Destroying to Replace: Witnessing Settler Transformations of Naarm/Melbourne

Author: Luciana Nicholson Marshall

Sub-editor: Molly Lidgerwood

Image Credit: Melbourne 1841 (State Library Victoria)

CW: colonisation, genocide, dispossession, violence

When William Barak, a Wurundjeri elder, was 12 years old, John Batman and John Fawkner arrived in Port Phillip Bay. When Barak died at the age of 82 in 1903, the land where Batman had landed, now known as Melbourne, was home to 1,215,202 new arrivals. It became one of the largest economies in the world, an urban metropolis, surrounded by suburbs, farms, and mines. It was unrecognisable from the wetlands, forests of wattle, gum and lakes, creeks and rivers that had defined the landscape less than 80 years before. British settlers had rapidly transformed the area around Melbourne almost beyond recognition since first arriving in 1834. This essay focuses on this transformation of the Melbourne colony as a case study to examine how nineteenth century British settlers sought to transform the spaces they colonised. I argue that British settlers rapidly transformed the area around Melbourne through a dual logic of population change and land acquisition. These changes were facets of a unified settler colonial project. Accordingly, this essay utilises the theorising of settler colonialism by Patrick Wolfe, seeking to examine how the structure of settler colonialism transformed Melbourne.

As a preliminary matter I discuss and conceptually define settler colonialism.  I then explore the dual logic through which settlers transformed the spaces they colonised. Firstly, I examine population change. I discuss the damaging effects of settler colonisation to Indigenous ways of life: how settlers forcibly disrupted and eliminated both Indigenous peoples and cultures in favour of a Western European population. Secondly, I will explore how settlers sought to transform the landscape of the environment they settled – draining wetlands, cutting down trees, introducing new species, and building infrastructure. Finally, I will touch on the incomplete nature of the settler colonial project in Melbourne and how the transformation of space by settler colonisers is never complete.

This analysis of the ways British settlers transformed the spaces they colonised is augmented through the framework of settler colonial theory. Patrick Wolfe posits the centrality of the permanent settlement of land to settler colonial projects, rendering the Indigenous population superfluous to the settler coloniser project. Distinguishing settler colonialism from other modes of colonisation, Wolfe argues its  ‘dominant feature is not exploitation but replacement’ of the Indigenous population, as land is the central aim. Moreover, Wolfe stresses the structural dimension of settler colonialism; settlement is not an event that happens, but rather a structure that (re)asserts settler dominance over the colonised peoples and spaces.

Population change is a core aspect of the settler colonial project. Wolfe emphasises the dispensability of an Indigenous population in settler colonial contexts, as occupation and use of land is central. The forced removal, dispossession, and elimination of the Kulin population was central to the settler colonial project in Melbourne. The British arrival in Port Phillip Bay instigated mistreatment, dispossession, and violent frontier conflict. Prior to colonisation, a thriving Indigenous population of the Kulin people, an alliance of several language groups, lived in and cared for the environment around Port Phillip Bay, as they had done for at least 40,000 years – about 1600 generations. The area that would become Melbourne was mostly populated by the Woi-wurrung and Bunurong clans.By the end of the eighteenth century, less than 80 years after the arrival of settlers, only a few hundred Indigenous people remained and over one million settlers now lived on their lands. This reduction can be attributed to three primary factors: introduced diseases, dispossession of their land, and frontier violence. These processes, combined with mass settler immigration, resulted in a complete population change. 

Introduced diseases played a significant role in the elimination of the Indigenous population. The Indigenous population prior to 1788 is estimated to be over 100,000. By 1835, the Indigenous population in Victoria had already declined to less than 20,000 with diseases such as smallpox already spreading from other areas of European settlement. European diseases, including dysentery and typhoid, continued to kill and eliminate the Indigenous population after settlement. In 1840, Melbourne’s settler population reached 4,000. This population growth combined with the pollution of the Yarra by European industry increased the germ pool the Indigenous population was exposed to. Violent and forced depopulation of Indigenous Peoples was a rapid and devastating transformation after white settlement and invasion.

