Despite being 3% of the landmass, Victoria contributes up to a quarter of Australia’s economy. Several significant moments in Australian history have taken place within its borders, including the disappearance of a Prime Minister and the birth of democracy (supposedly).
It’s a bedrock of culture – sure, I have some strong opinions on hipsters, coffee, pretentious sculptures and questionable street art, but there’s still lots of colonial/turn-of-the-century décor that screams legacy and tradition, that there’s ancestral links truly connecting us to this place even in a place as young as Melbourne, which sits on the gloriously brown Yarra River.
THE FRENCH ARE AT IT AGAIN
The Yarra starts at the foot of the Australian Alps (where Australia’s tallest mountain resides) and winds its way down the rolling hills until reaching the northern tip of Port Phillip Bay, one of the largest enclosed saltwater bays in the southern hemisphere. Although its double the size of Hong Kong, its average depth is 13 metres, with its deepest point at just 24 metres.
Port Phillip Bay is only accessible by a tiny 3.5km long opening called “The Rip”, where submerged rocks and perennially dangerous sea conditions have been the dread of many sailors (even to this day). But once you survive the narrow death strip, the waters become very peaceful. Thus, it served as an outdoor shelter for sailors even in the worst of weather. Plus, with 264km of coastline, Port Phillip Bay offered countless opportunities for settlement.
But why settle here in the first place? Easy – blame the French! See, in 1802, Port Phillip Bay was sighted by John Murray, but it was Matthew Flinders who explored its interior during his exploration of the southern coast. Of course, Britain wasn’t the only European power slinking around the Pacific. The French were also making claims across the Pacific, even while convulsing with revolution and war. They had staked claims in French Polynesia, New Caledonia and were eyeballing New Zealand.
Since Flinders had met French explorer Nicolas Baudin during his exploration of Kangaroo Island, the British were certain that France was aware of this harbour and would attempt to settle it. Given the British had already settled in eastern Australia, expanding colonisation and denying the French a foothold in Australia was paramount.
Other explorers braved The Rip and mapped the extensive coastline. They eventually made their way to the top, where Charles Grimes found the Yarra in 1803. He tried to sail up it, but only got to Dight Falls (where it becomes inaccessible). However, it was over three decades later before anybody would found a city on the Yarra. Why was that?
Because another site was chosen first: Sullivan Bay, the first official European settlement in Victoria.
I say ‘official’ because technically, Sullivan Bay wasn’t the first. In 1801, nearly three years before Sullivan Bay, James Grant landed at Churchill Island, a little “Woman in Black” style island that is accessible by foot from Phillip Island during low tide. Grant and his men fell some trees and planted wheat, potatoes and other food on the island, which is the first recorded incident of European agriculture anywhere in Victoria. However, this wasn’t an attempt to colonise the island, and they left soon afterwards.
Sullivan Bay, however, was meant to be permanent. It was located in modern-day Sorrento, right at the tip of Port Phillip Bay’s entrance. The hope was to develop a British settlement at the mouth of the Bay and reserve all that coastal land for future British Settlers.
And so, the first official settlement was proclaimed at Sullivan Bay in October 1803. Several hundred people, including three hundred convicts, did their best to establish a successful colony, with the first European born in Victoria was born in November 1803.
But the settlement didn’t last long because the resources were scarce. Fresh water wasn’t accessible and attempts to make the bay water drinkable were futile. The trees didn’t provide the correct kind of timber needed to construct buildings. Agricultural efforts failed repeatedly because the soil was too alkaline and sandy (lack of fresh water didn’t help). There were tensions with local Aboriginals (not that there was any attempt to establish peaceful relations). And finally, The Rip was so dangerous that going out to sea to hunt fish, whales or seals was not worth the risk.
And so, just three months after they established the colony, they decided to abandon it. David Collins, the leader of the settlement, left first with some of the convicts in January 1804, and the rest of the colony left in May, meaning the settlement lasted a total of seven months.
Where did they go? To Van Diemen’s Land, naturally! Even though the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers were known about, they sailed to the southern tip of Van Diemen’s Land to meet up with John Bowen, who established a settlement at Ridson Cove.
However, Collins immediately noticed some glaring problems. In fact, they were the same ones he had just dealt with: a good defensive position with inadequate fresh water supplies and poor soil. Seeing he was a higher rank than Bowen, Collins ordered the colonists to move to nearby Sullivan Cove. This new settlement prospered and went on to become Hobart, the capital of Tasmania and first settlement outside of present-day New South Wales (if we ignore Norfolk Island).
THE WILD WHITE MAN
But not everyone came with the founders of Hobart – some thirty people had died at Sullivan Bay, although their graves haven’t been found because the coastline has eroded severely. Twenty-one convicts ran away, but they all died in the unforgiving Australian bush…except for William Buckley.
