‘They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.’
One might eventually find that they are driving in the country, on a particular sort of day, when it is hot, owing to the sun. But that in the shade, owing to the trees, the temperature is agreeable, and the wind is perceptible on the surface of the skin. It is on days like these when the weather is two places. One is like the golden grass, and the other is like a house, disparate to each other like rock and water. The grass is a thing which flows tender, like the breeze in the shade, surrounded by a thing that does not, standing silent in the field. These houses, especially when under construction, look lonely without their roads or roofs. You can see the insulation, the wooden frames, the blue tarpaulin inscribed with some company name or other. They might be fenced in, with the chain links sloping on the banks of an escarpment, searing in the heat of the sun. Perhaps the metal poles would melt, snapping in two with a molten pop, and the wiry detritus would start flowing in the hot wind, clanking and chattering between the swelling brush from the leaves.
It takes a certain sort of mind to see a certain set of hills and think a certain kind of house belongs there. Much like a summer’s day of two disparate parts, the Australian country is a place of staggering duality, and beauty for the one means something else for the other. Those early colonists who spilled from the enclaves of the Empire into the vast hinterland were surely entranced, for reasons we might find both similar and shocking. They were the heaped, forgotten dregs of the British Isles; expelled from a place where the rule of law had given them no opportunity to live, and were ensconced by an exceptional bond of servility. No acre of English, Scottish or Irish land was untouched by centuries of feudal claim. The gentry benefited from the vast power of land, and eventually industry. Everyone else merely fed their estates the vast sums they required to remain prestigious, and more importantly, remain in control.
If they had come from the city, they would have scarcely fared better. The industrial revolution was in its very basic infancy, and those who lived poorly in London lived poorly indeed. It would be hard to imagine an 18th century life in the capital; the mind would simply reject the horror of it. And so, the far flung, the forgotten and the hated, the wastes of space and human capital, all found themselves in a vast, burnt country, far the from the rain and the mud. The British dominion was technically in force for all the lands that existed in any territory, but it was practically unenforceable in Australia. It was all of forty years before land was being granted as official severance after time spent as a convict, in order to discourage their return to England. Land was also being granted to servicemen after they completed their tenure, and to new settlers who emigrated willingly, to encourage the nation to grow. The colony of Australia was thus firmly established, but the nation was inevitable; and those who understood this acted with summary compassion to those who would normally be considered peasants.
A country built on a colonial pattern is bound to attract the sorts of people who find the life at home unbearable. Large numbers of the staff of the East India Company were Scottish, for example, and some of the most famous cases of mass-transportation were of Irish political dissidents, who were easier to exile than execute, and risk turning them into martyrs. Even in Classical Roman society, the same colonial necessity held true. Grants of land for Roman citizens were easy ways to enforce social control in a hostile area, and Roman soldiers, after the Marian reforms, were all promised land as a pension after twenty years’ service. In a colony, unlike a metropolis, human life had enormous value.
A colony which took nine months to reach by sea could not possibly be stocked and fed from an external source, and a country of vast and lethal properties could not be brought under control by a few battalions of men. The land was a modern place where feudalism had no sway. Those who had once been practicably enslaved – by the tenure system, by the system of criminal justice – were now staring at fertile hills of great and endless freedom. All one had to do was brave the harsh conditions, and find a place to build a house on whichever hill or field one desired.
Except that it wasn’t a vast empty land, it was a vast populated land; and as long as the settler version of history remains romantic, will continue to define the way in which our society is structured. The mythology of freedom and exploration has had several different effects on the national psyche. We shall return to the effect of dispossession later, as the subject will require some establishing context to speak on properly, and begin with the effect it had on the perception of Australian space, and especially Australian cities.
Our cities are among the least densely populated on planet Earth, with massive urban boundaries and tiny clusters of tall buildings that put our density close to the bottom of any official metric. Melbourne and Sydney are both located somewhere around nine hundred and fiftieth place; the others faring worse still. When the earliest settlers were granted land, they were granted land for life, without the practically medieval conditions imposed in European society at the time. As the cities began to grow, the ‘quarter acre block’ became the norm, with people who had no concept of spaciousness all of a sudden seeing the vast beyond. Soon, they were producing their food in their own backyards, and developing sprawling shanty towns on the borders that only became gentrified when the city limits finally encroached upon them.
Melbourne and Sydney did not begin their lives as feudal, walled enclaves. The necessity of defence served to make European and Asiatic cities dense, but later colonial settlements were always structured differently. From the first, they were spacious. The Hoddle grid, Melbourne’s famously ergonomic street-and-lane pattern, was laid out in 1837, and was so brilliant that it has still not been tampered with. Sydney’s winding streets were partly a hangover from the first wave of colonists – people who were used to London, not exactly a designed city – but it had a great deal more to do with the natural architecture of the bay and the surrounds. Jagged inlets and the uncontrolled, unplanned expansion of the free settlers, virtually never contested, have resulted in a sparse city that is also ferociously inaccessible. Sydney is still paying the price for its non-entity foresight, but even Melbourne, with its straight-grid system, is suffering, and low density is to blame.
