Irrigation Millennium: Science, Religion and the New Garden of Eden

Eras Journal – Bellanta, M,: Irrigation Millennium: Science, Religion and the New Garden of Eden

Irrigation Millennium: Science, Religion and the New Garden of Eden
Melissa Bellanta
(University of Sydney)

The Irrigation Movement in Australia, 1880-1930

White Australians have long been fascinated by water’s transformative potential. In the promotion of irrigation, for example, they have sought to wash away Australia’s deserts and replace them with verdant farms. Since the late nineteenth century, enthusiasts have imagined that irrigation would ‘alter the whole face of the country’, transforming Australia from ‘one of the most arid spots on earth’ into the New Garden of Eden.[1] In spite of this enthusiasm, however, schemes for the mass irrigation of Australia have met an unfortunate end. Time and again, they have failed to deliver on their promise of transformation: blowing out their budgets and hiking the level of salinity in the soil.

Many historians have puzzled over the allure of irrigation in Australian history. How could irrigation plans have continued in the face of repeated failure? In this paper, I seek to answer this question, focusing on the period between the 1880s and the 1930s. In so doing, I argue that irrigation promotion was heavily freighted with religious and millennial imagery. This imagery was articulated at a time of great conflict between science and religion; between the desire for a ‘high tech’ industrial nation and a longing for pre-industrial community. As I see it, irrigation’s appeal lay in its attempt to reconcile these contradictory desires. Through the image of the millennium, irrigation promised to revive the lost Garden of Eden and to recreate it according to developments in scientific efficiency. The reason irrigation continued in the face of ecological and economic disaster was thus because it solved a crucial problem of modernity. It heralded a new landscape and era – but one which adhered to the essential spirit of the religious and pre-industrial world.

In outlining this argument, I provide a thumbnail sketch of Australian irrigation between 1880 and 1930, focusing on Victoria as the ‘Irrigation State’. I then discuss Ian Tyrrell’s True Gardens of the Gods (1999), a recent history of Australian and Californian environmental reform. More than any other historian, Tyrrell has sought to account for Australian irrigation’s enduring appeal. He claims that irrigation promotion was underpinned by a ‘form of (environmental) sustainability’ between 1860 and 1930. Early irrigationists were interested in ‘environmental “renovation”‘: enhancing the fertility and durability of the earth, and placing great store by water’s restorative powers. They were also motivated by the desire to create a garden landscape ‘defined in gender, class, and racial terms’.[2]

Whilst I agree that these hypotheses are persuasive, I argue that Tyrrell underplays the millennial and ‘scientific’ visions featured in irrigation promotion. The incendiary character of the irrigation campaign is more complex than that suggested by a bourgeois desire for genteel white garden communities. Similarly, the ethic promoted by irrigationists was one of environmental transformationrather than renovation. In other words, irrigationists sought the advent of a new earth rather than the resuscitation of the old. Ultimately, they looked to a new era based on an alliance of agriculture and science: a ‘high-tech makeover’ of Australian soil.

Australian Irrigation History: A Thumbnail Sketch

Sustained fervour for irrigation first developed in Australia during the 1880s, most notably in Melbourne. Irrigation had been used at March Farm in Tasmania as early as 1829, and had attracted sporadic support in other colonies in the proceeding decades. Before the 1880s however, most governments were preoccupied with ‘providing basic communications such as roads and railways’, largely excluding irrigation from the political agenda.[3] The 1880s also supplied the heady mix of economic boosterism and social optimism from which the irrigationists’ flamboyant rhetoric took seed. They were a time in which the possibilities of Australian development, whether economically, socially or politically, appeared particularly buoyant. The idea that irrigation could transform the country to a fertile oasis, giving a massive boost to its economy and population, was on a par with the febrile growth taking place in Victoria during this period.

Irrigation was feverishly promoted by an assortment of land developers, politicians, utopian novelists, preachers, journalists, engineers and government bureaucrats over the years to come. One of the primary reasons given for its promotion was that it would make intensive agriculture possible throughout the country, creating new markets and cottage industries, and attracting farmers en masse to the land. Another reason was that it would make Australia more egalitarian. This was because it would give those of modest income the chance to become independent ‘yeoman farmers’, owning their own property and running their own agrarian enterprise.[4]

