Greg Manning, "Untraditional Custodians: Transport Corridors as Creation Stories of Australian Cities"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.[1]



The words which are used to describe movement in Australian cities present a profound challenge to the practice of respect for the Traditional Owners in Australia. People, who “see without perceiving and hear without understanding,” is an apt definition of urban populations describing movement around Australian cities. Australia’s vocabulary of urban place names is based upon a phenomenon of creating memorials, in the form of street and place names. The origins of many of these memorials have been forgotten, lost or ignored. Those which are remembered are often remembered within a particular antiquated framework for speaking of the past. “Speaking in street names” re-invigorates these memorials to enable healing. Every commuter is the “untraditional” custodian of at least one face of the multi-faceted story about the creation of Australian cities.

Acknowledgement of Country

In order for people to gather in Australian cities, even before there is an Acknowledgement of Country, and before assertions of respect to the elders of the Traditional Owners in Australia, there is another acknowledgement of “elders” and “country.” This acknowledgement comes in the form of the addresses of meeting places, and the directions, and routes used to travel to and from these meetings and gatherings. This paper identifies a relationship between these two forms of acknowledgement. This relationship accommodates unresolved tension as well as the prospect of reconciliation.

The ideas in this paper were presented at a meeting at 488 Swanston St., Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria. I acknowledge that people from the Kulin nations are the Traditional Owners of that land where we gathered to share ideas about “Urban Life Together.” I offer my respect to the elders of the Kulin nations, past and present. Having offered my respect, I recognize that sustaining and demonstrating that respect in my words and actions remains challenging. Words, which are used to describe movement in Australian cities, present a foundational challenge to sustaining and demonstrating that respect for the Traditional Owners in Australia. This paper is written in pursuit of a language of respect.

To begin with, I will illustrate the way my vocabulary complicates my attempt to pay due respect to the Traditional Owners in Australia. Australia’s vocabulary of place is dominated by place names, which are memorials recalling the disrespectful dispossession of the Traditional Owners. I live in Queensland, in a place where the Jagera People are the Traditional Owners. The place we call “Queensland” was defined and named by Queen Victoria in 1859.[2] The assertion of the name Queensland in the Letters Patent of 1859 was associated with assertions of British possession, British law enforcement and British control over land described as “waste” and “unsettled.” The existing custody of the land, and human presence, culture and law were ignored in the establishment of “Queensland.” The construct, “Queen’s land,” itself perpetuates the idea that the Traditional Owners in the North East of Australia receive neither acknowledgement nor respect.

Before undertaking the journey from Queensland to present the ideas in this paper, I conducted a very brief inquiry into the address of the “Urban Life Together” Conference. Whom or what did I need to acknowledge in order to be present at the conference, and there, to offer my respect to the people of the Kulin nations, and their elders. I was not familiar with the names Swanston and Carlton, which defined the location of this meeting, though I have heard them many times before.

Identifying the naming of Carlton proved elusive. Who put it there on the map? Why is it in that place? My inquiry yielded only that the word itself is an old word, mixing Old Norse and Old Anglo-Saxon languages. It means “a settlement of free peasants.”[3] I was not able to confirm that these findings were in any way related to the naming of Carlton in Melbourne.

The Council of the City of Melbourne was very helpful in identifying Swanston. [4] A man called Charles Swanston was part of a syndicate, called the Port Philip Association. Swanston’s role in this association was to help organize finances for an expedition in the lands of the Kulin nations, during which John Batman claimed to have signed a treaty with the Traditional Owners.[5] As a banker in Australia, Charles Swanston was also an agent for a man called William Jardine. William Jardine’s opium trading during the 1930s is associated with the precipitation of the First Opium War, in the name of free trade.[6] My attention was drawn to Swanston’s link with the opium trade because the destruction of Aboriginal society throughout the State of Queensland was advanced by The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of Sale of Opium Act of 1897. This piece of legislation is still painfully felt in the lives of the people who hear the Acknowledgements of Country in the North Eastern State of Australia. [7] I have many unanswered questions about opium in Australia in the 19th century. Charles Swanston is one point of contact with that story. Another is the Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time of the First Opium War. He is often remembered as Lord Melbourne.

