Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Cities and Swamp Settling: decolonizing wetlands

Rod Giblett

My paper begins from a simple premise and poses a simple question, but a question the answers to which are, no doubt, far more complex; indeed, if it has answers. By posing the question, I am trying more to delineate a problematic than to invite or suggest answers. The premise is this: colonization is as much about the colonization of "nature" or "the natural environment" as it is about the colonization of the "natives" or indigenes. Colonization of nature gives rise, in turn, to what Alfred Crosby calls "ecological imperialism," or what could simply be called nature as empire.1 The question I want to pose arises directly from this premise: in the era of so-called postcolonialism, what process of decolonization has taken place in relation to "nature" or "the natural environment," our most prized, but least visible colony? I want to pose this question, not in the abstract, but directly to that aspect or area of "the natural environment" most despised and denigrated in the western cultural tradition and that is wetlands (swamps, marshes, bogs, mires, etc.). I also want to pose this question, not in the universal, but directly to the local colonization of wetlands in the Perth region, especially to the Northbridge area. I mainly want to explore the process of colonization through the activity of mapping, or lack of it, of Perth wetlands.

My premise is taken from Franz Fanon, the pioneer theorist of decolonization, who, in a memorable passage in The Wretched of the Earth, argued that:

hostile nature, obstinate and fundamentally rebellious, is in fact represented in the colonies by the bush, by mosquitoes [from swamps], natives and fever [from mosquito bites], and colonization is a success when all this indocile nature has finally been tamed. Railways across the bush, the draining of swamps and a native population which is non-existent politically and economically are in fact one and the same thing.2

The draining of swamps was often necessary for the construction of railways through the bush, as well as for the establishment of European agriculture and of colonial settlements, or at least sections of them. Indeed, for Fanon the archetypal colonial city was divided between the Settler's Town basking on the hillsides and the Native Town "wallowing in the mire" as it does on the mud flats of the Ganges in the Chandrapore of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India.3 Perth in this respect was atypical. Although its backside wallowed in the mire of its swamps, there was no native town there and the hillside of Mt Eliza was too steep for the settler's town or the "civil station."

Yet the colonization of wetlands did not just take place via the draining of swamps. It was preceded by the mapping, or lack of it, of swamps. The map itself is a powerful instrument of colonization. Indeed, Michel de Certeau goes as far as to argue that "the map colonizes space."4 Or put more simply and bluntly in the words of the title of a course at Deakin University, "maps are territories."5 Maps are territories and maps colonize space because, in Paul Carter's words, the map is "an instrument for performing geometrical divisions . . . [which] reconciles all viewpoints into one unifying cause-and-effect perspective."6 The map records in the scalar grid of longitude and latitude and accords the map reader a God-like position to see and know everything simultaneously unlike perspective which centres everything on an eye/I. Everything is laid open to the gaze, every place becomes space, and every time, eternal.

This means that for wetlands their distinctive ecosystems are reduced to outlines on a map, if indeed they are mapped at all. Mapping of wetlands poses a problem because of their seasonal fluctuations in depth, and therefore in surface area. A map indicates surface and not depth; it reduces depth to surface, and only at a certain point in time. In order to map wetlands, recognition is required of their temporality. More recent and more sophisticated attempts to map wetlands, such as that by Chris Semenuik, begin by classifying and categorizing wetlands in terms of their temporality (Figure 1).7 This map also establishes the current stock of wetlands in the region against which we can compare their earlier absence from maps.

The early maps of the Swan River region, such as those by de Vlamingh (Figure 2)8 of 1697, the year from which I would tentatively date the beginning of the colonization of Perth's wetlands, by Freycinet and Heirrison (Figure 3)9 of 1801, and by Stirling himself (Figure 4)10 of 1827, do not show the lakes and swamps of the region at all. They are completely absent. Yet their sheer absence constitutes their initial colonization. They are the ultimate terra nullius, or more precisely aqua-terra nullius, because they are not even seen, or acknowledged in the official discourse of the map, just like the native inhabitants who were regarded by Cook as having nothing to do with the state of the country as he found it.11 Hence, there is a certain cultural contiguity between the absence of wetlands from the colonial map and the absence of reference to the work of the indigenes in transforming the environment from Cook's journal. Both are beneath the level of visibility, out of sight and out of mind, repressed and oppressed.

