Old Tales of a Young Country

The South Australian Bubble

Marcus Clarke

AMONG the many bubbles of speculation that, reflecting in their shining sides prismatic worlds of fortune, have been destined to burst in the most commonplace of soap suds, it would be unfair to class the speculation-born colony of South Australia. But, though neither so magnificently blown as its prototype of the South Seas, nor reflecting such elegant foolishness as that most glorious bladder blown in the Rue Quicamfoix, the South Australian bubble was quite as flimsy and quite as dangerous. Luckily a fact, unsuspected by its blower, saved it from bursting—the soap-suds were made with mineral water; the pursuers of the floating globe fell into a quagmire, but found a copper mine.

In the year 1829, Captain Sturt, exploring the Murrumbidgee, came to Lake Alexandrina—a shallow sheet of water, 60 miles long by 40 in breadth—and discovered the future province of South Australia. Almost simultaneously with his discovery was published in London a little book entitled, A Letter from Sydney, edited by Mr. Robert Gouger, and written by Mr. Gibbon Wakefield.

I have neither the inclination nor the ability to give in this place an exhaustive article upon the immigration question, still less to comment at length upon the system of Mr. Gibbon Wakefield, but a slight sketch of the scheme laid down by that ingenious theorist may not be altogether unacceptable.

The “Letter from Sydney” produced, as it deserved to do, a profound sensation upon speculators in England. Its author was a man of ability, and wrote with taste and elegance. Placing the most audacious mistatements side by side with the most brilliant sketches of place and people, he covered the fallacy of his argument by the brilliance of his wit. The catherine-wheels flashed so dazzlingly that one could not see how slender was the stick on which they turned. The “Letter from Sydney” was written with a purpose. It purported to be from the pen of a gentleman of taste and fortune, who, emigrating to Australia under the impression that his easily-purchased land would prove remunerative, found himself poor for want of the means to develope his riches—for want of men to hew down his magnificent forests of timber, tenants to rent his fat and fertile farm land, and miners to bring to the surface his wealth of iron, coal, and copper. Interspersed with exquisite descriptions of scenery and humorous sketches of colonial discomfort and colonial society, he draws a succession of pictures of the misery which would befall the landowners whenever the cessation of convict-shipping should leave them dependent on free labour. Having thus prepared the mind of his reader for some sweeping reform, Mr. Wakefield proposes his modest remedy—to raise the price of land. Cheap land makes dear labour, for the working-man who by economy and industry accumulates enough money to purchase a “house and home,” will decline to hire himself to reap those fruits which he shall not enjoy. Cheap land makes cheap independence, and cheap independence is fatal to individual wealth. The author of a “Letter from Sydney” pointed out with dismay that in a country where “common” labourers could maintain themselves without seeking hired service, the “gentleman” who desired to sell timber, grain, or coals, must hew, reap, and dig for himself, and such proceedings have been disdained by “gentlemen” in all ages. In this wretched country of Australia Mr. Wakefield found that “intellect and refinement,” as he viewed them—that is to say, the reading of purposeless novels and the lettered leisure of the idle wealthy—were altogether at a discount, and that the “common” folk, such as mechanics, farm labourers, and men who ought to be dying by inches in factories, or starving unmurmuringly in the over-populated agricultural districts of England, were the only people who could “enjoy” colonial life. Dear labour meant independence to the labourer, cheap labour meant wealth to the capitalist, and the author of a “Letter from Sydney” being a capitalist, desired to increase his capital. He longed for parks and palaces, for gardens, fountains, picture galleries, and preserves—not that the labourers who were to help him to obtain all these fine things might share in the enjoyment of them, but that he himself might become in Australia the monopolist he was too poor to become in England. The method he advised for the accomplishment of the monstrous design was ingenious in its speciousness. Land was to be made so dear that labourers “could not obtain it too soon;” that is to say, a wealthy man could purchase by main force of his wealth, and compel the poor man to hire himself in order to till and reap. A portion of the money thus invested in land by the rich man was to go into a fund for the bringing out of emigrants, who might “further benefit the capitalist” by lowering the price of labour, and who were to consist of healthy young married couples. Thus the rich man would be spared the pain of contributing a moiety of his wealth to support the aged and the sick. A succession of “common” young men and women arriving by a succession of ships, would compete with each other for the honour of hewing his trees and drawing his water; and to such young men and women was held out the delightful prospect of earning, by an artificially-enforced servitude, the right to settle on the land which they could obtain now for the mere trouble of tilling it. This system was termed the “sufficient price” system, and as such has been partially adopted in New South Wales and New Zealand.

