Ecology and Empire: Towards an Australian History of the World

by Tom Griffiths

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‘Ecology’ and ‘Empire’ are words that suggest very different dimensions of life on earth; at times they might appear to be opposites. One is natural, the other social; one is local and specific to place, the other is geographically ambitious; one is often seen to be scientific, amenable to laws and exclusive of humanity; the other is political, quixotic and historical. Brought together under the scrutiny of scholarship, these worlds and world-views make for creative friction. But ‘ecology’ and ’empire’ also had a real relationship. They forged an historical partnership of great power — and one which, particularly in the last five hundred years, radically changed human and natural history across the globe.

When, in 1986, the American historian Alfred W. Crosby wrote his important book, Ecological Imperialism, which built on his earlier The Columbian Exchange (1972), he threw those words together in his title and enjoyed the perversity of their pairing, the cheeky conjunction of apparent innocence and power.1 Crosby’s book described how Europeans established themselves securely in far-flung but temperate countries and made them into ‘neo-Europes’: the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Uruguay. These were the ‘lands of demographic takeover’, those countries where Europeans quickly became numerically dominant over the indigenous peoples, amounting to between 75 and nearly 100 per cent of the populations.2 Why, asked Crosby, were Europeans able to establish such demographic dominance so quickly and so far from home? The answer, he argued, lay in the domesticated animals, pests, pathogens and weeds that the humans carried with them, an awesome accompaniment of colonizers that settlers sometimes consciously nurtured and marshalled, but that often constituted an incidental and discounted dimension of imperialism. In Crosby’s memorable words: European immigrants did not arrive in the New World alone, but were accompanied by ‘a grunting, lowing, neighing, crowing, chirping, snarling, buzzing, self-replicating and world-altering avalanche’3

Ecological Imperialism suggested that the superhuman achievements of European expansion were exactly that: more than human, and we have failed to realise just how much more. It is to the passive or distracted role of humans in ecosystems that Crosby directed our attention, rather than to the manifest history of conscious social and political action that conventionally occupies historians.4 Such an approach deliberately plays down the conscious and deliberate actions of humanity in order to reveal the independent and semi-independent dynamism of the natural world, itself normally the passive background in historical narratives. One danger of this approach is that, in extreme forms, it may present ‘ecological imperialism’ as a latter-day ‘social Darwinism’, a way of denying human agency – for good or ill – on the frontier. There is a genuine and important debate, particularly in the lands of demographic takeover, about the causes of ‘the fatal impact’, a debate often charged with emotion and politics. Historians argue about the number of deaths of indigenous peoples due to disease or violence, germs or guns, and wonder, too, whether even the introduction of disease were altogether accidental. Could smallpox, for instance, have been deliberately released amongst Australian Aborigines by early British colonists, a particularly sinister act of warfare?5 Where did ecology end and imperialism begin?

It was for its triumphant social and political continuities that Australian history was first celebrated; it was written and presented as a relatively unproblematic footnote to empire. The continent’s history began with British discovery in 1770, when ‘a blank space on the map’ – to quote the historian Ernest Scott – became tethered to the world.6 In that year, the aimlessly drifting ‘timeless land’ was, for the first time, anchored — and by no less than the world’s major maritime power. Australia had no ‘history’ of its own; only what was brought to it in ships.

But there, on the eastern coast of Australia in the late eighteenth century, one of the great ecological — as well as cultural — encounters of all time took place. When the British arrived in New South Wales their industrial revolution at home was beginning to gather pace, fuelled by the fruits of imperialism elsewhere. Therefore, Australia, unlike most other parts of the New World, experienced colonization and industrialization almost coincidentally, a compressed, double revolution. This was even more a New World than America, which had once shared a land bridge with Eurasia and still bore the marks of it. This was an encounter with a land that (unlike America) had never known hoofed, placental mammals, a land beyond what became known as Wallace’s Line, an abrupt boundary of faunal types at Lombok, east of Bali and Borneo, that was identified in the mid-nineteenth century by the naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. This was truly ‘the antipodes’, the newest continent but the oldest landscape, a late breakaway from Gondwana that had drifted for millions of years in a lonely evolutionary dance across the southern ocean. Crosby, an exponent of what the imperial historian John MacKenzie has called ‘apocalyptic’ environmental history, calls the encounter of 1492 ‘one of the major discontinuities in the course of life on this planet’7, and, in the interests of competitive catastrophism, we might nominate 1770 (or perhaps we should say 1788) as an equivalently momentous date in world ecological history.

An ecological reading of Australian history dramatically reverses one of our cultural stereotypes, by depicting Europe not as ‘home’ or ‘the centre’, but as ‘The Backwater Country’. ‘If we are to understand Australasian history properly’, argues zoologist Tim Flannery, ‘we must understand a little of the ecology of the Europeans.’8 So the Australian gaze turns back across the world and, ecologically speaking, sees a comparatively raw and rapacious biota. It is Europe which is actually the ‘new land’, more recently colonized by Homo sapiens than Australia, with a simplified biota that had to start again after the last ice age, and now populated by invasive, dominating weeds, animals and plants that were pre-adapted to disturbed environments. Now we know that they were weeds before they even left, not just when they spilled out of the ships onto Australia’s ancient soils!

Tom Griffiths is a Fellow in the History Program at the ANU and the author of the award-winning Hunters and Collectors. This piece is from Griffiths’s introduction to Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies which is edited by Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin, and published by Melbourne University Press, October 1997. Libby Robin is an Australian Research Council Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, ANU, and the author ofBuilding a Forest Conscience.


1. Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, (Cambridge: 1986) and The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, (Westport, Connecticut: 1972).

2. Alfred W. Crosby, Germs, Seeds and Animals: Studies in Ecological History , (New York: 1994), p. 29.

3. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism, p. 194.

4. Crosby, ‘The Past and Present of Environmental History’, American Historical Review, 100(4), (1995), p. 1177.

5. Noel Butlin, Our Original Aggression, (Sydney: 1983), and Alan Frost, Botany Bay Mirages, (Melbourne: 1994), chapter ten.

6. Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, fourth edition, (Melbourne: 1920), p. v.

7. Crosby, ‘Reassessing 1492’, in Germs, Seeds and Animals, p. 185.

8. Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters, (Sydney: 1994), p. 303.

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