The map is not as totalizing (though it is still as colonizing) as it might seem as it only records either what is seen (perhaps de Vlamingh, Freycinet, Heirisson and Stirling did not see lakes and swamps either because they were so fixated on the river or because they did not conform to their idea of what lakes should be) or what the map-maker wants to be seen in order to promote further colonization and settlement (and so a map of 1829 of the very new settlement of the Swan River does not show the lakes and swamps either on the entire Swan Coastal Plain [Figure 5]).12 Of course, it would have involved a massive surveying operation to have plotted even the larger lakes and swamps of the region, though this effort has been taken, albeit to no great extent, in a map of 1833 of the region (Figure 6) which shows what must be Forrestdale Lake as a "Large Lake,"13 at about twice its present size. But it would have taken little effort to have described them, an effort which Stirling does not take on his map, though he describes the Swan Valley as "grassy country thinly wooded" (Figure 4). Wetlandscape is reduced to landscape, albeit English pastoral landscape. The wetland areas to the north and south of the Swan River are a blank space and an empty land, a tabula rasa and a terra nullius, as they are on the map of the new settlement. This was part of what Suzanne Falkiner has recently called "the geographical and philosophical blank slate that Australia presented to the European mind."14 On all four maps they are conspicuous by their absence. This absence of wetlands from maps precedes, makes possible and justifies before the event their actual absenting by draining and filling, much as Cook's absence of all reference to the work of indigines in transforming the environment from his journal justified genocide. Perhaps we need a comparable and analogous term to genocide to apply to wetlands, such as aquaterracide, the killing of wetlands.

The colonial map is distinguished by the politics of presence and absence, by what gets plotted or described and what does not. Either way, it reduces space, and the earth, including wetlands, to a flat surface of inscription which Deleuze and Guattari argue is a necessary pre-condition for social reproduction: "some kind of full body, that of the earth or the despot, a recording surface, an apparent objective movement, a fetishistic, perverted, bewitched world are characteristic of all types of society as a constant of social reproduction." As a consequence, the earth is "the surface on which the whole process of production is inscribed."15 Although that earth may be covered with water, it is still a surface for the inscription, or writing, of development. Writing, for de Certeau, is:

the concrete activity that consists in constructing on its own, blank space (un espace propre)Ñthe pageÑa text that has power over the exteriority from which it has first been excluded . . . it allows one to act on the environment and transform it . . . it is capitalist and conquering . . . And so is the modern city: it is a circumscribed space in which . . . the will to make the countryside conform to urban models is realized.16

The page of the colonial map has power over the wetlands which it has excluded. It constitutes the wetlands as object, or more precisely abject, to be managed and transformed. The modern city merely extends and heightens this process by transforming wetlands into market garden and market garden into suburb thus completing the transition from wetland through agri-culture to suburbi-culture. Ultimately the distinction between colonial map and modern city breaks down because the modern city is writing and the surface of the earth the page on which the inscription of urban development takes place, takes the place of the wetlands which were there. For Francois Furet "modernization, modernity itself, is writing."17 In Graham Swift's novel Waterland set in the Fens of England, the narrator asks of prosperous maltsters whether they see "in these level FensÑthis nothing landscapeÑan Idea, a drawing-board for your plans."18 Something similar could have been asked of the prosperous market gardeners of pioneer Perth.

Maps of early colonial Perth trace the colonization of its wetlands which preceded, and made possible, their actual settlement. A map of 1829 (Figure 7) names an area of lakes and swamps whose more precise mapping was perhaps unnecessary at this stage, though the rectolinear grid of street layouts sits like a beachhead of serried battalions about to invade the hinterland, the wetlands.19 This map shows how what Paul Carter calls "the rational principle of the grid" was used to produce what he also calls "the grid-plan town" which was, like the map which preceded it and made it possible, "paradoxically placeless and directionless."20

A map of 1829-30 (Figure 8) shows a large, interlocking and as yet unnamed network of lakes and swamps to the north of the first settlement. Four years later in 1833 (Figure 9) and the rectolinear grid of allotments has been mapped over the fluid outlines of some of the wetlands, and by this stage some drainage and reclamation had taken place. Although, as Carter argues, the ultimate effect of this "geometrical tendency was to iron out spatial differences, to nullify the strangeness of here and there," this was not performed initially, as he goes on to suggest, as "a means of translating the country into a place for reliable travelling," but for safe settling. The elements of the grid certainly rendered, as he puts it, "the topographical peculiarities of the country [including lakes and swamps] "level" at least in theory," their initial effect was not to render travelling itself "an activity independent of place," but to render settling as such, to settle the setting, to make the unhomely homely.21

A further five years later in 1838 (Figure 10) the grid has been extended further and the network of lakes and swamps has shrunk to a set of discrete and independent entities with names, with the naming process serving to delimit and contain their boundaries and to separate them from the network which once connected them. For de Certeau, "every power is toponymical and initiates its order of places by naming them," or perhaps more precisely by renaming them as the Perth lakes and swamps had Aboriginal names.22

