Between 1851 to 1860, an unprecedented ‘gold rush’ wrought a profound transformation upon the fledgling state of Victoria. By 1860, Victoria’s population had increased sevenfold and the colony was attracting ‘worldwide fame’ as one of Britain’s wealthiest settlements. However, this colonial prosperity came at a high environmental cost. Whether by land clearing for agriculture or mining, industrial and urban pollution, or the over exploitation of game, fish and timber - colonial progress often meant, as one colonist observed, that ‘every feature of nature [was] annihilated’. Almost all historians have argued that the environmental degradation of Victoria was an inevitable consequence of the widespread antipathy (or antagonism) of Victorians to what they perceived as a foreign and ugly environment. Whilst some colonists called for restraint, ‘the colonial project - to master, develop, and prosper - overwhelmed the faint cry of such sentiments’.
|ST Gill, Diggings in the Mount Alexander district of Victoria in 1852|
This paper will contend that this dominant historical narrative is specious and inconsistent with surviving primary source material. Not only was environmental concern prevalent in Victorian society, popular concern persuaded Parliament to enact considerable environmental legislation throughout the 1860s. Historians have either blithely dismissed or simply ignored the history of this legislation. This is perplexing given that the development of law provides a critical insight into Victorian society’s commitment to - and reasons for - addressing environmental concerns. Thus, this paper examines the three most significant environmental regimes enacted throughout the 1860s: namely, the game, fish and timber statutes.
It will be shown that these regimes were primarily justified by utilitarian conservation arguments and, additionally, that aesthetic and moral considerations were vital. The existence and influence of a ‘proto-preservationist philosophy’, which underpinned the enactment of these statutes, disproves the orthodox historical narrative that colonial society was generally apathetic to environmental degradation and that colonists who voiced concerns were ‘insignificant’.