The governor of the island colony, implicated in the invasion even while publicly upholding its illegality, brought time by seeking advice from distant London. This was unambiguous when it came – remove and prosecute the trespassers. But a subsequent administration, headed by Lord Melbourne, not only sanctioned the squatter camp on the Yarra River, but abandoned any further attempt to control the bounds of settlement. A first-come best-served land rush on the pastures predictably followed.
Squatters moved well-armed men and sheep up the river systems of eastern Australia with such speed that in a decade, conquered country stretched from Hervey Bay to Wilsons Promontory.
While London had not intended the licences to confer an exclusive right of possession, the squatters, with the backing of colonial courts, asserted this anyway. Aboriginal people, now trespassers in their own country, were forcefully evicted, and those who resisted taught a firm lesson.
Indigenous survivors clustered in forlorn refugee camps where the usual factors associated with such places when there is no external support – inadequate food and shelter, polluted water, poor sanitation and broken spirits – predictably led to high levels of death from disease.
There was resistance and extraordinary stories of survival and adaptation. But by the time Victoria separated from New South Wales in 1851, the First Nations population had declined by more than 80 per cent.
Australians are remarkably adept at normalising our history: while it might be regrettable, it is just what happened in those days. But the truth is that the founding of Melbourne and the subsequent opening of the continent to an uncontrolled land rush was a unique event in the history of the British Empire that was largely driven by local vested interests. It was known at the time that this policy would result in the rapid death of Aboriginal people, but decision-makers put other priorities above preventing this.
The establishment of a squatter camp on the Yarra was the catalyst for the uncontrolled conquest of much of Australia. Its consequences are still being experienced today.
The truth-telling commission will have enormous ground to cover but it will be important to begin with dispelling the celebratory myths still associated with Melbourne’s founding story.