The book took the public by assault, it was at once so plausible and so pathetic. It touched at once the souls and pockets of men. The rich man saw an easy method of getting richer; the agricultural schemer saw a virgin field for his experiments; the middle-class farmer was enchanted with the notion of rivalling the lord of the manor, and becoming the “squire” of a respectful Australian tenantry; while the philanthropist admitted that to remove the starving population of St. Giles to a greater Britain, situated somewhere in the South Seas, was a suggestion of a most excellent character, and that Mr. Wakefield deserved great credit for it. During the agitation caused by the Reform Bill of 1832, public attention was diverted from Mr. Wakefield, and a company formed, under the title of the South Australian Land Company, failed to float. In 1833, however, a second company was formed, which included Grote, the historian, and Henry Bulwer; and, after some changes of constitution, the company, under the title of the South Australian Association, was finally established. By an act passed in 1834, the tract of country discovered by Sturt was created a province, the minimum price of land fixed at 12s. an acre, and the business of colonisation deputed to eight members, with Colonel Torrens (proprietor of the Globe) as chairman.

Thus established, the most strenuous exertions were made by the Association to ensure the popularity of their enterprise. Mr. Gibbon Wakefield, placed virtually in command, attended the rooms of the Association at the Adelphi, and by sheer force of talk caught bishops, mill-owners, and journalists. The rooms were crowded with members of Parliament, mouth-orators, and pamphleteers, all eager to give to the world the realisation of Utopia “at a sufficient price.” The post of Governor was offered to Colonel Charles James Napier, but he declined the appointment, and Captain Hindmarsh, R.N., accepted the office. Colonel Light was made Surveyor-General, and Mr. Gouger Colonial Secretary; while Mr. Fisher (better known to colonists as Sir James Hurtle Fisher), received the post of Resident Commissioner.

Colonel Light was despatched in March, 1836, and Captain Hindmarsh in July, while in November the “Africaine” arrived with Mr. Gouger, a banking association, and the South Australian Gazette, a paper first published in London, and taken out wholesale to be “continued” in the new colony. Governor Hindmarsh, arriving in December, found fault with the site fixed upon by Colonel Light as the future capital. “Adelaide” was built upon a creek leading out of St. Vincent’s Gulf. The port was a mangrove swamp, seven miles from the city; and the piano of Mrs. Hindmarsh was floated ashore, through the surf, to a mud bank covered with the débris of immigrants’ furniture. Hindmarsh having “read his commission under a gum-tree, in the presence of about 200 immigrants and officials,” entered upon his duties by attempting to change the site of the city. As the fortunate first-comers had already purchased “eligible town lots” for a price upon which they hoped to realise large profits, his efforts received determined opposition, and a quarrel arose between Mr. Fisher and His Excellency, which ended in His Excellency’s recall. The Association now appointed Colonel Gawler, who united in his own person the offices of Governor and Resident Commissioner, and reconciled conflicting parties.