The first significant event in Australian irrigation history was Victoria’s creation of a Royal Commission on Water Supply in 1884. Alfred Deakin was appointed the Commission’s charismatic Chairman, and over the next few months embarked on a whirlwind tour of irrigation works in western America. Deeply impressed by the Yankees’ ‘go-ahead’ zeal, he returned to Victoria to oversee the passage of the Water Supply and Irrigation Act 1886. His speech recommending this Act to Parliament waxed eloquent on the potential for irrigation to develop Victoria into a haven of egalitarian plenty and liberty. Through irrigation, he suggested, Victoria would in future be renowned ‘all round the world for the richness of its soil, the enterprise of its people, and the freedom of its government’.[5] Deakin’s Act vested all rights to water use in the Crown, provided for the government construction of major irrigation works, and envisaged a series of Trusts managing irrigation at the local level.[6]

The next significant event in Australian irrigation was the creation of two entrepreneurial ventures on the Murray River. Built by the Canadian brother-developers, George and William Benjamin Chaffey, Renmark (in South Australia) and Mildura (in Victoria) were irrigation colonies involved in the cultivation of fruit. Like Deakin’s Act, these colonies were hailed in the late 1880s as a means to make Australia a democratic oasis in which ‘the cleanly and good living of all classes’ could find equality as yeoman farmers.[7] By the 1890s, however, Renmark and Mildura had run into technical and financial difficulty. The Chaffeys filed for bankruptcy in December 1895, leaving hastily established trusts to take over their operations. At the same time, approximately ninety Irrigation Trusts were in operation throughout Victoria. Most of these were in grave financial trouble.[8]

In spite of these failures, irrigation propaganda returned in the era of exuberant nationalism after Australia’s federation. In Victoria, for example, the Irrigation Trusts were replaced by the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. As Chairman of this Commission between 1907 and 1915, the ardent irrigationist Elwood Mead oversaw some 1200 irrigation ventures across the Victorian countryside.[9]Mead linked these ventures with a policy of ‘closer settlement’, imagining the entire Australian interior populated by tight-knit communities.[10]

Closer settlement was a process by which large estates were bought by the government, subdivided into smaller lots and leased for the purpose of intensive agriculture. Whilst they were touted with much enthusiasm, these settlements were to prove a resounding disappointment in the wake of the First World War. By 1930, many of their participants had abandoned their properties due to exhaustion, isolation, and failure to make a return.[11] Far from altering the face of the country for the better, closer settlement was almost overwhelmingly an ecological disaster. Degradation of land due to rising soil salinity appeared in many irrigated areas – a problem that was to escalate during the twentieth century.[12]

Irrigation Dreams: Ian Tyrrell’s True Garden of the Gods

As earlier discussed, commentators have long been puzzled by the persistent allure of irrigation in white Australian history.[13] Quite apart from the ecological damage they caused, the outlay required for most large irrigation schemes (for example, for the construction of holding dams) made them economically prohibitive. As Tyrrell notes, however, ‘for the historian of popular environmental thought, irrigation is not about drains, pumps, pipes, and dams, but about dreams’.[14] In the late 1800s, irrigationists were far less concerned with ‘nuts and bolts’ than with visions of glory. Much of their language was exaggerated and oratorical, more suited to the pulpit than the journal or government report. In The Conquest of Arid America (1899), for instance, the journalist William Smythe sang the praises of America’s irrigation pioneers. Smythe was ‘easily the most prominent ideologue in the late nineteenth century’, and his language set the tone for most of his Australian counterparts.[15] Irrigation pioneers, he said, were precisely the ‘breed…who make the Republic possible, who keep the lamp of faith burning through the night of corrupt commercialism, and who bear the Ark of the Covenant to the Promised Land’.[16]

In True Gardens of the Gods, Tyrrell explores irrigation’s allure. What was it about irrigation, he asks, that set temperatures racing in Australia and California? Why was irrigation about dreams, and what dreams did it inspire? The answer, he says, lies in the desire to create gardenlike havens for the white middle class. It also lies in a ‘preference for a broader and more equitable distribution of wealth, for the shoring up of rural communities against the attractions of the city’.[17] Irrigation, in short, was about dreams of Eden with a male white supremacist twist. Enthusiasts imagined it would build an empire of white agrarian communities. They pictured men refining deserts into verdant pastures interspersed by orchards and vines. In allowing small-scale agriculture to flourish, irrigation would enable both little man and large to taste the pleasures of country life.

