By Jared Kavanagh
To celebrate the publication of my second alternate history novel, The Proxy Dance, (the second book in the Lands of Red and Gold series and sequel to the Sidewise Nominated Book 'Walking Through Dreams') I’ve explored some of the background about how the Lands of Red and Gold series started, about some of the misconceptions which exist about Australia and its potential for agriculture, and some insights into the broader Lands of Red and Gold universe.
The first work on what would become Lands of Red and Gold started in 2008. The original idea I had was just about having a single domesticable crop in Australia, the red yam. At the time, I knew no better than what was a widespread misconception that the only domesticable crop in Australia was the macadamia nut.
So I began exploring the idea of what would happen if there were a single better domesticable crop, the red yam. There have been some historical agricultural societies where a single crop produces the large bulk of agricultural yield. In such societies, other plants may be harvested, and there will usually be intensive land management, but only one significant crop exists in the sense of traditional European-style agriculture.
For instance, in New Zealand, the Māori settlers found that most of their tropical-adapted crops had trouble growing in the more temperate climate of New Zealand. As such, the kumera (sweet potato) was by far their most widely-used crop, accounting for the bulk of their agriculture throughout most of the country. They found many other food sources, of course, such as by managing the land to promote growth of edible but not (strictly) domesticated native New Zealand plants such as bracken fern, and fostered the cultivation of a tree nicknamed “cabbage tree” (Cordyline australis) which is sometimes described as being cultivated, and sometimes described as a second domesticated crop.
So I had a rough idea of a similar scenario in Australia, where the red yam would be a fully domesticated crop, and where there would be a whole bunch of other land management strategies to provide additional food sources. These would have been based on some of the complex land management strategies which Aboriginal peoples used in real Australia.
In the course of looking at what some of those other strategies might be, I came across how Australian wattles (Acacias) are in fact being used as a crop in parts of West Africa, and how in some regions they provide up to 30% of the annual calories of peoples’ diets. That was when I realised that, contrary to popular myth, Australia has a whole bunch of domesticable or potentially domesticable crops.
As I found out more about these crops, the plan for the series steered into a different course. It focused more on how a different form of agriculture could have emerged in Australia, using one fictional crop but a large number of real crops, and how Australia might have changed in these circumstances. I also found out about how most of these plants were perennial crops, unlike the annual crops used in most of the world, and how that could lead to remarkably different societies on the continent.
In other words, the history of Australian native plants is littered with might-have-beens. Australia has many native plants which in other circumstances might have been turned into domesticated crops in modern times. Exploring the potential of some of these species is an important aspect of the Lands of Red and Gold universe.
Murnong, also called yam daisy (Microseris lanceolata) is one native plant which has excellent potential as a crop. Murnong grew abundantly across much of pre-European contact Australia, with Aboriginal peoples managing its production and use so that it provided a major source of food. They harvested murnong so industriously that when Europeans started travelling near parts of the Murray in the 1840s, they found the ground was not safe for horses because of many holes left from where murnong had been dug up. Murnong was also reported to be quite tasty and easy to cultivate, and could have been turned into a domesticated crop.
Alas, murnong is a plant which is delicious to introduced European grazing animals, such as cattle, sheep and horses. These animals graze it right down to the soil, which kills the plant. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Europeans raised large numbers of cattle and (especially) sheep throughout the regions where murnong grew. This means that murnong has now become an extremely rare plant throughout Australia, and the window for domestication was missed.
Australian native flax (Linum marginale) also had considerable potential, but for different reasons was never domesticated. Early European explorers noted its widespread growth and recommended it as a potential domesticate to produce fibre. It produces exactly the same kind of fibre – linen – as more familiar European flax, but it is much more drought-tolerant, which is a very useful quality in low-rainfall Australia. With some effort, native flax could almost certainly have been domesticated.
However, European knowledge of native flax came at the wrong time. Flax is an ancient fibre, but Europeans became aware of it during the nineteenth century. This was a time when cotton was driving the Industrial Revolution, and linen was in severe decline. Despite a few proponents, native flax did not attract enough interest to domesticate into a crop in an era when cotton was king. Instead, it became seen as a curse because its foliage can poison European domesticated animals. As time moved into the twentieth century, this reached the era of synthetic fibres, which also did not leave much scope for linen. So native flax has never been cultivated on a commercial scale.
Mountain pepper, also called Tasmanian pepperberry (Tasmannia lanceolata), is an Australian native spice which also has considerable potential for cultivation and domestication. The berries and leaves of mountain pepper both produce a complex, peppery taste which can be used to flavour food, with the berries giving a much more intense flavour than the leaves.
Europeans who encountered mountain pepper dubbed it “devil’s pepperbush” because of the intense heat which it produced. They often found it too hot to consume, although it was cultivated on a small scale in Cornwall under the name Cornish pepper. However, mountain peppers are a highly variable species in the wild, containing different levels of heat. If it was being domesticated, then breeders could select for a variety of levels of heat depending on consumer preference, much as how chilli peppers have different varieties of heat.
In a changed history, these plants (and others) could have developed into significant crops.
Another aspect of Lands of Red and Gold was an exploration of the cities, population distribution and countries would be different in a continent where they had developed locally rather than being the result of colonisation from the other side of the world.
In historical Australia, the population is concentrated along the coast, and particularly into a few large coastal cities. Just two cities, Sydney and Melbourne, between them hold about 40% of the people of the entire continent. In comparison, the interior of the continent is relatively empty. Of course, some of this is because much of Australia is desert, and such regions cannot sustain a large population. But there are still large parts of interior Australia which are perfectly capable of supporting many more people than live there.