Immigrants now began to arrive wholesale, and a fierce competition ensued for the “town lots.” Now the commissioners had issued what they termed “preliminary orders” at £72 12s. each, which enabled the holder to select one acre of capital and 120 acres of country land. The order of this selection was governed by the chances of a lottery, conducted on the principle of those which recently became so notorious in Victoria. The first-comers having made their selections, the remainder of the 12,000 acres of “city” was put up to auction and sold to the highest bidder. The majority of these “orders” were in the hands of the South Australian Company. A gigantic “land swindle” was now inaugurated. Instead of South Sea stock, or John Law’s paper-money, the speculators trafficked in blocks of country which should be farms, and stretches of turf which would soon be terraces. Mr. Davenport Dunn’s scheme was realised, and the “watering-place” was sold before a hut had been built upon it. It will be easily seen that in this lottery the holders of “preliminary orders” had the best of the game. They held virtual pre-emptive rights, and the speculator never knew but that at the last moment his next-door neighbour would produce a “preliminary” order, and swoop upon the section he had hoped himself to secure. A traffic took place similar to that which had made and marred the adventurous Scotchman, and raised Mr. Secretary Craggs from the footboard to the council. The “orders” were sold like scrip, and a class of speculators and enthusiasts, of whom Lord Lytton’s “Cousin Jack” may be taken as a favourable type, swarmed in the “nine square miles” of the unbuilt city.

Colonel Gawler arrived just precisely when this land-jobbing was at its height, and when the reports of the colony’s prosperity had turned the heads of all the “intending immigrants” in England. Nothing was left undone by the Association to secure the success of their infant country. Mr. Gibbon Wakefield was in his glory. He was the apostle of this new gospel of universal happiness at a “sufficient price,” and members of Parliament, bitten with the desire to “do something popular,” flocked around him, eagerly proclaiming the excellence of his teaching and the purity of his motives. Colonel Torrens himself did not disdain to deliver lectures upon the propriety of emigrating at once to Adelaide, and is reported to have monstrously stated that that city held the same position with regard to the valley of the Murray as New Orleans did to the valley of the Mississippi. There was, however, no one to dispute these assertions, and ship-load after ship load of gentlemen and ladies left England for this Arcadia in the mangrove swamp of St. Vincent’s Gulf. To the new comer the condition of the infant colony was astonishing. The town was formed of iron huts and wooden shanties, in which well-dressed ladies played upon 100-guinea pianos, and gentlemen in the most correct evening costume entertained their friends with champagne and potted meats. Dandies who six months before were strolling up Pall Mall, or lounging in the stalls of the opera-house, waded in patent-leather boots across the sand to leave cards upon newly-arrived families of distinction, who—until their parks and palaces became absolute facts—occupied zinc-roofed cabins and weatherboard cottages. While labour was in course of becoming cheap, provisions became dear. Eight shillings and ten shillings were charged for a coarse meal, and “servants” were not to be had at any price. But the lottery supplied money as fast as it was needed, and “young pioneers of civilisation,” having unpacked their fashionable coats, pieced together their dogearts, and got their blood horses conveyed ashore at a cost that nearly equalled that of the animals themselves, sold their “preliminary orders,” and gave supper-parties to each other at the Southern Cross Hotel, to commemorate the fortunate moment when they first undertook to found an empire. The inexhaustible lottery supplied apparently inexhaustible funds, and as the bank readily discounted the paper of notable purchasers, the sellers found their sections transmuted from barren blocks of unexplored country into cash and credit, both of which seemed illimitable. Into the current madness Governer Gawler seemed to fall. He set up public buildings with ruinous rapidity. He organised a police at a rate of expenditure which seems altogether incommensurate with the then value of such a body. He built roads, wharfs, and hospitals, and erected a Government-house at a cost of £20,000. It was so evident that the colony was going to become a second Carthage, that to do less would have seemed mean in the eyes of the colonists. Having done this he sat down in comfort, guarded by a volunteer corps, and surrounded by a little court, consisting of the white-handed gentlemen and ladies who were to be the aristocracy of this mighty city of the mangrove swamp.

