© Kevin Brewer 2000




John Cotton was born on 17th December 1801 in South Devonshire and died on 15th December 1849 in the Port Phillip District. He studied law at Oxford and did his articles, before practicing law. In 1842, at the age of 41, he left England with his 33 year old wife, Susannah, and their nine children, bound for the Port Phillip district of the colony of New South Wales. A tenth child was born in the colony.

John Cotton published several books on birds, and an anonymous book on his journey to Australia which contains some of his verses, most of which are sonnets.

" the indolent savage has been replaced by the industrious Briton".

Edward Cotton, John's younger brother, was already in Port Phillip. He had already established a station in the Goulburn area when John arrived with his family in 1843. John bought Doogallook a run on the Goulburn River, near Edward's run. According to Paul de Serville, John Cotton was a ’classic case of an unsuccessful squatter’ -Edward also failed as a squatter - yet when John died in 1849 aged 48, he had 60 square miles under grass right, his daughters all married well and established well connected families, but only one of his four son married, and he was ’an amateur of writing, ornithology, natural history and art’.

According to the biography provided by Mackaness, Cotton was made a Fellow of the Zoological Society of England for his contributions to the ‘account of Australian fauna’. His family had connections with the English art via his grandmother on his father’s side, who was sister to Charles Rogers, friend of Sir Joshua Reynolds. His book on Australian birds was reprinted about 30 years ago. He made a valuable contribution to the understanding of the natural history of the new colony.

He was also a lawyer, and it is this aspect of him that concerns me, because he articulated a squatter’s opinion on the regulations that governed his business. He laid out one of the arguments supporting the squatting class's interests, and attempted to build a scaffolding of law to support them. I want to deal with this aspect of John Cotton because it will give us some idea how the squatters justified their possession of large estates over the public interest and the interests of the Government, and over the interests of the original inhabitants of the soil.

I also want to link this discourse with one conducted on family affairs, particularly those of his brother Edward, which were the subject of many letters. John had lent his brother a considerable amount of money, more than £2000 and seen his brother incompetently handle it to the point of insolvency. His comments on Edward have an added spice because neither he nor William, the oldest brother to whom many of the letters are addressed, liked Edward’s wife, a French woman.

Madame has too much influence; she is indeed the mainspring of the whole concern.

Very early in his time in the Port Phillip district, before he had taken up a run, John Cotton began complaining about the treatment squatters received at the hands of the Government, but didn't explain himself because he was more interested in giving his brother in Ivybridge Devon some idea of the place, so he had no experience on which to base his complaints. He was pleased he had bought Doogallook, a station of seven square miles, at half the value it was in the previous year. The station cost him £2000, and consisted of various improvements such as huts, 400 head of cattle and 1800 sheep and lambs. He arranged a contract with his manager that allowed the manager a third of the increase in the stock in payment for management, the men's wages, and the squatter's milk, butter and flour. Cattle prices were about 30/- to 40/- a head in April 1844, so his stock cost him between £800 and £1200. His enclosed paddock of 500 acres, 40 acres of ploughed land, slab house, sheds, several huts, and a dairy cost him the difference. He later built a house and woolshed. The shed cost £70, so it is likely he paid more for the station improvements than they were worth. He also thought the depression effecting the colonies at the time, was to the advantage of those, like himself, who had capital and had come after the first settlers:

We only require a rise in the price of stock and wool, and a fall in the price of labour or wages, to make our future prospects bright, fore the anticipation of success and prosperity must tend greatly to add to the happiness of mankind when they strive to do their duty....

Emigration was the solution to the high price of labour, then costing between £20 and £30 a year all found. In one letter he claimed emigration would have the effect of 'lowering wages', an advantage to the squatter, and asks for a translation of Chateaubriand's poetry.

The people would be much more happy and less subject to feverish political excitement if they were taught to feel and interest in works of art and science.

Later he purchased another station, Devil's River, about 40 miles away, carrying 2250 sheep at between 5/6d and 6/6d a head. The station hut cost him £80. He didn't give a purchase price, but the whole lot probably cost him around £800. Cotton was still quite pleased with this arrangement:

All the wool is, however, to be sent to me, so that I shall have Edward's and my own besides.... I do not know a better mode of investing money at present .... Banks allow but a very small interest on deposits, only £3 per cent,... .

In July of the same year he gave a breakdown of his accounts:



About 4000lbs. of wool
@ 1/- per lb.


