Reading this book evoked memories of undergraduate history out at La Trobe in the mid-70s: sitting around the Agora drinking bad coffee from yellow and orange plastic handled mugs; peering through the smoky fug in tutorials held in the tutor’s own room; posters of Splitz Enz playing on campus; the sweet waft of marijuana; the opening up of the world in those halcyon Whitlamesque days.
When I see that Martin Sullivan submitted his Ph D. thesis “Class and Society in the Port Phillip District” to Monash University in 1978, then I realize where all these 30 year old reminiscences are coming from. The thesis, and this book that no doubt sprang from it in 1985, are all imbued with the language and frameworks of Marxist historiography that look rather – well- strident, earnest and somewhat dated today. In fact, I was a little surprised by the late-ish publication date of this book (1985) because it had the fingerprints of the 1970s all over it.
Which is not to say that it’s not a useful book- on the contrary. I’m finding myself frustrated that it is so difficult to ‘hear’ the people of Port Phillip who were not middle-class and socially and visible on the one hand, or thrown up from the stews of criminality into the courts on the other hand. Surely there’s another group of people here. I think of the school children who marched in the public parade for the laying of the foundation stone to the Supreme Court- who were their parents who no doubt craned their necks to see their children as they marched past? Who were the people who mobbed around the first public hangings up on the hill above Lonsdale Street? It appears that it was a heterogenous group- who were they?
Sullivan has used much the same sources I have: court reports, newspapers, government dispatches, Garryowen and other contemporary writers. His focus is different to mine, and he has struggled with it. He wants to draw out his working-class men and women of Port Phillip from the vignettes of the middle class, public actors that I’m finding myself working with, but they are such shadowy figures that they are easily overshadowed and don’t ever emerge fully. So they remain fuzzy, largely unnamed (except for those who turn up in the courts) and largely undifferentiated from the group.
He argues that a capitalist, market-based system was not necessarily found in Port Phillip from its inception, but that it quickly developed once propertyless, wage-earning immigrants and former convicts came to the colony. Classes emerged fairly quickly, whereby capitalists and wage earners lived out their lives in different ways according to their relationship to the means of production. However, although the capitalists tried to control the law and the state, they never had complete control over them, or indeed over the labouring population which was, from the start, ungovernable and obstinate. In this regard- and I don’t know how Martin Sullivan would feel about this- the book leans towards John Hirst’s view of the subversion of authority right from the inception of the colony. He points out that after 1844 there was a more concerted and political program of protest, rather than the undirected dissatisfaction of individual men and women previously. It also confirms the feeling that I have that there was a general heightening of the political climate around the mid 1840s, even before the Gold Rush.
This book felt a bit unbalanced in its structure. There is barely an introduction as such, as the book launches straight into an examination of the course of events that led to its settlement by the Port Phillip Association, and its relationship to a market economy. This is followed by a 73 page chapter about the formation of a labour market, then a shorter 40 page chapter about convicts in Port Phillip which could have easily been a second chapter. Chapter 4 is another long one- 86 pages, followed by a 26 page chapter on the stuctures of dominance, then a rather thin two page conclusion. I felt as if the book was lumpy, and that it didn’t draw me along with a clear argument. I don’t need each chapter to be a homogenized length, but the book felt as if it lacked unity.
Nonetheless, by consciously looking beyond the more easily-accessed public, middle-class realm, he has set himself an ambitious target: I know because I’m puddling around in the same sources as he did. Those more sweeping “people’s history”-type books have the advantage of a larger timespan to draw and extrapolate from. It’s much harder to start at the origins of a settlement, as he does, and know that you end up ten years later with a system that has been almost- not quite, but almost- undetectable in its emergence. We’re only looking at a small society, for a small slice of time- why is it so hard to see it happening?