Dispossession of land is core to the settler project and was a consequential factor in their elimination. British colonisers embarked on a variety of liberal economic ventures which dispossessed Indigenous Peoples of their lands and free access to resources they ‘had hitherto enjoyed unstrained.’ The Aboriginal economy was swept away by pastoralism, gold mining, a small farming revolution, and an imperial metropole in the Melbourne area. European settler expansion put increasing pressure on Indigenous lifestyles through a reduction of traditional food supplies. The transformation was so rapid that by 1844, the extent of settler destruction of Indigenous food sources led William Thomas, the appointed ‘Guardian of the Aborigines’, to write: ‘I do not think that of the five tribes who visit Melbourne that there is in the whole five districts enough food to feed one tribe’. As noted by Wolfe, these strategies were often used in the settler colonial project to render the surviving population ‘dependent on the introduced economy’. Many members of the Kulin Nation became reliant on European food as Indigenous food stocks were destroyed since their land was usurped for British farming and industry. In January 1844, 675 Indigenous people were camped on the outskirts of Melbourne, ‘including groups from the Campaspe and Loddon River regions’. They had flocked to Melbourne for food security, as their traditional lands and hunting grounds had been expropriated. Indigenous people were also forcibly removed from their lands, and their movements were limited to a few small missions – a fraction of the land they once occupied. The first Aboriginal mission was established in 1837 and only lasted three years before the land became too valuable, forcing the relocation of Indigenous Peoples to a site near Narre Warren. By 1863, only a few hundred Indigenous peoples remained from all five of the once populous Melbourne tribes, as a result of disease and frontier violence. This was an 83% reduction of the original population. These missions furthered the dispossession of Indigenous lifestyles as they destroyed the basic structures and social practices of the Indigenous Peoples.

Frontier violence was the most overt way that the Indigenous population was eliminated by the settler population. Guerrilla warfare was common in Victoria between settlers and the Indigenous population, with over 68 recorded massacres between 1836 and 1853, such as the Mt. Cottrell Massacre in 1837 and the battle of Yering in 1840. Such violence resulted in the deaths of several thousand Indigenous Peoples by 1853. The introduction of the paramilitary native police in 1837 contributed to the violent suppression of Indigenous resistance. The effects of white settlement on Indigenous hunting grounds, waterholes and society were devastating. This, combined with the spread of European illness, massacres, and then formal attempts to ‘civilise’ the Indigenous population were all a part of this ‘logic of elimination’ that largely liquidated the Indigenous people around Melbourne.

Alongside the elimination of the Indigenous population was the massive immigration of white settlers. In 1854, the colony’s population grew from 80,000 to 300,000 because of the discovery of gold. By the end of the century, the Victorian population had boomed to 1,215,202, as Melbourne promised wealth and social mobility to migrants. From the 1850s onwards, the colonial government imposed restrictions on the migration of Chinese settlers through harsh taxation. The arrival of thousands of Chinese miners into the Victorian goldfields through the 1850s was seen as a threat to the British hegemony that was essential to the settler project. ‘[I]ngrained beliefs in white racial superiority dominated’ all aspects of the white settler societies. Settlers forcibly favoured the settlement of a Western European population. Ultimately, the centrality of land, the goal of supplanting the settler way of life, and a massive settler population, in the settler colonial project entails ‘acts of dispossession and assimilation’ for the Indigenous population. It is thus a key way that British settlers seek to transform the spaces they colonised.

Control of land and the transformation of landscape and environment is central to settler colonialism. British settler-colonists rapidly transformed Melbourne, which was once described as a ‘temperate Kakadu’ by Batman and Fawkner, beyond recognition from their first arrival in 1834. Within 80 years of Batman declaring it as ‘the place for a village’, a city had been built where Billabongs, creeks, swamps, bush, and grasslands once stood. 