Another aspect of irrigation dreams, Tyrrell argues, was the desire for a sustainable ecology. The white middle class sought the conversion of deserts to gardens not simply to create an exclusive social environment, but also because they wanted ‘an environment that would last’. Like the ‘ecovillage’ movement today, they insisted on the merits of small-scale cultivation, decrying the formation of big pastoral and agricultural estates. They believed that land use should at all times be balanced: positioning open fields beside orchards and gardens, small farms against forests and parks. They also believed in the rotation of crops to maintain the soil’s fertility, and in the encouragement of agricultural diversity.[18]

Tyrrell is unfortunately correct in his observation of the racism in Australian irrigation campaign. Mead’s vision of closer settlement, for example, was unequivocally white. In 1910, he toured Europe and America in the hope of attracting white immigrants to his closer settlement schemes.[19] As a champion of irrigation, he also promoted an image of landed white independence. He argued that irrigation would both increase a plot of land’s productivity and facilitate a greater diversity of crops. Instead of being restricted to wheat and sheep, irrigation would allow farmers to engage in the production of corn, lucerne, milk and a multiplicity of fruit. As such, it was a means for Anglo farmers to rid themselves of undesirable labour. Whilst larger farms were dependent on ‘a more or less migratory population’ – most of it low-class and foreign – irrigation would ensure that a small plot of land could be run by a ‘farmer working for himself’.[20] The white farmer could thus become independent, neither reliant on a boss nor on ‘migratory’ employees.

Women, Tyrrell tells us, were invisible in this dream of white independence.[21] When Mead spoke of a ‘farmer working for himself’, he ignored the existence of the farmer’s wife – even though the farm depended on her labour for its viability. As already intimated, irrigation dreams were defined in terms of class as well as gender and race. The ideal irrigationist was not only male and white – he was also petit-bourgeois. Once he had saved enough to afford his own plot of land, irrigation would allow him to embark on his own agrarian enterprise. It would thus bring security and decency to many, drawing the bulk of the population into a middle-class embrace.

For the reasons discussed, True Gardens of the Gods goes a long way to explaining irrigation’s appeal. Race, gender and class were evident features in irrigation promotion. So too was a belief in the merits of small farms, diversity in land use and a carefully-pruned garden aesthetic. In this paper I argue, however, that more is required in order to account for the allure of irrigation promotion. By and large, its propaganda reads like a second Revelations, written in the rhapsodic prose of the wandering preacher. In failing to account for this rhapsodic language, Tyrrell underplays much of the rhetorical content of irrigation dreams. Accordingly, the following provides an exploration of this rhetorical prose.

Irrigation Religion: David Gordon and William E. Smythe

As the title of his book suggests, Tyrrell is alive to the religious connotations of the irrigation movement. In True Gardens of the Gods, he notes that the gardens desired by irrigationists drew inspiration from Eden. He also comments on the likeness Smythe draws between American and Old Testament geography. In The Conquest of Arid America , Smythe likened California to Damascus and Eden, implying that the subjugation of American desert was part of a ‘Biblical tradition’.[22]

In spite of this nod to ‘Biblical tradition’, there is insufficient exploration of its links to irrigation in Tyrrell’s work. Throughout his work, Tyrrell largely takes for granted the influence of Judeo-Christian ideas. He offers no explanation for Smythe’s desire to provide irrigation with a Biblical lineage. Nor does he consider why irrigationists were keen to emulate Eden. At the same time, he overlooks the religiosity of Australian irrigation promotion. He fails to note, for example, that Australian enthusiasts were also prone to present irrigation as part of a Judeo-Christian tradition.

Within Australia, the Chaffey settlements at Mildura and Renmark were regularly vaunted as miniature versions of Eden. To Michael Davitt, for example, Renmark was a ‘virtual little paradise’.[23]To Ernestine Hill, it was ‘a paradise of living green’. For their role in the creation of these settlements, Hill dubbed Chaffey as a ‘redeemer of deserts’ and Deakin a ‘youthful St Paul’.[24] In this she borrowed liberally from J. A. Alexander, who had earlier cast Deakin as an irrigation Apostle to George Chaffey’s Christ.[25] The idea of Deakin as a Biblical figure had in fact been suggested some decades beforehand, when Punch mischievously portrayed him as Moses during debates on hisIrrigation Act.[26]

Figure 1:"Striking the Rock" - Alfred Deakin as Moses,Punch 3 June 1886
Figure 1:”Striking the Rock” – Alfred Deakin as Moses,Punch 3 June 1886

The notion that irrigation was as ‘old as the Bible’ was particularly important to Australian irrigation proponents. The engineer F. B. Gipps, for example, made reference to projects at Hebron under Solomon in his précis of irrigation history.[27] Hill later suggested that irrigation had been practised in Eden,’long before Moses smote the rock’.[28] In 1906, John Gregory recalled a prophecy of Isaiah in his account of an excursion to Lake Eyre:

