Life of the squatters


Only a few decades after the British colonised Australia, the wool industry emerged as a central component of Australia's exports. Around 200 years later, this trend continues. What many people do not realise is that the prosperity of this industry has its historical origins in the squatters who grazed sheep on land to which they had no legal rights. This chapter addresses the reasons behind the emergence of the squatters and the problems that they faced, despite later being accommodated by the law.

Sheep farming and the need for land

Not long after the First Fleet established a penal colony in New South Wales in 1788, colonial governments began to grant, lease and sell surrounding land to ex-soldiers, emancipists (convicts finished serving a sentence or granted a pardon before their sentence had expired) and wealthy migrants.

Around the same time, the wool industry was beginning to emerge in New South Wales. A pioneer of the wool industry in Australia was the pastoralist John Macarthur. Realising that many European animals imported to Australia were not suited to the arid climate, Macarthur and his wife imported some Merinos (a breed of sheep prized for its wool). Originally bred in the warm climate of Spain, the Merinos thrived in Australia. The high quality of the Macarthurs' wool resulted in the Australian wool industry dominating the export market well into the future.

It was not long before more settlers arrived in the colony, with hopes of emulating the success of the colonial sheep farmers. By the early 19th century, however, much of the land around Sydney and the Hawkesbury River was already occupied.

In 1813, three explorers (Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth) embarked on a previously unattempted expedition over the Blue Mountains. The successful expedition led to settlers quickly establishing large sheep runs (stretches of land for sheep to graze) on the newly-found land. In the following years, expeditions also took place to the north and south of the colony.

The emergence of squatters

As settlement spread, many colonial officials feared that the settlers would be too far away to be controlled by law enforcement. Others also believed that it was in the best interest of settlers to remain in close proximity, where they could be protected from attacks by Indigenous Australians.

In 1826, New South Wales Governor Darling responded to the concerns of the increasing spread of settlement in the colony by specifying 'limits of location'. The government would not grant, sell or permit settlers to permanently live on land outside of a 240 kilometre radius from Sydney. Despite Governor Darling extending these areas in 1829 to include 19 counties, many settlers were still unable to resist the lucrative attraction of the vast land outside the boundary. Disregard for the rules relating to the limits of location resulted in a number of settlers illegally squatting on unoccupied Crown land.

The squatting lifestyle

Squatters were often the first Europeans to charter parts of inland Australia. While this enabled the squatters to select the most fertile land close to creeks and rivers, it also meant that they were not able to rely on settlement stores for basic supplies. The squatters had to haul a bullock dray, loaded with cooking utensils and basic rations (flour, tea, sugar and salt), over long distances and rugged terrain.

Once suitable land had been discovered, the squatters established a run for their flocks of sheep or herds of cattle. Since the squatters did not own the land, they did not consider it necessary to construct large, permanent structures. Instead of spending large amounts of time and money to fence these massive runs, rivers, hills and trees were often used to demarcate (separate) the runs of different squatters. The only fenced enclosure was often a small pen built to assist in preventing dingoes from attacking the sheep during the night.

Squatters also did not see the point of constructing extravagant shelters. Instead, they built huts which usually comprised slabs of bark covering timber frames. These structures were bound together by cowhide, since nails were considered a luxury that few could afford.

Convict servants were relied upon by the squatters to tend to their flocks. As shepherds, the convicts were required to lead the sheep to green pastures during the day and to look after them at night. A sheepdog also kept a careful watch for any approaching dingoes.

Legal but not without problems

A combination of the near-complete destruction of the Spanish Merino industry during the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1813) and the opening up of vast grazing land over the Blue Mountains, resulted in wool becoming Australia's most valuable export commodity. Realising that the prosperity of the colony depended on wool and that sheep depended on ample grazing land, in 1836 New South Wales Governor Bourke decided to regulate the expansion of settlement by making squatting legal. In accordance with this legislation, squatters were required to pay a licence fee of £10 ($20). While the squatters did not own the land, no one else could bring their livestock onto land over which a lease was held. Just over a decade later, in 1847, squatters were granted the right to lease their runs for periods of 14 years. After the 14 years, they could purchase the land.

While squatting was deemed legal in the eyes of British law, to the 750 000 Indigenous Australians who were estimated to be living in Australia at the arrival of the First Fleet, squatting was a major disruption to their tribal traditions. The Indigenous Australians were angered to see the squatters occupying important hunting grounds and destroying natural resources. The squatters, however, believed that they could occupy the land since it showed no signs of ownership, according to British convention (such as building fences). These cultural misunderstandings often resulted in violent conflict. (Refer to Topic 1: Mass migration, Chapter 4: Impact of European settlement on Indigenous people).

The squatters were also embroiled (involved) in a dispute during the 1860s when the governments of the colonies decided that Australia could not exist on wool exports alone. To enable the population to be self-sufficient in food, the governments introduced schemes which assisted more people to farm a variety of produce on small areas of land. The land which had previously been licensed by squatters was now to be divided and sold to selectors (those who wanted to buy a block of land). Since the squatters had put much effort into clearing and working the land, many fiercely defended it when the selectors came to seize it. Those who could afford to, bought as much of their land as possible.

While some selectors became wealthy from the land which they bought, many experienced great hardship. Since many of the squatters had already claimed the best land, selectors were often left with the poorest blocks. Few selectors had farming skills.

The class of squatters

The squatters reaped extensive benefits from the laws which enabled them to lease (and later, purchase) their runs. Since the early squatters were able to select land to occupy long before any other settlers had ventured to the region, they soon found themselves controlling some of the best and most fertile land for a very small cost. With a greater sense of security and the availability of finances acquired from wool exports, many squatters began to build large homesteads and permanent fences around their sheep and cattle runs.

From their hardworking origins, the squatters and their families eventually emerged as a part of the colonial upper class. Their respectability also earned many of them seats in the upper houses of parliaments. After making their fortunes, some squatters even left the countryside to live in large, suburban townhouses. Men and women attended balls and the races and travelled to England or Europe on holidays. Their children were often educated at exclusive schools within Australia or even in England.

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