Between 30 and 40
head of cattle @ £3 each


About 200 wethers @ 6/-


Interest on Mortgages






Overseer or Superintendent


Two shepherds and hutkeepers,
including rations


Bullock driver


Man cook












These are the only accounts he gave in the letters, and it is obvious he was making some money. He mentions quite often the price of wool, of stock, and building costs. basing his income on a little arithmetic, given the price of wool he mentions he received and the quantity he sheared, it is reasonable to assume he did make money in most years. For instance, in December 1846 he sent 60 bales of wool averaging 310lbs to the market. At 13-14d per pound clear of expenses for the wool his gross would be about £1000-1100. Since he was claiming his wool got 1/6d his expenses were about £200-300.

The extent of a sheep and cattle run is necessarily considerable, as by far the greater portion is usually covered with gum trees, eucalyptus, and herbage is scanty, generally speaking; although in some of the flats and gulley it is rich and plentiful.

In January 1846 he had 60 square miles, and a bad harvest caused by exhaustion of the soil which hadn't been manured for seven years, and ten men in his employ, including one building his woolshed. He sold Devil's River to a suitor of one of his daughters, perhaps the man thought the purchase would help his troth, and had purchased a neighbour's run. The money he had to raise from the bank, his part of a bequest was too late and badly organised to help him with the purchase money, even though he made a profit on his sheep at Devil's River. He later reclaimed the station when Mr Matson couldn’t pay his debt to Cotton, and he ended up with the station and 3000 more sheep.

The extent of a run had as much to do with the success of a squatter as the squatter’s relationship with the Government. Cotton thought that relationship was at the whim of the Government. In a letter dated May 1844 he stated that the squatters were ‘Tenants at the Will of the Crown’, and had no title to vote in any local elections. The problem was, he explained, the Queen's Ministers, and her representatives in the colony and at Port Phillip, did not understand the needs of the squatters. They didn't send emigrant labour to push down wages, they sent Pentonville prisoners, and didn't use the land regulations as they should, in the interests of the squatters. In Ireland and England there are many men " who would gladly take half of their wages, could they but be sent free of expense to these colonies."

He was pleased when Governor Gipps proposed modifications to the regulations in September 1845, ‘in favour of the squatting interest’.

The concessions were a £10 a year licence for each run of not more than 25 square miles, 14000 acres, and for stock if the run was larger or his stocking rate was greater. It was also proposed the squatter had the option to purchase of 340 acres as homestead at £1 an acre. The Governor also had the right to alter the payment at will, and 'he shouldn't have the power'.

...the right to commit unlimited waste...

A year later Cotton began a long discussion over many letters on the squatting question. Although he knew the Government would not deprive them of their runs, he argued from a position of a basic right. His argument strikes one as very similar to some of the arguments which have been used over the years against Aboriginal land rights. It also introduces us to the subject of the law of property, as the two are inextricably linked. As a lawyer he could be expected to know something about the law of property. And he had been by birthright dispossessed of any estates. His brother now enjoyed them.

Who has better right to the possession of the land than the person who has reclaimed that land from a wild, unprofitable state, and enabled it to yield fruit and grain for the general support of mankind, and to feed his flocks and herds. Before he took possession it was a wilderness and useless to all the world. It is now brought into cultivation or covered with cattle and sheep, and hundreds of individuals are profitable employed in collecting or conveying way, preparing or manufacturing the produce.

Perhaps I should summarise his arguments, because he moved from arguing that the squatter's cultivation disposed the Crown’s of their rights in the soil. I shall quote him at length.

In my humble opinion ... the Queen of England ... did not obtain possession by force of arms or purchase by negotiations with foreign powers or the aboriginal inhabitants. How then can she sell that to her subjects which was never her own? She has possession of the country, but not the soil. Those persons who first reclaimed the land from the state of barrenness, the persons who first turned the forest land to their own use, have surely a far better title to the soil than the Queen of England, or any other body.

He then disposed the Aborigines of their right to their land:

The worthless, idle aborigine has been driven back from the land he knew not how to make use of, and valued not, to make room for a more noble race of beings, who are capable of estimating the value of this fine country. ... Imagine an illiterate country boor to be possessed of a noble palace fitted with valuable pictures, books and works of art, and surrounded by a princely domain; imagine that this boor, instead of inhabiting his palace and instructing himself by reading the books, or learning to read them, and admiring the beautiful works of art around him, should take up his residence in a mountain hut smoking his pipe in idleness all the day; would you not think it right that such a person should be dispossessed of that which he did not know how to enjoy or appreciate? It would be no less to him as he did not know the value of his possession.

So it is, I imagine, with respect to the aborigines of this country. They were unprofitable occupants of a fine country and ought to be dispossessed.

The two issues, sovereignty and title, get mixed up, but Cotton had to dispose of one claim to assert the other. He could have, instead, supported the sovereignty claim as the best means of strengthening his own claim. But that was difficult when the squatters’ interests are in conflict with the Crown’s. He had to remove the Crown from the issue because they could assert their power, but maintain them to assert his possession against the Aborigines.

