The word “outstation” means different things in different countries. The Dutch and British established numerous overseas settlements – outstations – through their East India companies from the 17th century onwards, including Batavia, Macao and Canton, and locations in Ceylon and India.
The term is still used in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore to refer to working in a place where one does not live, or being out of town but still in the same country; being “outstation” in Sri Lankan English usually means being out of the capital city, Colombo, as in the case of an outstation journalist. And an outstation cheque is one that is issued in one place but cashed in another.
The related phrase “out of station”, used when British East India Company officers in India were away from the duty stations they were posted to – obsolete in most varieties of English – persists in South Asia.
In Australia and New Zealand, an outstation comprises a part of a farming estate, a subsidiary homestead or other dwelling on a sheep or cattle station situated on the outskirts of a district, or separated by a distance from the main estate (some properties are large enough to require more than a day’s travel by horseback between parts). As Australia was a colony established by convict transport (1788-1830), it is perhaps unsurprising that “outstation” originally referred to an outpost in the country for newly arrived prisoners. It had extended in meaning to pastoral outpost by 1829.
Such transfer of the meaning of words, from the convict and underworld repertoire to farming, is notable in Australian English – and can also be found in New Zealand English. The fact that New Zealand was never used for convict settlement and, additionally, was administered by Australia until 1840 suggests that this particular semantic pattern derives from Australian English.
Outstations – or homelands – also refer to small, decentralised settlements of close-kin Aboriginal Australians, built on or near the community’s traditional country, their having a spiritual and ancestral relationship with the land.
The outstation movement of the 1970 and 80s – when large numbers of Aboriginal peoples relocated from the towns in which they had been settled through the government’s assimilation policy to remote outposts – was a move towards reclaiming autonomy and self-sufficiency. Now numbering some 1,200, such outstations are significant for the maintenance of culture, language and relationships, and contribute to health and well-being.