For in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass, with reeds and rushes.[29]

According to Roslynn Haynes, white Australians have long been ashamed of their deserts, believing them to reveal ‘a moral flaw in creation’.[30] A similar observation might be made of white Americans’ perception of their arid lands. According to Smythe, the desert regions of America had been left unfinished by God. As a result, God now depended on man to help complete the creation of the world. Through irrigation, man could enter into a divine ‘partnership’,’finishing’ the deserts as verdant agricultural lands.[31] A more secular version of this view was advocated in South Australia by David Gordon. Gordon was a future Member of Parliament, and at all times a Smythe devotee. As he saw it, God had relied on evolution to further the creation of the world. White Australians could assist in this evolutionary process by locking the country’s rivers and using them to water the desert.[32]

Irrigation Territory: Somewhere Between Science and Religion

Gordon’s reference to evolution is a timely reminder of the religious uncertainty in the late Victorian era. Evolutionary theory had indeed caused many to renounce their Christian faith. A rationalist ethos had led many others to a ‘no man’s land’ located in the territory somewhere ‘between science and religion’. Like other liberals of his era, for example, Deakin placed ‘an awesome trust in the capacity of human reason’, rejecting those aspects of Christian doctrine he considered to be irrational.[33] At the same time, however, he was preoccupied with religious questions. During the 1870s he was heavily involved in spiritualism, and would later join the Theosophy Society and the Australian Church.[34]

Reverend Dr Charles Strong was a close friend of Deakin’s during the 1890s. As an unorthodox Presbyterian clergyman, Strong argued that theology was a science – and that it was therefore subject to change as in the physical sciences. Strong also sought rational explanations for miracles, and regularly quoted British scientists during his weekly sermons. In 1883, he hosted an address by George Higinbotham, Victorian Supreme Court Justice, entitled ‘Science and Religion’. Speaking to a packed congregation, Higinbotham called for a reorganisation of the Church. Like Strong, he believed that new scientific discoveries demanded the evolution of theological ideas. Accordingly, he argued that all existing creeds of belief should be immediately abolished.[35]

Strong was hounded from the Presbyterian ministry shortly after Higinbotham’s address. In 1887 however, he went out on his own and established the Australian Church. During the 1890s this church was a forum for many Victorians disenchanted by orthodox religion. Its primary message was that Christianity’s ‘social gospel’ was far more important than doctrinal belief. Christianity’s spirit was what was important, with its emphasis on charity, cooperation and justice – none of which were incompatible with rational principles. The Australian Church thus advocated a ‘New Theology’ based on ‘Human Experience’ and firmly allied with ‘Science’.[36]

In its disputes over the relationship between science and religion, Australia was reliant on Britain. In Britain, for example, a group of scientists were vigorously involved in the promotion of a secular society. These ‘scientific naturalists’ included John Tyndall, Thomas Huxley, Herbert Spencer and G. H. Lewes. Together, they sought to abolish the Church and replace it with a scientific profession. They argued that the natural sciences comprised the sum total of knowledge, refusing to countenance the validity of Christian ideas. Their efforts to re-create society were focused on Britain, but had a similar bearing on Australia.

As Frank Turner tells us, the nineteenth century Church was accustomed to appoint special days for ‘prayer and humiliation’ in response to temporal affairs. In the late 1800s, it appointed such days in response to heavy rain, an outbreak of cholera and of cattle plague. This practice was one of the ways in which the clergy could ‘hinder the dispersion of scientific explanations of natural phenomena or claim credit for the eradication of natural problems’.[37] It was thus a prime target for the scientific naturalists in their mission to secularise society.

Conflict about days of prayer and humiliation had been a feature in Britain since the 1850s. At the time, many clergy viewed natural disasters as God’s retribution for sin. If a harvest was ruined or a herd of cattle died, the most appropriate response was a public display of penitence. Understandably, liberal clergy and scientists were vociferously opposed to this view. In the mid 1860s, Arthur Stanley argued that natural misfortunes should not be seen as a form of divine retribution, but rather as God’s ‘stimulus to the activities of…scientific researchers’.[38] As Dean of Westminster Abbey, Stanley believed that scientific discovery was one of the means by which God’s will was revealed.