Similarly, in its political divisions Australia is shaped into six states and two major mainland territories. Each of those states, together with the Northern Territory, has one large coastal capital which holds much its population. (The Australian Capital Territory is an inland exception, created for political reasons). The borders between the states are largely arbitrary (except for a couple of river borders), created as a result of where it was convenient to draw lines on a map to divide a few coastal colonies.
The reason for this population distribution and political division is because Australia was colonised by Europeans coming by sea. Naturally, they chose to build their first settlements in convenient ports with good harbours. These settlements grew into large cities, as many of the latter immigrants chose to live in those cities rather than venture into what was (to their colonial mindset) an underdeveloped hinterland. For much of Australia’s colonial history, transport was easiest by coastal shipping. This meant that many other towns developed along the coast, or sometimes slightly inland along the navigable parts of rivers.
Of course, Europeans still colonised the interior of the continent. However, Australia does not have any large rivers which are navigable from the sea; the Murray Mouth is not practical for oceangoing ships to sail inside. (Unlike, say, North America where the Mississippi basin gives easy access for shipping goods into and out of much of the interior). This matters because until modern railways, cars and trucks, moving goods by land is very expensive and usually unprofitable. For most of history, moving bulk goods required transporting them either short distances, or by water (river or sea). Relatively light, high-value goods could be profitably moved by land, but not bulk cargo.
So for those early European colonisers in Australia who wanted to make money by exporting goods overseas, the main product they could use was wool. Wool was light enough and valuable enough to be worth transporting long distances overland before it reached a port. Of course, wool is produced by raising large numbers of sheep rather than large numbers of people to farm crops. This meant that while there were some Europeans in the interior, there was not a strong pull to bring most of them inland. Thus most people of European descent in Australia lived (and still live) near the coast.
In more recent times, the development of railways and then modern roads, cars and trucks has made it more feasible to live inland and produce bulk goods to export. However, because of the legacy of the existing population being mostly near the coast, that is where most of the people have remained. Indeed, as automation reduces the number of workers needed for farming and mining, most inland Australian towns are declining in population as people move to the larger coastal cities. The recent effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has seen some migration out of the larger coastal cities to smaller towns (including inland) since remote working makes this feasible, but it’s too early to tell whether this will be a long-term change.
In the alternate history of Lands of Red and Gold, the continent of Aururia (alternate Australia) was shaped not by European colonisation, but by a new form of agriculture developing locally. This meant that the population distribution and political divisions of Aururia emerged based on the constraints of local geography, natural resources and logistics, rather than what was convenient to people who colonised from the sea. As a result, the locations of large cities and political borders look quite alien to someone more familiar with historical Australia.
In Aururia at the time of European contact (1618), there are only a few decent-sized cities, most of which are inland, and the most populous societies live in quite different regions to their historical counterparts. About a quarter of the population of the continent lives on or near the alt-River Murray or its tributary the Murrumbidgee. This region has several good-sized cities along those two rivers. Another quarter of the population live in a country (called the Yadji Empire) which occupies the region of historical Victoria south of the Great Dividing Range, and a strip of coastal South Australia as far as Lake Alexandrina. The political border between these two regions runs roughly along the line of the Great Dividing Range, unlike the historical Victoria-New South Wales border, which is the River Murray itself.
The eastern coast of Aururia, which in historical Australia holds nearly half the population of the continent, is a relatively underpopulated backwater. There is no city of any size at the location of historical Sydney, just a few small towns. While there is a city in the location of historical Melbourne, it is relatively small, and the larger cities are inland and further west.
The reasons for this changed population distribution and different borders come from the interaction of logistics and geography. In Aururia, the changed form of agriculture emerged first along the Middle Murray. This meant that the new form of farming quickly spread across much of the Murray basin. The Murray and many of its tributaries are navigable rivers, and so prosperous cultures emerged here who could trade by river. However, they did not develop many ocean ports because the Murray Mouth is unnavigable, and so most commerce focused on internal riverine trade instead. So there is a large population here, with cities which can have food shipped in easily along the rivers.
The more southern region, here called the Yadji Empire, developed a large population because of the good soils in the regions of historical southwestern Victoria and southeastern South Australia. These regions became quite populous simply because there was enough food here to sustain larger populations than many other parts of the continent.
However, there aren’t any major navigable rivers in this region. Land transportation in Aururia is also more difficult even than what it was in Europe at the time, because there are no large domestic animals like horses or cattle. So without the same opportunities to ship food for long distances, what emerged were lots of good-sized local towns where people could move food short distances, but without many large cities. This also meant that the eastern part of the Yadji Empire (historical Gippsland) is a comparatively underpopulated backwater because the soils there are poorer and so not as many people can live in that region.
The eastern coast of Aururia is also underpopulated when compared to the regions further west. This is because the geography of the region does not support large populations. It is divided into a few small regions of relatively flat land suitable for farming, separated from each other by rugged terrain. The Great Dividing Range also makes it hard to conduct much trade with the societies further west. (Individual people can cross the mountains easily enough, but large-scale shipments of food or goods are much harder). Unlike the Europeans who colonised the east coast of Australia historically, the peoples here don’t have the same focus on coastal shipping. So while they do some local fishing and short-distance shipping, they aren’t going to be importing the volume of food which would be needed to sustain large cities such as those which exist in historical Australia.
In short, in an alternate history where agriculture developed locally, Australia would look quite different in terms of where most people live or where the political borders are drawn.
The Proxy Dance, Book 2 of Lands of Red and Gold, is now available on Amazon over here.