An extract from ‘The Colonial Earth’

published by The Miegunyah Press at Melbourne University Press

by Tim Bonyhady

© all rights reserved

The standard view of the colonial period is that the invaders wreaked havoc on their new environment both gratuitously and as an inevitable part of the process of settlement. This idea had its genesis in the 1820s and 1830s when occasional colonists rebuked their contemporaries for ‘wanton’, ‘over-zealous’ axe work. By the 1870s and 1880s, local critics were deploring the ‘murder’ of Australia’s trees, the ‘war’ against the continent’s forests. The visiting English essayist J.A.Froude reckoned that colonial society was antithetical to environmental protection. The issue for Froude was one of ‘sentiment’ the capacity to put emotion before practicality. He concluded: ‘Sentiment belongs to leisure, and in the colonies, just now, they have none of either’.1

Soon it was a commonplace that the invaders were not simply untroubled by their destructiveness but rejoiced in it, so great was their alienation from their new surroundings and their eagerness to turn the land to new uses. When W.K.Hancock published his Australia in 1930, he famously declared that ‘the invaders hated trees’. In The Australian Ugliness, published in 1960, Robin Boyd blamed Australia’s ‘arboraphobia’ on its enduring ‘pioneering cult’. Six years later, Jock Marshall provided a ‘Guide to Anglo-Australian Cupidity, Wickedness and Waste’ in The Great Extermination, declaring:

The bush, to our great-grandfathers, was the enemy: it brooded sombrely outside their brave and often pathetic little attempts at civilisation; it crowded in on them in times of drought and flood.
It, not they, was alien.2

The 1990s brought more of the same, as the work of Bill Lines and Tim Flannery overshadowed the more subtle, reliable environmental histories written by Joe Powell, Geoffrey Bolton and others.3 In Taming the Great South Land, Lines maintained that ‘Australia’s pioneers felt no emotional ties to the land’ but saw it simply as ‘potential wealth’ to be exploited. When a few colonists belatedly began criticising this ethos in the 1890s, they ‘confined their concern to waste and . . . expressed no remorse for the loss of natural and indigenous life forms and landscapes’. Flannery went further in The Future Eaters. Blind even to the existence of the critics identified by Lines, he claimed nineteenth-century settlers showed ‘no concern at all about wastage of timber’, so confident were they that Australia’s forests were superabundant.4

The reality was very different. While many colonists were alienated by their new environment, others delighted in it. The standard test is the settlers’ response to the gum tree. The cliché would have it that the invaders saw the eucalypt as a symbol of everything that was different and wrong about their new home. In fact, many members of the First Fleet lauded the gum tree for its distinctiveness. Even from the 1820s, when the cliché has more substance, the eucalypts had champions. When the landscape painter John Glover arrived in Tasmania in 1831, he reckoned them a ‘painter’s delight’.

Other aspects of the colonial landscape, particularly the continent’s giant tree ferns, excited only admiration because they eclipsed those of Europe. In 1852 Godfrey Mundy, the deputy adjutant-general of the British military forces in Australia, recorded his delight in how tree ferns just twenty feet tall, less than half the size of the tallest reported dwarfed the ‘little microscopic varieties’ that ‘fern-mad’ English gardeners nursed ‘with vast anxiety and expense’.5

Some species of eucalypt also acquired global significance. The Tasmanian blue gum was acclaimed internationally as a ‘tree of the future’ because of its remarkably rapid growth and apparent capacity for countering malaria. From the 1860s it was a major Australian export, introduced in dozens of other countries. The Victorian mountain ash was acclaimed as a ‘wonder of the world’ after the Government Botanist, Ferdinand von Mueller, announced in 1866 that it was probably the tallest tree on earth, eclipsing the giant sequoias of California.

Colonists also came to feel deep affection for particular places that satisfied their taste for the picturesque and the sublime. Rural settlers identified with fern gullies, waterfalls or mountains in their local areas, but the places that excited most colonists were all within easy access of the cities. Port Jackson was pre-eminent. From the 1880s it was frequently referred to as ‘Our Harbour’ or, more often, as ‘Our Beautiful Harbour’, suggesting that Sydneysiders not only delighted in its beauty but also saw it as common property enjoyed by all.

The settlers’ attachment to the colonial landscape was matched by their desire to preserve it. The protection of the continent’s native fauna and flora, pollution of its rivers, degradation of its pastoral lands, planning and improvement of its cities, preservation of beauty spots, retention of public reserves and access to the foreshore were all major issues in the colonial era. Even climate change perhaps the environmental issue most often thought of as modern excited attention as early as 1795, when the magistrate Richard Atkins speculated that the weather was changing ‘in consequence of the country opening so fast’.

