H. Palmer and Thomas McIlwraith. At one wedding among this circle ‘the social gathering read like a roll-call of Queensland’s governing and ruling classes’. (Thorpe 156ff)

Religion had its class dimension too, with a country town’s Presbyterian church perhaps built and attended by Scottish-born squatters, while the Catholic church embraced the workers, and the middle classes were Anglicans or Methodists. Worship was likewise a means of control on the station itself:

‘George Robertson’s wife Mary ... insisted on daily prayers, kneeling high on a chair to note the name of any servant not paying proper attention. The power to give people employment, or withdraw it, was thus transmuted into a form of control over their personal beliefs.’ (Cannon 73: 189)

Where subtle forms of domination failed, sterner measures were at hand. The landowning and squatting families were closely linked to the machinery of state, and used it for social control. They provided the bulk of the magistrates and civil officers, forming what one contemporary observer called ‘a strong chain of political power’. (Quoted Crowley 481) In addition, ‘Some of the foremost wool kings ... formed their own artillery batteries from the 1860s onwards ... in reality a private defence against the possibility of proletarian revolt.’ (Cannon 189)

The acute division between squatters and workers was initially conditioned by the convict system. Of the sixteen thousand shepherds and hut-keepers working in Australia by the 1840s (most of them in NSW), the majority were free labour, but ex-convict ‘old hands’ were the largest proportion, especially on the frontier. They would boast of their convict past, saying ‘Thank God I’m not a bloody immigrant. Thank God I came out honourable,’ and they ‘had a strong esprit de corps which was kept up by speaking a language so full of cant as to become almost a separate dialect.’ (Crowley 201, 202) These workers, being constantly on the roam, were hard to control. In addition there were about six thousand stock keepers brandishing whips (of whom some employers were terrified); there were the rough and reckless bullock drivers; and there were the shearers, ‘always a source of annoyance’, but whose ‘insolence had to be borne as the greater number were emancipated convicts and from their long experience knew much about sheep.’ (Crowley 218)

Another important group of workers were the bush mechanics (carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, sawyers, splitters and fencers). The sawyers ‘were a lawless set and frequently harboured bushrangers’, however the state turned a blind eye as long as no major crimes were committed, because the ex-convicts were more productive than free immigrants, and despite their bluster were on balance less confident than the native-born. Neil Black couldn’t stand the sight of currency lads ‘swaggering and bustling about’ and ‘boasting themselves free men’. (Quoted Cannon 74: 39) For the squatters, wrote one observer, the ideal shepherd was ‘an able bodied single man from an agricultural county, humble, ignorant and strong’. (Quoted Wheelwright and Buckley: 76.)

On sheep and cattle stations, female labour was mainly used for traditional domestic tasks and milking, though in South Australia women from Saxony did shearing work. In the early years, squatters generally refused to hire married couples with children to avoid having more mouths to feed, but later they relented in the face of recurrent labour shortages. In agriculture there was more versatility. In some places, women and girls reaped side by side with the men and later winnowed the grain, until mechanisation replaced them.

When convictism itself eventually disappeared from the scene, raw class differences remained. Free labourers bitterly condemned the meanness of the poorer ‘cockies’, and confronted the richer squatters with a potent blend of resentment and contempt, commonly repaid in kind. H.P. ‘Duke’ Tritton recalled the weekly arrival at Bunnedah of the wealthy Willsallen family’s elegant coach:

‘Many visitors were greatly impressed but the lower classes, to which group I belonged, were not very respectful; in fact, most of their comments were rather coarse, Dutchy Bishop’s remarks being particularly vulgar. He had the opinion that he was as good as any man -- and better than some.

