‘Up Came a Squatter: Niel Black of Glenormiston 1839-1880’ by Maggie Black

2016, 292 p. plus notes

The term ‘squatter’ has had different connotations over time. In the 1980s it suggested young people living in empty houses. In the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’, written in 1895, we had the squatter riding up mounted on his thoroughbred, accompanied by the troopers. And even further before that, in early 1840s Port Phillip we had squatters who were often young single men from wealthy families, who went up country, lived rough in huts, grew beards and came back to Melbourne to drink and carouse before heading back outback again. Generally, the squatters have had bad press in Australian history, seen as selfish landgrabbers, oblivious to the destruction of indigenous culture on the land they had appropriated, keeping the little man off the land, and using their power in the Legislative Council to protect their interests.

Much of the celebration of squatters has sprung from familial and parochial pride at our ‘forebears’: men celebrated by their families for establishing the family wealth, and communities grateful for the extensive but often patriarchal contribution made by squatters as civic characters. As Tom Griffiths showed us in his excellent Hunters and Collectors, these tributes to great men, which spawned books and statues (e.g. the 1920s cairns to the squatter Angus McMillan in Gippsland) were particularly created in the late 19th and early 20th century when it was felt that ‘the pioneers’ were passing away. Consciously framed as celebrations, the inconvenient matter of expropriation and massacre was framed as ‘clearing’ and ‘dispersal’. Even Margaret Kiddle’s beautifully written Men of Yesterday, which I discussed here, is silent about the indigenous groups that most certainly lived in, and fought for, the Western Districts of Victoria.

And so enter Niel Black. A 35 year old tenant farmer from Argyllshire, Scotland, he arrived in Melbourne 1839 as part of a Scots-based syndicate that aimed at taking leasing land, raising sheep, selling the wool, making money and then getting out and heading back ‘home’. One of the striking things about this book is its demonstration of Scottish capitalism at work. The sleeping partners of the syndicate back in Scotland wanted their dividends from their investment and were less interested in buying up land to create one unified landholding. But Niel Black, being the partner on the spot, increasingly saw things differently, developing a desire for his land after living and working here and becoming involved in politics to maintain squatter primacy in Victoria.

Black was very much in the ‘improving’ mindset, and fits in well with the descriptions of Scots Presbyterians who established early churches in the Port Phillip area that I read last year. He brought his own farmworkers with him, and maintained an interest in Scots-based emigration schemes that provided indentured labour to work on pastoral properties. In this, he adopted a patriarchal stance, but was happy to support good workers who established their own properties.

Writing about an early pastoralist inevitably raises questions about the relationship between the squatter and the indigenous people that he displaced. By moving into the Western District, Black was shifting to an area where there was a great deal of settler/aborigine conflict. He was keen to buy land that had already been ‘pacified’ and ‘cleared’ of aborigines because of his discomfort with the violence that new settlement entailed. At first he seems to be relatively critical of the harsh treatment of these “poor ignorant” creatures, and adopted a frighten-away policy of galloping after them or discharging his gun in the air when they encroached onto his land. However, over time, he became more sympathetic to settlers who had ‘clashed’ with aborigines, including the Whyte brothers who perpetrated a massacre near Wando Vale in March 1840, and was himself involved in a posse searching for those responsible for the death of a shepherd on an adjoining run. Gradually he joined in the general disparagement of ‘blacks’ and late 1842 he joined in the squatters’ criticism of La Trobe’s inactivity. Like many squatters, he felt that the Aboriginal Protectorate was a misguided, incompetent scheme, but he had quite good relations with Protector Charles Sievwright, even though many others did not.

Instead, most of his clashes occurred with either the Commissioner for Crown Lands Foster Fyans, or with neighbouring squatters. Particularly once the government began passing legislation forcing squatters to pay for some of their land, he was often reluctantly engaged in the same shady practices as other squatters in trying to gain control of contiguous expanses of land. This drive to consolidate land holdings was not understood or supported by some of his Scotland-based partners, and a breakdown in the relations with one of the partners in particular forced him to abandon his home to shift to another subdivision of the run where he built another, grander, home. It was largely to protect his holdings that he went into politics, but he seemed to be a rather diffident politician, operating behind the scenes but not publicly prominent. Lobby groups are always unlovely when you look at them close up, and the squatter lobby is no exception. Maggie Black is clear-eyed about the anti-democratic tendencies of this group of men acting politically in their own interests.

His story demonstrates the mobility of wealthy settlers who, even while achieving prominence in the colony, still viewed the UK as ‘home’. Black journeyed ‘home’ twice in search of a wife, and his business interests with his partners kept him financially tethered to Scotland, even though his wealth was entirely accrued in Victoria. His partners were happy to send their sons out to Glenormiston for the pastoral experience, and his nephew Archie, sent across from Scotland after his father suffered from mental illness, became a trusted, but later embittered, fellow squatter.

Niel Black wrote journals and voluminous letters – particularly to his business partner T.S. Gladstone, and these have been drawn upon heavily by historians of the Western District. They were all very nearly lost to history during the paper shortages of WWII, but were squirrelled away and later shown to Margaret Kiddle when she was researching for her Men of Yesterday. The wealth of his writing has enabled Maggie Black to write a well-rounded biography that makes explicable the convoluted Selection Acts legislation that tried to curb the power of the squatters. In his writings we see the mechanics of imperial – in this case Scottish – capitalism at play, and the emotional tensions that emerged when finance, family and competitive pressures made their demands.

Niel Black has had not one but two moments in the sun during the 2000s. There is this book, published in 2016 by Niel Black’s great-granddaughter, and an earlier book Strangers in a Foreign Land released eight years earlier, based on Black’s journal and other voices from the Western District, written by Maggie MacKellar. (I will confess to wondering at one stage if they were both the same author using different surnames, but this is not the case). I know that an erstwhile reader of this blog, Kevin Brewer, has been working on Niel Black for some time and he is acknowledged in Maggie Black’s book.

In the wake of the conflict with his former partners, the Glenormiston holding was split up between them, and lots were drawn for the different portions. Although his house was on the other section, Black had to settle for the Mount Noorat section, and after living for some time in Melbourne, in 1875 he decided to build a grand house that even he acknowledged would be “the crowning folly of my life”. The 38-room, two-storey, stuccoed Italianate mansion, which took years to construct, was better suited for a town, rather than a pastoral estate in the Western District. He was to live in it for only two years before his death in 1880. Despite its grandeur, it was demolished in the early 1940s – a life shorter than that of its builder.

Niel Black lives on through his journal and letters, never intended as public documents, that draw and inspire historians – particularly the three Margaret/Maggies (Kiddle, MacKellar and Black)- to write so beautifully about him, and in the case of the MacKellar and Black books, to be able to contextualize him in the light of later historiography.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020.

2 responses to “‘Up Came a Squatter: Niel Black of Glenormiston 1839-1880’ by Maggie Black

  1. Thanks for this in-depth review Janine. Sounds like an excellent history, and one that clearly had a lot of excellent resources to draw on, particularly regarding his attitude to Indigenous people. (Rather ironic that his last name was Black!)

  2. This interests me because it sounds like a rigorous history rather than a ‘family history’ even though it was written by a descendant. I am alert to this distinction at the moment because I am reading one where the forebear is really not best served by her story being written by a descendant because it lacks that rigour.

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