‘The Squatting Age in Australia 1835-1847’

1935 first edition; 1964 second edition. 358 p.

…a book dealing with the thirties and far more important than its unpretentious exterior would indicate (p.273)

This is Stephen H. Roberts talking about another book entirely, but the same could be said of his own book “The Squatting Age in Australia 1835-1847”.  That’s it up above on the bookshelves- the rather drab burnt-sienna coloured one. It’s been around for decades and decades; it is cited in many other works, but oh- even the title induces in me a rather shrivelling distaste.  I was astounded to find a recent blogpost about the book written in November 2009 by another reader and smiled at the thought of possibly travelling on the same train and our eyes meeting (across the top of our bi-focals, I suspect) over our respective copies of ” The Squatting Age in Australia” (Nah, not likely, as he seems to be based in Armidale, NSW).  Still, a whimsical little thought.

I have to say that I was surprised by what I found inside.  Perhaps the most striking thing is the language: not at all the dry-as-stubble,  stiff and factual voice that I expected but instead a rather “purple” narrative voice written often tongue-in-cheek (or at least, I think it is) and more exclamation-marks than a Facebook page!!! Yes!!! Really!!!

Stephen Henry Roberts– that’s Sir Stephen was  Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney and Challis Professor of History there.  His Australian Dictionary of Biography entry describes him as “empirical, research oriented, with a concern for international trends and an ability to place Australia in a wider colonial context“.   The empiricism in his work certainly comes through: there’s very detailed maps, budgets and statistics peppered throughout the book.  His first publication was  History of Australian Land Settlement 1788-1920, based on his masters thesis, and after moving to London, he moved to more international studies with publications on French colonial policy, modern British and European history and Far Eastern history before returning to Australian history with The Squatting Age written in 1935. In this book he brings his international approach to bear most powerfully in Chapter 2 ‘The Wool Trade’ which I found to be a fascinating account of how Australian wool production fed into the broader European wool industry that burgeoned and changed after the Napoleonic Wars. He also has a good analysis of the 1840s Depression in New South Wales and its context within the broader international economy.

Born of working-class origins, Roberts did not restrict his intellectual efforts to academe alone.  As a leading interational analyst, he gave public lectures, wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald and broadcast for the ABC.  In 1936 he travelled again to England on study leave, spending three months in Germany where he met with Nazi leaders and attended their rallies.  His next book The House that Hitler Built (1937) exposed the dangers of appeasement, warned of the war intentions of the Nazi regime and condemned the persecution of the Jews.  The book was translated into a dozen languages and reprinted many times.

According to the ADB, the “Sydney school” of historians that coalesced around Roberts was:

proudly a ‘hard school’, not merely because of its declared standards of data, but in its overt hostility to what it conceived as romantic or literary approaches to the past

This description surprised me.  In this book he presents a highly romantic and idealized view of the pastoral industry and the squatting project as a whole, albeit with a rather more grounded view of the boredom and dirt of the shepherd’s lot.  Like other books of its time it is interspersed with stanzas of poetry- a rather quaint stylistic touch to modern eyes.  He places strong emphasis on personality and it is here, in explaining motivations and character,  that perhaps his flights of fancy betray him.  I found the sweeping statements to support his grand rhetorical flourishes even more troubling. There appears to me to be a contradiction in his large claims: he makes much of the “quietude” in politics in the early 1840s and yet spends much time on the Great Crisis between 1841-44, and the “struggle” with Sir George Gipps.  Crisis and quietude seem to be mutually exclusive, to me.

