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Pastoral musings and settler politics: how a colonial judge and poet wrote terra nullius into law


The written proclamation of terra nullius by Governor Richard Bourke was made on October 10, 1835. The original document is now in the National Archives of the United Kingdom.

The proclamation was issued to void the treaty between John Batman and the Wurundjeri and Woi Wurrung people, who owned the land on which Melbourne now stands. While the term “terra nullius” appears nowhere on the two pages, the continent-wide claim of ownership would become the legal justification for the dispossession and inhumane treatment of First Nations people in Australia.

Review: Barron Field in New South Wales: The Poetics of Terra Nullius – Thomas H. Ford and Justin Clemens (Melbourne University Publishing)

Most Australians know the concept of terra nullius as a legal fiction that was overturned in the 1992 Mabo decision of the Supreme Court of Australia. But the circumstances surrounding its onset are often forgotten.

In Barron Field in New South Wales: The Poetics of Terra NulliusThomas H. Ford and Justin Clemens invite us into a largely unknown part of Australia’s legal and literary history in a way that revives the debate surrounding the proclamation of terra nullius and how it came about.

Governor Richard Bourke c.1835.

We are introduced in detail to a central figure in the colonial settlement of New South Wales and the history of the country more broadly. Ford and Clemens investigate the career of Baron field (1786–1846), first judge of the Supreme Court of Civil Judicature in New South Wales, who served as the highest statutory authority in the colony from 1817 to 1824.

Field had set the legal precedent for terra nullius prior to Governor Bourke’s proclamation in 1835. In 1819, when asked to decide whether Governor Lachlan Macquarie had authority to levy taxes in the colony, he issued a ruling that rejected the concept in the laws of the colony.

Ford and Clemens follow Field’s career, which also saw him contribute to scientific research, particularly in the field of botany, and become the founder and president of Australia’s first bank, the Bank of New South Wales. Most importantly, they examine Field’s decision-making process that led to the establishment of terra nullius as a legal principle.

But Field was not just a legal and political man; he was also a poet. And his poetry is at the heart of this book.

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Settler Law and Settler Poetics

Barron Field in New South Wales is unlike any book previously published in Australian historical or literary studies. It’s not a biography or simply telling facts. Clemens and Ford have contributed a work to historical and literary study that can be considered even more important than the archival record itself, as it provides insight into how the Bourke Proclamation came about, what it was, what it meant and the idea of ​​terra zero itself.

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To illustrate Field’s importance to Australia’s foundations, Ford and Clemens – veteran academics in romance, philosophy, Australian literature and poetry – have taken a unique approach based on textual analysis. They provide accurate readings of Field’s poetry, arguing that the poems are inseparable from his influence on the legal and cultural beginnings of colonial Australia. The law of the settlers and the poetics of the settlers coexist.

The project is ambitious and innovative in its combination of historical and literary research, but the clear structure of the book enables even the newest reader of poetry or Australian history to engage in a conversation with these fields – one that is historically relevant. and culturally sensitive. . The authors’ exposition of the term terra nullius, its international and cultural history, which is addressed early in the book, is a great contribution in itself.

Ford and Clemens focus on Field’s book First Fruits of Australian Poetry (1819), which is provided in its entirety at Barron Fields in New South Wales. First Fruits was the first volume of poetry printed in Australia with the candid aim of creating an “Australian” verse. Its publication marked the beginning of a literature emanating from the new colony, albeit one that completely whitewashed the tens of thousands of years of oral storytelling traditions in Australia’s First Nations history.

“Poems had certainly been written and published in New South Wales before Field,” write Ford and Clemens, “but they were the first to […] have taken upon themselves the task of producing a national poetics.”

Ford and Clemens have cleverly divided the book into three parts. The first explains the poetic and legal context of Barron Field’s life in the early 19th century. The book then reproduces the full text of Field’s poetry, alongside an exploration of its themes, editions, and meanings.

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Finally, the authors address the main focus of their project. In chapters five through nine, a section entitled “Readings,” Ford and Clemens offer their in-depth literary analysis of the poetry, along with further historical framing and explanation.

This lens of literary analysis shows how much can be gained by intellectually picking apart Field’s literary endeavors. The authors do not regard anything in his poetry as accidental. In their exploration of Field’s epigraphs and references to other authors, including Chaucer and Shakespeare, they explain that they

operate under the assumption that the specific reference points being called in [Barron Field’s] hyperquoting verses are never casual: that, on the contrary, they are elements of meaning mobilized in the service of his greater poetic goals.

Thus, the authors use the basic chapters of the book as introductions to the detailed arguments that emerge during their close readings. Readers are firmly anchored in the moment of analysis, the historical context adds depth and relevance to the literary study. Poetry becomes a framework to explore the constitutional powers of settler Australia. It is truly a groundbreaking fair.

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View of Port Jackson from the collection of Barron Field (1829).
National Library of Australia.

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Topographic musings

Known to the poet William Wordsworth and other figures of the English Romantic movement, Barron Field was no stranger to poetry that cast the poet in the role of philosopher, truthmaker, and landscape explorer. Field saw himself as a provider of topographical musings and a master of pastoral musings.

Such “romantic” moments abound in Field’s work. As Ford and Clemens establish in their close readings, Field’s poetry relies on the use of botanical knowledge and meaning to establish its importance as uniquely Australian.

The longest poem Field wrote was Botany bay flowers. As we see through the critical research of Ford and Clemens, it reflects a sense of ownership that Field believed he had over land and knowledge production in Australia. As the authors explore various poems from Field’s collection, we begin to see the powerful influence this man and his words had on Australian history.

In their final section, “The Absolute Spirit of Colonization,” Ford and Clemens make an ultimate judgment of Field as a poet, a judgment that reverberates throughout the book. His poetic “wickedness” is obvious. The authors note that Field was “rarely praised for the beauty or technical ability of his poetry”.

However, they also argue that his poetry complicates the nature of what is good and bad in poetry itself. Field’s work is “at once petty and extremely important, unoriginal and original”, because of its ethical, cultural, historical and legal ramifications.

One could say nothing “bad” about Ford and Clemens as researchers and authors in this work. Their case for Field’s importance, despite his literary and legal shortcomings, is impressive and compelling.

Barron Field in New South Wales is a work that offers a new line of inquiry in Australian literary and historical study. It is concerned with colonial Australia’s place in the world: culturally, legally and in literature. Innovative and even moving from place to place, it always makes you think. Reframing our understanding of what Australia was in the days of colonial settlement suggests what we can be now, in more enlightened times.

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