The role of water in ongoing settler-colonialism is re-emerging as a key issue in colonial and settler-colonial theory. In Australia, the renewed focus on water is linked to discussion of water and colonialism in the public debate. Two recent and seemingly different stories illustrate this point.
The first relates to the management of water in the Murray-Darling Basin—a critical water system in the interior of southeastern Australia—which has been in contention since the colonial invasion into this Aboriginal Country. Work by Lana Hartwig, Natale Osborne and Sue Jackson tracked Aboriginal custodianship over time, showing that Aboriginal peoples’ share of water rights is tiny, and that ‘under colonial water law, rights to use water, for example for farming, were granted to whoever owned the land where rivers flowed’.
Second, there is an interesting debate brewing in Australia about who we are with the possible ‘discovery’ of the HMS Endeavour’s final resting place in the United States. The HMS Endeavour is, of course, the ship made famous by Lieutenant James Cook on his voyages of discovery.
While the Australian National Maritime Museum celebrates the possible Endeavour discovery with a digital storytelling project, Eddie Synot and others remind us that ‘Cook, the Endeavour, and everything they signify are woven symbolically into Australian history’ and ‘we do not need to bury ourselves in the ocean floor on the other side of the world to find a symbol for our nation’.
In a recent article in Australian Geographer, I returned to the archive to trace the historic role of rivers and oceans in colonial land theft in Sydney. My archival analysis followed the colonial ships and Aboriginal nawi (bark canoes) to undertake a history from the water. I didn’t fully comprehend just how intricately knitted together the two stories noted above are until I spent a good block of time in the archive.
What I found was a form of thalassic colonisation, whereby territoriality was a defining feature of settler-colonialism in the first decades of the colonial invasion in Sydney, but wherein claiming and controlling vast bodies of water was necessary to that territoriality.
Understanding the centrality of water, much like the centrality of land, is key to understanding settler-colonialism in Australia.
The early New South Wales (i.e., Sydney) colony was a terrain that is perhaps better understood as a watery space with land at the edges, rather than a landed space surrounded by water. It was within the watery terrain of the Pacific Ocean—the watery ontology of the Crown claim of the New South Wales colony—that the maritime men claimed land in the early colony.
Water and settler-colonialism
‘Since 1788, the coastline of this continent has been colonized by British colonists and their descendants, who built the majority of Australia’s capital cities near the sea.’ Aileen Moreton-Robinson
Britain was a maritime empire and Sydney a maritime town in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and there was a maritime pathway to early land theft and settlement in Australia.
We know the possessive logics of settler-colonialism in Australia, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson defines them, are explicitly connected to both land and water. Fresh and saltwater Aboriginal peoples felt the colonial pressure on their waterways as soon as the ‘explorers’ and colonisers arrived. The land was stolen, often violently, from Aboriginal people from the water, and Aboriginal people resisted this invasion from the land and water.
Considerable settler-colonial research has shown how theft of Aboriginal land and violent displacement occurred in the early New South Wales colony through the land ‘settlement’ process. Certainly, for many Aboriginal people the impact of settler-colonisation is framed by land-based dispossession and violence, as the vast body of land-based settler-colonial research shows. Invasion, surveying, claiming land, building roads and towns, and constructing fences and buildings on Aboriginal Country is literally how Aboriginal peoples are dispossessed of their land.
Yet, the oceans and new maritime technologies were the colonial infrastructure that enabled these settlements to be conjured up in the imaginations of the colonists in the metropole. Renisa Mawani shows that cultures of settler-colonialism ‘were often borrowed from maritime worlds informing and shaping registers of colonial, legal, and racial violence on land’.
Thus, not only were there extractive and settlement logics to claiming landed territory during the colonial period (i.e., land-based settler-colonial logics), but water-based ‘exploration and discovery’ were crucial to the colonial process too (i.e., water-based settler-colonial logics).
As Astrida Neimanis prompts, changing the way we theorise this aspect of settler-colonialism means changing how we think about land and water. Tiffany Lethabo King’s conceptualisation of imperial land and water, and particularly King’s concept of ‘the shoal’, has recast colonial land and water as a space of contact, friction and interaction.
