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It came about in this manner.
When the land of New South Wales was thrown open for sale in unlimited quantities, at a minimum of 5s. an acre, all who had occupied superior land, with or without licence, sought to purchase their occupations; many rounded off their grants, and took in large slices of barren land for uniformity, for pasture, or for water. Others, who had had neither influence, nor patience, nor time to wade through the dreary forms of the bureaucrats and martinets under Governor Darling, indulged in freehold as soon as it became a mere matter of money. During the first years, from 1831 to 1836, the assignment system was a great encouragement to purchase land, because with convict labour and a commissariat purchaser, and a roadmaking government, it pays to cultivate agricultural land.
The discovery of Port Phillip brought into the market a greater quantity of good land close to a port than had ever been for sale before. The example of the South Australian land speculators was also infectious, and land speculation, town lots, streets, squares, villages, became the rage.
The news of the avidity with which colonists and absentees purchased wild land, which the government imagined it had been giving away for many years, soon reached the eyes and ears, and inflamed the palms, of the colonial officials.
None are more slow to spend, or greedy to grasp, than officials. Excellent, admirable, generous men in private life seem tainted by official contact. No sooner does a nobleman or gentleman become invested with an official responsibility than he conducts the business of the nation in a peddling, greedy spirit, which would ruin an English estate, and has ruined many Irish ones. He grasps all, and gives nothing
Recommend to the lords of the Admiralty or the Woods and Forests the erection of something-a dam, a sluice, a breakwater-that, costing £1,000, will reclaim twenty thousand fat acres, and “my lords have to inform you that they have no funds for such a purpose;" but be so ill advised as to execute works giving value to a whole neighbourhood, and then ask my lords to sell a piece of before valueless mud flat, especially if my lords influence in Parliament be needed, and the mud becomes, in official eyes, so much solid gold.
In Australian land the Colonial Office thought that it had discovered an exhaustless treasure which could be sold in any quantity, and at any price they chose to fix ; just as in 1845, when all the British world was mad on railways, because one or two lines paid £10 per cent.,
there were parties who believed that the national debt might be paid off by the government purchasing up all railways a dream unexecuted, and since dispelled by a universal average dividend of 3) per cent.
Sir Richard Bourke was one of the few official personages who had the wisdom to comprehend the true uses of colonial land, to appreciate the value of the small farmer as well as the great flockowner, to remain undazzled by overflowings of a treasury filled by the madness of speculating land purchasers, and the courage to dissent from the crotchets of the colonial ministers to which his successor so obsequiously assented.
His despatches, which we disinter from the voluminous blue books which form the obscure records of the legislative progress of Australia, teem with proofs of his wise conciliatory spirit and sound far-seeing views on questions which at this hour would threaten the connection between the colonies and the mother country, if we were still afflicted of Greys and Stanleys for our colonial ministers, and Gipps' and Darlings for colonial governors.
In 1834 the Earl of Aberdeen, infected by Mr. Gibbon Wakefield's crotchets and fallacious evidence on the banefulness of dispersion and the possibility of enforced concentration, addressed a despatch to the Governor of New South Wales, in reference to the efforts then made to colonize Port Phillip, to the effect “that it was not desirable to allow the population to become more scattered than it then was.” (At that time the squatting was in its infancy, and not one-third of the country since occupied had been explored.) Sir Richard Bourke replied in a despatch dated 10th October, 1838: it would have been well if our Colonial Office had studied and understood the full force of the warning :
“Admitting, as every reasonable person must, that a certain degree of concentration is necessary for the advancement of wealth and civilization, and that it enables government to become at once more efficient and more economical, I cannot avoid perceiving the peculiarities which in this colony render it impolitic, and even impossible, to restrain dispersion within limits that would be expedient elsewhere. The wool of New South Wales forms at present its chief wealth. The proprietors of thousands of acres find it necessary, equally with the poorer settlers, to send large flocks beyond the boundaries of location, to preserve them in health throughout the year.
The colonists must otherwise restrain the increase, or endeavour to raise artificial food for their stock. Whilst nature presents all around an unlimited supply of wholesome pasture, either course would seem a perverse rejection of the bounty of Providence. Independently of these powerful reasons for allowing dispersion,
it is not to be disguised that government is unable to prevent it. * * *
The question I beg leave to submit is simply this: How may government turn to the best advantage a state of things which it cannot wholly interdict? It may, I would suggest, be found practicable by means of the sale of land in situations peculiarly advantageous, however distant from other locations, and by establishing townships and ports, and facilitating the intercourse between remote and more settled districts of this vast territory, to provide centres of civilization and government, and thus gradually extend the power of social order to the most distant parts of the wilderness."
Oh, that such words of wisdom had sunk deep into the ears of our legislators, and proved antidotes to the charlatan, swindling tricks of those who mapped out and sold, on a flat-paper plan, barren sands, forest-covered precipitous hills, and rocky, shingly shores !
But, besides home theorists, Governor Bourke had to contend with colonial monopolists in the shape of great land and flock owners, who, forgetting their own or their fathers' original insignificance, grudged every acre and every herd of flock that fell into the hands of hardworking men; for they thought and said then, what many of the same class think, although they do not dare to say it now, that it was the duty of working men to work, and not aspire to independence.