His work has been criticized for textual errors and sloppy proof-reading and these were still evident, even in the second edition which, according to his preface had undertaken “obvious correction of misprints” and “elimination of errors”.   In a chapter in The Discovery of Australian History, edited by Stuart Macintyre and Julian Thomas, Deryck Schreuder (the author of the ADB entry) writes:

[Roberts] wrote voluminously, but also hastily.  At one stage he produced four studies (in five large volumes) in the six years between 1923 and 1928, all based in archival sources, and all covering areas where he had to pioneer a research path.  Not surprisingly, the works show signs of haste: some incorrect footnotes, faulty transcriptions, errors of fact, gaps in the documentary sources, assessments which have not always stood the test of time….Roberts never wilfully manipulated his sources to make an argument, and he did work extraordinarily hard to cover all the primary and secondary sources involved, often indeed finding the major archival source for the first time. …Whether his innovative studies, and the power of some of his studies, outweighs these defects is another matter for consideration: he is not always given the benefit of that balancing perspective. (p. 131)

The book is very much of its time, and it is too easy to deride it for its easy dismissal of aboriginal resistance and environmental heedlessness.  His use of the bland terms “dispersal” and “expansion” obscures a whole other history that took another fifty years to emerge.   That doesn’t make it any less confronting, as Geoff Page’s poem “A Classic Text”, published in Arena Magazine in April-May 1993,  remarks.  I can’t think of a way to quote the poem without producing it in its entirety- and that surely would be a breach of copyright-  so you can see it for yourself at The Great Forgetting: poems . (The link will take you to Google Books- the poem is on p.61-5.)

And yet there is a sense of humour that comes through the book- and that truly IS surprising given the worthy and rather stodgy subject manner.  I’ll leave you with a little observation he makes about the dominance of pastoral demands on Gipps’ administration-, complete with Roberts’ own exclamation mark,  and remember HE said it, not I!!

It was all the song of the sheep- money for the sheep, land for the sheep, labour for the sheep, roads for the sheep, merchants for the sheep, ships for the sheep one long ruminant refrain! (p.96)


S. H. Roberts The Squatting Age in Australia 1835-1847

Deryck Schreuder ‘An Unconventional Founder: Stephen Roberts and the Professionalisation of the Historical Discipline’ in Stuart Macintyre & Julian Thomas (eds.) The Discovery of Australian History (1995)

Deryck Schreuder ‘Roberts, Sir Stephen Henry’ http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A160125b.htm

Geoff Page and Pooaraar ‘A Classic Text’  in The Great Forgetting (1995) p. 61

13 responses to “‘The Squatting Age in Australia 1835-1847’

  1. I am glad that you discovered my post on SHR, Janine, because I discovered your blog. I also discovered the link to Geoff’s poems; I had not seen this publication before.

    I fear that we will not be looking at each other over our bifocals, but not because I live in Armidale – just at present I live in Sydney. I don’t wear bifocals!

    However, if last year you had travelled on the morning train to Parramatta from Central you could well have found me immersed in SHR or another book, writing notes, and sometimes looking over my glasses at the world around me while the world looked back!

    Geoff is a figure from my past as was Judith Wright. Geoff is Earle Page’s grandson and went to UNE where we overlapped. My grandfather was David (DH) Drummond who was involved in the same causes as Dr Page for many years. He was a close friend, too, with PA Wright who was also involved in similar regional causes.

    Links and overlaps that, in writing, I try to bring alive because there is far too little regionally focused historical writing.

    I have only browsed a few entries on your blog so far, but look forward to a deeper explore.

  2. I love reading these older books as, apart from the obvious prejudice, there’s some surprising little tid-bits that get past the editor; sometimes the author has had to kowtow to popular opinion or demand (including poems may have been another way of appealing to a broader demographic).
    Interesting to note Roberts’ disregard for Gipps’ importance of the (damn) sheep; by the time this book was first published John Macarthur’s insanity had been brushed under the carpet and he’d been elevated to god-like status, history re-written to give him the credit his wife and sons deserved for the Merino wool breeding programme, which Roberts would have been well-aware of as he was blazing a trail in this research area.
    Perhaps Roberts, unable (I imagine) to be as vocal as he wished on opinions that jarred with then- popular ideas, was having his own little dig at peers and contemporaries in his book?