After the map colonizes space, and the colonists settle in it, the city undertakes rituals of exclusion and repression involving what de Certeau calls "an excommunication of territorial divinities."23 In the case of wetlands on the Swan Coastal Plain of Western Australia, this entails the excommunication of the Waugal, the dreamtime/nowtime rainbow/water snake/serpent. The desanctified territories themselves are regarded as dirt and "the city founded by utopian and urbanistic discourse . . . must repress all the physical, mental and political pollutions that would compromise it."24 Yet the repressed of the city returns in postmodern popular culture in a fascination with the swampy and the slimy, albeit in a sanitized form. "Urban life," as de Certeau remarks, "increasingly permits the re-emergence of the element that the urbanistic project excluded."25 Indeed, the element returns in postmodernism despite all efforts at repressing it, such as in the pre-occupation with the slimy underside of the city in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters I and II.

I return full circle to my initial question and attempt to offer an answer: in the era of so-called postcolonialism, what process of decolonization has been carried out in relation to the colonization of spaces, like wetlands, by maps (from which they are absent or on which they are present), by settlers, by urban development, and by their absenting from maps or their reduction to surface? Decolonization will not be fully achieved until space is decolonized, and not only external, terrestrial and extra-terrestrial space, but also internal, corporeal space, especially those regions of the bodyÑthe "nether regions"Ñassociated with the dark and dank regions of the earth. Decolonization of space can be achieved, not merely through what Jameson calls "cognitive mapping," but through corporeal mapping which will re-orientate the subject in relation to its own body (rather than regarding, as Jameson does, the body as meaningless matter), to the earth, to the regions of both which have been colonised and to the indigenous custodians.26

This process of decolonization of spaces, like wetlands and the body, will be part of the generalized ecology which Felix Guattari envisages: "ecology should abandon its connotative link with images of a small minority of nature lovers or accredited experts; for the ecology I propose here questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalist power formations." Part of that questioning must entail a thorough interrogation of the subject's interpellation as bodily subject in relation to spaces and places such as wetlands and in relation to the history of the colonial expropriation of the indigenes and their lands, including wetlands.

Curtin University of Technology


1 Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

2 Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, (1965; rept. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 201 (my emphases).

3 Fanon, 30 and E. M. Forster, A Passage to India, (1924; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1936) 9.

4 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Stephen F. Rendall, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) 121.

5 David Turnbull, Maps are Territories, Science is an Atlas: A Portfolio of Exhibits, HUS 203/204 Nature and Human Nature, (Geelong: Deakin University Press, 1989).

6 Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History, (London: Faber, 1987) 204. Thanks to Jon Stratton for alerting me to the pertinence of this book to my work.

7 C. A. Semenuik, "Perth: A City of Wetlands," Wetlands of the Perth to Bunbury Region (Perth: Water Authority of Western Australia, 1992).

8 Willem C. H. Robert, The Explorations, 1696-1697, of Australia by Willem de Vlamingh (Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1972).

9 R. T. Appleyard and Toby Manford, The Beginning: Early European Discovery and Settlement of Swan River Western Australia (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1979).

10 Appleyard and Manford.

11 See Judith Wright, "Wilderness and Wasteland," Island 42 (1990): 3-7, especially 3.

12 Nathaniel Ogle, The Colony of Western Australia: A Manual for Emigrants (1839; rept. Sydney, 1977).

13 Journals of Several Expeditions Made in Western Australia (London: J. Cross, 1833).

14 Suzanne Falkiner, The Writer's Landscape: Wilderness, (East Roseville: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 10. In M. Barnard Eldershaw's novel A House is Built published in 1929 one of the characters maintains that "Australia of itself is nothing. . . The country is. . . a tabula rasa - a blank sheet." Quoted by Falkiner, 51.

15 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane (New York: Viking, 1977) 11 and 141.

16 de Certeau, 134-5.

17 Quoted in de Certeau, 168.

18 Graham Swift, Waterland, (London: Picador, 1984), 15.

19 The maps of early colonial Perth in Figures 6-9 are taken from Western Geographer, 6:1 (1982).

20 Carter, 203 and 9.

21 Carter, 221.

22 de Certeau, 130 and see Bekle, "Appendix: Perth's Lakes and Swamps," 39-41 for a list of their Aboriginal and European names.

23 de Certeau, 125.

24 de Certeau, 94.

25 de Certeau, 95.

26 See Frederic Jameson, "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review, 146 (1984): 89,90. Jameson refers to "the meaningless materiality of the body and nature" on 59.

New: 7 January, 1997 | Now: 16 April, 2015