Since I moved to the CBD, I’ve been thinking a lot about Melbourne’s history.
As I’ve said before on this blog, I’ve always been a sucker for that feeling of historical immediacy that comes from the contrast between present-day locations and images of their past (that’s pretty much what the two Radical Melbourne books I co-wrote are about). When you learn, as I did yesterday, that the nondescript block a hundred metres from your apartment was where John Pascoe Fawkner built his home, something happens, so that thereafter, that site takes on a certain enchantment, becomes something different from what it was.
But what’s the nature of that enchantment? Richard Holmes describes biography as a ’handshake across time’, an ’act of human solidarity and in its own way an act of recognition and of love.’ The RM books were motivated by a similar sentiment. Re-excavating the physical traces of labour history was, as we said in the introduction, an effort to ‘provide a bridge between the struggles of the past and the people of the present’.
After finishing those books, though, I became much less certain about their methodology. Researching a book about war, I spent some time in Gettysburg talking with historical re-enactors – that is, people who dress up in the uniforms of different eras to recreate the wars of the past. In the United States in particular, so-called ‘living history’ is a vibrant and mainstream hobby, with tens of thousands of enthusiasts engaged in playing out Civil War battles. In his Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz writes of men so devoted to recreating historical accuracy that they starve themselves so as to better resemble emaciated rebels. They wax their beards with bacon grease; they practice what they call ‘the bloat’, recreating the distinctive spectacle of corpses decomposing in the sun; they welcome the hacking coughs produced by sleeping outside, since it brings them closer to the illnesses of a bygone time.
In Melbourne, I interviewed a young guy who devoted himself to recreating the experiences of the First AIF, assembling not just an authentic uniform but all the kit that accompanied it – weird Edwardian cigarettes, tins of bully beef and so on. He showed me a Light Horseman’s shoulder bag, salvaged from a Great War battle. Holding it, feeling its weight, I understood the appeal of ‘living history’ and how, with its artefacts, it generates a sense of ‘this is what it must have felt like’. I thought of Walter Benjamin: ‘One has only to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired.’
Yet my encounters with re-enactors made me retrospectively sceptical about what we’d done with Radical Melbourne. Living history seemed to generate a quite peculiar relationship with the past, a relationship that was decidedly apolitical. Re-enactors knew the most minute and trivial details about the eras they performed – the kind of buttons the soldiers wore, the style of caps they favoured and so on. Yet they often seemed indifferent to questions beyond haberdashery. They could tell you what lapels Union men sported at the Battle of Second Manassas; they showed much less interest in what the Civil War meant to America at the time, let alone what it meant now. I was also struck by how re-enacting invariably centres on battles and violence. Even though the hobby itself largely consists of collecting clothing, it’s very rare to find anyone who recreates peacetime occupations. That’s because, it seems to me, the identification spurred by re-enactments is aesthetic rather than historical, and thus sits easily with the conventional sense of combat as a Romantic experience (implicitly contrasted with the ennui of peacetime).
Benjamin also notes that it’s not that objects come alive in the collector; on the contrary, ‘it is he who lives in them’. There’s definitely something of that in re-enactment.
Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of running along the banks of the Yarra recently, and it’s led me to think about all this again.
It’s easier to explain with pictures.
This is a photo taken from the Queen’s Bridge on the south side of the Yarra, looking west. It’s my inept attempt at a contemporary version of a distinct local, artistic genre: ‘Melbourne from the Falls.’
The Falls were a basalt ledge that ran across the river, half a metre or so above the high tide mark. They’re gone now, of course – removed in the 1880s to make way for the bridge. If you look in the water near the bridge’s supports, you can see what I imagine is some of the original rock, left over from that clearance.
The Falls mattered for all kinds of reasons. Partly, you could cross there, the only place the river could be fjorded short of Dights Falls in Abbotsford. More importantly, they acted as a natural barrier dividing tidal water from fresh. Earlier white settlements in Sorrento and Westernport failed because they never established an adequate water supply. Batman’s venture did not make the same mistake. In a very real sense, The Falls made Melbourne possible.
This map from 1838 gives you a sense of how the city grew around the river.
You can see how the obstruction produced by The Falls caused the river to widen. The deep area (where you can see the boats) was known as The Turning Basin, the highest point in the river that ships could reach, and thus the obvious place to build docks and unload supplies.
The centrality of The Falls to the township was reflected in a series of paintings and drawings. Here’s a sketch by Robert Russell from 1837. It’s called, of course, ‘Melbourne from The Falls’.
Russell’s image features pretty much the same area as my photo, though he is standing a bit further back.
Here’s the same vista a year later, with the Falls rather more apparent.
In the late nineteenth century, Eleanor McGlinn did a version, basing her work on a sketch from about 1840 (I found this, like many of the other pictures, in Maree Coote’s excellent book The Art of Being Melbourne). She might have turned the Yarra into an English canal but the painting makes clear the river’s importance to the colony. Melbourne, at this stage, is a river port.
Here’s another picture, from an unknown artist in 1838. Again, it’s Melbourne as an English county, complete with children frolicking in the foreground.
The next image, again by Robert Russell, comes from 1844. Note the Customs House (today’s Immigration Museum) in the centre, and the wharfs for unloading cargo.
