The Civilisation of Port Phillip
Settler ideology, violence, and rhetorical possession
Thomas James Rogers
Melbourne University Press Academic 2018
Paperback 254pp RRP: $44.99
Reviewer: Roger Buxton, April 2019
John Batman, Joseph Gellibrand and other prominent Vandiemonians formed the Port Phillip Association in 1835 and, at Indented Head; Batman signed a treaty with eight Kulin headmen giving the Association access to 600,000 acres of land for grazing sheep and cattle.
Thomas James Rogers has written a history of the ensuing rhetorical possession of the Port Phillip District, a possession accompanied by the violent dispossession of the Aboriginal Inhabitants. He asks what the settlers thought they were doing and uses the original reports and settler recollections to show how they told the story of their role in the British civilisation of Port Phillip. Civilisation is a controversial concept, but the settlers believed the Aboriginal occupants were not complete societies, but hunter-gatherers who had not progressed up the scale of civilisation. This is a thought-provoking book about the myths and ideologies of the free settlers themselves, their convict-class servants and the government officials.
Aboriginal history is often considered as separate to, and primarily preceding European settlement, but here the agency of the Aboriginal people is included in the story of the settlement of the Port Phillip District. The actions of their ‘cowardly’ assigned convict-class servants were often ‘written out’ by the free settlers. The tropes of the ‘cowardly servants’ and the ‘naked savages’ are illustrated by the clashes between the Faithfull brothers and their servants and Aboriginal warriors near Benalla. After firing on Aborigines stealing cattle, what was presumably a revenge attack occurred in which eight ‘cowardly’ servants and one Aborigine were killed. Some months later George Faithfull and two servants, all mounted on horses were attacked by ‘some hundreds of painted warriors’ and over the next six hours 60 rounds were fired, and according to George Faithfull, “I trust and believe that many of the bravest of the savage warriors bit the dust”. Violence against the ‘savages’ was sometimes described disingenuously to avoid prosecution for murder.
There were great differences between the free settlers, their servants, government officials and the humanitarians, whose interests in the District were frequently opposed. The settlers wanted to drive the Aboriginal occupants away from their runs, and to destroy them if necessary, while the protectors considered the Aboriginal people as British subjects requiring care and protection. There was also friction between the settlers and the government officials sent down from the Middle District to keep order.
This is a scholarly book with an impressive bibliography and extensive chapter endnotes (in excess of 100 in several chapters) and is recommended reading for anyone with an interest in the early European settlement of The Port Phillip District.
The RUSI – Vic library thanks the publisher for providing this work for review.