This article was originally published on September 22, 2014.

“Are you okay, miss?”

I am at the Female Orphan School on the banks of the Parramatta River in New South Wales. I’ve dropped down to my hands and knees to inspect a patch of turf along the side of the path that leads from the main building down a set of stone stairs to the more overgrown, weedy riverbank. From an observer’s point of view, I must look as if I am suffering some sort of dizzy spell or about to lose the contents of my stomach (or that I have an “attack of the vapors”; I am, after all, a historian of the nineteenth century).

“Oh! No. Sorry,” I say, sitting back on my heels. Then, sheepishly: “I’m just looking at the grass.”

My would-be rescuer produces an awkward half laugh and a quintessentially Australian “No worries!” I quickly try to explain.

“I study grass,” I say, though what I want to say is: “This is the first time I have seen Dutch clover growing wild since I’ve been here!”

“Oh, right. Good on ya!”


He probably thinks I am a botanist, or perhaps an ecologist, and I allow him to move on without disabusing him of the notion. This scenario has played out several times in my research travels so far: me stooping down to examine the grass and someone rushing in to make sure I have not succumbed to heat stroke. And each time, after I brush off the embarrassment, I wonder, what am I doing down here? What is it I am expecting to find? What can a patch of clover on the edge of a well-manicured lawn in 2014 tell me about the transfer and utilization of pasture grasses in colonial New South Wales from 1788 to 1850?

Clovers mixed with other grasses and stray Australian sweet white lupins in a field near Rouse Hill, New South Wales. Photo by Maura Capps.

Empirically speaking, the answer is: not a whole lot. Nothing, at least, that I could put down on paper and call evidence. I had been in the Mitchell Library in Sydney all week looking for “admissible” evidence to support my dissertation research, which looks at how Enlightenment-era high husbandry, with its arsenal of sown grasses, traveled throughout Britain’s settler empire. I was in Australia to interrogate the transfer of European biota to the new worlds, a process Alfred Crosby has provocatively named ecological imperialism, and one that he depicts as inevitable and occurring largely without official oversight.1Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). It turns out sown grasses, which played an integral role in arable farming in Britain at the time of the first settlement in New South Wales, did not simply travel on the bootlaces and burlap sacks of those early settlers. Ecological imperialism, in this case, was much harder won (if won at all).

Scholarship of the British Empire has been largely silent on the subject of grass, even those histories that deal with environmental aspects of the empire. Grass is perhaps so commonplace as to have become invisible, though grasses and meadow legumes (clover, lucerne/alfalfa, etc.) were the cornerstones of arable farming in Europe before the advent of chemical fertilizers. In a mixed-husbandry system, grass was the primary source of calories for livestock either through grazing or the consumption of hay and was, accordingly, the building block of manure, which was the primary means of artificially restoring fertility to arable lands. Additionally, leguminous grasses fix atmospheric nitrogen and act as green manure when turned back into the soil. Indeed, it is my assertion that the agricultural revolution in Europe, especially in the well-watered British Isles, was as much about innovation and organization of grasslands in relation to agrarian production as it was about changes in agricultural mechanization or parliamentary enclosures. So it only makes sense to pay closer attention to the role of grass in the British settler empire, which was by and large an agrarian project, and which developed in close correlation, chronologically speaking, with the “hay day” (pun intended) of the agricultural revolution in Britain in the late eighteenth century. Yet as I have discovered over the last few months, there were significant environmental and political challenges to the transfer of British biota and practices to the settler colonies, especially when looking at agricultural grasses, which in the minds of colonial planners like Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society and mastermind of First Fleet plant/seed transfers in New South Wales, should have been one of the easiest parts of British agriculture to reproduce.

My time in the archives thus far has been fruitful, but not without challenges. First of all, I am examining a broad phenomenon across multiple regions, whose contributors and witnesses include not only elite institutions and individuals like the Royal Botanic Garden, the Colonial Office, colonial governors and secretaries, and wealthy landowners and aristocrats but also nonelites, such as small-scale farmers, nomadic parsons, and convict laborers. It is not always immediately clear how to connect, for example, a letter from Earl Bathurst to Governor Macquarie on land granting policies, the pedantic minute books of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales, and a Parramatta farmer’s scrawled diary note about the nuisance of wild onions in the south pasture.

