By Wal Walker

Wal Walker 2023

ISBN 978 0 646 99705 6

RRP: $36.95 (pb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

After a long campaign in Australia in 2023 over constitutional change and recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Australian constitution, reading Wal Walker’s The Squatters’ Grab – Where it All Went Wrong is a sobering experience. For more than two centuries, the European development of the Australian continent, development that has produced one of the most prosperous liberal democracies on the globe, has not been able to set right the tragedies of the past stemming from conflict between the original inhabitants of the continent and those that settled that continent from afar after 1788.

Wal Walker is an avid researcher. His two volume Jane & Darcy: A History of Jane Austen & Darcy Wentworth surfaced justifiable evidence that the young Jane Austen was quite possibly no innocent teenager far removed from the pitfalls of eighteenth century London and in fact quite possibly had more in common with the runaway Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice than the virtuous, if impetuous, Elizabeth Bennet. But that is another story.

In The Squatters’ Grab, Walker has immersed himself in the documents once again, this time the many settler records, colonial government correspondence, newspaper and journal articles, oral recollections and books on Australian settlement and Indigenous history. In total there are 900 footnotes. It is a dense read, albeit an intense and comprehensive survey of how the tribes of Indigenous Australians were driven off the lands they had lived on over millennia. This is not a book for a quiet read after Sunday lunch.

The title says it all. Settlement was about land. It was not a new story, however. Centuries of human history have charted national tribes or groups overcoming rival peoples and acquiring territory/land as an invading force, particularly during war. On other occasions, migration can introduce an alien race into an indigenous stronghold, in time overtaking the locals. Indian Fijians come to mind in this regard. In 1788, Britain took possession of that area of the Australian continent around Port Jackson or Sydney Harbour bringing on the migration and settlement of British convicts, soldiers and free settlers, and determining the drama of possession and dispossession that would haunt Australian development over the next two centuries and beyond.

Walker traces the disintegration of relations between the Indigenous Australians and those first settlers from Governor Phillip’s time. He writes:

The first thirty years of the British settlement in New South Wales saw great changes of attitudes of the British to the Indigenous peoples. From the time of the initial settlement in Sydney Cove, Governor Phillip attempted to treat the Indigenous people sympathetically, he aimed to create harmony through benevolence. After his departure in 1792, friction between the two groups increased, and the willingness of the Indigenous Australians to accommodate the settlers fell away.

It began with the spreading out of settlement as explorers trekked across mountains and plains discovering pasture lands and mapping the continent. Communication between government in Sydney and later settlements, between there and Moreton Bay and the plains of Goulburn and Yass to the growing areas of what became Victoria, was difficult. Settlers soon moved way beyond the defined limits and squatters took over. Whatever beneficent outcomes for Indigenous tribes the Colonial Office in London might have demanded of governors, distance and settlers’ ability to make their own peace (or war) with the Indigenous Australians saw those policies of little influence.

It is Walker’s thesis that the colonial governments were remiss in not protecting the Indigenous Australians from the destruction of their habitat and livelihoods in the face of the rapidly moving expansion of pastoral interests investing in rich rewards for hard toil. These government authorities had orders to do so but failed. But the situation is more than just failure – it was an impossible task.

For the settlers, it seemed they had the nod from Sydney, later Melbourne and Brisbane, to take over the land for farms and sprawling estates. Grants of land had begun the move, but it was soon after that word came back from successive explorations to the west, south and north of Sydney that land was there for the taking. The era of squatting was yet another area where control from central headquarters was impossible. Squatting itself would in time plague colonial governments in east coast Australia and require laws to pull back the unauthorised take up of such large tracts of land.