The issue was about two things, sovereignty and title. According to Henry Reynolds, international law of the time of European settlement would have allowed the British claim for sovereignty, but only on the basis of a claim against other European powers. It was not a claim against native title. Occupation was the means by which this ‘inchoate title’ was converted to a real claim. The idea of a terra nullius had two meanings:

1. a country without a sovereign recognised by European powers

2. territory without tenure, where nobody owns any land

Europe may have been able to claim sovereignty based on the first point, but the British in Australia went on to assert the second. It then becomes a quick step from a claim that the Aborigines had no idea of the value of the land and roamed about, to claiming British settlement as the first occupation of the land, that is, to claiming possession of the soil. It only requires the validation of the ANZAC myth at Galipolli to completely remove the Aborigines altogether and achieve the situation we now face in working through the ramifications of the Mabo decision.

Cotton had an interesting point that sovereignty was not obtained "by force of arms or purchase by negotiations with foreign powers or the aboriginal inhabitants. How then can she sell that to her subjects which was never her own?" He didn’t argue back that what was not the Crown’s was also not his to claim. The Crown may have had no right to its title, but international law simply made sovereignty a claim to itself, not to all and everything else, or to the possession of the soil itself. International law recognised by 1788 that the original inhabitants did have a right of possession. The British Government mentions it in its instructions to both Cook and to Phillip. Title, or possession, had to be obtained with native consent.

Possession required two steps. The first was a physical presence on the land, the second a willingness to deal with it as one’s own. This the squatters’ certainly did. But, according to Reynolds, the Aborigines could only lose possession when they abandoned the land with a determination to give it up. Living off the land was certainly not abandoning the land, nor was neglecting the land. Large estates in England were based on the principle of neglect, as many a ‘settler’ in NSW found to their cost when they had gone to take game from those estates. Only when the land was given up did it become possible for others to possess it ‘without injustice’. There was no conflict in English common law when the occupants did as they pleased on the land in conflict with English custom and culture. Local custom also played its part in the common law of possession of title, even when it conflicted with the law of the land, as William Cotton pointed out when he used an example of Clapham Common. This is the concept of ‘time out of mind’.

That the Aborigines possessed their land to enjoy was obvious even when Cotton had taken up his station. It was clear to many that they possessed their land, but not by the way of property as the squatters knew, and Aboriginal resistance to the European invasion must have made this even more clearer. The Myall Creek massacre had occurred in 1838, the ‘Black Line’ drive in van Dieman’s Land had taken place on the 7th October 1830. There was a sufficient history before Cotton arrived in 1843 for the invaders to be aware they were encroaching on land that belonged to others.

Adverse possession is one way of obtaining title. In domestic law, 20 years possession with the ‘acquiescence’ of the owner is usually considered sufficient. According to Reynolds, it is not the claim to possession that is paramount but the acquiescence.

The Crown could assert its title by the process of Eminent Domain, but again it required the consent of the original owner and had to pay adequate compensation. According to Reynolds, the actual transaction had to be sanctioned by statute. Since the Crown had done neither their title could be as dubious as Cotton’s. This is the process of extinction of title which is now very much in the news. Other ways of extinguishing title are by Treaty or by purchase. The Port Phillip Association sought this method, but ran up against the Crown’s assertion of its sovereignty, its right to make treaties.

John Cotton had to deny the basis of aboriginal ownership, by constructing their occupancy as idle and unproductive, unprofitable and unaware of the value of the land. Without civilisation, and appreciation of books and fine paintings they forfeited any claim because they appeared to own nothing. His own claim was asserted by his sheep and cattle, his 12 acres of wheat growing on fouled ground, and by him being a member of a 'nobler race'. If only flocks, herds and cultivation defended the squatter's right to possession, the squatter had to deny the Crown's right to the soil, and that brought the argument back to the problem of who owned the place, the sovereignty of the Crown which could defend the squatter’s interest. The circle could only be broken by focussing the argument on the particular regulation of the squatting interests, licence, rents, purchase rights and claims of injustice at the hands of an oppressive Crown and her incompetent ministers who did not understand colonial affairs. And forgetting the problem of native title, or shooting the natives.

John Cotton was primarily concerned with his own interests as defined in a very narrow way. Despite his discussions of the arts, painting, his sonnet writing, and concern for higher things, there is a clear, deep, and underlying sense of selfishness. His financial problems, his claims to possess his stations by right of occupancy and improvement, are his real concerns. He might have been an artist if he had gone to the Royal Academy school, as he claims, but he went into a law office and became a lawyer instead.