In order to introduce myself in the city of Melbourne, I drew attention to the dispossession of the Jagera People, simply by saying I came from Queensland. In order to physically attend the Urban Life Together meeting on Swanston St., I needed to refer to memorials, which aggravate painful and open wounds in the lives of the Jagera People. This is a problem that Australia’s vocabulary of place presents everyone who lives and moves in Australian cities. The protocol of Acknowledgement of Country is an important step towards living together with respect, but it does not prevent urban populations using contemporary language as a means of sustaining a lack of respect. By stating the problem in this way, I am not proposing the elimination of existing place names. Instead, Australian place names remain important signposts in the journey to healing, at least for the moment.

Here is one final introductory example. I use the words “Australia” and “Australian” throughout this essay. These words presume the unification of hundreds of distinct Nations. They are used in this essay with an awareness that my usage does not communicate the involuntary nature of this unification under the name “Australia.” I may even re-inforce false perceptions about notions of unity and national identity, both before and after the word “Australia” became widely used. This is a weakness of my current contribution to the broader discussion. There are ways that the words “Australia” and “Australian” can be used to point us towards understanding and respect, just as there are ways they can be used, which demonstrate a lack of awareness of the First Nations.

Seeing without Perceiving

Jesus spoke of a people “seeing without perceiving” and “hearing without understanding” (Matt 13:14). People, who “see without perceiving and hear without understanding,” is an apt description of populations describing movement through Australian cities. It is a useful description when memorials are forgotten, but still acknowledged. When using addresses, and giving directions in Australian cities, what is not perceived is that the words used to describe place and movement are commonly memorials of the formation of the city—memorials to people, events, boats, families, wars, memories, and so on. They are memorials to imperial administration, colonial administration, monarchy, democracy, land surveys, land speculation, commercial interests, war, landforms, infrastructure development, family heritage, fragments of local language and culture, treasures from ancient languages, sentimental memories, and so on. The origins of many of these memorials have been forgotten, lost or ignored by very large sectors of the population. They have not ceased to be memorials.

There is a widespread and shared experience of not knowing to whom or to what most street or place names refer. Specific street and place names are perceived as irrelevant and arbitrary, because they are simply labels, which enable the social and legal processes of urban life together. These names have no widespread meaning of their own when they are used in urban vocabulary. The meanings that street and place names acquire usually come from the experience of seeing them in the course of urban life, and hearing and using them in the vocabulary of location and movement. The memories and experiences, which generate this more contemporary set of meanings for street and place names are accessible only to smaller subsets of populations. This paper is interested in larger and more diverse populations than these subgroups. It is interested in the shared experience of the entire population who share the urban vocabulary of place.

The widespread experience of not knowing to whom or to what place names refer may not be a passive experience of “seeing without perceiving.” When Jesus spoke of people seeing without perceiving, he referred to an active process when he said, “they have closed their eyes.” There is an active process in Australia, which discourages the widespread public discussion of the origin of cities.

Hearing Stigma and Judgmentalism

Australia, in the early 21st century, is a volatile setting for a diverse population to explore its urban origins together. The risks of polarising populations and scapegoating people are high. It is often easier and safer to say little or nothing of our urban origins. The little we do hear about our urban origins may explain the prevailing silence because it is rarely far away from stigmatisation and judgmentalism.

This paper was one of at least three distinct attempts, during the “Urban Life Together” conference, to specifically address stigma and judgmentalism in Australia.[8] Addressing stigma and judgmentalism is a subject of great urgency. The History Wars[9] have equipped Australians to stigmatise, accuse and condemn each other, when issues related to history are raised in conversation or in public. Stigma is easily aroused through the use of labels, such as “black armband history.” Accusation and condemnation are easily aroused by reference to laws. The Ten Commandments have proven to be extremely useful for articulating accusation and condemnation. For example, the Sixth and Eighth Commandments “Do not steal” and “Do not kill” are recalled in references to stolen land and to unpunished murders and massacres of aboriginal people. To discuss and explore memorials related to the land in Australia is to risk exposure to stigma and accusation and condemnation.