Debate about the material efficacy of prayer took place in Australia as well as in Britain. In both Victoria and New South Wales, this debate was focused on the question of irrigation. As Stuart Macintyre notes, controversy erupted in Australia during the drought of the early 1880s. During the course of this drought, numerous clerics had called for days of prayer and humiliation in order to plead God for rain. James Moorhouse, the Anglican Bishop of Melbourne, had publicly ridiculed these calls. Moorhouse argued that scientific methods – most notably irrigation – were the only effective way to deal with natural disasters like drought.[39]

Moorhouse’s alleged refrain in support of water engineering (‘don’t pray for it, dam it’) was soon adopted by members of the liberal press. In 1882, The Age claimed it was absurd to expect prayer to alter the weather.[40] During another bad drought, a Sydney paper denounced prayer as a foolish attempt to ‘substitute religion for irrigation’.[41] To these secular journalists, irrigation was attractive because it promised to rid the world of superstition and re-create it on rational grounds. ‘One of the commonest defences for irrigation’, Donald Worster argues, ‘was that it was the epitome of scientific agriculture, (and) that therefore it advanced the cause of progress to a more rational society’.[42]

At this point, it is important to note that Moorhouse himself never pitted irrigation against religion. Like Stanley, he held out the hope that religion and science could be aligned. Far from opposing God, he argued that irrigationists were acting in accordance with his will. God wanted humanity to irrigate the fields with his gift of water and thus to ‘replenish the land’. It exasperated him when people begged for rain when all they needed was a decent system of water engineering.[43]

Moorhouse was not the only irrigationist concerned with the conflict between religion and science. As a fellow rationalist, Strong was an enthusiastic irrigation supporter. During the 1890s’ depression, he was involved in the Tucker Village Settlements, a scheme for the creation of agrarian cooperatives for the unemployed. Based in Gippsland, this scheme created some seven cooperative villages. A number of these were engaged in irrigation works.[44] In his publicity for the scheme, Strong argued that its combination of irrigation and cooperation would transform Victoria into a true Christian paradise: a place of justice and charity, in which the ‘fruit and corn (would) adorn the waste, howling wilderness’.[45] Irrigation was accordingly attractive to Strong for two reasons: firstly, because it adopted a rational approach to nature; and secondly, because it resurrected a landscape of Biblical equity and abundance, transforming Victoria’s social ‘wilderness’ into a ‘fruitful garden’.[46]

Irrigation promotion thus occurred at a time of religious controversy. It was also itself a catalyst for debate on the relationship between faith and science. Most significantly, it provided men like Moorhouse and Strong with a point of resolution between religion and science. On the one hand, it aimed for the rational use of environmental resources. On the other hand, it was associated with Biblical language and images of Paradise. It was thus a means through which humanity could take advantage of science, synchronise itself with the forces of reason – and at the same time align white society’s progress with the will of the Divine.

Irrigation was further attractive to white Australians because it struck a balance between the ‘man-made’ world of modern industry and the ‘God-given’ world of pre-industrial community. As Standish Meacham notes, there was considerable anxiety in the late Victorian era over the effects of industrialisation, leading many to idealise the old agrarian world.[47] By combining visions of Eden with a technological apparatus, irrigation promised to relieve this anxiety. With water engineering, irrigationists suggested, society could ‘have it all’. It could revive an unpolluted and innocent age and at the same time transform it according to the wonders of science. As such, irrigation was both about modern technology (‘drains, pumps, pipes and dams’) and about the dream of re-creating an old-world paradise.

That irrigationists used religious language to further dreams of a modern industrial society is argued by Worster in his discussion of Smythe. As Worster puts it, ‘Smythe pointedly celebrated irrigation as an agricultural counterpart to industrial organisation’.[48] Whilst he extolled the virtues of an Edenic landscape, he also anticipated a future society based on ‘a plan of rationalised, complex economic organisation…utilising power generated by massive hydroelectric dams’.[49] He wanted Americans to return to the countryside, ‘but they would come to carry out the modernisation of farming and the industrialisation of the West’.[50]

In making this argument, Smythe was in tune with the Messianic promotion of science in late Victorian Britain. According to Huxley, science would create ‘a new Nature begotten by…fact’, securing society ‘from the recurrence of pestilences and famines of former times’.[51] To the socialist Beatrice Webb, science would solve ‘all the problems arising out of the relation of man to man and of man towards the universe’.[52] The crusading tenor of these scientific naturalists was close to that of irrigation promoters. In turn, irrigation propaganda expounded a Huxleyan vision of the earth transformed by the power of science: a place of rationality and industrial efficiency, in which pestilence and drought had come under humanity’s command.

