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Cattle and colonialism: the animals that built Sydney

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Runaway herds of cattle shaped the progress of the British colonisation of Australia, where efforts to recapture and contain them prepared the ground for the construction of Sydney

In my local town, on unceded Gundungurra Country about an hour south of Sydney, the public swimming pool has been decommissioned due to persistent and increasing flooding. It floods because it was built by colonisers on top of the Nattai Creek, part of a complex river system that runs through the south-west of the Sydney region. Aboriginal Elders tell of the creation of rivers and waterholes by Gurangatch, ‘part eel, part reptile’, when chased by Mirragan (a giant native quoll); the battles between the two bringing a wake of flowing rivers and deep waterholes on Gundungurra Country and beyond, as recalled by Aunty Fran Bodkin in What the Colonists Never Knew by Dennis Foley and Peter Read. In the last two decades, the climate crisis has accelerated and enhanced the power of the river systems and here the water’s flow cracks an Olympic-sized swimming pool like a thin biscuit, laying bare the hubris of colonial design and control.

Colonisation of this region by English and Scottish settlers and migrants (I am one of these) in the early 1800s was predicated on not being able, or willing, to read, eat or listen to Country. Some things are now more obvious as indicators of that profound disconnection with other people’s Country, like the act of building a swimming pool in the path of a riverbed and seeing it as an advance on nature; a pool that will not withstand water itself. The climate crisis makes stark other features of disconnection too, sedimented into the colonisation of the region by white invaders and the animals they/we brought here. 

Imposing the dark figure of a cow over a banknote, Livestock – Botswana by South African artist Arlene Amaler-Raviv recalls etymological connections between ‘cattle’ and ‘capital’ and an understanding of livestock animals as movable property

Credit:Arlene Amaler-Raviv & Dale Yudelman

Government supply ships as part of the First Fleet (1788) brought pigs, chickens, sheep, horses, cows and bulls with them. Many did not survive the long journey, which was several weeks from the Cape of Good Hope. They were underfed and kept in cramped cells below deck. Watkin Tench, on board the First Fleet with the Marine Corps, refers to the animals as ‘cattle’ (1791), not because they were all cows and bulls (as we now understand the term), but because ‘cattle’ was a word used to describe livestock animals as a group. Cattle meant ‘movable capital’ and shares etymological kinship with ‘chattel’: women, enslaved people and animals, all movable property of their owners, shipped in and out of colonies along with other goods. 

As environmental historians Virginia Anderson and John Ryan Fischer have outlined in the context of the colonisation of New England, Hawai’i and California, cattle were not only a way of sustaining a new colony with recognisable food, they were also a primary means by which the colonisers could ‘see’ themselves in Country as its cultivators, improvers, farmers and animal husband/protectors. So too in Sydney, the cattle that arrived with the First Fleet were there to be eaten and to feed beliefs about cultivation and pastoralism equating to proper land use and possession.

When cows liberated themselves from human attempts at wrangling and roamed out across Indigenous lands, their captors reframed this failure at husbandry by drawing over, colonising and naming those lands ‘Cowpastures’ as if the escape had been an intentional act of city planning

But the cows and bulls were ‘movable property’ with minds of their own, a small herd of minds. Within the first few months of their arrival, the bull and four cows escaped the colony. The escapees likely moved south-west following the creeks and river systems, eventually moving into open grasslands that had been cultivated as hunting grounds for millennia by the Dharawal clans of the Sydney region. Within a few years, one small herd turned into many large herds. This ‘movable property’ of the colonial administration was, as Anderson shows in the New England context, doing the work of colonisation – work that is always a multispecies affair but infrequently recognised as such. Anderson describes how colonists of early New England were successful in bringing their livestock to the colony, but not so much the animal husbandry that went with it. Husbandry required fencing, stockyards and a ready supply of food. Without these, the animals could neither be kept fed nor close, so they went foraging for themselves. Anderson shows that ‘free-roaming’ cattle were often completely lost to their owners, doing damage to Indigenous people’s corn plantations. They also mucked up waterways, impacted ecologies and froze to death in heavy winters, failing to thrive like the animals of home. Anderson makes the point that the livestock formed an ‘advanced guard’ of the colonial frontier because wherever the cattle went, the colonists were sure to follow, finding them in ‘pastures’ of their own creation, making themselves at home in the territories of local tribes.  

