Barron Field in New South Wales: The Poetics of Terra Nullius

Thomas H Ford, Justin Clemens

Barron Field in New South Wales: The Poetics of Terra Nullius
Melbourne University Press
7 March 2023

Barron Field in New South Wales: The Poetics of Terra Nullius

Thomas H Ford, Justin Clemens

What does the first poetry in Australia, written by the Judge who declared the land terra nullius, tell us about the singular nature of colonialism here?

On 24 February 1817, Barron Field sailed into Sydney Harbour on the convict transport Lord Melville to a ceremonial thirteen-gun salute. He was there as the new Judge of the Supreme Court of Civil Judicature in New South Wales - the highest legal authority in the turbulent colony. Energetic and gregarious, Field immediately set about impressing his vision of a future Australia as a liberal and prosperous nation.

He courted the colony's leading figures, engaged in scientific research and even founded Australia's first bank. He also wrote poetry: in 1819, he published First Fruits of Australian Poetry, the first book of poems ever printed in the country. In England, Field had been the theatre critic for The Times, and a friend of such major Romantic writers as William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt.

In New South Wales, he saw the chance to become a major figure himself, someone who could shape culture and society in enduring ways. Founding Australian poetry was part of that ambition; so too was law. Asked to determine whether Governor Macquarie had authority to impose taxes in the colony, Field issued a fateful judgement that established, for the first time, what is now called terra nullius.

This book is an extraordinary reconstruction of the circumstances and implications of Field's actions in New South Wales using an original and revealing method: the close reading of his poetry.


Beware the lawyer poet who takes your land and beautifies his theft with literature. In 1817, Barron Field arrived to take the position of Judge of the Supreme Court of Civil Judicature in the colony of New South Wales, the highest colonial legal authority in the land. He took Governor Macquarie to task for overstepping his powers in overzealously issuing taxes. Field was also a framer of the legal fiction of terra nullius and so, as this book tells us, ‘the first to sketch out a coherent structure of governance premised counterfactually on the non-existence of Aboriginal peoples.’

But as well as being an author of the legal fiction of terra nullius, Field was also the author of the first book of Australian poetry to be published in the country, in 1819. First Fruits of Australian Poetry is, to judge from the quoted poems, fairly fruity stuff. Thomas H Ford and Justin Clemens’ mission in this book is to compare and contrast Field’s two modes of writing, legislative and poetic, and to show us what one mode makes stark about the other. They identify Field’s arrival as marking a change in the culture of colonial Australia from an authoritarian penal colony to a more liberal society, and connect this change to the culture of the writers, the Regency Romantics, who constituted Field’s literary community back in England. But before Field could inaugurate civil society and a liberal culture in Australia, he considered it vital to legally and poetically wipe the slate clean of notions of First Nations ownership, stewardship and authority.

This book, then, is a poetic reading of Field’s laws and a legal reading of his poems which takes seriously the power of writing within Australia’s colonisation.

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