    • I didn’t mean to give the impression that Gipps disregarded the pastoral industry: on the contrary, he was well aware of its importance and the power that its proponents wielded both locally and as part of the tussle with the Wakefieldians in London.
      The comment about the ruminant refrain was an example where Roberts launches into a rather poetic rant by imagining himself into one side of an argument. For the reader, it’s a disconcerting tactic. You’re not sure whether he’s tongue-in-cheek or ironic, indulging in hyperbole or genuinely reflecting one side of an argument. It seems an odd rhetorical device for an historian otherwise concerned with statistics and maps.

  3. That’s an interesting one, Jayne.

    First, as a general comment, I have been deliberately reading older books because I am interested in both alternative views and what they tell me about attitudes at the time. Our current society is just as mindlocked as previous ones. That locks things out.

    I don’t think that Roberts was in any ways kowtowing to popular opinion or current views, although he did hope to write books that would sell. Given the way SHR defined his role as an historian, I am sure that there were digs.

    Not sure about Gipps, you have outrun my knowledge here, but I do think that Roberts occupies a particular place in the history of Australian thought during the 1930s. I have to think this through, but note his European focus as well as his emphasis on historical method.

    Finally, on the “worthy and rather stodgy subject manner” I must disagree. See http://www.regionalliving.com.au/index.cfm?p=2332 for something that reflects my own biases!

  4. Janine, sorry, no, I was meaning that Roberts appeared to be having a dig at the importance Gipps placed upon the sheep (a la the old myth Australia rode on the sheep’s back when it was, in fact, the wageless Aboriginal stockmen and their wives who built the vast sheep stations).
    Jim, the editor often had the final word on any book as the representative of a publishing business; if anything was at odds with popular opinion, even if it was blatantly incorrect, the blue pencil was drawn through the offending passage/sentence. If a publisher was known for presenting serious, informed and referenced books of history then anything that even hinted otherwise would endanger not only the reputation of the publisher but could be publicly questioning Govt law (the White Australia Policy), other historian’s accepted work (ie Macarthur created the Merino breed), murder cases (ie Myall Creek and other massacres) and would effect the publisher first then the author second.
    Roberts was a professor of history at Sydney Uni, which would also be effected by any untoward publications. (My son’s current Ed unit reading states “Rodwell (2003) points out that up until the end of the 1960s, “college principals ensured that there were no ‘loose cannons’ or misfits”(p. 16) among graduates destined to become teachers.”).
    Roberts ‘rhetorical device’ Janine refers to may well have been his little digs in getting around the censorship of his work, saying and writing things in a manner that ensured his employment and future publications were not put into doubt.
    Just some ideas, not meaning to start arguments or disagree! 🙂

  5. Jayne, I am not saying that you are wrong, but I just don’t know of any evidence to support your position.

    Problems could arise where an academic went too far out outside accepted norms as happens today. The controversy surrounding John Anderson at SU is an example. Yet academics as a select elite group arguably had more freedom in terms of expression than they do today. There was a very explicit code of academic freedom linked to the traditional vision of a university. Anderson himself survived.

    In very small gold fish bowls, Tasmania is an example and this is well before Orr, local power struggles could complicare things.

    Roberts was a senior academic, a member of the establishment, in a much bigger pool. It would actually have been difficult to censor him.

    Self censorship is always possible for a whole variety of reasons.

    I haven’t read Rodwell. However, the teacher issue is a different one for teachers were state employees. To today’s eyes, the approach seems authoritarian. Newling as principal of Armidale TC was not called Pop without a reason.

    Mind you, in all this, there was certainly censorship on books considered to be immoral.

    It’s always interesting trying to disentangle these things. And posing questions and suggestions is always the place to start!

