The tale of a ghost state

THIS IS A story about a new, breakaway state that was proposed in 1861, taking 18 million acres from Victoria and nine million from South Australia. It was to be called Princeland.

This story is supposed to be a part of a publication with distinctly South Australian themes, but we are going to have to dissolve a few borders here. I heard talk about Princeland a couple of decades ago, and the idea appealed to me. The way the utopian or commercial wants of one hundred and fifty years ago dovetailed with my own Arcadian feels of an Australia once so brimming with intrigue and energy that an idea like that could have gotten any legs. Well, the legs didn’t really carry the idea into any kind of reality. Things were still pretty much in a state of flux in the colonies back then, Victoria having only just separated from New South Wales in 1851. The proposal for the breakaway state pimped a population of sixty thousand people.

The Victorian politicians who reacted badly to the idea countered with their stats of the settlers’ relatively small populations: Warrnambool, 2,211; Hamilton, 1,197; Portland, 2,804; Belfast-Port Fairy, 2,338. The gold rush had taken the attention of the Melbourne legislature, and places such as these, despite being settled a few decades earlier, had lost their interest. Things were hardly set in stone. These people were walking around, ankle deep in mud for the most part.

I went to the State Library in Melbourne and they had three documents on the subject. One was a copy of the original prospectus that was attached to a petition sent to Queen Victoria for consideration. Queen Victoria sat on the nineteenth-century world much like the statue that sits in Piccadilly, Manchester, described as a ‘large black slug’ in the song ‘City Hobgoblins’ by the Fall. Queensland was named after her, as was, of course, Victoria and so was Princeland to be named, so it has been opined, for her boyfriend – sorry, consort – Prince Albert, who popped his cork in 1861.

SO LET’S HEAR what Princeland was all about. The ghost state that never was.

People in Warrnambool, Portland, and Belfast (later called Port Fairy) in Victoria thought they were sending too much cash and produce to distant Melbourne and weren’t getting anything like parity back in services or even attention. They had police for instance, but no courts. The same went for the settlement of Mount Gambier across the border in South Australia and the neighbouring towns of Port MacDonnell, Kingston and Robe. These places all thought they were being equally shaded by the distant South Australian capital of Adelaide. So they put together an idea they wanted to get political support for, to separate and join together in a new colony or state to be called Princeland.

We should understand that both Adelaide and Melbourne were not even recognised entities on a map until 1836. They were recent events in the legislature. As far as Melbourne goes, you get a sense of a wild coastline with local Aboriginal tribes having violent contact with whaling ships and their crews over the decades. People crossed between Tasmania and the mainland. When John Batman made his ceremonial gesture toward a future town of Melbourne, it happened with the apparition of the almost seven--foot former convict William Buckley walking into their camp from the local tribe he’d been living with for three decades. The same year, a party sent to the area that was to become Portland was amazed to find it already settled and stocked with sheep by Edward Henty and his brother, Stephen.

The Princeland petition itemised all the revenue coming in and going out of both the Victorian and South Australian settlements involved. There were five ports in all: Warrnambool, Portland, Port Fairy, Port MacDonnell and Robe. In a time of no income tax, customs duties and charges were a major source of income for any government. The petitioners made a strong case that they were being ripped off by the swells of Melbourne and Adelaide. They wanted out! They projected a plan where revenue could be realised from land sales and import duties at those ports. They itemised what would be spent on roads, police, government offices and elected representatives and schools. It came out that the new state would be running a decent profit.

We should also understand that the land being sold was referred to as belonging to ‘the Crown’. There were, of course, the Indigenous Australians to be taken into account. Well, we should take them into consideration; in all the accounts given at the time they are treated very off-handedly. As if they were already fading away, according to some actual plan of God’s wise and inevitable devising.

There were tribal groups through Melbourne and around Warrnambool and Portland and down into the Mount Gambier area. The Crown and these newly fangled ‘states’ were not recognising this. These are the parts of Australian history that are very dark. We see and hear about Aboriginals in the Western Desert and the centre of Australia, up in the Northern Territory and Far North Queensland. We are used to those images of people walking in hot desert or tropical climes with no real need for much clothing. In Victoria it can get awfully cold, so people wore cloaks made of possum skins and sheltered from the wind and rain. We never see these kinds of images. Of course, there was violence and there were massacres. Poisoning of food and waterholes. Perhaps in the future we’ll get to hear these stories?