‘Willsallen ... was a pompous man who spoke with an affected Oxford accent. He was firm in his belief that the working man and the rabbits, in that order, were the worst plagues in Australia.’ (Tritton: 19)

As the century wore on, capitalist development steadily undermined the aspirations of the ‘bunyip aristocracy’. In country towns, a sizeable middle class eventually grew up. This, too, happened quite early in Bathurst ¾ a landed element using convict labour initially dominated the town, but by 1828 small free settlers had become an important third force. There were thirty-one smallholding families, of which eight had five hundred acres or more, and many of the family heads doubled as shop keepers and professionals in the town. By 1840 the middle class in Bathurst outnumbered the landed elite, and the pattern repeated itself across the continent. (K Fry 81ff)

Town dwellers eventually lost patience with the squatters’ arrogance. Poet Mary Gilmore chronicled a revolt at the Wagga Wagga racing club. One year in the 1870s, when the ‘silver tails’ had gone in to supper, a couple from the lower orders boldly stepped over the chalk line. The organisers put a rope across the hall to stop this the next year, but two years later the tradespeople cut the rope and danced amongst their betters. (Hirst 251 but see Gilmore, Old Days, Old Ways, 1934, 38-40)

Meanwhile the fact that pastoralism mainly created jobs in the cities, while limiting small farmers’ access to the land, ensured a heavily urban pattern to settlement; this in turn gave the urban voters the political clout to challenge the landowners and squatters. Finally the graziers’ dependence on the financiers and the merchants kept them tied to urban capitalists. In many cases, real control of stations was exercised from Melbourne or Sydney.

The squatters’ elitism itself contributed to their decline. Michael Cannon writes of the later generations who studied at Oxford or Cambridge: ‘Set adrift from the sources of their wealth by the merciless action of class feeling, such sons often deteriorated into shadow images of their stern old parents, with no function in life but to pretend to manage their properties upon inheritance, to interfere ignorantly with important political developments, and to grow old, gross and ineffectual. No wonder that the golden age of squattocracy had hardly begun before it was over.’ (Cannon 74: 190)

Moreover, by the middle of the century, a hostile element was emerging within the pastoral industry itself. The convict and ex-convict labour force had been troublesome, but usually on an individual basis; the biggest problem was absconding, which was the main target of Master and Servant legislation. Free labour, however, had the potential to organise:

‘Once settled in, the shearers elected a spokesman to deal with ‘the boss’ on any matter affecting their common interests. This primitive form of trade unionism was acceptable to squatters, who perhaps did not realise that it gave a large number of men valuable experience in negotiating agreements, preparing them for the time when unionism would become a power in the land.’ (Cannon 784: 102)

Challenges to the squatters

The democratic movements born of the gold rushes raised a more immediate challenge. In October, 1855 the Shalimar arrived with the Royal Assent to the Victorian constitution, which had been drafted before Eureka. Political radicals immediately declared war upon it. The ‘large masses upon the gold fields, and especially the great population now centered in Geelong, gave an irresistible precipitancy to the colony’s politics. Manhood suffrage was promptly assented to at the mass meetings,’ (Walshe: 66) and within a short time the new colonial government had legislated to introduce it for the lower house. The pace of change in New South Wales was more sedate, but the issue was not in doubt. In any case, inflation from the gold boom had rendered existing property restrictions on suffrage less and less effective. By 1856, 55% of adult males in NSW had the vote; in Sydney the figure was 95% (Hirst 100).

The introduction of secret ballots made it harder for the rich to buy votes, or extract them by intimidation. This innovation arrived in Australia earlier than Britain because it threatened fewer vested interests. In the old country, landlords could mobilize a large population of tenant farmers to vote their way. In Australia, tenants were fewer and less dependent; if they disliked a landlord they could simply move somewhere else. On the other side of the ledger, secret ballots assisted social stability -- since the pressure of crowds, and the effect of free drinks shouted by candidates, no longer tipped the balance in elections. Anyway, the upper classes still dominated the political process. Without payment for MPs, only those with means could stand for office, moreover the system of plural voting meant those with property in several electorates had more than one vote.

The franchise, in any case, was but a means to an end. The coalition which demanded it had definite economic objectives in mind, most importantly curtailing the power and privileges of the squatters. In Victoria, the coalition comprised the urban capitalists, the middle and working classes, and actual and aspiring landowners whose numbers swelled with the end of the gold rush. Even earlier, in 1852 and 1853, both sides in this battle had held public meetings in Melbourne, passed resolutions, written letters and dispatched memorials; John Pascoe Fawkner warned darkly of ‘anarchy and bloodshed’ if the squatters’ arrogance were not curtailed. (Quoted Gollan: 36) Although an 1854 Royal Commission made recommendations favourable to the democrats, little was resolved by the late fifties when the gold fields population began to fall. In 1857 the Legislative Assembly, elected by manhood suffrage, passed a Crown Lands’ Bill. It was blocked by a Legislative Council still elected on a very restricted franchise together with a rural gerrymander, and enjoying the security of ten year terms. For several decades to come, the two houses of the Victorian parliament would be sharply at odds, as rural and conservative forces used the Council to thwart democratic reform.