He mentioned he believed in free trade in several letters, including one in which he ticked off his brother William about the duties of government ministers who should not look after the interests of particular classes. William, it appeared, had financial interests in the West Indies which depended on slavery and complained about losing money on those interests fifteen years after slavery was abolished in the West Indies. John Cotton’s belief in the workings of the government had not prevented him arguing in many letters that the government should be looking out for the interests of the squatters in both the land regulations and in the labour market. In another letter he mentions the ideas of a local teacher, the tutor to his children, a Mr F Gilbert, who appeared to be a communist. he said:

The parable of Lazarus and the Dives occurs immediately to one’s thoughts. It behoves us to humble ourselves when we meet with reverses of fortune or losses, to assist our neighbours, and throw overboard all selfishness or desire of expending all we are able to do on our own gratification and personal enjoyment. We are too apt to think what little wealth we may be possessed of we are entitled to expend on ourselves.

All these arguments were a continuation of other bits of his behaviour, such as towards his brother, Edward, for instance. He had lent Edward several thousand pounds over the years, and was concerned to get it back. The two older Cotton brothers had a considerable objection to their younger brother's wife, a French woman who remains nameless, but who has some family wealth. She received some money which helped Edward's difficult financial position. Edward and his brother became estranged over money, and refused even to visit for the marriages of his nieces when his wife was not invited. John Cotton made sure his brother William and others in England realised that Edward's share of the Savery bequest was under lien to him. At one stage he wanted to bankrupt his brother, buy the station back for a song, and replace his brother on it as owner, a cheaper method of financial salvation than another loan to Edward. Of course Edward would not agree, he must have had enough class and family pride to resist that. The letters constantly refer to Edward in either the context of money lent by John Cotton and the Savery bequest, or in terms of how Edward was managing his station. There is no sense of any other relationship between the brothers in John's letters. John asked for support from William in his dealings, and received it, by the accounts John gave in subsequent letters.

The revolutions of 1848 had some effect in the backblocks of Australia. Cotton mentions the French revolution of that year several times, and each time to re-inforce the statement he made above that inequality is the cause of social unrest. But:

I am no revolutionist, my dear William, and should prefer the old constitution of Sovereign, Lords and Commons, if it could be maintained without oppression to the majority of the people.

This gives us another side of John Cotton, assertive against his older brother. At the point it appeared William was doing badly and he was doing well, he began to assert values which were contrary to those which he was asserting when his interests were at stake. He was not confused, there is no sense of that in the letters, but argued a set of contradictory positions as he needed them. When he looked out over his station he did not see that he was occupying the land of someone else, he only saw his own land. Apart from a few improvements around the station, such as a new woolshed, a better house, a windmill, and another cultivation paddock, he made very few changes to his 60000 acres. He was content to sit on the land and reap what benefits he could from the seasons. This made him no better than his own description of the Aborigines. The idea that reading Scott’s novels or making a sketch is the act of a civilised man and entitled him to the soil carried no weight whatsoever under international law as it was then articulated. As to why de Serville should consider he was unsuccessful, I have no idea. Cotton died while occupying both stations, in December 1849 at the age of 48.

Like Duncan Cooper, Cotton was a painter. It would be interesting to see some of his pictures and compare them to Cooper’s. Cotton articulated some of his thearies of painting in his letters when he discussed the works of others. He appears to have known some painters, and known of others.

This paper is an attempt to understand some of the changes that squatters underwent when they came into possession of large parcels of land and began to develop some consciousness of the fragility of their legal and moral position. It was the legal fragility of their position relative to the Crown that drove them into denying aboriginal ownership. It was their argument with the Government about the Crown's rights which developed their denial of Aboriginal priority and rights of occupancy, and not the other way around. Cotton appeared not to have been able to make the distinction between sovereignty and title. The assertion of the rights of the cultivator and herdsman to possession was based on very thin law, or an ‘inchoate title’, and a large amount of gunpowder, as can be seen in the history of the Western Districts.

His attitude to aborigines was ambivalent. They were noble to his artistic self, the squatter considered them idle. The letters refer to the aborigines as a threat, as no threat, as loiterers indulged by his daughters with gifts of old clothes, as worthy subjects for descriptions of customs, weapons, and culture, as murderers of neighbours, as natural history subjects of photography. He summarises his position in a poem he wrote to William.

I’ve seen the noble drest in robe of state;


But savage man, his rude, unstudied mien,

More dignity displays than these, I ween.

There's something noble in the wildman's gait,

There’s grandeur in his port, erect and free

From civilized restraint, with pride elate

He roams supreme, as o’er the rolling sea

The British bark strides on majestic, and alone,

The empress of the main.