But this happy state of things was not long to last. Immigration began to check itself, and the price of land to decrease. Wool-growing was found to be more profitable in Port Phillip and New South Wales. The “healthy young married couples,” owning such preposterous things as home affections and family ties, refused to be transplanted to the South Australian Canaan, and such labourers as did come were waiting to be employed by the “gentlemen farmers,” who were gambling in Adelaide. Moreover, such plebeian commodities as beef and mutton began to grow scarce, and the Carthaginians felt the pangs of famine. It is probable that the place would have been abandoned altogether, but for the “overlanders.” “Overlanding” was a profitable and, withal, romantic occupation. Young men of spirit, wearied of the capital, and prompted by love of gain and adventure, purchased cattle and sheep in New South Wales, and drove them “overland” to the “New Orleans” of Colonel Torrens. The journey was not without its perils. Hostile natives attacked these Australian caravans, and the hot winds of the north were no insufficient substitute for the simoom of the Arabian deserts. The scanty streams of the interior were too often dry, and the adventurers, wandering from the track in search of water, were lost in the barren wilderness that bordered this new civilisation. Yet “overlanding” had powerful charms. The life was free and vigorous. The trammels of conventionality slipped from off the limbs of these wrestlers with the power of the desert, and they felt the joy of an almost savage independence. Traversing the great grey forests, or camped by the edge of some friendly waterhole, that, sheltered beneath its solitary clump of trees, at once invited and forbade the journey into the limitless plains ahead of it, the purveying patriarchs of this Australian land felt that wonderful and subtle happiness which is born of solitude and silence. Alone with their flocks and herds in the vast wilderness, they found for the first time that individuality which they had lost amid the buzz and roar of the crowded capitals of Europe. There 10,000 items went to swell the sum total of their importance. They were recognised and respected by virtue of a million accidents. Their tailors and boot-makers, married cousins and unmarried uncles, all contributed to make them famous. Even a man who owned the “nattiest groom in London” had a sort of personal reputation, and many a worthy gentleman climbed into notoriety on the shoulders of a cook or a coachman. But in the cattle-yards and the camping ground such aids to celebrity were unrecognised. Personal prowess and personal intelligence alone availed the ingenuous youth, who sought for a place among the “overlanders.” Unless he had in him some quality which commanded respect, respect was not accorded to him. But when after his fatigues, miseries, and regrets, he reined his horse one day on the summit of some mountain-spur, and seeing beneath him the wide waste of the untrodden “bush,” awoke suddenly to the consciousness that he was the lord of that wilderness, that in it he could live unmolested and secure, that he could find there a home and a subsistence, with no aid but that of his own hands and his own brains, then for the first time did he discover to what a heritage of power his birthright as a “man” entitled him.

The sleek “Downing-street colonists” of Adelaide were astonished at the arrival of these sons of the wilderness. The “trapper” of the Rocky Mountains found a parallel in the bearded, embrowned overlander, with his keen eye and ragged defiance of formulae. But with the rags and keenness the parallel stopped. The gentleman stockowner was no more to be compared in social relations to Rube Rawlins than was Rube Rawlins to a gold-stick-in-waiting. Once arrived at Adelaide, the rags and the defiance disappeared, and “new arrivals fortunate enough to be admitted to the evening parties of a lady of ‘the highest tin,’ were astonished to find, when, to fill up basso in an Italian piece, she called upon a huge man with brown hands, brown face, and a flowing beard, magnificently attired, in whom they recognised the individual they had met the day before, in a torn flannel Jersey, with a short black pipe in his mouth.” Perhaps the life of an overlander was at that time one of the most agreeable in the colony. The force of endurance and intelligence not only received due acknowledgment in the shape of praise and party-giving, but was substantially recognised in current coin of the realm. Such a combination of circumstances is rare. The banditti-like gentlemen “who rode blood horses, wore broad-brimmed sombreros trimmed with fur and eagle plumes, scarlet flannel shirts, broad belts filled with pistols, knives, and tomahawks.” and who were regarded by the Adelaidians with something of the feeling which greeted “the arrival of a party of successful buccaneers in a quiet seaport with a cargo to sell, in old Dampier’s time,” had not only the gratification of being the cynosure of neighbouring eyes, but of making considerable profits on their original outlay. But in the midst of this picturesque extravagance came the final crash. In order to meet the expenses of Utopia—in the way of buildings, roads, and bridges—Colonel Gawler had drawn bills upon the Treasury, and the commissioners and association losing credit, a series of drafts to the amount of £69,000 was dishonoured. As soon as this direful intelligence became known, the bubble burst. A rapid exodus took place. The “working men,” poor fellows, finding themselves doubly deceived, threw themselves upon the Government for support. The population of the city “diminished in twelve months to the extent of 3000 souls.” The price of food, rent, and wages fell fifty per cent. Adelaide was almost deserted, and, like the owls and the bats in the palaces of Palmyra, police horses grazed in the gardens of the Governor.