Before cars, before carriages, even, it was necessary for cities to be traversable on foot. By the time of Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, however, carriages had become ubiquitous, and the grand boulevards were allowed to be factored into construction. Try walking up the Champs-Elysees today and see if you think economic movement would be tenable without transport. By the time that Melbourne and Sydney were becoming true economic powerhouses, especially during the last part of the 19th century, when Melbourne was briefly the wealthiest city in the world, not only was the carriage ubiquitous, but so was the train. By 1887, Victoria was connected to both New South Wales and South Australia by rail, and electric suburban trains were installed in Melbourne by 1919. Since no force had colluded to reduce the density of these cities, and because transport was so cheap and effective, the problem of distance was never really considered. These cities made sense because they were built at a perfect time for low density.
But it is perfect for low density no longer. The Victorian Government announced plans in 2017 for the creation of almost twenty new suburbs, some of which would lie fifty kilometres from the centre of the city. This line of thinking already has a paradigm – Western Sydney – and their absolute city limit is almost sixty kilometres away. Between tollways, the limited trains and the congested roads, nothing about life here makes sense if it is focused on the centre of the city. And Melbourne would seek to continue replicating this pattern, without a single new train line to reach them.
These cities are roughly one fifth as dense as London (though they have one half the population), and one tenth as dense as New York. And yet we persist with our caveman notion that these figures are in any way acceptable, even as they continue to sprawl outward, and not deeply offensive to the future.
The modern world demands a certain sort of life, and our cities are the ultimate reminders that the country is shackled to its past. If you are reading this article in a suburban house, you are literally sitting in the remains of consequence – specifically the consequence of the poorly planned, accidental notions of history. Modernity requires cities to be a web with all sorts of strands – subway systems are the prime example, as are trams and bike paths. Cars, although they have been so prominent, are going to be more difficult to justify in the future, even as we approach hydrogen and electric technology. Streets are literally built to accommodate parking – stationary vehicles which add nothing to the life of the street or the economy – and parking garages which immediately suck the life out of a wide frontage of street space.
The ubiquity of the whole affair will certainly take some time to shake off, and we Australians can be thankful that highway systems did not destroy our cities like they did in America. But they came close; and new major roads are proposed frequently, often without open consideration for public transport options. Roads have an upper capacity, and it does not take long before a new road system is just as congested as the one that it was supposed to be a solution for. Any new, major road that was not being considered put underground or augmented by rail must surely be a mad prospect. The accepted assumption about the nature of cars – their sheer, unquestionable authority as symbols of freedom and masculinity, is the same sort of thinking that fuels our assumptions about cities. It is the same sort of thinking which defines our attitude to our history, too.
When our thinking goes nowhere, neither can our country; if we do not re-imagine the Australian city, it will remain locked in stasis. If we do no re-imagine the assumptions upon which this nation was built, we will never reckon with our past, and the indigenous peoples of Australia who have been stuck in an ephemeral purgatory for some centuries will never escape. Much like the summer day with two climates, our nation is two nations; one where the sins of the father are as clear as day, and one where they never happened at all.
The way we live and the way we think are inevitably similar. The physical isolation of each little house, each little fortress, shields the mind from the needs of the many and the fiery crucible of the body politic. It is not just the perception of the thing, either; during the cold war, various Australian governments found that home-ownership policy was an agreeable antidote to Communist influence. The Menzies government, in particular, established programs that encouraged the purchase of rented houses. It makes strategic sense, if one is so inclined to think that way; after all, low density areas have the effect of making public gatherings very, very obvious. Politics have long been defined by this isolation; which is why it might sometimes seem that the angry, lonely elderly, who are quite fond of calling talk back radio stations, are in charge of the country. In many ways, they are.
Home ownership reached its absolute maximum in 1966, at seventy one point four per cent. It dropped a little before reaching up to seventy and a half per cent in 1986, but has declined, albeit very slowly, since then. Home ownership in a place like Singapore, where government programs almost explicitly require it from their citizens, is more like ninety; but the Australian example is notable for being carried out almost entirely in the private marketplace. But it wouldn’t be an easy feat if history hadn’t set the precedent.
