The historical detail for the reasons I claim Australia did not exist before the 26th of January 1788 is in chapter 2, Foundations of a Nation of my book PRISON HULK TO REDEMPTION SECOND EDITION. The philosophical arguments about what it means to be a people are in my essay Edmund Burke on what it means to be a people. Both should be in read in combination to appreciate the full argument.
Prison Hulk to Redemption
Foundations of a new nation
On 28 April 1770, the then Lieutenant James Cook steered his ship, the Endeavour, into a broad open bay and dropped anchor at its southern shore. He named it Stingray Bay because of the abundance in its waters of stingrays on which his crew gorged. He later crossed out Stingray Bay in the ship’s logs and entered Botany Bay in tribute to Botanist Joseph Banks, the ship’s eager scientist. Banks had put together an impressive collection of specimens of unknown plants and animals after trekking around the land bordering the bay’s shores.
Cook and the Endeavour were on their way back to England after carrying out the official task of observing the transit of Venus from the island of Tahiti. There were also unofficial tasks, one of which was the order to investigate the existence of the South Land, whose ancient mythology promised great riches of all kinds. From Roman times, it had been called Terra Australis Incognita—Unknown South Land. The search for the mysterious land of the south had occupied the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Spanish, and later the English in the person of William Dampier (1688 and 1689). Dampier added little to the findings of the Dutch seamen.
Until Cook’s voyage, the most successful effort to map what was south of present-day Indonesia and New Guinea was the voyage of Dutchman Abel Tasman in 1642 and1643. This eight-month voyage on the order of the Governor of Batavia to find the South Land took Tasman west from Batavia (today’s Jakarta). Keeping the Indonesian islands to the north of him, he eventually turned and sailed far to the south before turning directly east. After navigating a great distance, he hit landfall. He followed the shoreline south, mapping it as he went, turned east, then north, but left the coast to head east again. He named this bushy landmass Anthoni Van Diemens Landt after Batavia’s governor. After some days, he made landfall again. Thinking the land he had come across reached as far as Tierra Del Fuego in South America, he noted Staten Landt in his logbook. Staten Landt was the Dutch for the Spanish name of Argentine’s Isla de Los Estados.
He mapped the coastline as he sailed north, eventually coming into open sea. He then took the route north of New Guinea and the Indonesian Islands, and returned to Batavia. Abel Tasman’s voyage of 1642-1643 set the limits to the maps of the continent south of Indonesia and New Guinea until James Cook’s voyage of 1769 and 1770. Maps named the continent thus far discovered Hollandia Nova. The English called it New-Holland. Cook most likely worked from the map produced by historian John Campbell in 1748, which included Tasman’s discoveries. Campbell’s map showed New-Holland’s unbroken coastline running west from New Guinea in the north-east, then south, turning east and ending northwest of ‘Van Diemens Land’. The coastline mapped at Staten Landt is now termed Zeelandia Nova after the Dutch province of Zeeland. Tasman had mapped the west coast of present-day New Zealand. The east coast of New-Holland was a blank area on Campbell’s map.
After Cook had left Tahiti, he sailed south reaching the coast of Zeelandia Nova. After mapping both islands and going ashore at eight different places, he sailed west and in time came to a wooded coastline. Turning north along the bushy coast, he eventually sailed into the bay he named Botany Bay. He and Joseph Banks found the countryside around Botany Bay promising for cultivation. They spoke of the natives as ‘noble savage’ in bearing while others had found them the most miserable primitive people they had ever seen. Cook then sailed more than 2,500 miles to the north, mapping the coastline as he went. At the tip of the continent, he found what is now called the Torres Strait. This was the key piece that all before him had missed or had failed to slot into the puzzle. Cook could now connect the dots. After his voyage of 1769 and 1770, maps could present New-Holland as a whole continent separated from New Guinea and with an unbroken coastline. The only part that remained to be clarified was the separation of Van Diemen’s Land from the New-Holland continent. Cook claimed the land he had discovered for the British Crown and called it New South Wales.
Before Cook’s voyage, there had already been much talk about Tasman’s discoveries. Fiction writers entertained the public with their speculations of what lay to the south of the Dutch Indies. Alongside the wild imagination of novelists, there was serious discussion about the imperial prospects of New-Holland and the Pacific area. Britain and France were the foremost powers of the day, and neither wanted to be left behind in investigating the strategic and commercial advantages. For Britain’s government, the conflict with the Americans and the loss of the American colonies presented an extra dilemma. What were they going to do with their burgeoning prison population? Getting rid of them to the Americans was no longer an option.
With the ongoing public chatter of the prospects offered by the New-Holland continent, it was no surprise that Botany Bay on the coast of New South Wales was suggested as an excellent place to dump the country’s miserable felons. After much talk—some finding the idea laughable, some impossible, some morally fraught—the government decided to take up the suggestion. A plan was developed. Most people understood then and since that the desire to relieve Britain’s overcrowded prisons was the overriding motivation to set up a penal settlement in New South Wales.
Historian Geoffrey Blainey has claimed the issues were more complicated than the choice of a penal settlement. The motivations were fourfold, he suggested: first, Botany Bay was an outstanding place to send convicts; second, there was a need to establish a port of call on the developing trade routes in the Pacific and Indian Oceans; third, there was the availability of excellent quality flax and timber for naval purposes (sail and shipbuilding) on Norfolk Island; and finally, the climate and soil of New South Wales was suitable for agriculture.