Gawlor was dismissed, and Mr. Gibbon Wakefield and his friends endeavoured to put the burden of disgrace upon his shoulders. That they at the time succeeded in doing this, there is not a shadow of doubt, and until very lately Colonel Gawler has been held the scapegoat of South Australian colonisation. Lord Stanley, the Colonial Secretary, knocked the last hole in the bottom of this sinking ship In 1842, that far-seeing statesman brought in and passed two Acts, one of which fixed the minimum price of land at £1 per acre, while the other handed over the colony to the Government of the Colonial Office. The effect of these measures was immediate. As a land-speculating colony. South Australia was ruined. It was found, moreover, that agriculture could not be carried on at a profit with hired labour, and the only paying pursuit in the country was woolgrowing. The despised “interior” was now let in “runs,” and to the colonial Meliboei, heaven at last vouchsafed that proverbial wealth which springs from well-pressed woolpacks. Yet even this wealth was long in arriving. The port of Adelaide was deserted, and the visits of the “overlanders” had ceased. The shipment of wool was attended with difficulty and expense, and it seemed as though the bubble having burst, the soap-suds were more alkaline than is usual.

In this plight, an accident restored the colony to something resembling its pristine glory. “The promoters of the colony,” says Mr. Samuel Sidney (to whom, together with Mr. Forster, I am indebted for the materials of this sketch), “had placed coals, marble, slate, and precious stones among their probable exports; but copper and lead had not entered into their calculations.” Copper and lead, however, existed, and in 1843 Mr. Dutton and Captain Bagot purchased an 80-acre section, which contained the “Kapunda mine.” South Australia was once more famous. Close upon the “Kapunda” followed the “Burra Burra,” and Mr. Kingsley has already told the story of the second speculation-mania.

Application was made to the Governor for a special survey of 20,000 acres, at £1 an acre. The application was granted, and a day and hour fixed for the payment of the £20,000 in cash. Now, cash was scarce, and local interest began to grow despondent. How could famine-stricken Canaan raise £20,000 in cash. To add to the perplexity, arrived from Sydney a party of speculators well supplied with gold, and announced their intention of buying up the “survey.” A flash of the old gambling spirit reanimated Adelaide. Sydney should not thus snatch the prize from the grasp of the colonists. On the last day for payment a desperate struggle was made to obtain the needful amount of gold coin. “On that day,” says Mr. Sidney, “many secret hoards were dug out; husbands learned that prudent wives had unknown stores, and old women were even tempted to draw their £1 and £2 from the recesses of old stockings. Almost at the last minute the money was collected, counted, and paid, and the richest copper mine in the world rewarded the long sufferings of the South Australians.”

But the whirligig of time brought in his revenges. The “gentlemen” whose interests were so tenderly cared for by Mr. Gibbon Wakefield were disgusted to think that the “common” labourers should come between this wind of good fortune and their own dilapidated nobility. Was this to be the end of the “sufficient price” system? Forbid it, Torrens!

A lottery was proposed by which either section of the community should win or lose a chance in the unopened mine. The “common” people won, and picked 10,000 acres, which they called “Burra Burra.” The “gentlemen” termed the remaining portion the “Princess Royal.” In 1850 the £50 scrip of the “gentlemen’s” section was not worth £12, while “Burra Burra” was, as Mr. Sidney called it, “the richest copper mine in the world.” Despite Mr. Gibbon Wakefield, the “working man” had won the game after all.

Our bubble, cast in copper, may now be likened to one of those contrivances of the domestic cistern which, let the tap turn as it will, always keeps half its bulk above water.

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