King pays particular attention to late-twentieth-century critical Black and Indigenous scholars who have ‘mobilised oceanic and water metaphors to theorise Black life, aesthetics, and decolonial politics as breaks with continental European discourse’.
This work builds on a long tradition of critical Black scholarship on water, colonialism, labour, land and race, such as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic; noting that what happened in the Pacific was different to the Atlantic, as Onur Ulas Ince recently flagged with the term ‘methodological Atlanticism’—a term which I suspect plays off the idea of methodological nationalism. The new work from ‘Black and Pacific studies scholarship lingers where waters and dirts meet’ (sic).
Andrew Lipman asks, ‘what if we considered the contestation over colonial land not only as a part of the continent it is located on, but also as part of the ocean?’ Renisa Mawani similarly prompts, ‘How might we reorient analyses of […] settler colonialism so that oceans feature more prominently in [I]ndigenous contests over land, resources, and European resettlement?’
These are good questions, and David Featherstone encourages us to follow the colonial ships to undertake a ‘history from below’, or even a ‘decolonization from below’, as Leslie James puts it. Mawani argues that currents ‘follow multiple trajectories, exhibit changing dimensions, and thus offer alternative metaphors and additional ways to chart the discrepant mobilities of colonial and imperial worlds’. Mawani’s ‘oceans as method’ also encourages us to ‘follow the ship through time and space, retelling its passage as a global, maritime, and legal history’. Similarly, Philip Steinberg and Kimberley Peters provide a framework for ‘thinking with the sea’.
In Australia, Taylor Coyne and colleagues deploy a ‘hydro-epistemology’ to talk about ‘hydroimperial ways of knowing water’. Jess McLean and colleagues discuss the racial politics of water with their idea of ‘shadow waters’, which is a political activity that seeks to expose Aboriginal notions of water and Aboriginal care for waterways, which were physically manipulated and re-storied by imperial power structures and narratives through colonisation.
Maritime webs of empire and colonial land theft
My analysis is interested in a group of colonists who were maritime people, such as members of the British Royal Navy, maritime merchants, ship builders, sealers and whalers (see the article for a narrative history of their lives). With stories about the land explorers and land settlement as central narratives in early histories of Sydney, we often forget the earliest European colonists were maritime people.
Nautical exploration preceded land-based exploration in the land theft and settlement process, and nautical ontologies and epistemologies were key to how maritime empires imagined settler-colonialism itself.
Land-centric accounts of settler-colonialism, to use Patrick Wolfe’s terminology, are powerful interventions into the settler-colonial logics of land. Yet, historians such as Grace Karskens go to considerable lengths to highlight the maritime logics of the early Sydney colony. Indeed, this is a subtly argued, yet important theme that runs across Karskens’ three key books; The Rocks, The Colony and People of the River.
Land claiming in the early Sydney colony is a story about more than land-based colonial activity. The story of early Sydney is a story about invasion and land claiming along rivers and waterways throughout the colony. In other words, there was a maritime pathway to land theft in Sydney.
The Cammeraygal woman Barangaroo felt the colonial pressure on her waterways and fishing grounds in Sydney Harbour almost as soon as Captain Arthur Phillip raised the flag at Warrane/Sydney Cove. The first four Governors of Sydney were officers in the British Royal Navy and British subjects of the Crown—Arthur Phillip, John Hunter, Philip Gidley King and William Bligh—and they didn’t just abandon their maritime ways when they stepped off their boats in Sydney.
Quite the contrary, they used their British Royal Navy and maritime skill to invade, claim and settle the colony, as the colonial diaries of William Bradley make clear. Indeed, Stephen Gapps makes a good point when he says ‘It seems to me historians should have paid more attention to Lieutenant William Bradley’. The colonists literally ‘explored’, invaded, and then established the first settlements from the water. My aim, then, was to write the role of the water back into land invasion, theft and settlement in Sydney.
The water ontology of the Crown claim
The British Crown claim to Australia covered a large swathe of the Te Tai-o-Rēhua/Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean.
In the western philosophical canon, water has long been understood as distinct from land. Hugo Grotius’ Mare Liberum (free sea) from the early seventeenth century and Carl Schmitt’s mid-twentieth century The Nomos of the Earth were key texts that formalised a foundational western division of the planet’s surface into two binary opposites; land and sea (see Philip Steinberg and Kimberley Peters). The significance of colonial maritime activities ‘continue to be overshadowed by historical accounts that privilege land/territory and region/nation [i.e., methodological nationalism], thereby diminishing the seaborne itineraries and oceanic imaginaries’.
