The poetics of terra nullius

Study examines how the doctrine known as terra nullius first came to be devised and applied as the legal basis for the colonial settlement of Australia

How did the doctrine known as terra nullius first come to be devised and applied as the legal basis for the colonial settlement of Australia? And what did that legal doctrine have to do with Australian poetry?

Dr Thomas H. Ford and co-author, Associate Professor Justin Clemens (University of Melbourne), explore these fascinating questions in their upcoming book, Barron Field in New South Wales.

“Barron Field arrived in Australia in 1817 as the new Judge of the Supreme Court of Civil Judicature in New South Wales, the highest legal authority in the colony,” explains Ford. “Although largely forgotten today, he was instrumental in reshaping the colony from a penal autocracy into an emergent liberal nation.”

Field courted the colony's leading figures, engaged in scientific research and even helped to found Australia's first bank. He also published the first book of Australian poetry.

And, most notably, Field was the judge who declared Australia terra nullius – legally deemed to be unoccupied or uninhabited.

In Barron Field in New South Wales,Ford and Clemens cast a critical lens over Field’s legal and poetic contributions – and the relationship between the two – to offer a new account of Australian sovereignty.

“Barron Field wielded both law and poetry as key means for effecting his vision of Australia as a liberal and prosperous nation,” explains Ford.

“His poems sketched out a sophisticated literary template for settler Australian culture. And, he was the first to argue that basic legal principles and protections that applied to Britain also applied to the colony, on the basis that it had been settled as ‘desert and inhabited.’”

“He helped to liberalise New South Wales by erasing Aboriginal people both imaginatively and legally – actions with implications that endure even today.”

Ford and Clemens are now investigating how Barron Field’s legal and poetic contributions were developed and extended through the colonial period to Federation in 1901.

Poetry, they argue, was politically and socially central to colonial Australia in a way that can be hard to imagine today. In the nineteenth century, poetry was widely published and had a much stronger and more direct influence on political decisions and public events.

“Looking more closely at colonial poetry allows us to present a different account of Australian national formation,” Ford says. “In nineteenth-century Australia, history was being made in verse.”

Find out more about the book.