In a nutshell, William Buckley was a convict at Sullivan Bay who escaped along with a few others. Once convicts escaped, they were not chased after – they didn’t survive long in the bush. It seemed Buckley would die too, suffering from starvation, dehydration and exhaustion from wandering all the way up the eastern coast.
At present-day Melbourne, Buckley off from his friends who wanted to go to Sydney – he went down the western coast. He arrived at Airey’s Inlet on death’s door. Fortunately, Buckley encountered some Aboriginals while on the run who believed he was the revived spirit of a chief who recently died. This was because looked like the deceased chief and was white. He was also carrying some of the chief’s belongings because he robbed the chief’s burial mound. Also, he had one foot in the grave, so perhaps they interpreted him as stepping out of the ground as opposed to into it.
The Aboriginals saved his life and he lived amongst these Aboriginals on the Bellarine Peninsula, although sometimes he isolated himself. Then, in 1835, thirty-two years after his escape, a ship arrived at Indented Head. Upon investigation, Buckley discovered they were a British surveying party led by Batman.
Yes, Batman…John Batman, an explorer and businessman. Batman was scouting places for a new settlement in Port Phillip Bay, seeing as thirty years had gone by and still no settlements had been built since Sullivan Bay. But for now, he had to deal with Buckley, who was presumed dead thirty years ago and still legally a convict.
The Aboriginals wanted to attack the ship as Europeans had been raiding the coast and kidnapping Aboriginals for years(Batman was involved in some of these raids). But Buckley managed to bridge the divide between Settlers and Aboriginals and became an invaluable source of information, both on Aboriginal culture and British mores and customs.
However, he was regarded with suspicion by Europeans and Aboriginals alike, especially when frontier violence escalated in the following decades. He was pardoned and returned to European life, but the distrust grew too much for him to handle and he moved to Hobart.
Meanwhile, the surveyors were discussing the possible locations for settlement. Present-day Williamstown was favoured because of coastal access and anchorage opportunities. But the water was too brackish at the mouth of the river. Batman instead suggested a spot on the Yarra as the site for a new settlement and his recommendation was carried. He almost named it after himself – Batmania! – but they decided to name it Melbourne after the British Prime Minister, William Lamb (who was the 2nd Viscount Melbourne).
Obviously, the Kulin nation (an alliance of five Aboriginal groups) inhabited present-day Melbourne for tens of thousands of years before the Europeans came along. Then, all of a sudden, they began to be die rapidly. Little did they know that way up north, in January 1788, the first European settlement in Australia was founded.
The Sydney Settlers brought diseases with them, which the Aboriginals didn’t have any immunity against. It spread throughout the continent and killed upwards of 75% of the indigenous population. When the area below the Murray River was first explored in the 1830s, the explorers who made the first contact with Aboriginals were shocked to see smallpox scars on the people they met.
Regardless of the local Aboriginal protests, settlements quickly spread along the freshwater rivers in Victoria and also around Port Phillip Bay, including near the site of Sullivan Bay. But the first official settlement in Victoria (that survived, that is) is actually Portland, near the border with South Australia. This place was founded in 1834 and has remained a quaint little place that nobody could regret visiting.
Victoria was still part of New South Wales at this time. However, due to the rapid rate of settlement the “Port Phillip District” was set up as a separate administrative zone in 1836. This district would then become the Colony of Victoria. Just as the colony was declared, the Victorian Gold Rush began and ushered in a period of incredible wealth and instability.
Immigration to the new state exploded, increasing sevenfold in just ten years. Soon, the interior was completely occupied by those desperate for gold (except for the mountainous east, which lay largely untouched). The economy exploded (and threatened to collapse). Melbourne, the town named after a mediocre Prime Minister, became the richest city in the world and the envy of all the other colonial cities – the second-largest in the entire British Empire behind London.
Of course, being a big city meant crime and disease. Although not founded as a penal colony (Australia stopped convict transport in 1868), criminals regularly escaped Van Diemen’s Land by crossing the Bass Strait into Victoria. From there, they usually took up honest work, but their old criminal habits died hard.
Some of the tougher convicts became bushrangers, the Australian highwaymen who targeted travellers, especially gold-escorts. This spike in crime was effectively encouraged since police resources were routinely restricted, leaving a dozen men to patrol an area the size of Belgium. This pernicious activity endured until the early 1880s with the death of the murderous Ned Kelly. And no, don’t talk to me about the Birdman of the Coorong – that never happened!
Regardless, Victoria stood strong and has continued to be a powerhouse in Australia. Whether culturally, politically or economically, Victoria contributes so much to Australia and it’s hard to tell the story of the nation without it (take the hint, New South Welshmen!).
Keep in mind, Europeans only attempted settling down here 220 years ago, and only 189 years have passed since permanent settlement occurred. Victoria is incredibly young. And I believe the story is just beginning…
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