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The Australian National University

A city of the future?

Inevitably, the celebration of the centenary of Canberra’s foundation on 12 March 1913 centres on the bold vision in the Griffin’s prize-winning plan for the city. ‘I have planned a city that is not like any other in the world’, Walter Burley Griffin declared in 1912: ‘a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future’. That the national capital should be ‘an incubator of great ideas’ is one of the core themes of the Canberra 100 program, paying tribute to a ‘planned city’ which reflects the ‘aspirations’ of a nation. Alongside this emphasis, however, we might note that for a city preoccupied by its own becoming, its destiny as an ‘ideal’, Canberra sits in a landscape of layered, often lost histories. The future has always beckoned the city, even taunted it. Canberra, judged the eminent Australian historian, W.K. Hancock, in 1930, was ‘a document of Australian immaturity’. But the place in which the city sits is no less a ‘document’ of Australian history, and on on which we can also profitably reflect.

I have a personal investment in that history. On 11 May 1861 James Brown died in a paddock on one of the land grants taken up in the early decades of settlement on and around the Limestone Plains. In 1834, aged nineteen, Brown had been convicted of theft in Edinburgh. Sentenced to transportation and seven year’s labour, he arrived in Sydney and was assigned to James Wright at Lanyon, a handsome property which now carries a heritage classification that keeps the spread of Canberra’s new suburbs just out of sight at its ridgelines. At the time Brown arrived, however, Lanyon was at the furthest edges of pastoral expansion. Convict labour was crucial to its operation, and Wright had a reputation for closely inspecting the work of the floggers who disciplined his men. Receiving his ticket of leave in 1839, and declared free in 1842, Brown stayed as an overseer at Lanyon, which was bought by Andrew Cunningham, a banker, in 1848, in the hope of doing better there than in his first ‘unfortunate’ choice of ‘cold, wet and sour country’ at Congwarra, across the Murrumbidgee River. But it was on that ‘miserable’ lease, judged at best ‘a sanctuary for brumbies’, that Brown was killed by a falling tree. His burial was the first recorded in the district after compulsory registration – but his grave remains unmarked in Lanyon’s cemetery. He was, Cunningham lamented, ‘my oldest and most trusted employee’.

My father’s family stayed in the district, pastoral labourers who only got a chance at land of their own when the declaration of the Federal Capital Territory in 1911 meant they could at last lease properties vacated by established farmers who were not prepared to forgo the security of ownership in the new territory. Their story is a part of the dynamic of land, labour and capital in nineteenth century Australia that was thown into stark relief in Canberra’s valleys. ‘Probably no area of Australia’, one of Canberra’s early historians, Frederick Watson, observed in 1927, saw ‘fewer changes over an extended term of years’ than did the Limestone Plains. Marginalization from the major currents of economic change had kept it a near-feudal enclave. It is perhaps ironic that – as Karl Fischer notes – ‘the poverty of its economic geography’ was what most recommended this site for a national capital: a ‘social laboratory’ that held in microcosm the first phases of pastoralism in Australia was to be succeeded by one that promised (as Griffin enthused) ‘an immediate advantage in the public control of most of public affairs’.

Canberra’s early chroniclers were also keen to smooth the path of white destiny. As Watson wrote, ‘the aborigines disappeared rapidly before the advance of civilization … about Canberra’. A similar refrain runs through the observations of many early explorers. The Aborigines of the Limestone Plains, it was noted, spoke among themselves with ‘an air of peculiar softness’; they were ‘a fine, stout, athletic race’. But their ‘despoilation’ and ‘contamination’ was said to follow rapidly the arrival of Europeans. While settlers spoke of ‘fine and well behaved Blacks’, they also recorded that it was hard to hold them to labour – even though respecting their skills as stockmen, in bushcraft, hunting and tracking. The dispossession of a population now most often identified as Ngunawal was rapid and deeply sentimentalized by those who observed it, marked as it was by none of the violence that characterized the ‘frontier wars’ on more open country further west. By 1913 the selection of ‘Canberra’ as a name for the capital gained a significant measure of acceptance, as Anne Jackson-Nakano notes, because of its connection to a word used for the place by Aborigines: a ‘flurry’ of publications by ‘pioneers’ at that time vouched for its authenticity.  Its claims seem even to have been enhanced by the assumption that no one survived to confirm the meaning of such a pure bequest. As Attorney-General WM Hughes reflected on 12 March 1913:

We are engaged in the first historic event in the history of the Commonwealth today without the slightest trace of that race we have banished from the face of the earth. We must not be too proud lest we should, too, in time disappear. We must take steps to safeguard that foothold we now have.

Griffin spoke of Canberra’s site as a magnificent amphitheatre, but – as these examples suggest – the prologue to the play has an interest of its own. The stage itself had been prepared in ways that still have their relevance. The surveyors who came to prepare for the city noted the extent to which a century’s pastoralism had added its own ‘miserable’ features to over-grazed, eroded, ringbarked and rabbit-infested country. The young geographer, Griffith Taylor, welcomed the prospect that Canberra might, as Australia’s first inland capital, offer a valuable experiment in the necessary adjustment to low rainfall. Charles Weston, a horticulturalist, faced the challenge of remediating nearly a century’s pursuit of ‘the suicidal cutting and clearing of every inch of timber’ on the plains. That Weston found gelignite a more effective tool than a spade in trying to plant the trees that would come to distinguish the city was an indication of the task at hand. Today, Weston’s success is evident, although increasingly tempered by the extent to which the task Taylor anticipated remains to be addressed.

Dr Nicholas Brown is a Senior Fellow with the Australian Dictionary of Biography, School of History 

Updated: 17 January 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Head of School / Page Contact:  Web Publisher