In True Gardens of the Gods, Tyrrell is aware that desire for a new ‘scientific’ nature was admixed with irrigation dreams. He notes, for example, the International Irrigation Conference, held in Los Angeles and organised by Smythe, in 1893.[53] Across the stage of this conference, he says, was a banner proclaiming ‘Irrigation – Science, Not Chance’. Tyrrell is also aware that many irrigationists adhered to the ‘theme of imperial domination of nature’.[54] In spite of this, however, his predominant argument is that irrigationists were part of a movement concerned with ‘environmental “renovation”‘. In Australia, he says, irrigation advocates favoured small-scale agriculture, the breaking up of large estates and the restoration of a garden landscape. ‘All this would “renovate” nature and undo the environmental damage that pastoral and broad-acre agriculture land use had bequeathed’.[55] In this argument based on environmental renovation, Tyrrell underplays the dreams of environmental conquest so prevalent in irrigation promotion – dreams of the wholesale conversion of the desert, of the containment of floods and the triumphant diversion of rivers. At the same time, he places little emphasis on the irrigationists’ notions of a ‘high tech’ millennium made possible through water engineering.

Irrigation Millennium: Australia and the New Garden of Eden

As I noted earlier, Smythe and Gordon’s concept of ‘finishing’ the world fused the vocabulary of evolution with that of collaboration with the Divine. It also suggested that a final stage of environmental perfection could be created on earth. In this, it bore marked similarities with millennial ideas. Sometimes referred to as ‘millenarianism’, millennialism is indeed concerned with the final stages of earthly and human history.[56] In this it shares much in common with the apocalyptic tradition. Whilst ‘apocalypticism is about judgements, accountings and ends’, however, millennialism ‘is about beginnings’.[57] Apocalypticism foretells a calamitous struggle leading to the destruction of the world. Millennialism tells us what happens next: the final triumph of good over evil, in which a new civilisation is firmly established ‘on a transformed and purified earth’.[58]

Much scholarship has been devoted to the millennial motifs entwined in American history. As Jan Nordholt notes, America’s Puritan settlers identified their country with the wilderness in Revelations. They thus viewed their arrival as the first part of a saga in which history’s final drama would unfold. Over subsequent generations, white Americans saw their conquest of the country’s wild regions as preparation for the millennium soon to take place on their soil.[59] Like the desert described by Isaiah, the arid wastes of America were destined to break out in streams of water and fertile beds of rushes. Making the arid land fruitful was a millennial labour; a process through which the American landscape would become the New Garden of Eden. Smythe was part of this millennial tradition when he argued that American and Biblical geography were aligned, and that irrigationists worked in partnership with God.[60]

Figure 2: Millennial geography in Smythe's Conquest of Arid America
Figure 2: Millennial geography in Smythe’s Conquest of Arid America

Australia was never the subject of the same millennial longing as America. As part of the New World, however – and as a place often touted as a ‘future America’ – it was nonetheless influenced by millennial ideas.[61] As I argued earlier, Australian irrigation promotion was replete with references to the Holy Land. It was also rife with prophetic utterances as to new environmental beginnings. InAustralia Unlimited (1919), for example, E.J. Brady predicted that the Dead Heart of Australia would in future ‘teem with life’. In this, he echoed Gordon’s Conquering the Desert, in which the latter predicted that Australia’s ‘dead heart’ would one day ‘pulsate with life’.[62] To both Gordon and Brady, Australia’s interior was soon to become the living symbol of the millennium – a triumphant embodiment of the New Kingdom’s ‘transformed and purified earth’.

I am not suggesting here, of course, that Australian irrigationists held a literal belief in the millennium. Rather, I am suggesting that they made use of millennial motifs to further their cause. For ardent nationalists like Gordon and Brady, the millennial concept of a glorious ‘new era’ was well-suited to their vision of an Australian empire based on a fusion of science and agriculture. Through irrigation, Gordon argued – and also through a partnership between ‘the lawmaker and the ploughman, the chemist and the seed-sower’ – all of Australia’s inhospitable places would be made into ‘Gardens of Eden’.[63] Gordon cited The New Agriculture in support of this claim:

We are at the beginning of an era wonderful in the annals of agriculture – an era in which experiment and foresight and skill and invention and learning will transmute, as never before, the labour bestowed upon the land into wealth and health and happiness and length of days; an era of progress and development as wonderful as any that has hitherto astounded the world.[64]

