The True History of the Stockman: cattlemen, horses, and Aboriginal disposession in Australia

So, this is the post I’ve been hinting at for the last couple of entries. It might not be THE truth, but it’s certainly A truth, and an uncomfortable one at that. This is the post that asks, why do we, as Australians, want so much to believe in the truth of the noble stockman, a figure that Nanette Mantle has described as a bricolage of the fox-hunting gentleman of England, the chivalrous cavalryman of the army, and the knight errant?[1]

Tim Flannery offers one answer to this question, when he writes that ‘The Man From Snowy River is an archetypal Australian hero–one of the brave Aussies who tamed the rugged land… Yet our worship of the self-reliant stockman neatly side-steps the fact that the men of the cattle frontier were the shock troops in our Aboriginal wars. … There is a deep current in our colonial Australian society that resists these simple facts and clings to the great founding lie.’[2]

In truth, the evolution of the masculine identity myth of the noble bushman was intended to function, at least in part, to suppress the brutal realities of frontier conflict.[3]The physical displacement of Aboriginal people can be charted alongside the pastoral and agricultural expansion of the colonists, a process in which the stockman, and his horse, were integral. The horse granted settlers an advantage over Aboriginal owners, both in the violent physical clashes which occurred, and by facilitating the rapid movement and spread of white settlers.


Image showing European expansion in Australia by 1836

Ivor Indyk draws a a parallel between dispossession and the European pastoral narratives, which shaped how landscapes were perceived by the colonial settlers, comparing Meliboeus, portrayed in Virgil’s Eclogue lamenting his exile from his homeland, with the dispossession of the Aboriginal peoples in Australia. Indyk writes that ‘Australian pastoral is haunted by a similar sense of violation, caused by an upheaval of no lesser magnitude – that of the displacement of an indigenous population by the settlers of a colonizing power.’[4]

The horse as symbol

So what of the horse itself? According to Karen Welberry, the horse, and particularly the brumby, is central to mediating anxieties of belonging in Australia;[5] such anxieties are recognised as symptomatic of the collective uncertainty regarding the moral right of Europeans to occupy this land.[6] The example cited by Welberry in demonstrating the symbolic power of the horse as an agent of belonging is children’s book The Silver Brumby, in which Elyne Mitchell’s eponymous equine characters ‘signally became more ‘native’/suited to life in the high country than legitimately native animals and/or indigenous trackers employed to hunt them down.’[7]

Welberry has argued that in spite of this positioning of the horse within the Australian cultural imagination, a critical study of this animal remains conspicuously absent from the cultural studies discourse. It also remains largely absent from museum narratives, where the horse is fixed as either a natural history specimen, or associated with celebratory narratives, for example Phar Lap, whose heart is currently associated with a triumphal exhibit on the Melbourne Cup at the National Museum of Australia.

As well as its historical role in colonisation and dispossession, the horse today continues to function as a symbol of legitimisation in contemporary ‘tournaments of value’ relating to land use, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Snowy River high country[8] and the Central Plateau of Tasmania.[9] Environmental historians have documented the growing aversion to non-native species, while noting that the brumby remains largely immune from the vilification heaped on animals such as the feral cat.[10]

Brumbies in the high country

Brumbies in the high country

In Kosciuszko National Park, it is estimated that up to 7,000 wild brumbies are wreaking havoc on alpine landscapes ill-equipped to deal with their impact. However proposals to cull the animals have been met with vehement local opposition:

“It’s a package deal with us; it’s horse-riding in the mountains, it’s the mountains themselves, and it’s the brumbies, and if it weren’t for the brumbies there would be nothing left here to demonstrate that our history even existed”,[11] states local resident Leisa Caldwell. Here we can see how the Authorised Heritage Discourse has shaped perceptions of the brumby; the reference to ‘history’ pertains only to a white, Anglo-European heritage, yet it is integral to understanding what lies at the heart of the conflict – that is, an anxiety of belonging.

This debate revolves around fundamental issues of who the land is for, and how it can be used.[12] The role played by the horse here is ironic, echoing its part in the initial dispossession of the land from the original inhabitants.

It seems that, in tracing the hoof-print of the horse in Australia, we also trace the imprints of belonging; in the colonial era, the horse was integral to the dispossession of the Aboriginal inhabitants, while its later expulsion from the Edenic wilderness signals the pang of dispossession among Anglo-Europeans.



[1] Nanette Mantle, Horse & Rider in Australian Legend (Carlton: The Miegunyah Press, 2004), , 59-60.

[2] Tim Flannery, “Beautiful Lies: Population and Environment in Australia,” Quarterly Essay (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2003) Adobe eReader edition.

[3] Mantle, Horse & Rider, 3.

[4] Ivor Indyk, “Pastoral and Priority: the Aboriginal in Australian Pastoral,” New Literary History vol. 24 no. 4 (1993): 838.

[5] Karen Welberry, “Wild Horses and Wild Mountains in the Australian Cultural Imaginary”, PAN: Philosophy, Activism, Nature no. 3 (2005): 23.

[6] Peter Pierce, The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Lisa Slater, “Anxious Settler Belonging: Actualising the Potential for Making Resilient Postcolonial Subjects,” M/C Journal vol. 16 no. 5 (2013), accessed July 1 2014

[7] Welberry, “Wild Horses,” 25.

[8] Welberry, “Wild Horses,” 26.

[9]Simon Cubit, “Tournaments of Value: Horses, Wilderness, and the Tasmanian Central Plateau,” Environmental History vol. 6 no. 3 (2003).

[10]Nicholas Smith, “The Howl and the Pussy: Feral Cats and Wild Dogs in the Australian Imagination,“ The Australian Journal of Anthropology vol. 10 no. 3 (1999): 294.

[11] Alex Blucher and Bill Brown, “Shooting Brumbies in Kosciuszko,” ABC Rural April 1 2014, viewed July 1 2014,

[12] Cubit,“Tournaments,” 400.


8 thoughts on “The True History of the Stockman: cattlemen, horses, and Aboriginal disposession in Australia

  1. Pingback: A great hue and cry | horsesfordiscourses

  2. Pingback: Dead Horse Gap: The Brumby Debate | words and wilds

  3. Pingback: The symbolic horse | horsesfordiscourses

  4. I’ve been reading a lot on brumbies lately, including Elyne Mitchell’s fiction. Do you know of local Aboriginal peoples’ views on the High Country brumbies? I’d like to know more about their views, whether they are universally against the horses or have a spread of views. Cheers.

    • Thanks for your question. I have been unable to find anything published on Aboriginal views of the Snowy Mountains situation specifically, but the issue has been touched on by some scholars I cited here, particularly the piece by Karen Welberry. You might also find this article by David S. Trigger “Indigeneity, ferality, and what ‘belongs’ in the Australian bush: Aboriginal responses to ‘introduced’ animals and plants in a settler-descendant society,” in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 14 no. 3 (2008): 628–646, of interest (Trigger’s research, though not specifically about brumbies, found a diverse range of opinions among different communities regarding the biota he focused on). Thanks for reading.

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