In Australia’s smallest mainland state
Melbourne, capital of Victoria, the smallest mainland state of Australia, is also the most crowded state, with a population of four and a half million living in its 230,000 square kilometres – though the term crowded is very much relative where Australia is concerned. Even in Victoria you can still travel for miles in some places without seeing a soul.
This region was first occupied more than 40,000 years ago by the Koories, the wandering Aborigine tribes of south eastern Australia. They found the place so fertile and amenable that they even set up a few semi-permanent settlements, remains of which can still be seen. And when it turned cold in winter, they would don cloaks sewn together out of possum skins.
In 1770, Captain Cook arrived off Cape Everard, on the easternmost coast of what is now Victoria. In 1803 a settlement was established at Port Phillip Bay, but this was not a success and the settlers moved across the Bass Strait to Tasmania.
The first meaningful European occupation of the region began in characteristic style. In June 1835, a land speculator called John Batman crossed the strait from Tasmania and proceded to do business with the local Aborigines. In exchange for a few dozen blankets and knives, 12 red shirts and sundry mirrors and axes, Batman bought 243,000 hectares of land. Upon completing this ‘deal’ he declared: ‘I am the greatest landowner in the world.’ He then set about drawing up a document to legitimize his claim. Unfortunately, he now encountered some people even more experienced in sharp practice than himself: the British government. The authorities were unimpressed with Batman’s document – instead of legitimizing it, they accused him of trespassing on Crown property. It looked as if Batman had lost his 12 red shirts, and also his briefly-held title as the world’s greatest landowner.
But possession is nine-tenths of the law. Batman continued to occupy ‘his’ property, and was soon joined by hundreds of land-hungry settlers from Tasmania. Two years later, the authorities put a brave face on it and officially recognized the new settlement, though still claiming it as part of New South Wales.
The growing town at the head of St Phillip’s Bay was given the name Melbourne, after the British prime minister of the day. (Today, Lord Melbourne is best remembered for his wife Lady Caroline Lamb’s scandalous affair with the poet Byron.)
But the new settlers of Melbourne resented being subservient to New South Wales. When the colonial authorities despatched convict ships with the intention of setting up a penal colony at Melbourne, the settlers turned the ships back. They soon decided it was time they formed their own colony. And this they did, naming it Victoria. In 1851, the authorities relented, and the colony of Victoria was declared official.
Just nine days later, on July 10, 1851, gold was discovered up country at Clunes. Within months, much larger deposits had been discovered at Ballarat and Bendigo. The Central Victorian Gold Rush was on. Rumours of a ‘mountain of Gold’ at Bendigo quickly spread back to Britain, and from there across the world. Soon gold-seekers from all over the globe were flooding into Victoria at the rate of tens of thousands a month. By the end of the 1850s the new state’s population had multiplied from several thousand to half a million. The senior Australian colony of New South Wales was eclipsed, and Melbourne became established as the financial centre of Australia – a position it was to hold for the next half century.
Meanwhile, out in the rural areas of Victoria, a war was going on. The so-called Black War against the Aborigines began in 1836. For a dozen years or so the Aborigines fought with the grazers and settlers who were encroaching on their land. The death toll amongst the primitively armed tribesmen was high. The Aborigines had developed no immunity against a number of diseases imported by the Europeans, and these too took a heavy toll. It’s been estimated that when Batman first set foot ashore at Port Phillip Bay in 1835 there may have been as many as 17,000 Aborigines living in the region. By the time Victoria was recognized as a state 16 years later, this number was down to little more than 2,000.
Many of those who had arrived in Victoria to seek gold were disappointed, but afterwards a large number of them decided to stay on and make a new life for themselves in the colony. As a result of gold-rush prosperity, Melbourne started sprouting grandiose buildings. The city began taking on a distinctly Victorian air. Culture and conservatism became the order of the day amongst the respectable classes. As a result, when Australia became a commonwealth in 1901, respectable Melbourne was chosen as the nation’s first capital. Not until 1927 did it lose this title to Canberra.
Nowadays Melbourne (pronounced Mel-b’n) is Australia’s second largest city. It four million inhabitants compared with Sydney’s 4.7 million. Melbourne still retains that Victorian air – there’s still a distinctly conservative feel to the place, compared with the rest of Australia. Many Victorian bluestone buildings remain amongst the brand-new high-rise blocks. And unlike laidback Aussies elsewhere, the citizens of Melbourne tend to take life rather more seriously. A higher proportion wear sober suits – and not just because it’s colder in winter. Not surprisingly, Melbourne’s twin city in the U.S. is Boston. Whereas in Sydney the first question is ‘How much money do you make?’, in Melbourne they tend to ask: ‘What school did you go to?’
Melbourne has no less than five universities, the oldest founded as early as 1855. And it is proud of its traditional colleges, elitist institutions modelled on English public schools. When the American evangelist Billy Graham visited Melbourne in the 1950s, he called it ‘the most moral city in the world’. A more typical reaction came from Ava Gardner, when she came to work on the film On the Beach ten years later. When asked about the film, she said: “It’s a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it.”
This was the city that produced Edna Everage (her name echoing the Aussie pronounciation of average) – who was a parody product of suburbia before she became a housewife megastar. Nowadays, Melbourne’s image has undergone something of a revamp (much like Edna’s) and suburban Melbourne is the location of fictional Ramsay Street – home of Neighbours. Yet for all the soapy megastar glitz, the old Melbourne is still recognizable. This is also the city which produced media mogul Rupert Murdoch – the man responsible for making the world’s tabloids what they are today still likes to project a sober-suited image in public.
Fortunately, Melbourne was given a much-needed influx of life after the Second World War, with the arrival of large numbers of southern European immigrants. This brought in a colourful multiethnic mix, with a particularly high proportion of Italians and Greeks. Indeed, Melbourne now contains more Greeks than any city outside Athens. But Melbourne also contains thriving communities of Serbs, Turks, and Lebanese, as well as a large Chinese community whose origins date back to the gold-rush era.
This incongruous mix of old and new, conservative and colourful, makes Melbourne a fascinating place to visit. There’s plenty to see here, and experiencing the city will help you make up your own mind about the place.