Category Archives: fire stick farming

The History of Victoria

How does the Ballarat gold rush fit into the story of the State of Victoria? Let’s take a look at the bigger picture.

Wadamap

The Wadawurrung people have lived in the Ballarat region for tens of thousands of years. This map, produced by Sovereign Hill for its annual Aboriginal history and living culture celebration – The Gnarrwirring Ngitj Festival – shows the borders of the five Kulin nations.

Aboriginal people began living in what is now called Victoria at least 40,000 years ago (or possibly even longer!). According to their spiritual beliefs, creator-spirits like Bunjil the wedge-tailed eagle made the land and its people, and stories about him have been passed down (without writing) for at least 2,000 generations amongst the people of the Kulin nations (the Wadawurrung, Woiwurrung [Wurundjeri], Bunurong, Taungurong, and Dja Dja Wurrung). When Europeans arrived in Victoria in the 1800s, they found the Aboriginal people of this land had formed approximately 35 nations, all with different languages and cultures. Each nation owned and cared for their Country. The boundaries of each of these nations were carefully protected; however, goods like greenstone axes and brush-tail possum pelts used for making cloaks were traded over them. While some of these Aboriginal nations are traditionally enemies, others continue practising important ceremonies together (like the Kulin nations’ Tanderrum ceremony) to this day.

Captainjamescookportrait

Nathaniel Dance-Holland, Official portrait of Captain James Cook, 1775-6, from the National Maritime Museum, United Kingdom. Reproduced with permission from Wikipedia Commons.

When Captain Cook claimed possession of what he called ‘New South Wales’ in England’s name in August 1770, he hadn’t set foot on the coast of what is now called Victoria. After England lost its northern hemisphere penal colonies (a place to send convicts) in the American War of Independence in 1783, it was decided that New South Wales, in Australia, was the next best place to send England’s criminals. England wanted to colonise (take over ownership of) the ‘great southern continent’ before the French. So, in 1787 King George II sent Captain Arthur Phillip to New South Wales with what came to be known as the ‘First Fleet’. Phillip’s ships arrived in Botany Bay in early 1788, but decided this was an unsuitable place for a settlement, so they sailed to Sydney Cove, in Port Jackson, and sent the convicts to shore on 26 January. This fleet of English ships only beat the French ships by a few days.

Before any Europeans arrived in Victoria, their contagious diseases spread out from Sydney to kill countless thousands of Aboriginal people across all of Eastern Australia. European diseases like chicken pox, small pox and even the common cold caused large numbers of Aboriginal people to die during this time in history, as their bodies had never been exposed to these germs before. Sadly, we will never know how many Aboriginal people were in Australia before Europeans arrived, and we will never know how many died from these diseases they brought.

smallpox

Young Bangladeshi girl suffering a smallpox infection, 1973. Reproduced with permission from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library.

Europeans explored the Victorian coast in the hope of developing a second Australian penal settlement and decided to send a small group of soldiers, settlers and convicts from England to set up a camp in Port Phillip Bay (of what later became Melbourne) in 1803. Again, this was an attempt to beat the French in taking over the lands of Australia. During their stay of less than 2 months, they clashed with local Aboriginal people, killing a Wadawurrung leader in Corio Bay in the process, making him the first Victorian Aboriginal person to die at the hands of the European colonisers. The camp failed as they ran out of fresh water, and a number of the convicts escaped before their ships left for Van Diemen’s Land (now called Tasmania – it changed its name in 1856) to establish the second penal settlement there. One of those convicts – William Buckley – lived with the Wadawurrung people for the next 32 years.

TheLangingoftheConvictsatBotanyBay Watkin Tench 1789

Watkin Tench, The Landing of the Convicts at Botany Bay, from his book ‘A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay’. First published in 1789. Reproduced with permission from Wikipedia Commons.

The first European sent by the government from Sydney to explore (what came to be) Victoria was Major Thomas Mitchell. He met many Aboriginal people on his journey, but it would appear that, like many European people at the time, he didn’t view them as ‘inhabitants’. He described the view of Victoria from Pyramid Hill (near Echuca) in his diary in June 1836:

… the view was exceedingly beautiful over the surrounding plains. A land so inviting and still without inhabitants! As I stood, the first European intruder on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains, as yet untouched by flocks or herds I felt conscious of being the harbinger of mighty changes; and that our steps would soon be followed by the men and animals for which it seemed to have been prepared. See more Major Mitchell quotes here.