This last, however, was based on the misleading impression that Cook and Banks had of Botany Bay’s physical environment. The soil turned out to be not nearly as fertile as they thought, and water sources scarce. Blainey has concluded that Cook arrived in Botany Bay during a time of the year when rain and high humidity prevailed. All things considered, the British plan to set up a colony in New South Wales and a presence in that sphere of the world was to be an almost unimaginable imperial undertaking. Few people could comprehend its extent. Britons at the time had every reason to see the plan as a grandiose fantasy likely to end in a spectacular failure. Ironically, it was the wretched, depraved, God-forsaken convicts that were indispensable in the success of the undertaking.
The task of setting up the New South Wales Colony fell to naval officer Arthur Phillip. The British government appointed him Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief. His brief was to establish a settlement at Botany Bay, to cultivate the land for provisions, to maintain religion and order, to encourage the convicts to good habits and to free them if their conduct warranted, and to grant them land and the means of cultivating the land. It was a brief for redemption. He was also to seek friendly relations with the natives. As for the social and political structure of the Colony, a familiar template was to go from Britain with Phillip. Historian Manning Clark wrote, ‘To assist him in the administration of affairs there was to be a criminal court, presided over by a judge advocate and six military officers, and a civil court, consisting of the judge advocate and two officers appointed by the governor. It was a government designed to ensure law and order and subordination by terror, a government designed for men living in servitude rather than for free men.’
Despite the tight control and the absence of some form of democratic election for many years, the Colony would have all the elements of the British government in principle: executive, legislative, and judiciary branches and the ancillaries. The coming years would gradually unloose the strings binding the elements to the one overseeing authority. As will become evident, Manning Clark exaggerated the terror of the Colony’s authority and the servitude of the convicts. The terror diminished while the population of free settlers and the need for convicts’ labour grew.
The First Fleet departed Portsmouth on 13 May 1787. The eleven ships headed by the two naval ships HMS Sirius and HMS Supply carried all up 1,420 people that included 753 convicts (548 men, 188 women and 17 children). They stopped first at Rio de Janeiro in South America. From there they sailed to Cape Town for more provisioning. From Cape Town, they sailed via the Great South Ocean to Botany Bay. When Arthur Phillip on board the Supply as the leading vessel sailed into Botany Bay on 18 January 1788, natives in canoes near the south shore hastened to land while the women and children took to the bush. According to Manning Clark, the natives now on the water’s edge ‘set up a horrid howl and indicated by angry gestures with sticks and stones that the white man was not wanted’.
Clark for reasons of his own is surely overstating the reaction. I hardly think that the natives were already full of views about the ‘white man’ as they watched the Supply sail by and anchor. The ready explanation for any howling and gesturing is that they were reacting in fear to the perceived encroachment on their territory. Aboriginal tribes fought among themselves over territory, so it was routine to act aggressively towards any strangers, white or black. It is stretching it to claim the natives discerned that Cook and his crew were white and thus hostile because of their colour. In fact, there appear to be different firsthand accounts of this event.
In his A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, Watkin Tench, Captain of Marines, wrote that the natives on the day of arrival ‘were assembled on the beach of the south shore [of Botany Bay], to the number of not less than forty persons, shouting and making many uncouth signs and gestures’. This appears to be the incident to which Clark is referring. But Tench follows this account with descriptions of several subsequent meetings during which the natives were friendly and showed no sign of resentment. David Collins, Captain of Marines and on arrival appointed Judge Advocate and Secretary to Governor Phillip, wrote his version of what appears to be the same event but on a different day. It happened a few days later.
Governor Phillip did not find the conditions at Botany Bay as Cook and Banks had described them. There was nowhere suitable to set up an encampment for more than a thousand people. Watkin Tench wrote that the country around Botany Bay ‘rather disappointed our hopes, being invariably sandy and unpromising for the purposes of cultivation, though the trees and grass flourish in great luxuriancy’. More importantly, they could not find a sufficient supply of freshwater. On 21 January, Governor Phillip decided to take a party in three rigged rowboats to Port Jackson to see if there was a more suitable place for the settlement. Captain Collins was of the party, but he wrote this account in the third person.
The day was mild and serene, and there being but a gentle swell without the mouth of the harbour, the excursion promised to be a pleasant one. Their little fleet attracted the attention of several parties of the natives, as they proceeded along the coast, who greeted them in the same words, and in the same tone of vociferation, shouting everywhere ‘Warra, warra, warra’ words which, by the gestures that accompanied them, could not be interpreted into invitations to land, or expressions of welcome. It must, however, be observed, that at Botany Bay the natives had hitherto conducted themselves sociably and peaceably toward all the parties of our officers and people with whom they had hitherto met, and by no means seemed to regard them as enemies or invaders of their country and tranquillity.
Governor Phillip had little expectation of coming across a spot more suitable for settlement in Port Jackson. In this, he was pleasantly disappointed. Captain David Collins continues his account.
In one of the coves of this noble and capacious harbour, equal if not superior to any yet known in the world, it was determined to fix the settlement; and on the 23rd, having examined it as fully as time would allow, the governor and his party left Port Jackson and its friendly and peaceful inhabitants (for such he everywhere found them), and returned to Botany Bay.