Whitehall did little to encourage these concerns. When the First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth in 1787, British officials instructed Captain Arthur Phillip to preserve the livestock he was carrying with him so that they might become the basis of new herds in Australia, but gave him no comparable instructions in relation to Australia’s native flora or fauna. Whitehall’s order that Phillip reserve timber fit for naval purposes when granting land was designed not to protect the trees, but to ensure that the Crown enjoyed the exclusive right to exploit them. Whitehall forgot town planning; Phillip sailed with no instructions about how to lay out the first settlements.6

Yet the first colonial officials acted with remarkable speed. While Richard Grove has shown how a form of ‘Green Imperialism’ was practised by French officials on Mauritius from 1725 and the British officials responsible for St Vincent from the 1760s, these attempts at environmental protection started after these islands had already been devastated by years, if not decades, of settlement.7 Australia perhaps more than anywhere else began with a form of colonialism alive to the importance of environmental protection and planning.

The first environmental laws starting in April 1788, when Lieutenant Philip Gidley King protected plantain or banana trees on Norfolk Island, just four days after discovering them8 were predictably utilitarian. One of the objects of these laws was to ensure that the natural environment provided an enduring source of food, particularly when the invaders’ imported supplies ran short. Another goal was to protect public health by maintaining the purity of drinking water. A third was to preserve timber, which rapidly became scarce around the new settlements.

John Hunter was one official who followed King in recognising the urgency of these measures. Within a month of becoming Governor of New South Wales in September 1795, Hunter prohibited pollution of the Tank Stream, which provided Sydney’s main source of water. He also threatened to have adjoining landholders’ houses pulled down if they kept pigs or opened new paths to the water. In December he prohibited the felling of cedar on public land along the Hunter River in order to stop its being ‘indiscriminately cut’ and either ‘wasted or applied to purposes for which timber of less value might have answered’.9

By 1804 such laws were the norm. When Lieutenant-Governor David Collins established Hobart, he immediately ‘cautioned’ his subjects against polluting the stream that provided their fresh water, and ‘positively forbade’ them from ‘going into, or destroying the underwood adjacent to the water’. Then he banned the felling of ‘any timber, whether young or old, near the Encampment’ without the approval of his chief carpenter. A fortnight later he prohibited the settlers from molesting black swans because he feared that ‘the resource which they might have otherwise proved will totally fail, unless some steps are taken to prevent it’.10

This interest in resource protection was soon the stuff of private discussion and public debate. Already in 1802, both the French explorer Nicolas Baudin and the former Assistant Surgeon of New South Wales, James Thomson, privately warned Philip Gidley King that the seals of King Island would be destroyed unless he exercised his new power as Governor of New South Wales to protect them. In 1803, the Sydney Gazettethe settlement’s only newspaper carried the first public call for official action: ‘A Well-wisher to POSTERITY’ warned that settlers were compromising their children’s future through the ‘general massacre’ of the seals, which could be ‘a constant source of enterprise and emolument’ if ‘properly managed’.11

Yet the colonists’ environmental concerns were not simply utilitarian, even in the most difficult circumstances. When Robert Ross succeeded King as commandant of Norfolk Island in 1790, the settlers faced the worst crisis of their ‘starvation years’. But Ross was not just concerned to ensure a continued supply of food when he restricted the taking of birds on the island. Nor was he just mimicking existing metropolitan or colonial practice. His laws included what was probably the world’s first prohibition of cruelty to animals.


This is an extract from The Colonial Earth by Tim Bonyhady, published by The Miegunyah Press at Melbourne University Press.


  • 1James Anthony Froude, Oceana or England and her Colonies, p. 242; cf. James Bonwick, Western Victoria: Its Geography, Geology and Social Conditions, p. 68.
  • 2W. K. Hancock, Australia, p. 33; Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, ch. 4; A. J. Marshall, ‘The World of Hopkins Sibthorpe’ in A. J. Marshall (ed.),The Great Extermination, p. 2; Vincent Serventy, A Continent in Danger, p. 205.
  • 3See particularly J. M. Powell, Environmental Management in Australia 17881914; Geoffrey Bolton, Spoils and Spoilers: Australians Make Their Environment 17881980.
  • 4William J. Lines, Taming the Great South Land, pp. 967, 133; Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters, p. 360.
  • 5Godfrey Charles Mundy, Our Antipodes, vol. 2, p. 27.
  • 6HRNSW, vol. 1, part 2, pp. 8890.
  • 7See Richard H. Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism 16001860.
  • 8Paul G. Fidlon and R. J. Ryan (eds), The Journal of Philip Gidley King R.N. 17871790, p. 70.
  • 9HRNSW, vol. 2, p. 326; HRA, series 1, vol. 1, p. 683; Powell, Environmental Management, pp. 1820.
  • 10HRA, series 3, vol. 1, pp. 21920, 2645.
  • 11SG, 29 May 1803, p. 3.


If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]