Precedent is exactly that – and it is never too late to start a new one. The Australian home is built on the back of dispossession. Clamoring for space, fertility, and the open air far from the dense colony on the bay all contributed to the rapid decline of the Indigenous population, and the frequent clashes therein. It is not really right for any historian, revisionist or otherwise, to claim that the indigenous peoples were acting in a certain vindictive way when they attacked white settlers. A people with no concept of land ownership, who were also without an expedient culture of warfare (being the sort of war that could be started on any terms whatever, see Europe et al.), were not going to be able to absorb the impact of the veritable stampede of life that ensued.
If someone built a fence through the middle of your house, and shot you when you tried to cross it, it might seem reasonable, in the sense of the ethical, criminal code, that you would be allowed to return fire. In that context, a murder sounds a lot less like a murder, and a great deal more like justice. Except that, for centuries, the Indigenous peoples were barely described as anything else, if they were even described at all. Until very recently, most histories were quite satisfied with their portrayal of the ‘frontier settler’, an image which infrequently included dead black people. Massacres have always been footnotes in those eminent books, categorized more like unfortunate, isolated incidents that flashed out of control than the obvious result of a far broader pattern of imposition, followed by murder.
Now that we have turned to dispossession, we may focus on the way that our society perceives it, or whether it is perceived at all. We shall have to rip a band aid off first, however – ‘invasion’ is a difficult term, especially in the context of the Australian nation. The Australian experience of dispossession is an act which cannot be traced to a single day, or be adequately described as a concentrated, deliberate military action – at least by the metrics of historical definition. But the middle ground in this historical debate is extremely limited. Some of the more brazen responses would suggest that colonization was a force for good for the Indigenous population – surely one of the more insane things to ever come out of someone’s mouth in the 21st century.
At least outside of academia, few people are discussing historical nomenclature in a meaningful way. Most of the effort is either focused on denial, in the case of conservatism, or awareness, in the case of progressivism. Ever since the ‘Change the Date’ campaign grew in popularity, it became obvious that the argument was being drawn up along party lines. It’s now less likely than ever that a suitable historical paradigm will be accepted by a majority of Australians, so muddied, as is, it by bickering and platitudes – and so the job of revising the nation’s story is doomed to languish for yet another generation.
But the answer is almost certainly opaque. The First Fleet did not come to invade the country, if we are being practical and honest about their intentions. But they did not come to establish a nation, either. Much like any argument that concerns history, the simple answer on both sides is wrong for being simple, not wrong for being wrong. It is just a shame that the more complex ones tend to get drowned out – an inevitable consequence of a vast and passionate debate.
I’m not trying to reduce the paradigm of ‘invasion’, and all that movement stands for. Its momentum is astonishing, and is finally achieving appreciable mainstream traction. But it cannot be stressed enough that a single, agreed upon historical narrative is one of the most important factors in achieving reconciliation of any sort. No casual observer of nationhood, and I am speaking of Anglo-Saxons in particular, is going to care unless they are given their answer; and at present that answer looks an awful lot like the Gallipoli Campaign and a handful of stockmen. The ordinary person would have gone through school without any thought given to matters of indigenous dispossession whatever. Throwing inaccurate pieces of nomenclature into the mix only debases attempts at cohesion.
If we are going to look at models for historical reconcile, the post-war German example is among the finest. It normalizes, exposes and then suffers its history. No city is without a memorial to the Holocaust, and now the nations which it tore through and murdered from, including its own, are all staunch allies. In the case of the Turks and the Armenian genocide, or the Japanese and the mass-murder of East Asian civilians, there is no such historical reconcile. World War Two is scrubbed clean from the Japanese curriculum. The Turkish government denies the genocide ever happened. Suffice it to say that those relationships are atrocious, and all because of things that happened close to a century ago. Ours took place over the passage of centuries – and are still not resolved – and will probably not be resolved unless the historical record is clarified, and the difficult acts of the past are brought to light in a way that is not just occasional, but that shifts the entire light of history.
Arthur Phillip was declared governor of the new territory of New South Wales before he left for Australia. He found out by way of letter, which had been sealed for the duration of the voyage, looking out over hostile territory as he did so. The existence of these orders might look a awful lot like a British intention to establish a nation. But his fledgling colony was soon swamped by additional fleets of convicts – that was the point of transportation. It also wasn’t the first time that someone had tried doing it. After the American War had starved the Empire of a dumping ground for its convicts, the Crown was facing a crisis of prisons, and for whatever reason, didn’t really build any. Emma Christopher writes about an earlier episode in her absolutely brilliant, under-read history, A Merciless Place (Oxford University Press, 2011). In the earlier part of the 1780’s an expedition tried, without success, to use transported convicts as soldiers to guard slave forts on the West African coast. Suffice it to say, the attempt ended terribly. Much like that horrendous episode, the number of times the Port Jackson settlement could have collapsed in on itself in the first decade are innumerate.
