Free settlement in Australia from 1788 to the 1850s is an old and favourite topic for historians in this country. It has engaged historical imagination for nearly two centuries, starting with William Charles Wentworth’s A Statistical, Historical, and Political Description of the Colony of New South Wales, published in London in 1819. Many other histories were written during the period itself, for all sorts of reasons. Here was a type of creation story whose patterning had implications for the long term and which therefore had to be understood.
Unsurprisingly, the story had little shape to it until its timespan was over. But then, straightaway, writers (Samuel Sidney, John West) came forward to suggest what it had all meant. Party politicians did so too. With liberal democracy emerging in the 1850s, much of the argument had as its subtext the story of the previous sixty years, with the old élite, the ‘bunyip aristocracy’, condemned for the power they had accumulated through free land grants and convict labour.
Since World War II, the process has moved up a gear. Copious beforehand, from the 1950s research and writing about pre-democratic, pre-industrial settler-Australia has been superabundant. Very soon the focus moved from liberal democracy to centralised continental nation-building and national independence, and for the rest of the twentieth century that preoccupation framed everything else. Nation versus empire, or, as Manning Clark put it (after Henry Lawson), ‘The Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green’, was not the only argument. But it had the driving seat.