When Learned Men Schemed to Create a Land of Alien Species

Note: this was originally published in Geo in 1996, who probably claim copyright to it. If anybody wants to claim it back, they can first honour the bounced cheques that I had from them, cheques which the new owners failed to replace.

Ask any Australian to recite Dorothea Mackellar's "My Country", and nine times out of ten, they will start out with

"I love a sunburnt country . . ."

Now certainly those words can be found in the poem, but that particular line is actually the start of the second verse of one of our finest poet's most quoted works. The first verse tells us something important that she had noticed about many of her fellow Australians, late last century. "My country" really starts like this:

The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance,
Brown streams and soft, dim skies--
I know, but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

And only then, after that introduction, do we get to that part we all know and love today, the lines that describe our present-day attitudes to our surroundings. But in the middle of the 19th century, most Australians would have been puzzled by Mackellar's love of the alien Australian landscape, for they yearned to see fields and coppices here in the Antipodes. Even at the end of the century, a respectable member of the Victorian legislative Assembly could demand in public that Australian hawks be wiped out for the damage they were doing to "our" English songbirds.

The 19th century was very much an era when acclimatisation societies could flourish, all over Australia. Not for them any of the haphazard introduction of a few bits and pieces like the First Fleet's rabbits, or John Harris with his deer farm at Sydney's Ultimo in 1803: these people wanted to transform a whole continent with their additions.

New South Wales was the first group to get started, beginning in 1852, but the early 1860s were the time when things really began to happen. The Sydney group, led by Dr George Bennett at the Australian Museum and Charles Moore the director of Sydney's Botanic Gardens became active just as the Melbourne group did. Melbourne's society had started in 1857, and was driven to prominence by Edward Wilson, the editor of the "Argus" and Ferdinand von Mueller, director of Melbourne's Botanic Gardens, and chaired by the state's governor in 1860 and 1861. In 1862, societies were also established in Adelaide and Brisbane, but Tasmania and West Australia had to wait until the mid-1890s to get their acclimatisation societies.

The Sydney and Melbourne societies were the most active. Melbourne had better political connections, and Victoria still had plenty of goldfields wealth to draw on, while Sydney had a better-established "scientific" community to support the society's ideals. The records of the NSW Society show Sydney sending wonga wonga pigeons to Melbourne and getting angora goats in return. NSW also sent ducks and pheasants to Queensland, as well as crossing the Tasman to Auckland in 1867 with twelve "Piping crows or magpie", and receiving kiwis and pheasants in return. They also sent black swans, wallabies, cockatoos and an emu to India in 1865, while each year, assorted flocks and herds were dispatched to England, mainly to zoos, but also for breeding purposes.

Around Australia, just a few local species were highly regarded. Kookaburras were sent from the south-east to both Tasmania and WA, where the kookaburras were to control snakes, and koalas were another local species that was sent to those two states . Snakes were a major fear, and secretary birds were brought in to deal with this menace. Sir Charles Darling, Governor of Victoria, actually proposed the introduction of the boa constrictor, in order to control smaller venomous snakes!

Luckily for us, most of their targeted introductions never made it into the wild in Australia. The English rooks that were introduced into Queensland, the agouti (a HUNGRY South American rodent) in Sydney and Melbourne, assorted monkeys and many species of deer, all failed, though the descendants of the red deer sent to Queensland by Queen Victoria in 1873 are still there.

It was not for want of trying. By the NSW society's fifth annual report, they could list more than 80 species and varieties of bird and animal, including seven alpacas, six monkeys, five Kaleege pheasants, four common doves, three agoutis, two lemurs, a lonely "Large Tortoise", and what they could only estimate as "numerous goldfish". These creatures were all kept with but one aim in mind: to get the animals to breed here, so that they might be released for the benefit, as defined by the Society as guided by Dr Bennett, of all humanity.

Dr George Bennett (1804-93), a medical practitioner and naturalist who also became the curator of the Australian Museum. In 19th century Sydney, Dr Bennett was highly regarded as a scientist and naturalist. He could count Sir Richard Owen FRS, John Gould and Alexander Macleay among his friends and colleagues: this was no amateur naturalist, dabbling beyond his depth.

So what was this respected and capable scientist doing, encouraging the introduction of foreign species into Australia? George Bennett has left us some clues in a bound set of occasional papers which still rests in the research library of his old haunt, the Australian Museum in Sydney.

The volume is crumbling today, but reading his ideas with today's wisdom, we can see that Dr Bennett was a creature of his times, one of Dorothea Mackellar's lovers of field and coppice. Writing to his friend Richard Owen in 1836, Bennett refers to a scientific paper "which will soon be copied & sent home". A quarter of a century later, he would refer to the "cat bird" which he said had "received its colonial name from the singular note it utters, which can only be compared to the nightly philharmonic concerts of the domestic cat . . .".

Nothing objectionable to us there, perhaps, but without taking breath, he plunged on to comment of this bird call: ". . .and the sound must be a source of great delight to the Londoner exiled in the bush, bringing before him agreeable reminiscences of home."