Second, I am trying to figure out how the land itself was transformed by agrarian development, and that is a much trickier task to do in a traditional archive, one requiring great flexibility and creativity. I tell people that I have had to “cast a very wide net” in my research process—an inadequate cliché. I have been bottom trawling. Some people are ice fishers. They find an appropriate spot, drill a hole, pick a suitable lure, and then methodically catch specific types of fish they know to be lurking below the surface. I, on the other hand, have been dragging my weighted trawl net anywhere that even smells fishy. I have found reasonably edible fish, but not always the cod I was looking for. I have also hauled in all sorts of ocean floor miscellany (rubber tires, rotting boots, an occasional mermaid). But unlike in the beginning of my research year, I am learning to discern the treasure from the trash as I build up the source material for this project.

So why am I still poking my nose in the grass? As it turns out, there may be sound academic reasons to do so. The site of the Female Orphan School was handpicked in 1813 by governor Philip Gidley King and the Reverend Samuel Marsden as an ideal spot for keeping dairy cows and growing enough grain to keep the school off the government stores. Reverend Marsden’s wife, Elizabeth, wrote to a friend in 1816 that the fields surrounding the school were as green as any in England, and that the cows “grow fat on the luxuriance of clover and ray [rye grass].”2Hassall Correspondence, vol. 2, 1794–1823, A 1677/2, the Mitchell Library, Sydney. The original lots along the Parramatta River west of Meadowbank and along its tributaries stretching out toward the Blue Mountains contained some of the best arable land in the Sydney metropolitan area. If I am going to find any relics of nineteenth-century cultivated ecosystems, it might be on this bank, which obviously has not been infused with perfect squares of zoysia from a turf farm in Tasmania.

But without a palynology laboratory (and the training that goes with it), I can’t get that kind of hard scientific data from strolling around in the tall grass, no matter how historically significant the site. I am not really looking for evidence. I am looking for a story of a landscape in flux. Doing archival research “on location” provides an imaginative space to construct a historical narrative. In the same way that I am able to touch history by reading the ideas, reactions, and arguments written on a worn, yellowed manuscript, I can also encounter history in the landscape, which itself is a kind of manuscript, even if, as with the clover patches at the Female Orphan School, I do not always know how to read it. I think of it as my Weekend Archive.

Experiment Farm Cottage, the first former convict land grant, given to James Ruse in 1789 as a test by governor Arthur Philip to see how long it would take for a married settler to feed himself and his family without the aid of government rations. Photo by Maura Capps.

In Australia, this “archive” opened up the moment I stepped deliriously out of the taxi at the Colonial Motor Inn in Campbelltown after thirty-six hours of travel. After making the ill-advised decision to arrive in Australia on New Year’s Eve, two days before my long-term accommodations opened up, when every room in the Sydney area was either booked or three or four times its already high price, I took the train an hour and a half west to Campbelltown, which was, after Parramatta, one of the most important agricultural settlements at the start of the nineteenth century. I arrived at the Colonial Motor Inn, a budget motel off the Hume Motorway that leads from Sydney to Melbourne, on what the locals call “a real scorcher.” The motel was a conversion of a barn and stable yard built in 1816 belonging to a former convict named John Warby. The motel was now surrounded by car dealerships, office supply stores, and liquor outlets, but I could imagine exactly what it would have been like in 1816: flat and desolate, the sun relentless in the summer months, the Bow Bowing (Boro Borang) Creek alternating between a dry trickle and flood, the farm miles upon miles from the nearest market. I had just spent a long summer and autumn in Britain wandering the impossibly green countryside, and the contrast was stark. There could be no better introduction to the challenges to agricultural settlement in New South Wales.

These experiences have come to define my time here as much as my long hours in the archives themselves. I have spent Sundays at Government House, Elizabeth Farm, Rouse Hill Farm, Experimental Farm Cottage, Hyde Park Barracks, Belgenny Farm, Bella Vista Farms, Bucketty Convict Trail, and the Royal National Park, not to mention countless hours in the Sydney Botanic Garden and Domain, right across the street from the State Library of New South Wales. I tend to turn off the analytical part of my brain and lose myself in the historical fictions I daydream into being as I walk through the fields behind two-hundred-year-old barns. I go to these places not just because they are typically free or low cost and I am on a tight budget, or because I am perpetually drawn to any little brown and white sign that reads “Historical Site Ahead,” or because I am desperate for sunlight after a long week bent over a manuscript or squinting at reel after reel of microfilm. I go because I know that when I sit down at my desk in Chicago to write this dissertation, I will need more than my notes, photographs, and transcriptions that I have collected in the hundreds of days I have spent in reading rooms. I will need to sit back and remember my own encounter with this place. Only then will I be able to bring the characters, events, and places that I have extracted from the archives to life on the page.

Reserve land on the Upper Parramatta River Catchment. Old agricultural land has been planted with native grasses and eucalypts to prevent erosion, but clover and timothy can still be found in patches. Photo by Maura Capps.