From the eyewitness accounts of the first contacts, Governor Phillip and his executive team made every effort to create friendly relations with the Aboriginals, and in the first period, the contact was friendly. It was never going to remain so. The cultural gap was unbridgeable. History is full of such examples of conflict caused by the expansion and immigration of peoples. The clashes would come later, but they were not over the colour of Governor Phillip and his people. It was inevitable that one side would be the all-prevailing victors.
Phillip decided on a place to establish the settlement and lost no time in ordering the Fleet to Sydney Cove, named ‘in compliment to [Lord Sydney] the principal secretary of state for the home department’. He sailed to Sydney Cove in Sirius on the evening of the 25th. On the morning of 26 January, he rowed ashore with his party. Philip Gidley King, second lieutenant on Sirius, and later Governor King, wrote of the occasion:
At daylight the English colours were displayed on shore & possession was taken for His Majesty whose health, with the Queens, Prince of Wales & Success to the Colony was drank, a feu de joie was fired by the party of Marines and the whole gave 3 cheers which was returned by the Supply [at anchor in Sydney Cove].
David Collins describes the same ceremony, recording that the crews of the Supply and Sirius came together in the evening.
In the evening of this day [26th ] the whole of the party that came round in the Supply were assembled at the point where they had first landed in the morning, and on which a flag-staff had been purposely erected, and a union jack displayed, when the marines fired several volleys; between which the governor and the officers who accompanied him drank the healths of his Majesty and the Royal Family and success to the new Colony.
Governor Phillip was keen to celebrate the momentousness of the occasion, something that many of his people may not have quite grasped. When he pierced the soil of Sydney Cove with his people’s flagpole, raised their cultural symbol, and poured himself and his officers what amounted to a libation, he carried out a seminal act that would germinate like the proverbial mustard tree. He sewed the seeds of a new nation on a new continent, bringing civilisation to that mass of land. He inaugurated a new nation, nation understood as a moral incorporation of people with an established culture, and not merely as a mass of land between geographical coordinates, which is ancillary to the primary notion. Captain Phillip and the people of the Fleet did not only come ashore with provisions and animals. They landed on the shore of Sydney Cove a vast cargo of culture and technology which would begin developing in its own unique direction. Watkin Tench describes what followed the inauguration.
The landing of a part of the marines and convicts took place the next day, and on the following, the remainder was disembarked. Business now sat on every brow, and the scene, to an indifferent spectator, at leisure to contemplate it, would have been highly picturesque and amusing. In one place, a party cutting down the woods; a second, setting up a blacksmith’s forge; a third, dragging along a load of stones or provisions; here an officer pitching his marquee, with a detachment of troops parading on one side of him, and a cook’s fire blazing up on the other. Through the unwearied diligence of those at the head of the different departments, regularity was, however, soon introduced, and, as far as the unsettled state of matters would allow, confusion gave place to system.
Everyone from Captain Phillip to the most incorrigible of convicts had the template of that (cultural) system in their heads and were unconsciously following the pattern. Accommodating the supreme ruling authority and organising living quarters for the newly arrived happened as a matter of course. Watkin Tench:
Into the head of the cove, on which our establishment is fixed, runs a small stream of fresh water, which serves to divide the adjacent country to a little distance, in the direction of north and south. On the eastern side of this rivulet the Governor fixed his place of residence, with a large body of convicts encamped near him; and on the western side was disposed the remaining part of these people, near the marine encampment.
That arrangement remained for the expansion of Sydney Town. Government House today is in that same place on the eastern side. The western side is known today as the Rocks, as it has been for many years. After the planting of the flag and the founding ceremony as the seminal act of the new nation, it was time for the formal declaration of its legal and governmental structure. Again, from Watkin Tench:
Owing to the pressing business to be performed immediately after landing, it was found impossible to read the public commissions and take possession of the Colony in form, until 7 February. On that day all the officers of the guard took post in the marine battalion, which was drawn up, and marched off the parade with music playing, and colours flying, to an adjoining ground, which had been cleared for the occasion, whereon the convicts were assembled to hear His Majesty’s commission read, appointing his Excellency Arthur Phillip, Esq Governor and Captain General in and over the territory of New South Wales, and its dependencies; together with the Act of Parliament for establishing trials by law within the same; and the patents under the Great Seal of Great Britain, for holding the civil and criminal courts of judicature, by which all cases of life and death, as well as matters of property, were to be decided. When the Judge Advocate had finished reading, his Excellency addressed himself to the convicts in a pointed and judicious speech, informing them of his future intentions, which were, invariably to cherish and render happy those who shewed a disposition to amendment; and to let the rigour of the law take its course against such as might dare to transgress the bounds prescribed. At the close three vollies were fired in honour of the occasion, and the battalion marched back to their parade, where they were reviewed by the Governor, who was received with all the honours due to his rank. His Excellency was afterwards pleased to thank them, in public orders, for their behaviour from the time of their embarkation; and to ask the officers to partake of a cold collation at which it is scarce necessary to observe, that many loyal and public toasts were drank in commemoration of the day.
