‘Edward M Curr and the tide of history’ by Samuel Furphy

“… quas vento accesserit oras; qui teneant, nam inculta videt, hominesne, feraene, quaerere constituit, sociisque exacta referre”

to seek out what regions he has reached by the wind, to seek out who occupies the land (for he sees it is uncultivated), whether humans or wild beasts, and to report his discoveries to his companions.” – Virgil in the Aeneid

Edward Curr senior wrote a book An Account of the Colony of Van Diemen’s Land (1824) advising British immigrants on their prospects of making a new life in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land. In his younger years Curr was infused with idealism and pioneering spirit. Was he to shape a new Rome in New Holland? He quoted Virgil’s Aeneid (above) in the frontispiece of the book.

At his death, Curr was referred to as the ‘father of separation‘ as the colony of Port Phillip separated from the colony of Botany Bay. By the 1850s Australia’s federated structure had begun taking shape. Van Diemen’s Land, Port Phillip, Botany Bay, and Moreton Bay were to become the states of Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. Curr’s oldest son Edward Micklethwaite Curr wrote two books Squatting in Victoria and The Australian Race (in 4 volumes). The contents of these books became the cornerstone of the dispossession of the Yorta Yorta people from their country on the Murray and Goulburn Rivers in Northern Victoria and southern New South Wales.

Samuel Furphy, in his book Edward M Curr and the tide of history, has described how this came about. In a neo-colonialist move the Keating Labor government sought ‘bucket loads of extinguishment’ of land rights mainly for mining interests through its native title legislation and the courts interpretation of that in a post-Mabo world. Under Native Title mining trumps all as has been shown with state and federal government approval for the Adani coal mine.

Excerpt from Edward M Curr’s book ‘Squatting in Victoria

The irony was that nowhere in the writings of Edward M Curr or his father was to be found any suggestion that they were engaged in the dispossession of the original people of this land. Nowhere in the many volumes of books, dairies, correspondence with the Van Diemen’s Land company and the governors of the colonies was there a single reference to terra nullius. It was as if the legal justification for 20th century rights to land, rivers, seas, mines and pasture, terra nullius was the stuff of historical fiction, myth, and propaganda.

I commend this book to readers interested in how Australia was setup. Two hundred and fifty years after the landing of James Cook at Botany Bay the nation state of Australia still carries the burden of that historic fiction. I include an excerpt of the book below.

Always was …

Ian Curr
1st of May 2020


Prologue: ‘Claim sunk by pen of a swordsman

When the High Court of Australia rejected the final appeal in the Yorta Yorta native title case in December 2002, a headline in The Age announced: ‘Claim sunk by pen of a swordsman’. [Fergus Shiel, The Age, 13 December 2002.]

The man in question was Edward M. Curr (1820-1889), who was certainly fond of fencing in his youth, but is better known as the author of Recollections of Squatting in Victoria (1883), an engaging account
of his early life as a pastoralist on the Goulburn and Murray rivers. In 1841 Curr was among the first squatters to occupy land belonging to ancestors of the Yorta Yorta people, described by Curr as ‘the Bangerang Tribe’.*

His nostalgic memoir is one of very few written accounts of Indigenous life in the early years of the pastoral invasion of northern Victoria. The apparent failure of Yorta Yorta people to maintain traditions identifiable with those that Curr had described was a key reason for the defeat of their native title claim.

Born in Hobart in 1820, Curr was the first son of English-Catholic immigrant parents. His father was an influential businessman and politician, who played a prominent role in the early colonial affairs of Van Diemen’s Land and the Port Phillip District of New South Wales (later Victoria). Curr himself was educated in England and France before managing his family’s squatting runs for a decade.

His pastoral endeavours were highly successful and the dispossession of the Indigenous owners was swift. He later experienced financial failure but recovered to forge a successful career as a government official in Victoria, rising to the senior position of Chief Inspector of Stock. From 1875 he was an influential member of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines during a highly controversial period; he doggedly pursued the closure of the Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve near Healesville, publicly displaying a profound paternalism and disregard for the wishes of the Indigenous people concerned.

In the same period, he pursued an interest in Aboriginal languages and ethnology. …

Samuel Furphy

* Throughout this book I use terms for Indigenous groups that were common among nineteenth century writers, notably those preferred by Edward M. Curr, including ‘Bangerang’, ‘Towroonban’, ‘Wongatpan’,
and ‘Ngooraialum’. Other terms such as ‘Aboriginal’, ‘Indigenous’, ‘Maori’, and ‘Native’ are used advisedly, recognising both their conceptual limitations and their broad utility.