The coalition contained cautious and conservative elements, some of whom became more conservative over time. For example James McCulloch, a wealthy merchant and Victorian Premier in the sixties, moved steadily to the right during his career. On the other hand the Victorian democratic movement also had an identifiable left wing in the Land League, formed in 1856. The League made its biggest impact by organising the 1857 Victorian Convention, a popular assembly reminiscent of Chartist gatherings. Attended by ninety delegates or more, the Convention sat for three weeks, adopting a program of radical land and parliamentary reform as well as demanding the end of assisted immigration. The parliamentary reform proposals included short parliaments and payment of MPs, while the land program included reservation of all waters and water frontages. (??) At its most daring, the convention argued that all land not under cultivation should be held in common, while land which had been sold for agricultural purposes and remained uncultivated should be subject to a special tax. These ideas carried echoes of agrarian socialism both harking back to Thomas More and anticipating Henry George.

In 1859 the new Nicholson government proposed a feeble land reform measure. It passed through the lower house but was rejected three times by a Council determined to insert loopholes for the squatters to exploit. The government resigned, bringing on a constitutional crisis. Mass meetings assembled in the Eastern Market reserve and the grounds of parliament itself, where the demagogue Graham Berry cited the example of Garibaldi; and Wilson Gray, a leader of the Convention, demanded for each man ‘a vote, a rifle and a farm -- the rifle to defend his property’. (Quoted Gollan: 41). On 28 August 1860 parliament reassembled with Nicholson prepared to capitulate to the Council. Incited by agitators, the Argus reported, a crowd ‘now transformed into a mob, came rolling up Bourke-street in a disorderly and defiant manner’ and marched on parliament house. It took three baton charges to break up the throng, which repeatedly showered the police with stones. (Argus 30.8.60). Wishing to end the uncertainty and unrest, the two houses finally agreed on a compromise Land Act, to be followed by others in 1862 and 1865.

These modest parliamentary victories could not dislodge the squatters, who used dummy selectors, engaged in ‘peacocking’ (buying up all the water frontages, the water holes and the best land) and bribed MPs and officials to keep a stranglehold in most areas. Few selectors had sufficient capital to match them, while large areas of land were in any case better suited to grazing than farming. Moreover the demand for wool was greater than for agricultural produce. It is true that selectors’ unrelenting pressure achieved more in Victoria than in New South Wales. A series of amendments to the Acts eventually managed to counter ‘dummying’ and by 1867, nearly 23 000 people held areas of land up to five hundred acres. The 1869 McPherson Act assisted more selectors. As a result, in the two decades between 1860 and 1880 the area under crop in Victoria rose from less than half a million acres to almost two million acres. Even then, however, many selectors struggled to survive, often working as part-time shearers.

The Victorian struggles helped inspire the formation of the NSW Land League which held big public meetings in Wynyard Square, Sydney in 1857. (detail: SMH 28 Nov and 8 Dec 1857) The anti-squatter push came from much the same mixture of social groups as in Victoria. Urban skilled workers supported it as an expression of their striving for individual self-sufficiency, so well conveyed by Charles Thatcher:

Upset squatterdom’s domination,
Give every poor man a home,
Encourage our great population,
And like wanderers no more we’ll roam.

The working people, lamented the Land League, had ‘been foiled in every fair effort to find a home of their own, and, in despair, have at last ... been obliged to submit to the remorseless exaction of that class of men whose special and peculiar business it is to reap where they have not sown, to gather where they have not strawed, and to grind the faces of the poor.’ (Baker: 175) The demand for free selection seemed to offer hope of an escape from such wage slavery.