By 1801, a large herd of cattle outside Sydney was described by Governor King as ‘in so ferocious a state as not to be easily approached’. Domestication was clearly not a permanent state for the cattle, who were themselves escapees and not interested in collaborating with their captors. They kept moving away, defending themselves and making it clear they wanted nothing to do with humans. Instructions to the Colony Governors from London were to leave the ‘wild cattle’ alone and not to attempt to capture and tame them. In recognition of how Europeans conceived of the ownership of land as imbricated with its use, the name ‘Cowpastures’ was given to the area, covering part of what is now western Sydney, on the land of the Dharawal and into adjacent Gundungurra Country. 

‘The work of colonisation is always a multispecies affair but infrequently recognised as such’

The naming of this place achieved a number of things simultaneously: it naturalised the presence of cattle in a landscape that had never had hard-hoofed animals on it before; it made the failures of animal husbandry (to ‘keep’ cattle) look rather more deliberate, like a city planning decision; it continued the erasure of Aboriginal clan ownership in the already named and known Country; and it re?domesticated the escapees, taming the wild at least in name. Cowpastures, and the constant movement of retreating cattle it names, created a rationale for colonisers to go further, to take more and eventually to fence in their claims to Dharawal land. This perhaps helps to explain the reluctance expressed by London governors to capture the cattle; to leave the ‘wild cattle’ would mean that the colonists would follow them further and further into Aboriginal lands. 

Rather than an ‘advanced guard’ for colonialism, as Anderson sees them, the cattle were more a retreating herd, defending themselves when confronted and intent on evading capture. The antagonistic, rather than collaborative relationship between colonists and cattle accelerated colonisation; their running away predicted a catching up, a capture of them and the changed land they trod.

The ‘overlanding mob’ of fugitive cattle that fled progressively further into Indigenous people’s lands were uninterested in collaborating with their captors, and Colony Governors received instruction from London to allow them to continue their roaming

Credit:State Library of New South Wales

The antagonism between cattle and colonist (measured by the need for fences, ‘mustering’, prodding, branding, head restraints etc) continues to play out across the Australian landscape and is still cast in a romantic light. As critic Melissa Boyde has argued, the plot of Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia revolves entirely around the unspoken violence of live cattle export, but also the expropriation of Aboriginal land and the trashing of fragile ecosystems under hoof. Such is the popularity of this outback projection that the lives of cattle – and their resistance towards capture – is made invisible behind the mythologising. 

Livestock animals are further invisibilised in a growing body of literature termed ‘new nature writing’, a genre that celebrates cities and urban spaces as ‘multispecies’ locales with rewilding by birds, invitations to bee colonies, urban wildlife and forest dwellers accommodated within greening cities. As Paula Arcari, Hayley Singer and I recently argued, such studies avoid all mention of the animals that outnumber these urban creatures by far; the millions of livestock animals that make their way into cities to be slaughtered for meat and other products. By ignoring them, these studies place clear lines around who counts as ‘nature’ in our cities, and who is merely ‘movable property’; invisibilised by virtue of their use and product status.  

And yet, as the history of Cowpastures shows, the city of Sydney has been shaped by cattle and their resistance to enforced collaborations with humans. Their attention to the rivers and the creek systems gave them clues to a path out of captivity and their trespass on Aboriginal land an excuse for settlers to follow. Reclaiming cattle, colonisers could claim land as ‘pasture’ already grazed, discovering their own possession of pasture in advance. And here on Gundungurra Country, pastoral lands were fenced off to eventually become housing developments, or what’s known as urban ‘infill’ – as if we are always starting with emptiness. Terra nullius, land with no recognisable sovereign, rendered Aborginal possession of Country an unsettled moot point and the wild pastoralism of ‘movable property’ cemented reconfigurations to come. Livestock have been central to colonisation and city limits; the key point here is to think about the significance of their desire for escape.

Lead image: A drawing from 1804 shows a view of the government hut at Cowpastures in a grey, windswept and cattle-less landscape. Credit: State Library of New South Wales

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