Reynolds On Banks
In 'The Law of the Land', Professor Reynolds summarises from Sir Joseph Banks' journal:
The expedition had seen no large gatherings and the evidence provided by camp sites and huts "convinced us of the smallness of their parties". Banks and his colleagues had never seen the inland. He admitted that "what the immense tract of country may produce is to us totally unknown".
But he made the extremely important erroneous assessment that "we may have liberty to conjecture that [it is] totally uninhabited". Why so bold, so inaccurate, so portentous a conclusion? It would be best to let Banks explain in his own words. "The sea", he argued, "has I believe been universally found to be the chief source of supplies to Indians ignorant of the arts of cultivation: the wild produce of the land alone seems scarce able to support them at all seasons at least I do not remember to have read of any inland nation who did not cultivate the ground more or less, even the North Americans who were so well versed in hunting sowed their maize. But should a people live inland who supported themselves by cultivation these inhabitants of the sea coast must certainly have learned to imitate them in some degree at least, otherwise their reason must be supposed to hold a rank little superior to that of monkeys".
"There was a tortuous logic there. Contemporaries appeared to find it persuasive. Books about New South Wales published before 1788 described it as the "solitary haunt of a few miserable savages"; the population was "very small in proportion to its extent" and there was reason to believe that the interior was "either wholly desolate, or at least still more thinly inhabited than the places which have been visited".
It all would have been so easy if Banks had been right - that apart from the coastal fringe Australia was uninhabited, literally a terra nullius. But he wasn't.
Keywords: Banks, Sir Joseph, barbarism, gardening, land use, Reynolds, Henry (Prof.), terra nullius
'The Law of the Land', 1987.
© Penguin Books Australia
Source: Reynolds, Henry