When he explored as far as Portland on the same expedition, he was surprised to discover European whaling ships there, and even a farm owned by the Henty brothers. When he returned to Sydney, he also discovered that John Batman, a Sydney-born free settler (with a reputation in Van Diemen’s Land for hunting and killing Aboriginal people), had signed a treaty with the Aboriginal people of Port Phillip Bay – the Wurundjeri people – in 1835. As a result, the European colonisation of Victoria had already begun; however, it is thought that Major Mitchell’s findings rapidly sped-up the process. You can read more about the ‘Treaty’ of Batman here.

batmantreaty

An artist’s impression of Batman’s Treaty with the Wurundjeri people in 1835 for the purchase of 600,000 acres of land. From Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, 2 vols, Picturesque Atlas Publishing Company, Sydney, 1886. (Vol 1, p161). Reproduced with permission from Wikipedia Commons.

After 1835 and the arrival of thousands of European people, millions of sheep, instead of kangaroos, now fed on the grassy plains of Victoria. This new industry put Melbourne on the map as huge amounts of money were made by selling wool to the new factories in England. These sheep caused one of the most important foods for Victoria’s Aboriginal people – the murnong daisy – to nearly become extinct, and the European fences and guns caused a sudden end to the traditional way of life for the first people of this land. At least 68 massacres of Aboriginal people took place in the first 18 years of Victoria’s colonisation.

The arrival of these European sheep farmers – called squatters – caused a sudden change to Victoria, but that change was nothing in comparison to that brought about by the Victorian gold rushes.

The year 1851 is very significant in Victoria’s history. The Port Phillip District of New South Wales (Victoria’s colonial name before 1851) experienced a devastating series of fires in February called Black Thursday, thought by many to be the largest in known history. These fires killed 12 European people, 1 million sheep and countless native animals. In July, 1851, the Colony of Victoria was first established, named after the queen of the British Empire at this time – Queen Victoria. By August, gold had been found by European people, and newspapers all over the world spread the news – one of the world’s richest surface alluvial goldfields had been discovered in Ballarat (funnily enough at a place called Poverty Point, near to Sovereign Hill today). This new state, or ‘colony’ as it was known until Federation in 1901, would soon become the richest place in the world thanks to a few tonnes of shiny golden rock. That sudden wealth attracted another 500,000 people to the Colony of Victoria in just the first 10 years of the gold rushes (1851-61), which resulted in the speedy development of towns and trade.

The 19th century Victorian gold rushes changed this part of the world in dramatic ways and, to this day, Victoria is still benefitting from its rich gold rush history (and, of course, the echoes of the Eureka Rebellion). Once all of the easy-to-collect surface gold had been taken, mines were dug deep underground. And when they stopped producing ‘payable’ gold, towns and cities created by the Victorian gold rushes either turned their wealth to manufacturing or disappeared.

Today, Victoria has a population of a little over 6 million people (and more than 30,000 of these people identify as being of Aboriginal descent). While it is no longer the richest place in the world, it is still very wealthy, comfortable and safe because of its goldrush history. In the 21st century, Victoria’s most important industries are manufacturing, education, hospitality, tourism and construction, among others. Gold mining continues in Ballarat, although only one gold mine still operates.

Links and References

The European exploration of Australia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_exploration_of_Australia

The adventures of Major Thomas Mitchell: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Mitchell_(explorer)

Victorian Aboriginal massacre map: http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/aboriginal-culture/indigenous-stories-about-war-and-invasion/massacre-map/

The history of Ballarat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballarat

The history of Victoria: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Victoria

A history of Victoria (1700s-1851) timeline: http://guides.slv.vic.gov.au/Victoriasearlyhistory/timeline

The history of Melbourne: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melbourne

The history of Tasmania: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Tasmania

A video explaining the territorial history of post-colonial Australia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pjB8UrHwO4

A video on William Strutt’s famous painting Black Thursday: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKaOtzFBR3Y

Fire in the 19th Century

Capture

Fire is an important yet destructive force in Australia.

Fire was an important tool for Australians new and old in the 19th century, but it could also be an enemy of gold miners and farmers alike.

Aboriginal People used fire to help them with hunting, and to promote the growth of valued edible and medicinal plants. This land management system also had the benefit of keeping “bush fuel” (leaf litter, fallen branches etc.) from building up to cause huge, dangerous fires. Many historians and scientists argue that Aboriginal People regularly and strategically burned parts of their country in this way for tens of thousands of years. Learn more about this here.

When large numbers of European People arrived in Victoria in the 1830s, a lot of land was cleared to grow more grass for sheep. The felled trees were used to build houses and fuel the fires people needed for cooking and heating, and later yet more trees were felled to reinforce the mineshafts and feed the boiler houses of Australia’s industrial revolution.

HH squattors

A page from Sovereign Hill’s new website about the Aboriginal side of the goldrush story. Learn more about Hidden Histories: The Wadawurrung People here.

In places like Ballarat where people searched for gold in deep quartz mines once the alluvial deposits dried up, gold workings relied on steam power, which came from boiler houses fuelled with wood taken from the surrounding bush.