There are countless dramatic examples of landscape transformation by settlers, one of which is the swamp lands that covered much of the inner west of Melbourne and part of the CBD. The inner west of Melbourne was a fertile wetland with a large lagoon – “intensely blue, nearly oval and full of the clearest salt water” – which was noted in the early years of settlement for its abundance of water plants and bird life. However, it impeded easy transportation of goods and therefore was an obstacle to the burgeoning market economy. It also quickly became a receptacle for the industrial and household waste of the expanding Melbourne. Many pre-colonial waterways were destroyed as swamps were drained, and rivers covered over to make way for houses, infrastructure to support booming capitalist industry and the industry itself. The swamp in the west of Melbourne that once covered an area of almost eight square kilometres was gradually reclaimed for industrial use, including railway yards and a rubbish dump. Additionally, in 1856, the blue lake on Batman’s hill was destroyed to make way for a terminus for Spencer Street station which opened in 1859. By 1911, it was noted that ‘now not a single trace of the lake or its former contour remains’.This transformation had devastating effects on the Indigenous plants and animals, culminating in a significant transfiguration of the Melbourne area.

The Yarra, the most significant waterway in Melbourne is another site of dramatic transformation. The very existence of the Yarra – a source of fresh water above the rocky falls a few kilometres from the mouth of the river – determined Melbourne’s location. However, by the 1840s the Yarra River was transformed. Plant and animal foods eaten by the Kulin peoples for thousands of years began to disappear as ships plied the Yarra, permanent buildings were erected, and industry polluted its once-clear waters. During the 1860s the falls were removed as a part of a programme to control periodic flooding. By the turn of the century, the Yarra featured a network of railyards, roads, and docks: a vast transformation from the Billabongs, creeks and swamps that populated the area for millennia before settlement.

As Patrick Wolfe argues, ‘settler colonialism destroys to replace’. The destruction of the natural environment made space for a built environment that reflected the British colonial vision – a European-inspired city. Melbourne’s built environment was explicitly modelled on European cities, so much so that some buildings were consciously constructed using imported sandstone, which travelled great distances at great expense. This can be seen through the site of the Old Quadrangle at the University of Melbourne which was designed in the image of universities in European cities. The construction of the Quadrangle began with the ceremonial laying of the first stone on 3 July 1854. Melbourne’s built environment solidified the settler colonial population’s conquest of the environment, as it naturalised their colonial hegemony. At the end of the nineteenth century, Melbourne was no longer an area of swamps, grasslands, and forest but rather a grand European-style city.  

Despite significant changes made by British settler-colonists in the nineteenth century, the overall project of settler colonialism is always incomplete. Settler colonisation is an ongoing process with ongoing resistance and tensions. Transformation to spaces are never complete or total. The ‘natives’ were not eliminated and despite 200 years of settlement Indigenous connections to land remain strong. Indigenous sovereignty was never ceded and continues to contest the sovereignty of the crown.  Withstanding the sustained institutional tendency to eliminate the Indigenous population, the Wurundjeri People remain a staunch political and cultural force in Victoria, as seen through organisations like Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance, the First Peoples Assembly, and the leadership of figures such as Aunty Joy Murphy. Furthermore, the settler colonial project was not able to transform the environment completely since remnants of the pre-colonial environment remain. There are still four River Red Gums pre-dating colonisation in the middle of the University of Melbourne and a Corroboree tree on St Kilda Junction, a remnant of the wattle forest that once stretched for kilometres. Settler construction continues to come into tension with the environment that it was built on. In 1971, Elizabeth Street flooded on the same path as a river used to run, despite settlers’ best efforts to drain and to cover up this river. Transformations to space are never complete or total.

Ultimately, settler-colonists transform the spaces they colonise through the dual logic of territorial appropriation and attempted Indigenous elimination, as this essay has illuminated through the case study of Melbourne.


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