The idea of what the Crown claim is has been in flux since the day it was first drafted and proclaimed for the New South Wales colony. It is significant that the British Crown claim to Australia included a territorial claim to land that would allow the British Maritime Empire to take control of a large body of water in the Te Tai-o-Rēhua/Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean.
The British Crown claim was, in effect if not in law (see, for example, the recently republished book by Pitt Cobbett), a territorial claim to land and sea, and the original Crown claim included parts of Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Control of the waterways around the New South Wales colony was always part of the Crown’s intensions. Thus, while the colonial settlement at Warrane/Sydney Cove was meant to be a simple agrarian penal colony, it grew into a port town facing the sea. It was a pre-industrial town based on agrarian cultures and mercantile capitalism, with colonial shipping and the British Royal Navy at its centre.
The water formed an expansive colonial network of rivers, oceans, and ships that connected the New South Wales colony to Aotearoa/New Zealand, Asia, Europe, and the metropole, with the planning and material form of the settlements reflecting this maritime reality.
Lynette Russell and Grace Karskens, among others, remind us that the Aboriginal peoples of Sydney and the European colonists were both at home on the water. Keith Smith notes that travelling by water around the colony and further afield was quicker and smoother than going by land. ‘Sydney’s oceanic location shaped the coming city economically, socially and physically, but it shaped mindsets and sensibilities too,’ and ‘ship-building flourished despite the original instructions and subsequent rules forbidding their construction’, writes Grace Karskens.
The rivers and oceans operated as a nautico-imperial infrastructure that connected the colony to the British maritime empire, and ‘Sydney, by virtue of its maritime position, was not remote’, its ‘life-line was the ocean links with the rest of the world’.
Nautical exploration and Aboriginal resistance
A focus on the water provides new insights into Aboriginal resistance in the early colony. Aboriginal resistance was enacted from and on the water in relation to the maritime environment in the colony (see my article for a narrative history of this resistance). Control of the water was just as important as control of the land in the early days of the colony, and Aboriginal resistance was mounted against the colonial claim to and control of the water and land.
Watkin Tench talks about how swiftly Aboriginal people moved across the landscape by nawi, skilfully eluding the colonial authorities. Settlers were attacked by Aboriginal warriors on the land and water.
Bidjigal warrior Pemulway used his nawi as a tactical instrument of war and was involved in conflicts at Warrane/Sydney Cove, Parramatta River, Prospect Creek, and the Dyarubbin/Nepean and Hawkesbury. Pemulway’s ‘tactics of resistance’, as Goodall and Cadzow call them, were intimately connected to the waterways.
The story of Kurringy—detailed in my article—is not as well-known but is as equally revealing. Kurringy was a resistance fighter who confronted the British colonial invasion along the length of the Dyarubbin/Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers. He was a savvy political operator who negotiated with the colonial powers to gain his freedom at a time of persecution. Kurringy eventually worked his way into the early social and economic life of the Dyarubbin/Hawkesbury River settler community by living and working on the farms and sealing boats of the colonisers, against whom he had previously fought for the land and sovereignty of his people. By the 1820s not only had Kurringy and his people been dispossessed of their land, but their labour had been captured and put in the service of the colony too.
Furthermore, a form of environmental utilitarianism informed the eighteenth-century colonial view of the environment and landscape, which did not draw a hard distinction between the biodiversity and aesthetics of the natural world and its immediate utility as a set of resources that could be used within the colonial project.
In this atomised, colonist view of Aboriginal Country, the land and trees of the colony were resources to be claimed and extracted to provide the raw materials for the maritime industries and economy. Land was taken for boat building sites, trees felled for boat building, and the early wharves were sites of bustling maritime trade throughout the Te Tai-o-Rēhua/Tasman Sea and beyond.
Thus, water-based exploration and the early maritime industries—such as whaling and sealing which I discuss in my article—opened an important Indigenous/colonial contact zone in the early New South Wales colony, and water-based exploration and settlement was connected to and occurred before or alongside land-based exploration and settlement.