Though the selection campaign relied on working class votes, it was dominated even more than the Victorian movement by urban business, liberal politicians and, their allies among wealthy landowners. The landowners resented the advantages enjoyed by squatters, and wanted the land ‘unlocked’ so that capitalist market relations could redress the balance; the urban middle and upper classes wanted space opened up for them in the bush. The Land League, though its membership was heavily working class, was nevertheless formed on the suggestion of the Empire, a middle class newspaper; it elected a wealthy man, John Black, as its president; and it supported conservative or liberal rather than radical candidates at elections. The campaign ultimately relied on conservative ideals: the individual land-owning family as a means to build the nation, ‘a people in the true sense of the world’ consisting of ‘smiling homes, strong honest, men, and fair and loving women’. (Quoted Macintyre: 30)

After the 1860 ‘free selection election’, anti-squatter liberals controlled the NSW Assembly. By threatening to ‘swamp’ the upper house with extra appointments, they could bring it to heel, and John Robertson’s 1861 Land Acts, which became models for other colonies, marked the apparent victory of free selection in NSW. The liberals had made extravagant promises, but as in Victoria, legislation achieved relatively little for aspiring small farmers. Himself a large landowner, Robertson did not really intended to help them. His Acts simply sought to create freer competition, at around the same time that Robert Torrens and the South Australian government were reforming the system of land titles to facilitate the free exchange of land as a commodity. As D.W.A. Baker explains, the Acts were ‘primarily intended to help establish middle class values and institutions in place of the patriarchal or planter type of society of the squatters ... the class war that existed in the fifties was not simply between rich and poor, but rather between pastoral wealth and bourgeois wealth.’ (Baker: 166)

The class war also raged on another front. Premier Charles Cowper and his allies set about the destruction of local rural power structures based on the magistrates. Traditionally, magistrates had been large landowners. Cowper not only took away the bulk of their policing powers by creating a centralised police force, but also arranged the appointment of large numbers of new magistrates drawn from outside the squatters’ ranks. The rural elite fought bitter rearguard actions, refusing to sit with the new men or making scurrilous attacks (often reciprocated) on their character, but they could not stem the tide of change. It created a more egalitarian atmosphere in the bush, without, however, handing any real power to the lower classes. On the contrary, as the new police showed, power was shifting to a bureaucracy in Sydney.

Had the New South Wales government seriously wished to establish a mass of small farmers on the land, it would have sold land at concessional rates, while taking measures to stop squatters from buying up the best tracts. It would also have assisted selectors in raising capital. Robertson remarked at one point that he expected people to go on the land with £100 or £200, an amount ten or twenty times smaller than required. Probably he never thought seriously about these issues, since the last thing he or his allies in the capitalist class desired was to provide an escape from wage labour for the working class. ‘Capitalism’, as Baker put it, ‘does not commit suicide during adolescence.’ (Baker: 181)

Governments did offer well-meaning advice, suggesting for example that selectors diversify their crops to avoid exhausting the soil and fully employ their families. Instead, as Marilyn Lake writes,

‘… capitalist specialization was the rule. In their anxiety to reap quick profits, settlers were reluctant to engage in rotating crops. Declining yields from exhausted soil drove selectors in search of new land … At the same time the spread of the railway brought processed foods from the factories …

As a consequence, farming women often ‘found that increasingly their role in production was reduced to the peripheral’. (Lake, Aspros: 16)

In NSW the government sold around 50 million acres of land between 1860 and 1890, compared with 7 million over the previous seven decades. Yet the main beneficiaries were graziers, the financiers associated with them, and governments whose greatest concern was a steady flow of revenue. As Banjo Paterson complained in 1889: ‘Our land system is bad: it drives men into the cities; it causes good land to be locked up; it enables some men to live at the expense of others ... Five hundred and fifty-two persons in a population of over a million own upwards of seventeen million acres of free-hold; they possess in fee simple over one-half the alienated lands of New South Wales.’ (Quoted Dutton: 83))

So the squatters held their own, but at a cost. They had safeguarded their tenure only by purchasing key tracts of land and making improvements, which pushed many of them into debt. From this point on the real masters of the land were often the banks, especially after the arrival of the 1890s depression, when as G.H. Gibson wrote, ‘The Banks own ‘alf the blooming runs, the rabbits owns the rest.’ (quoted Cannon 1974: 170) Pastoralists’ economic power declined along with their political clout; the real winners were urban capitalists.

Either way, however, there was to be no petit bourgeois escape for most workers. By the time Paterson wrote, many were turning to the collective solutions offered by trade unionism.

For sources click here and a separate window will open.

Back to opening page