With the reading of the public commission, all the formal acts necessary to the new nation were completed. In a speech that followed, Governor Phillip radiated confidence and optimism about the Colony and the direction in which he was determined to take it. He had a vision that he would pursue for the people of the embryo nation. A passage from that speech:
And I do not doubt that this country will prove the most valuable acquisition Great Britain ever made. We have come today to take possession of this fifth great continental division of the earth, on behalf of the British people, and have founded here a State which we hope will not only occupy and rule this great country, but also will become a shining light among all the nations of the Southern Hemisphere. How grand is the prospect which lies before this youthful nation.
This is unmistakable. Governor Phillip knew exactly what he was doing. He knew what the culture of which he was a faithful member required of him. He had come on their behalf to expand that culture into a new state and society and to assert just authority over all who came under that authority. Whether one wants to call Governor Phillip’s arrival in Sydney Cove an invasion or not, is really beside the point, which point is about the origin of the Australian nation and who were its first people. Throughout history, nations and peoples have arisen out of settlement and conquest. Both in time are legitimate origins. To deny this would mean the unravelling of continents of established nations.
Note that the above commission refers to the territory on which the Colony was established as ‘New South Wales’. No mention of ‘Australia’. The formal use of ‘Australia’ would not be for another forty years after explorer Captain Matthew Flinders began using it from around 1800 to refer to both the continent and its people. This question of name is an essential point about origins. It explains why I have used the same terminology as the map makers used to describe the land of the south in the different historical periods.
Terra Australis Incognita was an abstract term used to refer to a mass of land that existed in mythology. When the Portuguese and the Spanish came across the unknown coastlines south of the Spice Islands, they referred to it as the land of the south—Terra Australis. It was the Dutch search for trading opportunities that gradually put form to that southern continent. Their searching culminated in the crucial discoveries of Abel Tasman, who failed by a whisker to join the dots. After Tasman’s discoveries, the continent was referred to as New Holland. Even after Cook’s success in establishing the fixed coordinates of the continent, it continued to be called New Holland.
The Aboriginals had never heard of the name New Holland, much less the word Australia. The Aboriginals were a collection of sparse nomadic tribes wandering on a territory that was distinguished from the territory of another tribe with whom they sometimes had murderous disputes, as they did eventually with the European settlers. The concept of continent did not feature in their worldview. They were not a civilisation as it was understood in the countries of Europe which itself had advanced from tribal life to a complex social, political, and economic structure with a highly developed technology. The technology required to build a craft and sail it to a precise point twelve thousand miles away on the other side of the world, as did Captain Phillip and his people, was outside the vision or comprehension of the natives fearfully shouting ‘Warra! Warra!’ at vessels sailing by.
It is misleading and false to talk about the Aboriginals before European settlement as ‘Australians’. Indeed, the word ‘Aboriginal’ is a post-settlement term to refer to a group of several hundred distinct tribes with different languages. The Aboriginals on the south shore of Port Jackson could not understand the language of those on the North Shore. This is the hard reality whether one likes it or not. It would make more sense to adopt a collective noun like ‘Aboriginalia’ to refer to the collection of tribes before settlement. After settlement, everything changed—in the same manner, it had done through history when peoples were on the move. The peoples of Aboriginalia would, in time, become integral members of the new nation Australia and make their own unique contribution. Aboriginalia would drift into the mists of history.
The way was now open for the development of the embryo nation. Its concrete forms would come from within. What came from within was modified over time as the growing settlement adjusted to the physical environment. Nothing came from the outside on the continent of New Holland. Such development would not be automatic, of course. There was always a risk that it would all fail and that the members of the settlement on Sydney Cove would perish. Or the Aboriginals would drive them out, leaving the Aboriginals open for the inevitable attempts of colonisation at the hands of whoever had the inclination and the means to carry it out. There were many able and ready to make an attempt if the British Colony failed. That the settlement did succeed was due to the character, abilities, and leadership of Governor Phillip in those first critical years, some of which were on a thin knife edge.
Governor Phillip was a principled self-disciplined man who required the same qualities in his military subordinates and others under his authority. He was also a generous, sympathetic man who wanted the success of the Colony to benefit all its members. He was especially keen to offer the opportunity for redemption to the convicts who had served their time and wished to have a family on land of their own. In this, however, he was sorely frustrated during those first years.
It did not take long to discover that Britain could not translate people and the means of living without more ado to another part of the world. The overwhelming heat, the inadequacy of the tools for cultivation, the unresponsive soil around Sydney Cove, the convicts’ torpor and aversion to work, all resulted in the failure of the crops and the reliance on the stores brought from England. By mid-1790, almost two-and-a-half years after the First Fleet, the Colony’s people had reached the point of starvation. The situation was critical. The arrival of the Lady Juliana on 3 May 1790 saved the Colony from collapse.
Besides relief, Lady Juliana brought dispatches, allowing Phillip to grant land to officers and others willing to settle in the Colony. That still included ex-convicts who could demonstrate they would not be favoured in vain. Those determined to work towards self-sufficiency would be assigned convicts for labour. Phillip had concluded that the Colony would only survive through the efforts of such independent-minded settlers. Convict James Ruse, who had applied for and was given an allotment of land in today’s Rose Hill, had proved the point for Phillip. By 1789, Ruse had produced enough wheat on his allotment to show that a family could survive on farming. For his success, he received a grant of 30 acres, the first land grant in New South Wales. By 1791, Ruse’s farm was self-sufficient. It was a breakthrough. Nevertheless, Phillip kept most economic activity under direct government control.