But let’s now go back a few years. The image below comes from 1837. The difference gives a sense of how quickly the town sprang up – the major structures that featured in the previous painting have not yet been built. No docks, no customs house. But look at the men walking across The Falls.
In his book The Melbourne Dreaming, Meyer Eidelson notes the obvious point: The Falls were significant long before white settlement. He writes:
The location was of great importance to the Aboriginal people of Melbourne. William Thomas, the Assistant Protector, recorded that the south bank of the Yarra opposite the settlement had long been the rendezvous point for clans in the area. The clans met there at least twice a year to settle grievances and for other matters.
The name ‘Yarra’ is, famously, said to have come from a white misinterpretation of the local term for The Falls.
In 1835, James Boyce discusses the area and its importance to both whites and blacks:
This natural bridge, where salt water met fresh, was also where geology and botany divided in apex of ecological encounter. Within an easy walk could be found grasslands, various woodlands as well as, in almost every direction, mud. On the northern side of the river, stretching three kilometres to the north west, ‘was a wide expanse of flat, boggy land, greater than 1000 acres … in extent.’ In the middle of this was a permanent lagoon, which one early settler recalled as ‘a beautiful blue lake … intensely blue, nearly oval and full of the clearest salt water; but this by no means deep’. On the southern side of the Yarra, between the river and edge of the bay, swampy land stretched for about six and a half kilometres and included a number of permanent lagoons, including what was to become (with more than a little taming) Albert Park Lake. There were also extensive lagoons in the region of what is now Port Melbourne. By contrast, much of today’s central business district was well-drained grasslands, framed by gentle and lightly wooded hills, such as Batman’s Hill, where Southern Cross now stands, and the pastoral plains stretched far to the north and west.
The image below, a sketch from 1837 by Eliezer Levi Montefiore, makes clear Boyce’s point: the fertility and lushness of the area. Again, it’s entitled ‘Melbourne from The Falls’, but here the emphasis is on the southern side of the river. We don’t see the white settlers. We see instead, camped by The Falls, the Indigenous population they are already starting to displace.
One of the arguments Boyce makes in 1835 (a book everyone should read) is that the dispossession of the Indigenous population in Victoria happened incredibly quickly. As early as 1839 (four years after settlement), the missionary Joseph Orton commented that the Indigenous people in the Melbourne area ‘were almost in a state of starvation and can only obtain food day by day, by begging.’ How did this happen in an area so naturally rich?
In fact, it was the very nature of that geography that facilitated white conquest. The settlers used the grasslands for sheep. The number of sheep in the new colony increased incredibly rapidly – growing from 26 000 in June 1836 to 700 000 in 1840 and then doubling again by 1842. A small number of men could take a flock out to unclaimed grasslands and then secure vast acres, which meant seizing control of the water supply and thus disrupting the food chain for Indigenous people. Boyce quotes Richard Broome to the effect that the occupation of Aboriginal land was ‘as fast as any expansion in the history of European colonisation’.
Of course, that took place, for the most part, further inland. But you can see a striking visual representation in the changing landscape of the river.
Here’s Tim Flannery’s account of The Falls prior to white settlement:
A limpid river flowed over a rocky waterfall known as the Yarra Yarra, at what is now the foot of Market Street, before debouching into a large, deep pool at the head of a paperbark-lined estuary. Billabongs and swamps were prinkled right around the bay, and they teemed with brolgas, magpie-geese, Cape Barren Geese, swans, ducks, eels and frogs. So abundant was the wildlife that we can imagine the Melbourne area in 1830 as a sort of temperate Kakadu …
Compare that to the photo below, which shows the area below The Falls in 1858, a mere 23 years after Batman’s arrival.
Not much of a ‘temperate Kakadu’ now, is it!
Looking at the river this way is not necessarily an aestheticisation. We can’t peer south of Queen’s Bridge, imagine the ghostly presence of The Falls and then think we are sharing the experience either of Batman or of the people whose lives he destroyed. The river is too different (it’s been massively reshaped). More importantly, so are we.
Yet if that imaginative projection doesn’t restore the past (whatever that would mean), it does enable you to grasp how politics and geography intersected to produce the scene we now encounter. Once you recognise the importance of the Turning Basin and The Falls, you can see Melbourne as a river city, something that’s not necessarily obvious today. From that, you can make sense of how the area nearby changed from being a residential district for early settlers (many of the views from The Falls show John Batman’s house, up where Southern Cross station now stands) to become instead a predominantly industrial area, dominated by waterside workers labouring on the docks. That’s why, for instance, in 1928, the old Customs House (the building you can see in some of those paintings) was used to register scab labour during the dispute over the so-called ‘Dog Collar Act’, a strike in which a man was actually killed by the police. It’s only comparatively recently that, with the river much less important for industry, that the docklands has been able to be re-invented as a tourist area – and if you walk down toward the sea, there’s still a quite uneasy relationship between the new waterside developments and the old.
In other words, establishing a sense of place in this way can help you see the city as a flow rather than as a static object. And that, I think, is what history should do – neither render the past as simply the present in different clothes, nor make the people of an earlier age seem impossibly distant, but rather establish a process linking their lives with ours.
I always think of William Morris in this context, since he became a socialist in the course of campaigning to save historic sites via the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings. If Benjamin’s collector comes to life through his objects, Morris suggests an idea of history that’s almost a reversal of that. ’The past is not dead,’ he said, ‘it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.’