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Hero or despoiler? Kidman reappraised

KIDMAN: THE FORGOTTEN KING. By Jill Bowen. Angus & Robertson. 476pp. $39.95.

YANCANNIA CREEK. By Mary Turner Shaw. Melbourne Univer sity Press. 264pp. $29.95.




cracy has been much chron icled by its relatives, but somewhat neglected by social his torians. Two new books on related aspects of pastoral history go some way to bridging that gap.

Sir Sidney Kidman owned more land than any other individual in the history of Australia, and per haps in the modern world, but he is now scarcely a footnote in histo ry books.

The romantic, and sometimes fanciful, account of his early life written in 1936 by Ion L. Idriess fuelled the cattle king legend by which older Australians remember him.

Jill Bowen, a Sydney journalist and a director of the Stockmen's Hall of Fame, has re-examined that legend in Kidman: The For gotten King.

Kidman is now pictured less as the folksy drover with a flare for property acquisition and more as the shrewd businessman with the capacity to inspire deep loyalty among his supporters and scepti cism and criticism among his many detractors.

What clung to Sidney Kidman were two basic images: the self-made frontiersman so beloved of the Australian and overseas press and his own associates, and the land-grabber so feared by his


Bowen shows that both were

connected to his "chain-of-supply" strategy which led him to acquire a string of outback properties stretching through the channel country of Queensland to north-west New South Wales and the north of South Australia.

This was based on the sound, but previously untried, theory that floodwaters from the Georgina, Diamantina and Cooper rivers in

Queensland provided a natural ir rigation system that watered the channel country in the monsoon season, leaving a residue of rich herbage for fattening cattle.

His dream of staging cattle from the channel country to South Aus tralia so that they arrived at the Adelaide markets in prime condi tion led him to acquire, over 40 years from the 1890s, 68 stations covering 259,000 square kilo metres and an interest in perhaps 90 more covering a total of 155,000 square kilometres.

His simple acquisition strategy of buying in recession periods earned him understandable criti cism. He was seen as a vulture hovering over other people's mis fortunes and an entrepreneur who cared little for the land he was using.

Jill Bowen deals effectively with the vulture image. He knew the pastoral business better than others, and particularly the absen tee landlords, so why should he not take advantage of their shortcom ings? : - ;

The uncaring éntrepreneur is an image harder to refute, particularly within her overall portrayal of

Kidman as a man who knew and loved the outback and .the people

who lived there.

He was not, by her own descrip tion, a property improver. He had little time for fences or yards, pre ferring to let the cattle roam free

and lo work them in the open. A committee investigating Northern Territory pastoral leases in 1933 had harsh words for all of the Kid man properties, but particularly for the 4660-square-kilometre Bond Springs station which he had held for 23 years.

There was, it said, neither fenc ing nor horse breeding. The stafT consisted of three white men, "eight abos and four lubras" to work 5,000 head of cattle. "It is a poor effort for an area of this size,"

it concluded.

It is now widely accepted that the unrestricted grazing of outback Australia from the 1850s to the 1930s caused extensive, and per haps irreparable, damage to its fragile environment.

Jill Bowen goes to some pains to try to show that Kidman was not a conscious despoiler. Her argument that the damage was done by the time he came on the scene is back ed by some scientific evidence, but ignores other expert comment, particularly from R. W. Condon of the Western Lands Commission of New South Wales. In a 1982 paper he said that Kidman's methods of moving large mobs of cattle "like pawns on a chessboard" resulted in serious erosion of the routes they travelled and that he seriously degraded the millions of hectares he owned in the West Darling re gion.

This new account of Kidman raises, but does not seriously ad dress, the question of owner re sponsibility in the outback. For Bowen, as for earlier accounts of the pastoral empires, the challenge of development and the personali ty of those who met it is the key


Mary Turner Shaw's Yancannia Creek looks at the pastoral phe nomenon from a longer and more sensitive perspective. It is the his tory of a West Darling property taken up by a family partnership in

the 1870s and run as a family con cern until it was bought by Sidney

Kidman in 1916.

Beginning with the explorations of Charles Sturt and ending with the closer settlement arrangements after World War II, it constitutes a micro-history of the Darling region and of the Rcid and Shaw families who ran Yancannia Station for 40 years.

It inevitably invites a compari son between the concept of family ownership and the entrepreneurial tradition of the Kidman empire. In fact, those traditions merge in a common pattern of remote man agement and tangled financial ar rangements.

While some members of the Reid family lived on Yancannia for almost two decades their sell out to the Shaws in 1895 brought a different trend. The Shaws were substantial landholders in Victoria and spent less time on the proper


Their eventual sale to Kidman in 1916 might well have reflected his own values — that land was something to be traded in rather than lived upon.

The value of this account is not so much the history itself as its sense of perspective. We are con stantly reminded of the imperma nence of its major actors and the fragility of its environment.

Shaw wonders, for example, how things might have turned out if Captain Phillip's supply ships had never arrived. Then, she sur mises, the white settlers might have had to learn from the Aborig ines how to survive in the bush. The outback might then have been spared the rabbits, the noxious weeds and the acquisitive instinct that laid it bare.

It is, she confesses, a fanciful thought. Nevertheless, it is one more in tune with the fragility of the outback than the notion of the pastoralistas hero.

Sidney Kidman in 1916: he built an "empire" of properties to put

his pastoral strategy into practice.

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