The Second and Third Fleets (1790 and 1791) followed the Lady Juliana. The Second Fleet is notorious for the appalling neglect and high death rate of its convicts. The Third Fleet also suffered an unacceptable rate of convict deaths, but nowhere near the Second Fleet whose masters, though indictable, escaped retribution. Together the two fleets brought over two thousand convicts plus free settlers, and a garrison, the New South Wales Corps, which was to replace the marines of the First Fleet. With the three fleets, the Colony now had several groups and layers of hierarchy that would engage in a ‘conservative dialectic’.
The supreme authority of the governor and his administration held sway. Under the governor was the small but growing group of free settlers who wanted land. The New South Wales Corps and its officers vied with the free settlers for land and influence. At the bottom were the convicts, as a resource for the other groups. Another group would rise, but I will come back to them. By conservative dialectic I mean the manoeuvring, the intertwining, the friction, the sworn and broken allegiances of these cultural entities who together were seeking an equilibrium in their society—with themselves in privileged positions, at least as privileged as possible.
Although Governor Phillip persevered in leading the Colony in the self-sufficient direction he planned, always confident and optimistic in his purpose, ill-health eventually overtook him. He had a stomach problem and suffered from a wound caused by an Aboriginal jamming a spear through his shoulder during one of his efforts to engage in friendly dialogue. He returned to England in 1792 and settled in Bath, where always optimistic he followed the events in the Colony. With his departure, Major Francis Grose, commandant of the New South Wales Corps, became administrator. Grose made several decisions that would have far-reaching effects. He made grants of land to the officers, provided them with convict labour, and allowed them to sell their surplus to the government. He permitted the officers to pay the convicts in rum for the work they did outside their regular work hours. And he encouraged the officers to trade with the ships entering the harbour.
Chief among the goods traded was rum, which was to become a medium of exchange, as a substitute for coinage. His actions were an enormous stimulation to the Colony’s economy. The business and on-selling at massive profits that the officers did with visiting ships brought more wealth into the Colony and encouraged other ships to stop off at Sydney. By 1800, the officers of the New South Wales Corps had become an exclusive class, regarding outsiders with dismissive haughtiness and swaggering arrogance. They maintained their monopoly by crushing anyone who threatened their privileged position. Much of the Colony’s wealth became concentrated in their hands
Despite the accusation that his decisions were handing the settlement over to ‘grasping hands’, Grose recognised that freeing up the economy with trade and land grants helped the settlement to prosper. Private farms did far better than the government farms where coercion was more likely to inhibit productivity. He would not stand in the way. During this period, convicts who had served their time seized their opportunities, some of them becoming wealthy through trade and shrewd investments.
Among the officers of the New South Wales Corps was a man who would become a power unto himself and a poison chalice for those in the Colony who opposed him. That man was Captain John Macarthur, who arrived on the Second Fleet with his wife, Elizabeth, and their young son. He did not join his fellow officers in their drunken carousing and wenching. He was a dedicated family man, tenderly supported by his wife and the children to come. Capable, insightful, and ambitious, he remained untouched by personal scandal. The serenity of his domestic situation was in sharp contrast with his explosive, vindictive public life.
When Grose, who recognised his talents, appointed him regimental paymaster with control over the settlement’s resources, Macarthur was not left wondering how to exploit those resources. Experimenting with farming techniques and using the ample convict labour at his disposal, he developed Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta to be a model of productive farming for the Colony. His farming success supported his firm conviction of where the Colony’s economy ought to go. And in his view, he had a critical role to play in going there. Beware those who as much as glanced sideways at his plans and actions.
Governor John Hunter, former captain of the First Fleet’s Sirius, arrived in 1795 to take over from Grose. The lack of discipline, the loss of the military’s control, the free-flowing rum and the resulting drunkenness appalled him. His attempts to bring the Colony back under legitimate authority were never going to work. Hunter committed the same mistake other governors would make. With the jostling of cultural entities vying for control, the Colony had already taken a course of its own, and it was not that of the authorities back in London. Adjustments would have to be made, willingly or by force of circumstances. Unfortunately for governors like Hunter, the force of circumstances would push them scrambling in resistance all the way back to the Mother country.
Hunter had enough to do with trying to rein in the officers’ trading, but when he came into conflict with Macarthur, he was done for. With the efficiency demonstrated in running his farm, Macarthur mercilessly undermined Hunter by accusing him to the Secretary of State in London of extravagance, misuse of convict labour, and sponsoring individuals whose lives were a disgrace to British propriety. He brought about Hunter’s recall. Governor Gidley King (former Second Lieutenant on Sirius) arrived to take over in 1800. By this time, the Colony had spread in a 50-mile radius out from Sydney Cove. Most of the farms in the hands of officers and settlers were productive, while the government farms was decreasing. There was a go-ahead feeling in the Colony. King had only to encourage the direction of the economy and recognise where its powerhouse lay. A shrewd assessor of human nature might have recognised the threat of human fallibility in even the most competent. It was not to be.
King had his human frailties, one found in those with overwhelming authority. He did not like anyone challenging him. It was written in the heavens (if he would only look up) that a person in the Colony not afraid to defy the gods would have him for the smallest obstacle put in his way. So it happened. At the first sign of King’s attempt to restrict him, Macarthur deployed his proven tactics of destroying an adversary. But in this case, he was guilty of overreach. His failure to manipulate his superior officer in his destructive pursuit of King resulted in a duel between the two, with the superior officer coming off second best. King seized his opportunity.