According to Brady, all Australians’ hearts should ‘leap up’ at the ‘golden vision of the future’ before them. Australia would one day be a happy white empire for hundreds of millions of citizens, each of them blessed with the marvels of scientific efficiency, liberal democracy, material prosperity, and a garden landscape abounding with ‘marvellous tilth’.[65] Whilst it is not the purpose of this paper to investigate at length the links between irrigation and nationalism, nor to explore the period after 1930, it is interesting to note that nationalist rhetoric during the twentieth century became increasingly tied to the development of large-scale finance and industry. From the mid 1950s, for example, plans for mass irrigation of the country mingled with belief in the wonders of hydroelectricity, the merits of agribusiness and mineral wealth. At this time, Worster argues, both irrigation and nationalist rhetoric led ‘like a Wagnerian opera’, to ‘plenty of bombast and show…Science led to rational, businesslike agriculture…religion and nationalism made a swelling chorus; and at the end of the performance was money and world power’.[66]

In the extravagant visions of the later twentieth century, there was little to resemble the petit-bourgeois dreams of Ian Tyrrell’s irrigationists. Nor were there the same nineteenth century anxieties concerning the corrosion of religion or the effects of industrialisation. The seeds of nationalist and ‘high tech’ development had, however, been sown in the period covered in the course of this article. Between the 1880s and 1930s, irrigation was caught in the attempt to reconcile a lost world of Edenic innocence to a coming world of triumphant modernity. Irrigationists drew on millennial motifs and Biblical imagery in order to attempt this reconciliation. Australia, they argued, could become the Garden of Eden through a jubilant partnership of agriculture and science. Using irrigation, its landscape would be transformed from desert to orchard. This transformation would not be effected through an emphasis on modest environmental renovation, but rather through a belief in the rational mastery of nature; through the creation of a technological millennium inspired by Biblical imagery. Flushed with the heat of this grandiloquent project, who would really notice that irrigation led repeatedly to failure?

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[1] Guy Boothby, On the Wallaby, Or Through the East and Across Australia, Longmans, Green & Co, London, 1894, p. 260. Back

[2] Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999, pp. 13, 103-120. Back

[3] C.J. Lloyd, Either Drought or Plenty: Water Development and Management in New South Wales, Department of Water Resources New South Wales, Parramatta, 1988, p. 164-166. Back

[4] Appeal to the image of the ‘yeoman’ farmer was a favourite pastime of Australian liberals across the 1800s. It comprised a belief that citizens living and working their own small farms formed the ideal basis for a society. This was because yeoman farmers would be hard-working, virtuous and politically docile. It was also because a system of small-scale landownership would combat land monopoly by the ‘squatter’ or pseudo-aristocratic class. See J. M. Powell, The Public Lands of Australia Felix, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1970, p. 63.Back

[5] Alfred Deakin, ‘Water Supply and Irrigation’, Speech in Submitting the Legislative Assembly A Bill to Make Better Provision for the Supply of Water for Irrigation, and Also For Mining, Manufacturing, and For Other Purposes, John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne, 24 June 1886, p. 62. Back

[6] J.M. Powell, Watering the Garden State: Water, Land and Community in Victoria, 1834-1988 , Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1898, pp. 112-118. Back

[7] J. E. Matthew Vincent, (ed.),The Australian Irrigation Settlements on the River Murray, Chaffey Bros, London, 1889, p. 12. Back

[8] J.M. Powell, Watering the Garden State, pp. 123-25. Back

[9] William Lines, Taming the Great South Land: A History of the Conquest of Nature in Australia, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1991, p. 151. Back

[10] Elwood Mead, ‘Irrigation and Closer Settlement in Australia’, Australia To-Day, 1910, pp. 79-81.Back

[11] Marilyn Lake, The Limits of Hope: Soldier Settlement in Victoria, 1915-38, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1987, pp. vxiii, p. 231. Back

[12] Neil Barr & John Cary,Greening a Brown Land: The Australian Search for Sustainable Land Use, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1992, p. 213. Back

[13] For example, Bruce Davidson,Australia Wet or Dry?: The Physical and Economic Limits to the Expansion of Irrigation, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1969, pp. 4-5, 74.Back

[14] Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods, p. 103. Back

[15] Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West, Pantheon Books, New York, 1985, p. 118. Back

[16] William E. Smythe, The Conquest of Arid America, (3rd ed.), University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1969, pp. x-xi. Back

[17] Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods, pp. 11, 103. Back

[18] Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods, pp. 13, 103-120. Back