By 1851, farming had changed much of Victoria’s landscape from what it looked like before European colonisation. Fire was no longer a key land management tool but instead a threat to fear. Very few Aboriginal communities were still able to routinely burn their country, which meant bush fuel had the opportunity to build up. Within 16 years of the arrival of European People, almost all of the farmable land in Victoria had been turned into private property owned by squatters (European farmers). View a map that outlines this sudden change to the Victorian landscape here.

Some historians argue that as a result of this change in land management systems, one of Australia’s largest fires in recorded history occurred in 1851, the same year gold was discovered. Black Thursday, as it was later called, saw a quarter of Victoria burn, killing 12 people and destroying 1 million sheep. There is a famous painting of this catastrophe at the State Library by celebrated goldrush artist William Strutt, entitled “Black Thursday, 6th February 1851”.

Ballarat’s firefighting history

SH Fire

A re-enactment of 19th century fire fighters putting out a staged fire as part of Fire Awareness Week 2015 at Sovereign Hill.

European and later Chinese miners on the diggings needed to use fire daily to warm and light their huts, cook their food and boil their tea. However, due to a combination of highly flammable eucalypt trees growing around the township, and its many wooden buildings etc., it was no surprise that dangerous fires featured in people’s experiences of Ballarat goldrush life.

1 December 1855: Got into Ballarat by the Red Streak (coach service) where we beheld the scene of last night’s fire. The American Hotel, the Adams Express premises and a clothing establishment next to it, and all along to the Charlie Napier which, God knows, had escaped. Several stores on the opposite side of the street had caught and were burned down. Report says eleven lives have been lost. The proprietor, Nicholls, was awakened by the noise and left his room. When he got into the lobby he recollected having left his pocket book with £90 below his pillow and returned to get it, but this delay cost him his life for he got so severely burned that he died about 9 o’clock this morning.Victorian Goldfields Diary, manuscript diary by an unidentified prospector on the Ballarat and surrounding goldfields during 1855–1856.

As a result of the danger that fire presented to the community, Victorian towns established dedicated fire brigades to tackle fires caused by campfires, candles, oil lamps and lightning strikes. In 1856 Ballarat’s first fire brigade was formed and relied entirely on volunteers. Horse-drawn hose carriages and water carts raced to a fire when the alarm bell sounded. To fight a fire, firemen used leather buckets, hooks, ladders and tomahawks. Water was very precious,so instead of using it to fight the fire they often tore down buildings in the path of the fire to stop its spread.

pump

The Yarrowee, an original, hand-operated pumping engine from the 19th century on display at Sovereign Hill.

Along with the famous burning down of James Bently’s Eureka Hotel in the lead up to the Eureka Rebellion in 1854, in 1859 the Ballarat Town Hall burned to the ground!

At Sovereign Hill we have built an Engine House based on a photograph of the nearby Smythesdale Fire Brigade Hall of the mid-1860s. The pumping engine it houses is an original Shand Mason hand-operated device, and is called the Yarrowee, probably after the nearby Yarrowee River. It was recently used during Fire Action Week to demonstrate how important fire fighters are in our community.

The Sovereign Hill Museums Association future fire plans

There is still a lot to learn about fire use and management here in Australia. As a result, members of our research team at Sovereign Hill are keen to test some land management techniques we think were used by Wadawurrung People in this region before European colonisation. At our 2000 hectare, historic pastoral property Narmbool, we are planning to control-burn a patch of grassland area to see if we can improve the growth of Kangaroo Grass. We hope this fire will also cause old seeds lying dormant in the soil to germinate and start growing interesting, indigenous plants that haven’t been seen on the property for over one hundred years. Many plants in Australia require fire to make their seeds germinate, they are called fire-promoting plants, like eucalypts. Other Australian plants are fire-tolerant, like grass trees, while others are fire-sensitive, like native orchids.

Links and references

Get prepared for bushfire season: https://schools.aemi.edu.au/bushfire/bushfires-be-prepared

A visual history of fire fighting in Victoria: http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/about/history-timeline/

Ballarat Fire Brigade artefacts and photos: http://victoriancollections.net.au/organisations/ballarat-fire-brigade

A great article about Australia’s fire history: https://meanjin.com.au/blog/this-continent-of-smoke/

Wikipedia on the history of firefighting: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_firefighting

The government Department of Primary Industries research into the effects of fire on Australian plants and animals:  http://www.depi.vic.gov.au/fire-and-emergencies/planned-burns/plants-and-animals

A CSIRO article about the differences between wildfires and “prescribed” fires: http://www.publish.csiro.au/onborrowedtime/docs/PCB_Ch11.pdf

Bradby, D. & Littlejohn, M. Our Stories: Life in Colonial Australia, Walker Books, 2015.