In 1802, he sent Macarthur to London to be court-martialled with the comment that ‘experience has convinced every man in this colony that there are no resources which art, cunning, impudence and a pair of basilisk eyes can afford that he does not put in practice to obtain any point he undertakes’. It was a fine tribute to the man he thought he had got rid of. Alas, King still underestimated those scheming eyes. Macarthur’s hare was streets ahead of the doddering governor of New South Wales. Captain Macarthur escaped ejection from the Corps when he arrived in London. To King’s dismay, he returned to the Colony with the best wishes of the Colonial Secretary Earl Camden, a flock of Merinos, and a grant of 10,000 acres of the best pastures in the Colony. King faced defeat. He had to admit that Macarthur’s plans to produce a superior class of wool made sense. Although others in the Colony were responsible for the beginning of an industry that would underwrite Australia’s fantastic economic and social growth, it was Macarthur’s insight, ambition and unrelenting force of character that drove it in the beginning.
London recalled King in 1806. He might have been happier when he sailed out of Port Jackson if he had known that Macarthur, being his own worst enemy, would, in the end, be removed from public life having been ‘pronounced a lunatic’. If that consolation were not available to him, King could have looked around the harbour from the deck of the departing ship and be satisfied that civilisation had begun to appear despite the tensions between the stakeholders in the Colony. There were settlements all around Sydney Cove through to Parramatta and the Hawkesbury. Churches, schools, law courts and government buildings were being erected everywhere.
William Bligh arrived to replace King that same year. It was the same Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, and he did not plan to spoil his image of an authoritarian beast subject to uncontrollable rages provoked by people and circumstances that did not bow to his minutest wish. This image, according to Manning Clark, is not entirely fair. Bligh was capable, even ‘brave and gifted’, but his temperament was his undoing. He arrived in Port Jackson charged with raising the moral standards of the Colony and with bringing some order. He had to bring to heel those who controlled the traffic in rum. He was to support the smaller landholders and reduce the influence of private individuals who had far too much power. He also had to make the convicts realise just who they were—felons. The Colony was not to be a picnic for them.
The trouble with these neat plans was that Bligh and his masters back in London were out of touch with the way the Colony had been developing. What Britain had established on the shores of Sydney Cove was already running its own race, at the head of which galloped Macarthur whose class was now barely containable. They had become known as the ‘exclusives’. A smarter governor might have recognised that he could only make adjustments to the direction. In this sense of smart, Bligh was wanting. He found it absurd and said so. It was intolerable that Macarthur with unlimited access to convict labour should have garnered to himself property and stock unheard of in the rest of the world. Bligh was determined to corral him as a warning to his power-grasping class. He was pressed to the utmost in restricting the monopolistic rum trading of the New South Wales Corps, but to attempt to fetter Macarthur was a fatal mistake.
In the titanic clash of strong wills of men with different visions for the Colony, Bligh lost. This clash is one of the most extraordinary episodes in colonial history. It was, in essence, a military coup precipitated by Macarthur that could have turned into a full-blooded revolution ending with a declaration of independence. The history books call it the Rum Rebellion. The extreme actions of Macarthur and his fellow officers of the New South Wales Corps had more of the character of a revolution than that organised resistance to mining fees at Ballarat in 1854 about which writers with a fecund imagination like to fantasise. There is too much to the episode to relate adequately but, to give the bare outlines, Bligh’s attempts to restrict Macarthur, and Macarthur’s undermining of Bligh reached its peak when Bligh had Macarthur arrested over a transgression of a regulation about the transport of convicts.
The trial on 25 January 1808 descended into farce when Macarthur challenged the Judge-Advocate Richard Atkins, a Bligh toady, after which the six officers on the bench sided with Macarthur and walked out. With no one restraining him, Macarthur was also free to go. Bligh stupidly charged the officers with ‘rebellion and outrageous treason’. The next day, the anniversary of the founding of the Colony, Macarthur with one hundred of his fellow citizens petitioned the commandant George Johnston to ask for Bligh’s resignation. Bligh refused, was subsequently deposed and held in house arrest.
Johnston put himself in charge, making only a few changes to the administration. With suitable irony, a meeting of citizens expressed satisfaction that the danger of tyranny gripping the Colony had passed. So, with the opportunity presented to the Colony’s foremost military officers and Macarthur’s exclusives to break with the motherland, they merely restored the lines of continuity they judged Bligh to have damaged, if not broken. Things continued as before. It was the first significant demonstration that Australians do not like radical change, that they hold cultural continuity precious, and that they abhor authority that sets itself up as untouchable. They want neither the tyranny of the one nor the tyranny of the many—neither Hobbes nor Paine. Burke is more to their taste. Despite Macarthur’s unrelenting pursuit of getting his way and destroying those who stood in his way, he had limits. He would not go beyond the limits of his culture’s prescriptions. Indeed, he perceived his colonial opponents as holding back the proper lines of economic development, development that would harmonise with the interests of the mother country. He was right about the potential of the wool industry, if not about how much power should reside in the hands of his great landholder class.