There we see an alien attitude to Australian surroundings. The Londoner is "exiled in the Australian bush", and England remains forever "home". So when we consider the attitudes that Dr Bennett reflects, we need to recall the time and social background that shaped him and his friends.

Again, it was a time when all of nature was seen as being there, ripe for human exploitation. All of creation was there for the benefit of H. sapiens, but the Creator had made a bit of a botch of things, by not putting the best species in the best places. The Victorian era gave us people with the confidence to adjust these clumsy divine errors.

In particular, when they looked at Australia, they saw that the land was deficient in food crops, and without some sensible introductions of new species, we would all starve, said Dr Bennett.

"From a soil producing only a few fruits barely edible, the aborigines merely subsisting on the precarious supply of food, obtained by hunting or fishing, we now obtain by Acclimatisation a large supply of food, luxuries, and important articles of commerce, affording subsistence for a large population of thousands of human beings . . ."

As evidence of the speed with which this can be done, he shows that the First Fleet's original 7 cattle, 7 horses and 29 sheep had become, by the end of 1860, nearly 4 million cattle, 20 million sheep, and more than 300 000 horses. All, he reminds us, working to the greater good of Australia.

Acclimatisation was not a new idea, nor was it a one-way process. By the time the first society came into being, red deer were already in the colony, and pigs, goats, turkeys, rabbits, geese, ducks and poultry had all arrived with the First Fleet. Black swans had already been sent to England where they had bred successfully (". . . Mr Wolf, the celebrated animal artist, had visited Mr Gurney's residence in the country, at that gentleman's request, to make a drawing of one rearing its brood in the winter in the midst of snow . . .").

But if you think the societies were committed to frivolously providing 19th century philosophers with a fine way of refuting that standard claim of other philosophers, that "all swans are white", you would be wrong. Their members had far more serious aims in their sights, even a few that we might well praise them for today, as we can see from the records Bennett left behind.

The first meeting to establish the society was addressed at length by the doctor, and he mentioned that some birds were useful in preserving crops. "It will be necessary to preserve these birds from extermination, especially the talegalla and that family, for they are now becoming scarce, and . . . will soon be numbered with the extinct birds . . .". The talegalla is what we today call the brush-turkey, Alectura lathami. By 1867, the Society had succeeded in breeding this bird in captivity.

Still, the main aims and the most serious concerns remained economic rather than scientific. Earlier in his speech, Dr Bennett mentioned that "The talegalla or brush turkey is excellent, the legs being regarded as the epicure's portion, and the eggs are delicious. The large bustard, the wonga wonga, and bronze-wing pigeons, variety of ducks, curlew, teal, redbills, the megapodius, and a number of others, form excellent articles of food for the table."

In a day when we are only just beginning to try marsupial flesh, when many are still to pluck up the courage to eat kangaroo, Bennett was far more adventurous. After praising the flesh of the koala and the possum, he calls on his listeners to rear and domesticate the animals of the country, to preserve them from destruction:

" . . .although the flesh of the kangaroo is said to be dry, I have no doubt it could be improved by being fed upon succulent grasses and other suitable food, and it must be acknowledged that kangaroo tail soup is not to be surpassed. Wombat is rarely to be met with, but when procured, its flesh is always regarded as a great treat. The lively night animal, the bandicoot, is, when cooked, only to be compared with sucking-pig in flavour. The opossum is good also, especially when curried or stewed, but the monitor lizard, or guana, if one could overcome the repugnance of its appearance, is delicate and excellent food."

Dr Bennett was very fond of this theme, and returned to it time and time again.

"A society of this description is not formed for the use of men of science. It may, and no doubt will require their direction and assistance, but it demands the aid of all classes of people, and the good resulting from it will be for the benefit of everyone. It ought to be formed of landholders, squatters, agriculturists, breeders of stock, as well as the public generally. When carried out successfully, it will impart life and beauty to our plains and forests, where at present animals are scarce, and it will fill our lakes and rivers with beautiful objects of nature."

That gender bias we can see today in the first sentence was made good at the Society's third AGM, when a new bye-law was added, to the effect that "Ladies are admissible as members." Well at least it was a start . . .

When the NSW Society was first formed, their rules stated that "The objects of this Society shall be the introduction, acclimatisation, and domestication of all innoxious animals, birds, fishes, insects, and vegetables, whether useful or ornamental; the perfection, propagation and hybridisation of races newly introduced or already domesticated; the spread of indigenous animals, &c., from parts of the colonies where they are known to localities where they are not known . . ."

In other words, they were to be ecological busybodies, stirring up the stagnant gene pools of a continent which had been left to its own devices for far too long, in the hope of making a greater gain. Not that Australia's native animals would be turned out of their homes -- Dr Bennett was careful to point out that ". . . endeavours should, by domestication, be made to preserve the animals and birds indigenous to Australia from extermination, as they will prove valuable to us, not only for food and ornament, but also as a medium of exchange with other countries; for Australia is rich in zoology."