The governor saw through the selfishness of those who considered the colony their patrimony, and was not led away by a cry against the poor men who fed small flocks or a few cattle on wild land. His judicious measures, although less equitably carried out than he planned them, recently produced a revenue of upwards of £60,000 a year. He observes (18th December, 1835) :
“ Another cause to which Judge Burton attributes the prevalence of crime in this colony is the occupation of waste lands by improper persons. The persons to whom Mr. Burton alludes, familiarly called
squatters,' are the objects of great animosity on the part of the wealthier settlers. It must be confessed they are only following in the steps of all the most influential and unexceptionable colonists, whose sheep and cattle stations are everywhere to be found side by side with the obnoxious squatter, and held by no better title.
I trust I shall be able to devise some measure that may moderate the evil complained of, without putting a weapon into the hands of selfishness and oppression.
And again, in September, 1836:“ There is a natural disposition on the part of the wealthy stockholders to exaggerate the offences of the poorer classes of intruders upon crown lands, and an equal unwillingness to suit themselves to such
restraints as are essential to the due and impartial regulation of this species of occupancy. Of the former disposition I have had ample proof in the result of an inquiry lately instituted as to the number of ticket-ofleave holders in unauthorized occupation of crown land. The dishonest practices of this class of persons in such occupation had been represented as one of the principal evils which required a remedy. I have, however, discovered from the returns of the magistrates, which I called for, that not more than twenty to thirty ticket-of-leave holders occupy crown lands throughout the whole colony, and of these a great proportion are reported to be particularly honest and industrious.”
Our next quotation is from a despatch of General Bourke's, dated September, 1837, on the price of land question.
The South Australian theorists had already begun to find some difficulty in carrying out their concentrating schemes. They applied, in the person of one of their commissioners (Colonel Torrens), to have the price of land in the neighbouring colonies raised to the South Australian level—a most impudent demand, considering the terms on which they first asked to be allowed to try their experiment.
They began by saying, our principles of colonization are so superior that we only ask leave to try them, convinced that other colonies will be but too happy to follow our example. But, when they had obtained permission to cut off their own tails, they next demanded, as an act of justice, that neighbouring colonies should be compelled to decaudilize themselves. They particularly objected to the pastoral advantages of Port Phillip, where land was being sold by auction at an upset price of 5s, an acre.
The result of this application to prop up the bubble price of land in South Australia, by affixing the same price to land in Port Phillip and New South Wales, was a despatch from Lord Glenelg to Governor Bourke, authorizing him to raise the upset price of land if he thought fit. Sir Richard Bourke had the courage not to take the official hint, and gave reasons in detail for adhering to a minimum of 5s. an acre for country land, which the experience of the last fifteen years has amply justified and confirmed :
“ Whatever minimum is fixed there will be found instances in which land acquired at that price without opposition will prove a cheap bargain; but such is not often the case.
Land even of very inferior quality, happening to possess a peculiar value to the individual purchasing in consequence of its proximity to his other property, finds a sale solely on that account, cannot be considered as cheaply obtained, even at the minimum price. The cases in which land
is sold without opposition, from ignorance of its marketable value on the part of the public, or from the secret agreement or friendly forbearance of those otherwise interested in bidding against each other, must diminish yet more and more as the colony advances in wealth and population; nor are such accidents, even if they were more numerous, deserving of much consideration. It is upon general tendencies and results that all questions of public policy are to be decided.
“ The lands now in the market form a surplus, in many cases a refuse, consisting of lands which in past years were not saleable at any price, and were not sought after even as free grants.
“By deciding to dispose of them at 5s. an acre, it by no means follows that they will be sold at a higher rate. The result may be to retain them for an indefinite time unsold, a result more certain in consequence of the alternative at the settler's command of wandering over the vast tracts of the interior. A facility for acquiring land at a low price is the safest check to this practice. The wealthiest colonists are continually balancing between the opposite motives presented by the cheapness of (then) unauthorized occupation on the one hand, and the desire of adding to their permanent property on the other. The influence of the latter motive must be weakened in proportion to the augmentation of the upset price.
“ It is possible that the augmentation of the minimum price would have the injurious effect of checking the immigration of persons possessed of small capital, desirous of establishing themselves upon land of their own."
We shall hereafter show that all Sir Richard Bourke's predictions were realized. To this hour, in the midst of settled districts, large tracts of land remain the haunt of wild dogs and vermin, which are no more likely to be worth £l an acre in twenty years to come than they were twenty years ago.
Sir Richard Bourke seems to have been the only governor, with the exception of Macquarie, who had no free population to act on, thoroughly impressed with the importance of encouraging and protecting, against the prejudices and oppressions of the great settlers, a class of agricultural yeomanry. Since his time, especially under Sir George Gipps, every possible impediment has been thrown in the way of those becoming possessed of freehold farms, who were not rich enough to be great flockowners, but not willing to be mere servants.
The Assignment System. Another very important event under Sir Richard Bourke was the move toward abolition of assignment, which had previously given settlers