Federated and Fed-Up: Fragility After Fecundity (1895–1905)
From 1895 to 1903 a series of El Niño events combined in their effect to produce one of the most profound droughts in Australian European history. The eastern half of the Australian continent was parched from years of below average rainfall. Stock died in their millions and crops failed. With the drought coming on the back of the severe economic depression of the early 1890s, human misery was accentuated. It was a period of dust, debt and difficulty that appeared to challenge the earlier optimism of the years from the 1850s to the late 1880s that accompanied pastoral expansion into the arid Australian inland. As grass shrivelled in scorching summer temperatures and high winds lifted the bared earth and threw it eastwards at the coastal settlements, the capriciousness of the Australian climate seemed to attest to the fragility of the environment. Yet during the Federation Drought, on the dust-laden inland plains and in the city halls of power, an interesting phenomenon occurred connected to perceptions of climate. In evidence at the time was, at first blush, a somewhat surprising retention of faith in the productivity of the land. While there were some adjustments to the contemporary realities, and despite the apparent failure of pastoralism in the inland, a positive outlook on climate clung with unexpected tenacity.