Sunday, July 02, 2006

Inland river transport - an aside

I have just been reading with interest the story of the rise and fall of shipping on the Murray Darling River system.

While some of its headwaters lie in New England and some New England wool was probably shipped out on it, the Darling River itself lies to the west of New England, the Murray River far to the south. Much of the history of shipping on the broader Murray Darling river system is therefore peripheral to the history of New England itself. However, there is one feature that is relevant.

The navigable parts of the Murray Darling system flowed through three colonies/states, NSW, Victoria and South Australia. During the colonial period, each was completely independent with their own taxation systems. Each colony maintained a series of boarder posts collecting tariffs on goods entering the colony. Each competed with the others for control of trade.

The history of shipping on the Murray Darling throws a clear light on this competition. This is relevant to New England because, as I suggested in an earlier post, its history too was affected by fights for control of trade and economic activity.

As an economist as well as historian, I am well aware of and indeed agree with the general arguments in favour of competition as a device for improved economic performance. However, as an historian I can also see that just because something is does not mean that it was preordained to be. Those who control the levers of political and economic power can and will shift the playing field in their direction. General arguments about the state or national interest (essentially my interests versus yours) have a long and sometimes slippery history.

I will therefore write up the history of inland shipping in a later post.

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