Histories of Inland Australia
Alan Mayne and Stephen Atkinson
Outside Country makes an invaluable contribution to the rethinking of inland Australia. While most Australians now live in the major cities on the coast, much of the country's wealth and cultural identity is still derived from the interior through such industries as mining, agriculture and the raising of sheep and cattle.
Culturally the interior looms large, in Australians' imaginings, in tourism campaigns, and in the arts and media. Whereas it was the historical novel at first, lately many of Australia’s films and again some novels have successfully portrayed different aspects of the interior and our perception of it.
Despite this, for most Australians, inland Australia, or the Outside Country, still remains an enigma, an emptiness whose distant rural communities and their populations are the subjects of stubborn misperceptions. Much of this has been brought about by journalists and historians who often concentrated their writings on the more heavily populated coastal areas.
Through their essays, which highlight the history of inland Australia, the contributors to this publication have mixed the broad sweep of history with personal perspectives drawn from diaries, letters, oral histories and literature. Each one examines the rich and varied social, cultural, economic and environmental histories of towns and regions that continue to play a crucial role in the ongoing development of the Australian nation. They also look at issues such as indigenous wellbeing, gender equality, cultural pluralism and ecological sustainability.
They do not pretend to provide an unproblematic chronicle of inexorable progress but do acknowledge the disappointments, hardships, mistakes and the ugly events as well as those things that elicit respect and pride.
One of the first anxieties about inland Australia was the viability of permanent European settlement. In an effort to show that the country was safe, even for women, Governor Gawler, on an expedition from Adelaide to Currency Creek and the Murray River included three women. They were his daughter Julia, Charles Sturt’s wife and Scottish servant Eliza Arbuckle. They survived quite well but this expedition remained the only one to ever do so for a very long time.
The information about relationships and interaction between people and the environment, on which a lot of our history is based, has often been taken from miners, drovers, farmers, cameleers, teamsters, or pastoralists. However much more can be found in letters published in rural newspapers by women. They didn’t write so much about measures of progress, areas cleared, technological innovations or politics.
These country women, as wives, mothers or teachers wrote about the hot summers, northerly winds, fluctuating harvests and commodity prices, drought, dust, storms and floods. Their letters often show a sense of belonging, as well as affection for the changing seasonal landscape and a pride in home and family sufficiency. No matter where, or how isolated the place, most people did eventually develop a sense of attachment to it.
To tame the outside country various governments set up closer settlement schemes which were promoted as the building blocks of a stronger nation. They were aimed at the full occupation of the land to make it productive and profitable. Settlers were provided with blocks large enough to make a living, but small enough to encourage community and town development. It was the hard work of men, women and children that sustained the family farm as a key economic and social unit in inland Australia.
Unfortunately they were not always successful as they resulted in wholesale clearing of native vegetation, particularly in the Mallee and north of Goyder’s line of rainfall in South Australia. The expansion beyond this line became a disaster as rain did not follow the plough! Whereas in South Australia wheat farming was first successful and soon became the granary of Australia, it was replaced as such by Victoria during the 1890s.
The opening up of the inland by the pastoral, mining and later agricultural industries created lines of transport connecting the outside country with its coastal cities. From the 1830s stock and supply routes crisscrossed the interior; some of them are still in use today. Later additional routes were created by the railways and main roads to inland mining centres.
Railways often created new towns, either at crossings or where a change of gauge left people stranded for hours. Needless to say hotels were not slow in being set up. Many towns had as many as three, four or even more hotels opposite the railway station. Railway departments worked hand in glove with departments of land, agriculture and water supply in an attempt to create a dense diversified pattern of rural settlement.
Like stockyards, wharves, wheat silos and wool stores, railways were human creations that allowed cities to establish links with their hinterlands. As railways extended the influence of cities deep into their hinterlands, they allowed rural production to become more specialised and concentrated in economically profitable zones, especially if economics of scale could be applied.
Regardless of these improvements Australia’s outside country has remained sparsely settled and geographically distant from the centres of population. But despite difficulties with transport and communication the inland has always been intricately connected to the broader history of Australia. Some of the essays highlight the history of the seemingly unstoppable human movement in the outside country.
Among the examples are those of a Ballarat miner, Afghans supplying inland Australia and settling in Ghan towns and Aborigines settling at, or working from reserves such as Cummeragunja. There is also a closer look at Broken Hill and Mount Isa, both mining towns but very different in cultural composition, economic prospects, expectations and outlook. There are also examples given of cultural diversity within some of the inland centres such as the woodlines of Western Australia where a large number of men were either Yugoslavs or Italians.
Whereas historically it had been the miners, transport workers, drovers and itinerant professionals, which included prostitutes, who moved from town to town in search of work, today they are joined by an army of ‘grey nomads’ who are keeping the country pharmacies in business.
Efforts are now being made to make isolated settlements culturally and economically sustainable. After all, they do have a place in Australia’s culture and history. As pointed out by Atkinson each town or area is different and the history of each the result of multiple, discrete variations, producing their own sets of problems and attributes, It is now up to historians and government policy makers to acknowledge this diversity.
Review by Nic Klaassen
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Outside Country, Histories of Inland Australia
edited by Alan Mayne and Stephen Atkinson has 360 pages,
including footnotes and index.
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