People who want to acknowledge the past and communicate respect in the present, without being disempowered by division, guilt and shame, may be able to learn something about negotiating stigma and judgmentalism from populations who are living with HIV. Stigma and judgmentalism can be activated in an HIV epidemic by asking a person who is living with HIV “How did you get it?” (i.e. “How did you become infected with HIV?”). Populations who are living with HIV have made progress in dismantling some stigma and judgmentalism by changing the dangerous questions into life-giving and life-saving questions. Instead of asking “How did you get it?” or “How did they get it?” the question has become “How did we get it?” When the question is in the form of the second person (e.g. “you”), the question can imply judgment and accusation. When the question is asked in the third person (e.g. “he,” “she,” “they”), it is processed using labels, stereotypes and theoretical constructs, all of which can fuel stigma. When the question is asked in the first person (e.g. “I”), it asserts ownership, rights and responsibility. When it is articulated in the first person plural (e.g. “we,” “us”) it enables inclusion. When inclusion is the default position, people can be more attentive and equipped to negotiate unintended stigma and judgmentalism. A population speaking in the first person plural can provide permission and support to explore previously forbidden subject matter.

One question facing Australians in this generation is “How did we get it?” (i.e. “How did we get land, wealth, entitlement, and so on?”). This paper proposes that place names provide an inclusive vocabulary and way of speaking, which can include and sustain the populations of entire cities in the inclusive pronoun, “we,” in the question, “How did we get it?”

The need for a way of communicating that affirms a shared existence and identity is behind my choices to speak of “populations” rather than people, “movement” rather than travel, and a “vocabulary of place” rather than place names. While these may be clumsy or ineffective choices, they have been made with the view that urban life is shaped by structures (such as “transport corridors”), and not merely shapeless and random concentrations of individual people, individual journeys and individual words. The following comments about a “process of memorialisation” (rather than memorials) continue this pursuit of an inclusive language (rather than a few more descriptive words). It aims to perceive individual memorials within a broader phenomenon that brought them together in one place, i.e. in an Australian city.

Perceiving Relationships

Street and place names are not isolated memorials. They are elements of a larger process of memorialization, which took place during the mapping, subdivision and sale of the land. The implication is that the street names of Australian cities might be better understood in relationship with each other, rather than in isolation from one another.

Many of the street and place names of Australian cities can be located within the perspectives presented by a man whose name has been given to one of Brisbane’s large railway bridges—Herman Merivale, a Professor of Political Economy at Oxford University. At the time when Brisbane was being surveyed and subdivided for sale under freehold title, Merivale was delivering “Lectures on Colonization and Colonies.”[10] These lectures provide insight into colonization and its stakeholders. For example, Merivale discussed “Methods of Obtaining Labour in Colonies without Slaves or Convicts,” and what he called the “Disposal of Land” in the colonies. Alongside the “Disposal of Land,” he considered “the policy of Colonial Governments towards Native Tribes, as regards their Protection and their Civilization.” Among the stakeholders in this theme, he positioned Christians in relation to the State as well as to the First Nations. Christians, through “Missionary Instruction” were positioned specifically in relation to the “Amount of Civilization hitherto achieved by Savage Tribes in Modern European colonies.” Merivale’s lectures present an influential[11] perspective of the sorts of relationships that existed between the cast of characters involved in the processes of colonization. He presented these lectures under the subtitle “Progress of Wealth and Society in Colonies.”