While most introductions were intended to be somehow beneficial or economically valuable, a few were proposed on aesthetic grounds. Colourful and melodious songbirds, cute monkeys and assorted reminders of "home" were all urged at different times. Dr Bennett even found one possible aesthetic return to offer the Old World, a small fish named Glyphiodon biocellatus, which he recorded from rock pools around Sydney, and which would do admirably in aquaria, he thought.

All sorts of new economic uses for local animals seemed possible to them, and Dr Bennett mentioned: ". . . our opossums, flying squirrels, dasyuri or native cats, and others, have also delicate and valuable furs; and from the former some excellent and warm socks of the most delicate texture have been recently manufactured."

The dangers of "injurious plants" were well recognised, of course, and in an address to the third annual meeting of the society, the doctor mentions Bathurst and other burrs, Scotch and other thistles, and also the American water weed Anacharis, which was then clogging the water-ways of Europe. They may have recognised these dangers, perhaps, but in the very same meeting, the introduction of Rhus succedaneum into Sydney's Botanic Gardens was reported.

The report was given by the Gardens' Director, Mr. Moore, who seemed to take some pleasure in using the botanical names of these new additions. There were no common names, he explained, and added "The effect would be that people would be better able hereafter, to ascertain the time of introduction of these plants into the colony." Those who suffer violent allergic reactions to this relative of poison ivy, like those who seek to eradicate this declared noxious weed from Sydney bushland, will no doubt appreciate this careful consideration from Mr Moore.

A few moments later in that same meeting, the society is asked to remember the prize of forty pounds paid to Mr Thomas Woolley for introducing a "New Rare Plant", back in 1849. Woolley's choice, the medicinally valuable dandelion, could be seen in Sydney in 1864, "growing wild in the bush on the North Shore, both in flower and seed, and it is now growing wild and in great luxuriance about Braidwood" .

Other plants were needed as well, according to the Society. In the near future, they hoped to introduce silkworms to the colony, and Dr Bennett, on behalf of the Society, advised people to plant Castor oil trees (Ricinus communis, now a common and dangerously poisonous weed), and mulberry trees, each of which would feed a desirable species of silkworm. Even the blackberry, known even in the 1850s as a pest in Tasmania, was praised as a food source for curassows, and people were urged to plant it, in order to support future introductions.

In the next few years, the NSW society would release skylarks, sparrows and blackbirds, it would buy assorted pheasants, quail, partridges, ducks, geese, pigeons, finches, deer, raccoons, ring-tailed lemurs and more. They even came into the possession of some monkeys, two of which were passed on to a Mr McGregor, but there is no evidence where these monkeys came from, nor what their fate was.

Of course, some people knew the dangers of this sort of this sort of fiddling all too well. At the end of the century, Sir Gavan Duffy recalled this conversation taking place in Melbourne's Legislative Assembly in about 1870:

Another member whispered, "Let us alone with your new industries. You see what has come of them already. A Scot introduced their charming thistle, and we will have to put a sum on the estimates to extirpate it. Edward Wilson introduced the sparrow, and the sparrow is playing havoc with our vineyards. Some busybody introduced the rabbit, and the income of Ballarat would not save us from the consequences.

Yet if Duffy could hear such comments in Victoria by 1870, the Acclimatisation Society of New South Wales was still keeping sparrows as late as 1867, according to their seventh annual report. They had gained a pair from Victoria, which brought in 120 in 1862 alone, and were carefully breeding their stocks. Sparrows, they said, would eat the insects that destroyed the crops. And in Melbourne, those who complained of sparrows damaging fruit were told to cover their trees with nets -- which was small comfort to commercial orchardists!

At the end of it all, the societies can be seen to have achieved a few good things, like the captive breeding of the brush turkey, even if their motives were not entirely pure. Bennett certainly was immensely interested in breeding platypuses, for he and his friend Richard Owen were keen to determine just how the platypus gave birth, but while the Society held a pair of platypuses at one stage, they do not seem to have done much with them. Still, both Sydney's and Melbourne's zoos owe their origins to their respective acclimatisation societies.

The Society's members probably felt that they had done immensely good work for the future of the colony, but they had certainly added some problems to the local ecologies. For that matter, they would have added many more, if only they had been luckier with their breeding stock. Or with what they could obtain: imagine an Australia where giraffes graze the higher trees, European wild boars cultivate the ground by digging with their tusks, where Burke and Wills survived on eland in the wild and where our city butchers sell prime cuts of eland, where antelope roam, and where yaks are shorn of their glossy hair to make water-proof tents and strong ropes.

You can't imagine it? The Acclimatisation Society could, and they could even identify a prime market opportunity, selling the tails of the yaks as fly whisks in "eastern courts". What a pity we lack that same creativity today . . .

Thanks to Claire Shahbazian, who made me realise that I had never put this on my site.


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