[19] J.M. Powell, Watering the Garden State, pp. 155-162. Back

[20] Elwood Mead, ‘Irrigation in Victoria’, in A.M. Laughton & T.S. Hall, Handbook to Victoria, Albert J. Mullett, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1914, pp. 258-262. Back

[21] Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods, p. 117. Back

[22] Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods, p. 112. Back

[23] Michael Davitt, Life and Progress in Australasia, Methuen, London, 1898, p. 77. Back

[24] Ernestine Hill, Water Into Gold, (9th ed), Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1951, pp. 247, 56.Back

[25] J. A. Alexander, Life of George Chaffey: A Story of Irrigation Beginnings in Australia and California, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1928. Back

[26] Punch, 3 June 1886 Back

[27] F. B. Gipps, ‘On the Importance of a Comprehensive Scheme of Water Storage and Canalisation for the Welfare of the Colony’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 1881, 15, pp. 311-13. Back

[28] Ernestine Hill, Water Into Gold, p. 56. Back

[29] John W. Gregory, The Dead Heart of Australia: A Journey Around Lake Eyre in the Summer of 1901-1902, John Murray, London, 1906, p. 271. Back

[30] Roslynn D. Haynes, Seeking the Desert: The Australian Desert in Literature, Art and Film, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 27. Back

[31] William Smythe, The Conquest of Arid America, p. 327. Back

[32] David Gordon, Conquering the Desert. Conservation – Reclamation – Irrigation, A National Policy for Progressive People, W.K. Thomas & Co., Adelaide, 1907, p. 31. Back

[33] Stuart Macintyre, A Colonial Liberalism: The Lost World of Three Victorian Visionaries, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991, p. 5. Back

[34] Al Gabay, The Mystic Life of Alfred Deakin, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992, pp. 7-9, 82.Back

[35] C.R. Badger, The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church, Abacada Press, Melbourne, 1971, pp. 67-68; Stuart Macintyre, A Colonial Liberalism, pp. 124-126.Back

[36] Australian Herald, July 1891, p. 1. Back

[37] Frank Turner, ‘Rainfall, Plagues, and the Prince of Wales: A Chapter in the Conflict Between Religion and Science’, Journal of British Studies, 1974, 13, p. 48. Back

[38] Frank Turner, ‘Rainfall, Plagues and the Prince of Wales’, pp. 57-58. Back

[39] Stuart Macintyre, A Colonial Liberalism, pp. 125, 122. Back

[40] Cited in Tim Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 292-294.Back

[41] Cited in Tim Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth, pp. 292-294. Back

[42] Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire, p. 114. Back

[43] Tim Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth, pp. 292, 294-5. Back

[44] Tucker Village Settlement Association, The Tucker Village Settlements: A Handbook, Melbourne,n. d., pp. 2-3. Back

[45] Australian Herald, August 1892, p. 210. Back

[46] Australian Herald, August 1892, p. 223. Back

[47] Standish Meacham, Regaining Paradise: Englishness and the Early Garden City Movement, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1999, p. 3. Back

[48] Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire, p. 122. Back

[49] Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire, pp. 122-23. Back

[50] Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire, pp. 122-23. Back

[51] Cited in Frank Turner, Between Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, Yale University Press, London, 1974, p. 8. Back

[52] Cited in Frank Turner, Between Science and Religion , p. 12. Back

[53] Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods, p. 108. Back

[54] Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods, p. 108. Back

[55] Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods, p. 120. Back

[56] Frank Graziano, The Millennial New World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p. 7. Back

[57] Eugen Weber, Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999, p. 31. Back

[58] Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World To Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith, Yale University Press, London, 1993, Preface. Back

[59] Jan W.S. Nordholt, The Myth of the West: America as the Last Empire, (trans. Herbert H. Rowen), William B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, 1995, p. 123. Back

[60] William Smythe, The Conquest of Arid America, p. 259. Back

[61] Richard White, Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980 , George Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1984, p. 50. Back

[62] E. J. Brady, Australia Unlimited, George Robertson, Melbourne, 1918, p. 14; David Gordon, Conquering the Desert, p. 7. Back

[63] David Gordon, Conquering the Desert, p. 33. Back

[64] Dr Collins, The New Agriculture, cited in David Gordon, Conquering the Desert, p. 26.Back

[65] E. J. Brady, River Rovers, George Robertson, Melbourne, 1911, p. 155; E.J. Brady, Australia Unlimited , p. 14. Back

[66] Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire, p. 116. Back

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