Prior to Arthur being appointed as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land in 1823, he had been Superintendent and Commandant in British Honduras for around eight years. Throughout his time in Honduras the territory was under the vice-regency of the Governor of Jamaica, and Arthur found his dependency status quite irksome.
When he arrived in Hobart in May 1824, as the new Lieutenant Governor, Van Diemen’s Land was still a dependency of the Colony of New South Wales despite the New South Wales Act 1823 leaving the way open for it to become a separate colony. Given his experience in Honduras Arthur wanted Van Diemen’s Land to be granted colony status immediately but while the Under Secretary for the Colonies, Wilmot Horton, was sympathetic he thought there were “conclusive reasons” against separation straight away.
Arthur’s powers had been defined in a letter from the Secretary of State, Earl Bathurst, to Governor Brisbane on 28 August 1823. Bathurst did not feel that Van Diemen’s Land was ready for separation because of its status as a penal colony. Consequentially the Lieutenant Governor was to remain subject to the control of the Governor of New South Wales, and answerable to him if he acted in a manner “plainly and unequivocally repugnant to sound policy and calculated to endanger the peace and safety of the settlement.”
So it was that for the first eighteen months of his tenure Arthur remained subject to Sir Thomas Brisbane in Sydney, and had no choice but to implement decisions by Brisbane such as the devaluation of the currency and the abolition of the fixed price for wheat, both actions that Arthur felt would be extremely harmful to the economy of Van Diemen’s Land. He had no appointed body to help him with the administration of his island dependency and no legislative making powers.
However he did have more authority than his predecessor, Lieutenant Governor William Sorell, being able to:
- Grant land;
- Administer the Surveyor-General’s Department;
- Pardon prisoners;
- Make appointments;
- Control finances; and
- Manage public works.
He could not:
- Suspend officials; or
- Begin any new undertakings without approval.
Finally, in November 1825, Lieutenant General Ralph Darling arrived in Hobart, with the Order in Council authorising the separation of Van Diemen’s Land from New South Wales, which was read out at an official ceremony on 3 December 1825. Darling had sailed from London with two commissions, one as Governor of New South Wales, and one as Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, though the latter was to be administered by the Lieutenant Governor in Darling’s absence. Darling left Hobart three days later, never to return. Arthur was now in control of the new Colony along with a Legislative Council that could enact laws specific to the needs of the new Colony.
He was still answerable to the Colonial Office but became quite adept at taking advantage of the time it took for correspondence from Van Diemen’s Land to reach England, then to be considered by the appropriate department, for a reply to be drafted and then sent back to the Colony. By the time the reply arrived Arthur had often achieved what he wanted and questionable legislation could even have expired.