Johnston and Macarthur were delegated to take the petitioners’ case to London to explain the reasons for deposing Bligh. They left for London in 1809. Bligh hung around, trying to wheedle his way back into the governorship. When his attempts failed, he assembled as much evidence as he could to support his case against the rebels and then departed for London. The upshot was that Johnston was cashiered out of the military after his court-martial in 1811, but received free passage back to the Colony with favours and grants to re-establish himself. Bligh had to bear the censure implicit in the trial’s outcome.
Macarthur stayed on in London for the next eight years until guaranteed no action would be taken against him on his return to the Colony. He continued to agitate in London for his economic vision while his capable and devoted wife Elizabeth consolidated and developed the farm at Parramatta. Bligh received his routine promotion to Rear Admiral and then to Vice-Admiral. He died on his Kent estate in 1817. Sadly, he squandered his talents through his violent temper and ungovernable mouth. As his bequest, he left to the Colony an upper class divided into fighting factions. For Bligh did have his supporters in the Colony’s administration, as well as small landholders antagonistic to Macarthur and his exclusives.
The British government was determined to end the Colony’s chronic problems that only an energetic authority, they seemed to think, could overcome. An energetic authority in their terms was an authority that secured obedience. Fortunately, the man they chose was not one to come with a big stick to beat the people into submission no matter what. It was Colonel Lachlan Macquarie who arrived with his wife in 1810. He has been given the title ‘Father of Australia’. This is not at all loose language. The basic lines of his regime, though interrupted and bent at times, would carry on into the future and be the foundation of the nation that would be officially named Australia before his return to the mother country. He was conscious of his supreme authority, and the administrative and the moral tasks ahead, but was determined to be just to all. Above all, he accurately sized up the cultural groups that were jostling with each other. He set about calibrating their power position.
First, he disbanded the New South Wales Corps and absorbed those staying in the Colony into the 73rd Regiment which he had brought with him as their commander. The rest of the New South Wales Corps returned to the mother country. He had thereby considerably reduced the power of one class. He then embarked on an extensive infrastructure building program. Schools, churches, courthouses, hospitals, and army barracks rose everywhere. Towns and roads were improved, and new roads laid. Each district was to have a new town with a church, a school, and a courthouse. At the end of his tenure as governor, he could look with pride on 265 buildings, some of which one can only describe as imposing today, particularly those designed and built by the convict architect Francis Greenway.
At the same time, he took measures to raise the moral standards of the community. His Christian faith was of the first importance to him, so he was eager to uphold Christian morality as well as the requirements of gentility and civility. He combated the easy tendency of cohabitation between couples, enforced the Sabbath, prohibited drunkenness, and promoted Bible study. The truly ground-breaking policy, however, was his treatment of convicts, ex-convicts, and their children. And this is where his regime, highly regarded in London as well as in the Colony, met resistance. It would be his undoing. That warhorse, that monstrous troublemaker and despiser of all authority except his own, John Macarthur, would be back in town by 1817 to take his place in the vanguard of the attempt to get rid of Macquarie.
When Macquarie arrived in 1810, the Colony was twenty-two-years-old. During that time, many convicts had served their time and stayed on to establish themselves. Lifers, of course, had no choice. They married within their class and had children. The number of ex-convicts and native-born Australians would continue to grow. Some ex-convicts, seizing their opportunities, had become extremely wealthy by Macquarie’s time. The children of convicts were forming a breed of their own. Visitors to the Colony saw they were healthier, taller, and less respectful of authority than their contemporaries back in England. The criminal ways of their parents did not attract them. They showed more determination and endurance than their parents in building a future. From this distance, it is difficult to understand how the Colony’s leaders did not recognise where this would lead. They could not see that individual native-born Australians would rise to lead their class against Macarthur and his ilk. Australia was their country. They had come of age and wanted their inheritance. Macquarie understood.
He reached out to convicts and ex-convicts. If they rejected the habits that had brought them to the penal Colony and showed a willingness to establish themselves according to the right customs, religion and moral standards of their culture, they would be allowed to resume the place in society they had forfeited. He ventured so far as to invite ex-convicts of substance and propriety to dine with him at Government House. He appointed others to responsible positions. The exclusives, the officer class and growing group of free settlers were appalled. Many refused to cooperate with Macquarie’s emancipist policies. Ex-convicts calling themselves ‘emancipists’ had formed a political class. Macquarie showed his weakness in these circumstances.
Manning Clark writes that Macquarie harmed his cause by seeing resistance to his policies as motivated by malice, hypocrisy, and selfishness. There could be no valid objections to his sensible, humane treatment of ex-convicts, those emancipated after serving their terms. His policy was fair, and it was legal. Conflict with his opponents increased, and relations became soured. When Macarthur returned to the Colony and was refused a large grant of land to forward his economic vision for the Colony, he gave great impetus to the exclusives’ undermining of the governor. London began receiving reports of Macquarie’s high-handedness, alleged mismanagement of finances, misuse of convict labour, and harsh punishments of free settlers. Indignant, Macquarie refuted the charges in letters to the colonial secretary, condemning them as a basket of lies. His health was now suffering, and that only worsened his state of mind.