I THOUGHT I could perhaps trace the ghostly presence of Princeland, the forgotten state that never was, through my own experiences. The pressures and grievances that drove the petition for separation were real and didn’t just go away. The geography stayed the same, the isolation and the sheer distances between settlements. What could still be sensed of Princeland?

I grew up on the east side of Mount Gambier, just down the road from the beautiful Blue Lake, which sits in the crater of an enormous extinct volcano along with several other freshwater lakes, most of which have disappeared or are on the way to becoming dry. People are profligate with water, and if climate change is mentioned there is always somebody who will quote a diary entry from a Henty, referring to a dried lake bed when passing by in 1836 on their way to make some money somewhere else. Their voices are still trusted and used as proof of the cyclical nature of the weather and also the movements of underground water. The voices of the local Aboriginal tribes are not heard so clearly. Were they ever listened to?

The street I grew up on was called Werona. There was also Allawah Street and Boandik Terrace. They all seemed to be names steeped in local Indigenous history but everybody around was very European in appearance. There were some Indigenous kids in the junior local football teams when I was active there, one young bloke in Millicent and a tough lot of brothers who all played for West Gambier. I say ‘tough’ because they could all fight and they were feared, even though they were not the biggest of kids. They lived with white families, having been adopted. We also saw black fellows in the boxing tents at the show.

Boandik was the name of the local tribe that occupied the area from the mouth of the Glenelg River to Rivoli Bay North (Beachport), extending inland for about thirty miles. The other clans occupied country from between Lacepede Bay to Bordertown. The Boandik (or Buandig) shared tribal borders with the Ngarrindjeri people of the Coorong and Murray mouth to the west, the Bindjali and Jardwadjali to the north and the Gunditjmara people to the east.

Near Warrnambool is the settlement of Framlingham. The year 1861 was one of great activity in young Victoria, as this place called Framlingham was designated as the last reserve for Aboriginal people in the state. Tribal groupings were ignored and three different clans were moved into this unhappy place: Girai Wurrung (near what became the Mortlake area), along with surviving Djargurd Wurrung (near what is now the Camperdown). The tribe called Gunditjmara refused to join and established a reserve nearer to their traditional lands called Lake Condah, near Portland. These people are considered unique in Australia. They lived in large villages constructed of stone huts and harvested eels and fish in a sophisticated network of weirs and traps, dated to at least 6,600 years ago. This area is managed by the Gunditjimara and is of National Heritage and being considered as a World Heritage site.

The football league we played in, of which Mount Gambier was a substantial part (providing four teams), was itself a sort of Princeland in the sporting dimension. It was called the South-East and Border Football League (SEBFL) and comprised teams in the western part of Victoria – Casterton, Coleraine, Hamilton and Hamilton Imperials, and Portland – together with East, West, North and South Gambier, Penola, Heywood and Millicent. To us in Mount Gambier, of course, those Victorian teams were to the east, but we got used to the illogical use of geographical terms everywhere in our lives. The ‘Far East’ in our history books being really ‘Near North’, for instance.

Two teams had the Tiger as their emblem/totem: North Gambier and Portland. Nobody got confused! In the 1970s, the South Australian teams were allowed to build their own clubrooms with licensed areas that gave them a great economic advantage. Now the league has shrunk to six teams, with most of the Victorian clubs leaving for closer associations, and South Australian teams such as Penola defecting as well. Things are crook out there, for real.

Elections in Victoria are still won and lost on the regional vote and politicians ignore the bush at their peril.

Portland, which was to be the state capital of Princeland, has had the ALCOA aluminium-smelting plant since 1986, providing employment but proving to be a political boil on the arse of Victoria. The deal to attract the multinational company to the area involved getting power at very cheap prices (linked to the price of aluminium). The raw material is shipped in from Perth and the finished product is shipped and trucked out. Aluminium has been described as solid electricity, so much is used in its manufacture. There is an estimate that the state has subsidised power to the degree of $2 billion over twenty years. The power comes from Yallourn, five hundred kilometres away.

Warrnambool has a higher education facility as well as the Great Ocean Road, plus annual visits by whales to drag in the ecotours. A beautiful town built on a rise on one side and the river and the sea. We used to travel there in the ’70s to sample their drive-in, and also to visit a cool import record store. I remember staring at Frank Zappa’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh and cursing our Mount Gambier record store for not having such exotic, hard-covered fare.