The ideas of “progress” and “civilization” shaped the production of much of the English history that was written in the 19th century and into the 20th century. Within the idea of progress, social systems were justified by asserting linkages between various historical phenomena and the present, in a progression from the inferior to the superior.[12] In Brisbane, “The Progress of Civilization” is literally enshrined in the centre of the Brisbane City Council’s logo, which is visible throughout the entire city. The logo is a stylized portrayal of Brisbane City Hall. Over the entrance to Brisbane City Hall is a sculpture, by Daphne Mayo, entitled “The Progress of Civilization in the State of Queensland.”[13]

Daphne Mayo’s sculpture presents three overlapping “action sequences.” These three action sequences may incorporate the majority, if not all of the names and events memorialised in the street names, which describe the creation of the city of Brisbane. In the centre is the action of the State.[14] One side of the artwork represents a point of contact between the colonial movement and the world of the First Nations. The other side represents exploration and industry. [15]

The following lists illustrate how “The Progress of Civilisation” artwork might assist in locating specific street and place names within the memorialisation of a colony’s and a city’s creation.

  1. The State is memorialised in streets named after monarchs, royal families and events, imperial office-bearers, colonial office-bearers, law-makers, law-enforcers, battles, wars, soldiers, and so on.
  2. Contact between Europeans and the First Nations is memorialised in flora, fauna, characters, European descriptions, impressions and moments, as well as in place names and languages. These place names and languages include the languages of the First Nations as well as places and languages remembered by Europeans.
  3. Discovery and economic ambitions can be recognised in the listing of participants in exploration, industry and commerce. Surveyors and people, who secured freehold title on the land, feature prominently in this group. This part of the pageant includes memorials to art, innovation and introduced species.

Both Merivale (from 1839) and Mayo (from 1930) have superimposed notions of “progress” and “civilization” onto the happenings in Australia in the 19th century. Neither Merivale nor Mayo present these happenings in a way, which communicates, in the current day, respect for the Traditional Owners of the land.[16] Narrating the story of the creation of Australian cities, in a way that enables respect of the First Nations, is an outstanding responsibility of the current generation of Australians.

Understanding “Untraditional Custodians”

Street maps document the essential vocabulary of place in Australian cities. However, as mentioned above, the words, themselves, generally have no common meaning. The meanings of the words on the street map are based on the experiences and memories of whoever is using the map. As mentioned earlier, these memories are only shared by sub-sets of the overall urban population. My interest is to build a vocabulary with meanings shared by the entire population.

Street maps generate meaning by representing relationships between places. One relationship between places is a relationship of distance. Another relationship is that of direction. The relationship of distance provides meaning in terms of the quantities of space and time. Distance informs such questions as “How far is it (from one place to another)?” and “How long will it take?” The relationship of direction provides a logical sequence by which the land can be negotiated during travel.

On a street map, words appear in a graphical configuration, without appearing in any particular order. Travel organizes place names into logical sequences, which are specific to each different journey. These sequences of words are of particular interest for the purposes of this paper. In practice, the words themselves are simply labels, enabling a successful journey. However, when they are perceived as memorials, which are related to each other, they can present a unique and specific perspective of the creation of a city. This is the narrative that people are ever seeing but never perceiving and ever hearing, but never understanding.

Travel can be summarized and simplified by identifying a relationship between two places—a point of departure and a destination. Urban commuters can travel to and from a fixed workplace, or educational institution ten times every week for many years. Therefore, many commuters are particularly conscious of unique combinations of place names. Each unique narrative is accessed by first identifying the memorials which have become the labels of the point of departure and the destination of a journey. The narrative is, then generated by identifying and exploring a relationship between these two memorials.

Every commuter is the custodian of at least one facet of the multi-faceted story about the creation of an Australian city. “Custodian” is used here to mean a caretaker—someone who is entrusted with nurturing a specific element of the story of the city, and telling this story in a way that equips the current generation to respect the Traditional Custodians of the land. The description “untraditional custodians” distinguishes between the two different uses of custodian, without losing sight of the present or the past.

People who repeatedly converge on schools, offices, churches and meeting places have the opportunity to explore the complexity of each character or moment memorialised in the definition of the location of those meeting places. Each different journey to that meeting point offers another facet to the story. Each face of the memorialisation of colonisation can give substance, meaning and urgency to the Acknowledgement of Country.


Jesus described the opportunity to perceive what is seen and to understand what is heard as a “blessing.” He described the responsiveness to this blessing as a “turning.” He described the result of this turning as “healing.” When asked why he spoke in parables, Jesus’ response resolved around the possibility of the healing of a people (Matt 13:10–17). It is with this hope of healing that I speak in street names.

