Living and working on the land has been part of the popular image of Australia since the earliest days of colonisation. Tom Roberts painted A break away! during a severe drought in southern New South Wales in 1891, in a period when Australia’s economy was said to ‘ride on the sheep’s back’. Here, in the figure of a stockman, Roberts suggests an Australian archetype – rural, hardy and solitary – the worker on the land as national hero. However, 130 years after Roberts painted A break away! does this image amplify national pride or could it be thought of differently. What does this work of art tell us about the pastoral impact on the land in the years that followed and to the present day?

When the First Fleet arrived, in January 1788, the new settlers found themselves in a land with a very different climate than that of England. Their methods of farming, crop, livestock and tools were ill-suited to the harsh land and climate around Port Jackson. Robert’s painting, with its brown and yellow landscape, shadeless under a bright blue sky, articulates the harsh intensity of the Australian environment, in which drought-thirsty sheep stampede downhill in a cloud of dust towards a scarce supply of water.

The survival of the early colonies depended on successful agriculture. The first settlers, convicts and military personnel were keen to farm, but lacked the experience required to raise food, resulting in near starvation. The arrival of the second and third fleets with supplies saved the colonists, and made officials in London aware of the desperate need for experienced farmers to join the colonies.

In 1860s South Australia, wool made a few very wealthy. Pastoralists secured large freehold estates in the Mid North and the South East of the state. Development of a well organized rail system integrated with many sea ports enabled wool and grain to become a major export earner for the colony.

Australian Curriculum Connections - Year 5 History

The role that a significant individual or group played in shaping a colony (ACHASSK110)

The nature of convict or colonial presence, including the factors that influenced patterns of development, aspects of the daily life of the inhabitants (including Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islander Peoples) and how the environment changed (ACHASSK107)

Divide your class in two, research and debate the following two statements, providing evidence to support or refute your assigned statement:

  1. 'A break away!' is an example of Australian's identity – rural and hardy - depicting a worker on the land as a national hero.
  2. 'A break away!' is an example of environmental destruction and the impact European invasion had on the Australian landscape.