The nearby vintage village of Port Fairy, formerly Belfast, is one of the oldest in Victoria and has a thriving annual folk festival that brings in bearded, polo-necked, craft beer-loving hordes from all over the place.

There is also still, in Warrnambool, the beautiful idealistic workers’ utopia that was the Fletcher Jones and Staff factory. It is now a vintage clothes and furniture market, but you are still able to walk around in the factory that dressed the citizens of Western Victoria. Workers were given shares in the profits of the company and there are still lovely gardens where they could eat their lunch or just sit in peace in the middle of the day. Where is this sense of civic tranquillity in our leaning and lifting, warring world of today?

The train from Melbourne to Mount Gambier turns into a bus at Warrnambool to complete the journey into South Australia, as rail lost out to road haulage in the ’80s.

MOUNT GAMBIER, AT the time of the Princeland move, had a population of around 880. Isolation was their gripe. It made so much more sense for the farming produce of the region to be taken by road one hundred kilometres to Portland, where it could be loaded onto ships and transported to Melbourne or Adelaide. Instead, with the defeat and disappearance of the Princeland motion, a train line was built from Mount Gambier, across a desert, a river and through the hills surrounding Adelaide to keep it part of the state of South Australia. It started out narrow gauge and broadened at Wolsley and onto Adelaide itself. The rail in the other direction, from Mount Gambier to Victoria, was broad gauge, and then it all changed to standard in 1995 as the Mount Gambier rail line closed. The rail line ran through the city entirely and has recently been converted into an area of public space and native gardens.

I rode that Bluebird train, as it was known, from Mount Gambier to Adelaide a few times, and the last ride I took was in 1988. It was reduced to one caboose rolling through that four-hundred-kilometre journey. It was cute. Smoking at one end and a woman rolling a food-and-drink trolley up and down the aisle every hour or so. I mean, we could have all gotten up and walked to wherever she was set up.

Naracoorte, which was known as Mosquito Plains at the time of the petition, has long been a town I identify with sheep farms and men walking around in RM Williams’ moleskins. My parents were married there. It has a strange swimming pool cut into some rock and has made its own way for years, through drought and flood, and abided. I’ve always been a little spooked by this area.

Penola was until relatively recently a wonderfully downbeat and depressed place. I loved to drive through its dying, melancholy streets. The old football oval and the occasional resident swatting a fly from their face and staring as you glid by. Then Mary MacKillop. All around the area, for a hundred-kilometre radius, there are signs with a silhouette of a nun. If you’d been educated by nuns and brothers from the South Australian Catholic schools of the ’60s and ’70s, this is a chilling sight indeed – and music from old horror movies always comes to mind. Yes, the town has been revived by a flick of the quill from Il Papa in the distant Vatican. I preferred it when it was on its death cot, wheezing out there in the baking sun. It would have survived anyway, because of being smack dab in the heart of the Coonawarra wine region and having such gifted soil for vineyards. It’s strange playing music in that area – you get prepared for hicks and roughnecks coming in from a day of hay baling, and you get people telling you how they take gallons of expensive wines out on the fields to do that work and then offering you a line of coke. It’s changed out there! It’s no Wake in Fright any more. I miss those crude, savage bastards.

THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN governor, Dominick Daly, rejected the Princeland petition – which was sent to the British Government in 1862 – without going through the Victorian legislature. The Duke of Newcastle, who was the Secretary of State, rejected it, advising he would only consider it if it came from the South Australian and Victorian governments and told the petitioners to ‘better choose their representatives’ in the legislature. Edward Henty, who had recently been voted out of his seat in the Victorian parliament, appealed directly to the Duke, but to no avail.

In the end, despite much trumpeting for the cause from businessmen and their newspapers in Warrnambool, Mount Gambier and Portland, the petition gathered fifteen hundred signatures, which, out of the estimated pool of sixty thousand proposed Princeland inhabitants, impressed no one. There was also a petition of anti-secessionists given to the Governor of South Australia.

The threat of secession stayed in the background as a real threat, though, and the Parliament of South Australia was seen to expend much more money in the south-eastern area after the idea of Princeland and the grievances of the local squatters and business owners had been aired. They got their court and public buildings and better roads to Mount Gambier after 1862, and the moorings and jetty at Port MacDonnell were improved (even though it would never be a satisfactory harbour).

Princeland – there it blew! In some ways, they did have some points. That map was drawn up awfully quickly over a lot of – especially South Australian – land that no European had ever set foot on. Couldn’t they have had second thoughts and given it a burl?

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