  6. Self censorship is a better theory, Jim! 🙂
    Roberts took up the chair in 1929, right at the beginning of the Great Depression then proceeded to research, write and publish books on Australian history (with several on British and French colonial history) when Oz history was only just being recognised as a worthy subject to study see here.
    According to Wiki “Roberts was a utilitarian with a concern for international trends….” so self-censorship in a time of financial and social constraints, not to mention introducing a new subject when one would not wish to tilt at too many windmills by presenting controversial ideas, would probably fit better. 😀

  7. I replied last night but cyberspace et it lol.
    Self-censorship would make more sense, Jim.
    Consider the context in which the book(s) are written – he was offered the position at the beginning of the Great Depression, Oz History was only a new subject in the 1930s, Roberts was a pioneer in not only research but getting 6 books (4 on Oz history) published at a time when people could barely afford to clothe their family.
    The ‘accepted’ opinion on Indigenous People, for example, was so ingrained there were still some schools excluding Aboriginal kids from attending classes, while the mainstream media still referred to them in derogatory terms, so tilting at windmills in Oz history could have had on-going ramifications for a married family man such as Roberts.
    I still believe editors and publishers would have held some sway over the content but, yes, self-censorship for self-survival at that turbulent time fits 😉

  8. Hi Jayne

    I think that I would still argue with you, but you raise some interesting thoughts.

    I will muse about it and maybe turn it into a full post!

  9. Pingback: ‘The Discovery of Australian History 1890-1939′ ed. Stuart Macintryre and Julian Thomas « The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  10. I disagree with Jayne’s contention that pastoral Australia was built on unpaid Aboriginal labour. There was some, but most squatters were very particular about the source of their wealth. In Victoria many squatters refused to have any ex convicts on their station payrolls as they considered they did not manage the stock well enough.many of them imported indentured labour from their home counties, and there were attempts, ultimately unsuccessful for the same reasons as ex-convicts, to import coolie labour. Most squatters were concerned with costs, labour bills were high in the 1840s and 50s, particularly during the Gold Rushes.

    My problem with Roberts is that although he was born in Maldon Victoria, his history centres on Sidderney! Mitchell’s line of track was not the entry point into Australia Felix, but to northern Victoria. Most settlement into that place came from VDL, in what James Belich calls the first Tasman boom. The back country of NSW and Qld, and NZ, was settled out of Victoria, either through stock movements or through the banks. And any self censorship would fit with his centric views. Analogous is the idea that Ed Hargreaves discovered gold in Australia, a piece of cocky-shite latterly propagated by D Hill in his book on gold. South Australia had several companies formed for prospecting and mining gold by 1844, samples of the gold had been shown to potential investors earlier. The actual discovery of gold is far earlier even than that, but the difference in a NSW view and one from Adelaide is significant. The South Aust. govt of the time actively encouraged mining, NSW govt. thought the discovery of gold was a quick way to be murdered in their beds by men in chains.

    This of course leads to censorship now, how histories are even now formed by keeping some ideas floating while letting others sink. Gold finding is one, the influence of the Irish are another, MacArthur and wool is a third, CW Bean on ANZAC is another, all ideas floating, or more accurately strutting about like the Emperor in his new suit. Some histories are unconscious. Roberts attempted to dig some of them into consciousness, his limitations are those of his time and place. I don’t mind an exclamation mark or two.

    • residentjudge

      Well, the gold cocky-shite certainly worked on me, because I’d never heard about the South Australian gold finds (and entrepreneurship) prior to 1851. And your observation about the different responses in an ex-penal, compared with free, colony makes sense.

  11. Niel Black, of whom I am writing a biog for a Unimelb PhD, invested 500l. in the Mt Remarkable Mining company. Never made his money back, I don’t think-haven’t got that far into his accounts-but he says in a letter he was shown gold samples. Geological surveys were carried out in the 1840s and reported in the papers. Copper mining at Kapunda and other places had set off an interest in mining that was lacking in the eastern colonies. I believe Australia was settled 4 times, and that the settlement in Siddernee is only part of the story, a small part, because Port Phillip, Adelaide, and WA need to be accounted for in their different ways.

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