Philosophies of labour, land and property are central to settler-colonial theory, and they are important for how we understand colonial maritime labour too. Lockean ideas of land use and improvement, for example, were transported to the colony along with the convicts by the British Empire.
The application of labour to the land was important not only for claiming a form of ownership of land in western legal terms, which was underwritten by the legal fiction of terra nullius, but colonial and Aboriginal bodies became manifestations of the labour power implicit in Lockean theories of labour value. Grace Karskens writes, ‘Although the state did not own the body of the convict, as in slavery, it did own his or her labour in theory at least’.
Phillip’s Instructions outlined that the products of convict labour belonged to the Crown. The relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the colonisers, argues Patrick Wolfe, ‘as both parties to the relationship would presumably agree,’ certainly centred on land. Yet, Aboriginal people’s relationship with the colonisers, ‘from the colonisers’ point of view at least’, centred on Aboriginal labour as an ‘enslaved labour force’ too.
Convict labour, for example, was integral to the establishment of public farms in the early colony, which became key sites for applying embodied convict labour to the land. Convict and Aboriginal labour were also used in the service of the maritime empire more broadly; in the form of maritime labour on ships and water-based colonial exploration and expansion.
As Lynette Russell insightfully shows, this embodied Aboriginal labour operated as a complicated form of resistance against and incorporation into the colonial maritime economy and land theft process.
Land theft was a product of this maritime activity, whereby settler, convict and Aboriginal labour were deployed in the service of the maritime industries on the colonial ships well beyond the Warrane/Sydney encampment.
Where to from here?
‘Whenever I have been introduced to Country that isn’t my own, I have always been given a similar orientation. Traditional Custodians will point to a mountain or landmark or reference a body of water beyond it and where it might flow to’ — Emily McDaniel
Henry Reynolds was somewhat dismissive of water-based forms of settler-colonialism, writing, ‘[s]ea-based industries were probably less disruptive of Aboriginal life than either mining or pastoralism. The Europeans who harvested the sea had no need for land other than small plots’.
Yet, there are other stories of Indigenous men and women carving out a life at sea in the colonial maritime industries, and thereafter played a role in the polyglottal and multi-racial whaling, sealing and other settlements around the Te Tai-o-Rēhua/Tasman Sea that are worth further investigation.
Additionally, when Sydney-based sealers sailed to Aotearoa/New Zealand on 12 November 1792, they built a ‘house, 40 ft. long, 18 ft. broad, and 15 ft. high’ and a ‘little wharf’. This building and wharf are among some of the first colonial architecture to be built in Aotearoa/New Zealand. This was land theft that existed outside the formal land grant system and warrants a more detailed land theft history.
Stephen Gapps further notes that some maritime merchants, such as James and William Walker in the 1820s, expanded and/or shifted from maritime business out of Sydney to securing large pastoral landholdings over the Blue Mountains. Similarly, Alexander Berry and John Macarthur had maritime and pastoral interests, as I discuss in the article.
Once the land had been secured as a colonial asset these land holdings gave the early colonists social standing and political power in the emerging colonial system. I flag in my article that maritime colonists were involved in the establishment of the first bank in the New South Wales colony, and point to the role of maritime commerce in the emergence of capitalism in the colony (see, for example, the Commercial Society).
More broadly, Michael Pearson notes that a ‘major factor in the increasing demand for detailed navigational charts’ during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century ‘was the spread of settlement’. The first governor of the New South Wales colony, Arthur Phillip ‘knew that charts and maps were intensely political; that they were ‘keys to empire’ and a ‘way to wealth’; and that they provided opportunities for international advancement and professional success’.
Pearson locates Australia’s early colonial history within a broader maritime context and calls this period the ‘early maritime survey period’, showing that the seas were busy with water-going colonial vessels surveying the coastal littorals and ocean waters in the Te Tai-o-Rēhua/Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean. The invasion and claiming of land were ‘sometimes made by maritime survey, and sometimes by land exploration’.
Exploring Sydney’s early colonial land history within its broader maritime town and maritime empire context could productively augment the land-centrism of analyses of the invasion and early settlement of Sydney, and it might even help us better understand the politics of water in Australia today.