Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Granting land under Grose and Hunter, 1793-1800

Grose’s land policy was widely and justifiable criticised by contemporaries and has subsequently been called ‘anarchical’.[1] His administration was lax and the widespread lack of deeds and non-transfer of title left many poor farmers officially landless. The provision of additional large land grants, giving numbers of convict workers in excess of official entitlements and food privileges for officers ensured that a fair share of the limited resources of the colony did not flow to the poor and ex-convicts in ways that Phillip had intended.[2] Through his blatant misuse of his discretionary powers in downsizing ex-convict grants while expanding land made available to officers, Grose and then Paterson began translating elitist attitudes of the officers into a colonial reality that marginalised and disadvantaged equally ex-convicts and free poor immigrant settlers.

By 1795 when Hunter arrived, there was again a food crisis in the colony. The value of much land had declined to such an extent that expenditure on seed was no longer justified and the government was no longer using convicts to clear new land for cultivation.[3] Initially Hunter introduced state aid for settlers by fixing prices and promising to buy all their wheat but this had little effect and it was clear that a radical change in land policy was needed. [4] The result was reversion to the policy of public farming that addressed the issue of food shortages but was vigorously opposed by Portland in London.[5] In addition, by trying to evolve a flexible policy for development that satisfied both settlers and government in London, Hunter managed to alienate both. For example, in 1799, he followed Portland’s instructions to lower the price of grain but then withdrew it to conciliate the settlers.

Hunter’s indecision and lack of support from London spawned settler protest that first emerged in mid-1797 when John Macarthur, a captain in the NSW Corps protested against the nationalisation of production. This resulted in the appointment of two commissioners to hear the grievances of settlers in public meetings, the first attempt to mould land policies by the collection of information instead on through generalised assumptions. The settlers’ grievances were real. The government fixed the price of wheat yearly and received the settlers’ produce into public granaries at that artificial price. This situation was made worse by the officers’ crops going directly to the stores while settlers had to sell to ‘dealers, peddlers and extortioners’ at lower prices.[6] As a result, the 1798 Commission found that agriculture was being constricted. Parramatta showed signs of prosperity but many settlers had not remained on the land reducing overall output to such a degree that of the population of 4,955, 3,545 were fed by the government. Of the 388 settlers, seven out of ten supported themselves. This had not prevented Hunter from making 364 land grants, 181 to convicts covering 28,279 acres or nearly twice the area granted by his predecessors. [7]

[1] Ibid, Roberts, Stephen, History of Australian Land Settlement 1788-1920, p. 7.

[2] This is evident in the land grants between 13 December 1794 and 15 October 1795 see, HRNSW, Vol. 2, pp. 350-356.

[3] See, Hunter to Portland, 28 April, 20 August 1796, HRNSW, Vol. 3, pp. 38-42, 76-79 on obstacles to progress.

[4] As, for example, in the general order, 10 March 1797, HRNSW, Vol. 3, pp. 196-198 listing wages to be paid for particular tasks.

[5] See his letter to Hunter, 31 August 1797, HRNSW, Vol. 3, pp. 293-298.

[6] Settlers’ petition to Hunter, 19 February 1798, HRNSW, Vol. 3, p. 369 and settlers’ appeal to Portland, 1 February 1800, HRNSW, Vol. 4, pp. 25-28.

[7] For the list of grants from August 1796 to 1 January 1800, see HRNSW, Vol. 4, pp. 38-48.

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