Polyglot colonial Melbourne / Birrarangga

Melbourne 1880.jpg

Samuel Calvert, 'Melbourne 1880', National Library of Australia.

Look, if you will, at this sketch of late 19th Century Melbourne. It depicts a grid of rectilinear streets, designed by surveyor Robert Hoddle and built to the east of the Yarra River; a neat geometric order imposed on a gently undulating landscape; on Kulin country. But what do you hear when they gaze at this grid, which is an image that, at least at first glance, records no sound? Silence, the ‘clan glang’ of cable cars, cries for help? Do you hear the chatter of people speaking Arabic, Hindi, German, French, Pashtu, English, Hebrew, Chinese, Norwegian, and Greek, interpreters speaking beside witness stands, English-speaking men orating about a White Australia? Do you hear the erasure of Indigenous voices, or their persistence?

The area now called ‘Melbourne’ has been the sovereign land of the peoples of the five Kulin nations for at least 40,000 years. The main languages used in Kulin social, political and spiritual life have been Woiworrung, Bunurung, Tungorung, Djadjawurrung, and Wathaurung. See https://vaclang.org.au . From the 1830s, a project of British colonialism dramatically reordered the linguistic life of this area, not least because settlers and missionaries sought to impose Anglophone norms on both Aboriginal people and non-British settlers.

Still, speakers of languages other than English participated in legal proceedings as a witness, defendant or interpreter but never as a juror, lawyer or magistrate. Consequently, court participants regularly heard the sounds of Sam Yup, Sy Yup, Henshong, Hindi, Pashtu, Arabic, French, Norwegian, Swiss, Greek, various forms of Pidgin English, Italian, and Urdu, amongst yet more languages. 

Unlike this sketch of the Hoddle grid, the archives of the colonial legal system record much about the speech of the millions of subjects who communicated face-to-face, or ‘mouth-to-ear’ as it was, in colonial Melbourne. A survey of the 1890-1901 Melbourne Supreme Court briefings allows insight into the ways colonial subjects communicated in the city’s streets, laneways and buildings.

The 1890s saw a severe economic Depression in Victoria and the arrival of over 1,200 migrants from South Asia, which spurred contestations over the implementation of an Immigration Restriction Act, one of the founding acts of the White Australia Policy. This exhibition tells a story of how residents of 1890s Melbourne negotiated an urban language-scape at once fluid and fixed in English-language dominance.

Polyglot colonial Melbourne / Birrarangga