There is enormous scope for healing in Australian cities, considering the disproportionate mortality, morbidity, incarceration and socio-economic statistics between the population as a whole, and the people who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. The healing considered here includes the healing of the entire population who share the urban vocabulary of place. This healing demands extensive, broad-based public discussion. Such a discussion needs to be supported by a robust and inclusive vocabulary. Australian vocabulary of street and place names already operates at a very large scale and is used by the entire population, which lives and moves within Australian cities. Therefore it may be robust enough to be useful in difficult and complex discussions, which might demand long time frames to develop.


[1] The ideas presented in this paper are explored for further consideration, discussion and development in my blog, Also present in this volume is my case study which applies the overall concept of this paper to a busy transport corridor of Brisbane, “199 Songs.”

[2] Colony of Queensland, “Letters Patent,” June 6, 1859

REPEALED/L/LetPatColQld1859_01_.pdf (accessed December 20, 2014).

[3] Name Origin Research, 1980–2014, (accessed December 20, 2014).

[4] City of Melbourne, “Streets and Roads,” (accessed December 20, 2014).

[5] “Swanston, Charles (1789–1850),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, first published in hardcopy 1967, (accessed December 20, 2014).

[6] Jay P. Pederson (ed.), “Jardine Matheson Holdings Limited History,” International Directory of Company Histories, vol. 20. (St. James Press, 1998). Available at (accessed December 20, 2014).

[7] Interestingly, and perhaps coincidentally, the Second Opium War is sometimes referred to as the “Arrow War,” and the meeting was held at “Arrow on Swanston.”

[8] See Karl Hand, “Identifying with the Stigma: Christian Authenticity and the Affirming Church Movement,” Urban Life Together (2015): 31–39; Matt Bell, “Confession, Repentance and Atonement on Stolen Land,” Urban Life Together (2015): 18–24.

[9] See Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003).

[10] H. Merivale, Lectures on Colonization and Colonies, vol. 2 (London: Longman, 1842).

[11] In 1848, Merivale was appointed Permanent Under-Secretary to the Colonies.

[12] For a brief overview, see Jeremy Black and Donald M. MacRaild, Studying History, 3rd ed. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[13] Daphne Mayo created this sculpture in the light of at least two other sculptures, entitled “The Progress of Civilization,” which had been created seventy years earlier. Over the South Entrance to the British Museum in London, an artwork, entitled “The Progress of Civilization,” portrays an “ignorant being,” emerging from a rock, and being transformed into an “educated man,” who can “dominate the world around him.” Over the Senate Entrance on the East Front of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., huge marble characters are engaged in the same three activities which are reflected in Daphne Mayo’s work (see

[14] The Official Souvenir brochure for the opening of Brisbane City Hall (1930) described the “Progress of Civilization in the State of Queensland” as follows: “The central figure (9ft high) is the State protecting the citizens. On the left-hand side, the native life is represented dying out before the approach of the white man. The right-hand side represents the early explorers discovering the possibilities of the new land and its industries.”

[15] Brisbane City Council, Public Art Trail Cultural Heritage (on page 9) says: “The central figure in the classical design is robed to represent the state who sends her explorers, industrialists and artists throughout the land. The displaced Aboriginal people are depicted as fleeing.”

[16] The Queensland Government sponsored a publication about Daphne Mayo in which the authors claimed that the Aboriginal people were offered respect by positioning them like ‘water gods’ of classical Greek temple sculptures (J. Mackay and M. Hawker, Daphne Mayo: Let There Be Sculpture [Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 2011]). This interpretation seems inconsistent in the light of both the commentary in the Brisbane City Council brochure describing them as ‘dying’, and the similarity of design with Thomas Crawford’s sculpture of ‘The Progress of Civilization’ on the Capitol Building, where the demise of the Indigenous people is represented by a grave. I can’t find any reference to Thomas Crawford’s work in the scholarship about Daphne Mayo’s work in Brisbane.


Image: ryanscottdavis, Flickr (Creative Commons)