Australia: A Social and Political History

By Gordon Greenwood | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
THE PASTORAL ASCENDANCY 1820-1850

I

AUSTRALIANS often regard the gold rushes as a watershed which nearly divides their history: before gold "the Colonies had developed quietly and slowly";1 after gold, and because of it, the tempo of Australian life suddenly quickened, with the rapid development of industry, democracy and nationalism. Our early history, in another view, was a melodrama, with a few principal actors--the governors, the Macarthurs and Wentworth -- miming before a back-drop of inhospitable mountains and plains and surrounded by a crowd of conventional figures--convicts and soldiers, explorers and squatters, emancipists and exclusives. And so the "prehistory" of Australia appears as something apart from the subsequent historical period, a set-piece of romantic and antiquarian interest but of little relevance to the modern Australian community. It is certainly true that gold caused radical changes in Australian life, and that there was something melodramatic about the divisions of colonial society before 1850. Nevertheless, the years between 1820 and 1850 were years of great political, economic and social change, when the Australian Colonies developed from two autocratically ruled prison farms into a number of prosperous self-governing Colonies.

By 1852 the transportation of convicts to eastern Australia had ended; four Colonies had received self-government; political movements of the right and the left were emerging; the voluntary principle was being established rapidly as the basis of colonial religion and education; Australia's best grazing land was already occupied by the pastoralists and their sixteen million sheep. In 1820 Australian wool exports were negligible; in 1850 the export of wool was 40 million lb., about half of England's total imports. By 1850 Australia had a total population of just over 400, 000; an area of cultivation of 432,000 acres; exports worth. £3.8 millions, and imports of about £4 millions. Between 1820 and 1850 over 200,000 free immigrants arrived in Australia, almost all of them from Great Britain. "The progress of New South Wales," wrote Merivale, in his Lectures on Colonization and Colonies, "has been so astonishing, as far as regards the

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1
Wood F. L. W., A Concise History of Australia ( Sydney, 1935), p. 174.

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