Governments could not contain the lust for land much less enact protective means to offer Indigenous Australians any sort of natural recompense for the upheaval the coming of Europeans meant for them. Walker himself charts this over numerous examples – one illustrates a recurring pattern:

The Colony’s expansion into the Liverpool Plains had a lawless beginning. Some of the earliest settlers were escaped convicts from the Coal River Penal Settlement who became cattle rustlers. … They were followed by squatters, keen to take up the unalienated land beyond the Limits of Location to depasture their stock. … By 1838, the Liverpool Plains frontier was inflamed and violent. The advance of the squatters into Gamilaraay Country had incited attacks by Indigenous warriors and the theft of livestock … Major Nunn set out to track down the Indigenous Australians who had killed five stockmen … On 26 January 1838, Australia Day, Nunn’s operation climaxed in a dreadful massacre at Waterloo Creek … the most damaging massacre recorded to date in the Colony. Like Bourke, [Gov] Gipps faced resistance from the rump of reactionaries in the Legislative Council and others within the administration, who accepted the role of the soldiers in using powers of summary justice.

The pattern not only repeated itself, it became entrenched. To the settlers, the attacks by Indigenous tribes on property and homesteaders, men, women and children were crimes to be punished by harsh penalties. Very rarely were the reprisals by non-Indigenous and the murders of large numbers of Indigenous seen in the same light.

Walker charts – using large slabs of primary material (in quite small type) – the station-by-station settlements north and west of Sydney and on to Queensland where some of the most murderous reprisals on the Indigenous populations took place. For students of Australian history there is a wealth of information in Walker’s study simply as to who were those (mostly) men and their dynasties who developed eastern Australia.

But the pastoral transformation of that canvas was a struggle against the original inhabitants who, in most cases, could not prevail against the heavier artillery of European arms. Backed by European administrations responsible for the safety of their citizens.

In some cases, landholders who had managed reasonable relations with Indigenous tribes farther south were to become harsh even murderous when encountering more belligerent tribes in Queensland. Wal Walker gives a close account of Frederick Walker who led the Native Police in northern NSW and southern Queensland for over a decade from 1847. Frederick Walker’s methods were often cruel but more calculated at quelling resistance and he was responsible in time for subduing tensions with the Indigenous. He also developed a policy of “letting in” whereby Indigenous tribes could come onto the stations that sprawled across their native lands.

In the end, however, Fred Walker was dismissed. Wal Walker writes that, while he “had been very successful”, he had not been able to manage the immense task he commanded. As Walker puts it: “The New South Wales government might have given Walker more assistance or even a specialist role, freeing him from his unsupported responsibility of Commandant of the Native Police, allowing him more time to facilitate negotiations to establish harmonious relations.” But it was not a priority.

Adding to the growing repression of Indigenous tribes on pastoral lands was eventually the self-governing legislatures of the colonies. Here the limits of franchise ensured that the landowning class dominated quite strongly; policies increasingly pushed protection of Indigenous tribes far from policy intent. It would not be until late in the nineteenth century after the land laws enacted in the 1860s and beyond made some attempt to control land possession that legislatures turned their minds to that feature of settlement around protection of native peoples. By then, this resulted in collective attempts to round up Indigenous groups into missions and reserves none of which offered any real resolution to the loss of an ancient culture. Modern Australia continues to remain at a loss as to what can be done to retrace and redress the problem begun by the squatters’ grab.

Wal Walker has produced a hefty study of one of Australia’s most haunting issues. The British took up possession of Port Jackson in 1788 when the Indigenous people they came into contact with could be classified as being in a state of technical development as distant from that maritime power as could be imagined. The authorities in London sent orders that the native people should be protected but from their far distant and removed offices in London nothing they ordered could overcome the natural progression of Western development of the continent of Australia which they had begun. It was a prize for the taking.

It is Wal Walker’s achievement to have recorded – from the archives – the intimate details of how this played out. Possibly it is one of the best recorded examples of colonisation and its effect on native people. The forces that clashed – Indigenous against European; enlightened individuals against greedy property developers; far sighted governors against the tide – all were left to make a go of it in a continent that stretched from the Torres Strait to the Southern Ocean in the days before any sort of telecommunication. It is the tale of colonialism, but it is also the story of Australia.

 Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History. Her most recent book, Menzies Versus Evatt – The Great Rivalry of Australian Politics (Connor Court), was published in 2023