The ships of the First Fleet weren’t outfitted properly, there was hardly any agricultural equipment on board and rationing of supplies began as soon as they set foot on land. The navy had even forgotten to supply the marines with shot, despite saddling them with eight hundred prisoners. No one in London cared about Australia. Until Lachlan Macquarie started his grand and rigorous tenure, the country was, for twenty years, frequently at breaking point, and the commanders who took over the post from Phillip were the ones who were mad enough to take the reigns of a fledgling thing which barely existed.
After the order of governance was re-imposed, convicts and settlers alike were given grants of land, and the impulse of the once-shackled man accelerated the process of colonization dramatically. It was with the home, that thing which is sometimes called ‘a man’s castle’, that the Australian nation was born, and able to take so much from so many. The energies of downtrodden men created a force of will the likes of which no army could never hope to effect. This is part of the reason that descriptions of war and genocide are frequently missing from official texts – with the exception of Tasmania, large scale, co-ordinated troop movements against indigenous peoples were rare.
It was the house, the fence and the callous disregard which forced the borders out from the coast and into the hinterland. The space and the distance kept people deeply isolated from one another, which today helps to diffuse our political energy, but which then would have kept the colonial society from exorcising itself with introspective judgement. Men who prioritize survival do not tend to write treatises. More importantly, the huge boundaries created spheres of influence that settlers would use to focus their aggression on trespassers. Clearly defined borders at the edge of a frontier are an obvious source of violent justification, the effect of which was to choke the country – no different to laying mines that could only be triggered by Indigenous people. The home was like a weapon, and when it appeared on the ridge line, it spelled, in bold lettering, the new boundary of the white world at the expense of the ancient world.
It is that sort of summer’s day where the metal handles of a car door would be difficult to touch, and the clothes would be damp from sweat after you climbed into the warm hull, gristly from coarse sand. The water in the bottle is warm, and the air is warm, and in a certain decade there would be no air-conditioner. One might even get out of the car on the side of the road, to take in the country, and notice that someone had built a house in the middle of nowhere, factoring in nothing but their dream of the land when they chose to place the first stone. It is dry, and the sun doesn’t quite burn under the shade of the tree, in fact it is quite pleasant. Over the ridge line of a hill, with that familiar golden grass seeping into the folds and flowing over the plain, there are more, and more still, and you must surely wonder who thinks, in their right mind, to build there.
It is difficult for any white Australian to reconcile with the past. It shouldn’t be, I don’t think, but the conditions have never really existed for such a thing to be conducive. When one looks out on those vast plains and sees them empty, one might be encouraged to think like those first settlers did, all those centuries prior. That the land is brilliant, and empty, and wouldn’t it be wonderful to build here? But it would be the wrong impulse. The physical space is inextricably tied into history, woven like the great tapestry. We are laissez-faire when we build, and where we choose to build in particular. We demand our space, we demand our backyards, and most importantly, we demand to own our homes, as if it is some sort of a right, and not just the result of specific cultural conditions.
We literally live in the spaces of the past. We are surrounded by it, and encroached on all sides. The past very much exists, it is not a foreign country, and when our spaces are as stilted as our memories there is no hope for the future. The sins of the father always come home to roost, and the victims will require more than one hand on which to be counted. Twenty years after Tampa and 9/11, we are still living in the society that those events shaped; the society which they contorted out of all recognition. But Islam has been a perceived existential threat before. It is nothing new. To destroy the Ottomans we fought at Gallipoli. We fought in Sudan to kill the Mahdists, and in the same century in Afghanistan to impose the will of the west. Where things are irreconcilable, the same things will keep happening.
We live in places that do not change, and chose to live where life doesn’t make sense. A savage ignorance of the modern world allows our cities to sprawl, like vast and lazy men, and reach out into pockets of country where there are no schools, amenities, or reasons to weave another line into the societal fabric. We are all of us running, it seems, from the past, from each other. But to return to the centre would be to return to a better world – less selfish, less arrogant of what you deserve or what you are owed. A place where you may walk amongst peers in the corridors or on the street, and not cross the road to avoid them. The world does not change until we do, and by living in the debris of colonial memory – one which does not include a narrative of dispossession – we are merely perpetuating it.
Whenever you see, in the country or the outskirts of town, a house, without a road, built in the middle of nowhere, you might be reminded of this fact. This is the world we keep building for ourselves; planting over the graveyards, and play acting the frontier dream like toddlers, as though a house in a field of burnt grass could ever really be a home.
The Australian polity should be a robust and discursive thing. What went wrong?
CAN YOU EVER REALLY KNOW A PLACE?
What does it mean to travel, what does it mean to know a place? Is it even possible?
This article discusses Indigenous affairs. If you find that I have misconstrued, in any way, indigenous life or history, please inbox me through the contact page.