The conflicting reports reached such a peak that London sent an official to the Colony to investigate. That man was Commissioner John Thomas Bigge whose brief was to interview all and sundry, except the convicts. Bigge produced three famous reports which contrary to Macquarie’s confident expectations were highly critical of his regime. Macquarie was devastated. He resigned and returned to London in 1822. He attempted to vindicate himself while his health deteriorated and personal commitments swallowed up his fortune, the largest of which was the securing of his estate on the Isle of Mull. Although the king received him and praised his work, as did the Colonial Secretary Lord Castlereagh, and other high officials, he died in ignominy in the arms of his wife in a London boarding house in 1824, two years after returning from Australia. His wife Elizabeth described the moment of his death as ‘the most sublime of my life’.
Macarthur and his exclusives were a determining influence on Commissioner Bigge, who persuaded London of the form and direction the Colony should take. In brief, the economic interests and development of the Colony should go hand in hand with the economic interests of Britain. London should give the great landholders like Macarthur the support and resources to develop those products that Britain could best use. The convicts, who would be subject to the new ideas on prison reform, should be utilised to achieve that economic aim. One product above all was to be developed. Wool. Macarthur had in mind a sort of plantation society in which bonded workers—the convicts—would do the hard work necessary for breeding and managing great flocks of sheep. He would relax on the verandah, sipping his sherry, and surveying his domain. Macarthur would get his way economically, but he would not have his plantation society. The reason was that Macquarie had already frustrated those grandiose plans.
Macquarie’s genuine concern for the welfare of the convict and emancipist class had endeared him to them. There were great demonstrations of affection on the eve of his departure from the Colony. When he and his wife and son sailed out of Port Jackson on 12 February 1822, they were cheered by a ‘Harbour full of People’. Although not yet possessing the political power to shake the ascendancy of the exclusives, those same people would pursue Macquarie’s regime. They would grow in numbers, strength, and respect. A sign of what lay ahead was the tribute to Macquarie that appeared four months after his death in the Colony’s newest newspaper, The Australian.
The Australian’s owners were lawyers Robert Wardell and William Charles Wentworth, both to make a name for themselves as strident supporters of the emancipist cause. W. C. Wentworth was already in the ascendancy as a leader and would be a torment to the governors that followed Macquarie. The passionate, even wild, language of the tribute, reflected the antagonism between the exclusive class and the emancipists, and what the stakes were for power in the Colony. If Macarthur wanted to crush a class he thought of no account—people beneath his dignity and condescension—he was going to meet stiff resistance. Indeed, the enemy had already galloped out to meet him in open battle. The warning was there.
Elizabeth Macquarie had her husband’s body conveyed to his estate on the Isle of Mull, Scotland, where he was buried. Her tribute was more than the tribute of a loving wife, part of which is a fair assessment of the man and his achievements.
He was appointed governor of New South Wales A.D. 1809 and for twelve years fulfilled the duties of that station with eminent ability and success. His services in that capacity have justly attached a lasting honour to his name. The wisdom, liberality, and benevolence of all the measures of his administration, his respect for the ordinances of religion and the ready assistance which he gave to every charitable institution, the unwearied assiduity with which he sought to promote the welfare of all classes of the community, the rapid improvement of the Colony under his auspices, and the high estimation in which both his character and government were held rendered him truly deserving the appellation by which he has been distinguished, The Father of Australia.
Governor Brisbane, who arrived in 1821 before Macquarie’s departure, was charged with implementing the recommendations of the Bigge reports. He would overhaul the convict system following the new ideas on prison reform. He would put the convicts in their proper place. They would be rounded up from around the townships and sent to selected landholders who needed their labour. The landholders, those enjoying the privilege of convict assignment, would harvest the benefits while the convicts would be reformed. Rich commerce would flow between the motherland and its Colony. Emancipists would also be put in their place and taught not to aspire above their station. Their land grants would cease, and their employment opportunities restricted. The distinction between free settlers and emancipists must be upheld in order not to offend the tender sensibilities of the free settlers who must have their class to look down on, no matter how impressive the success achieved by the ex-convict. In this way, London calculated, friction, the plague of the community, would be reduced.
One must laugh at the naivety of the policy. What did they think they were looking at when they turned to observe the feverish activity of William Charles Wentworth, who had already put in writing his vision for his nation, and for the emancipists with whom he identified? His vision was for constitutional self-government in the spirit of the British Constitution with a legislative council and assembly. That was his heritage as a British subject, didn’t they know? They would know soon enough.
Macarthur and his exclusives were satisfied. Things could always be better for him and his extravagant vision. Still, he had to acknowledge that London had met most of his demands. One can wonder whether he was too occupied with his plans and self-importance to give a thought to the young man whose request for his daughter’s hand he had brushed off. Was he too blind to see that Wentworth, son of a convict mother and a father convicted of highway robbery, had long determined to wreak revenge on his class and destroy their power? The new policy cooperated by loosening London’s hold on the Colony and giving it more power. It also set the economy in the right direction, however much it remained in the hands of an elitist class. The opportunities would not stay theirs exclusively. Although they would continue to ascend economically and politically, their triumph would give the classes subject to their condescension and haughtiness the means to haul them in and restrict their influence. This survey of Australia’s colonial history to 1822, sets the scene for the arrival of my first ancestors from the British Isles. They were free settlers and convicts, with one New South Wales Corps soldier. None of my ancestors belonged to the ‘exclusives’. The military officer class, though at the high end of colonial society, had lost its power. There is one other class and division, however, in the Colony of New South Wales with which I have not dealt. What’s more, it was a division and class that had a far-reaching influence on Australian state and society. That division was religion and the class Catholics.