While Lieutenant Governor George Arthur has the dubious reputation for engaging in the longest period of martial law in Australia, from late 1828 to the end of 1831, this was not the first instance of the Island being subjected to a period of direct military control and the suspension of many civil activities.
Arthur had proclaimed martial law to try to resolve the growing hostilities between the aboriginals and settlers about land use. Some 14 years earlier Lieutenant Governor Thomas Davey had issued a proclamation to treat the aborigines kindly. However, as the settlement expanded, the treatment of aborigines by settlers, convicts and bushrangers did result in some acts of retaliation. This did not concern Davey overmuch, his main concern being the escalation of bushranging.
As Van Diemen’s Land was still part of the Colony of New South Wales, Davey requested increased military protection from Lachlan Macquarie the Governor-in-Chief, but this appeal went unanswered. In 1814 Macquarie did act, promising to pardon bushrangers who surrendered within six months. Not surprisingly this was generally seen as an opportunity to continue their raiding activities for most of the amnesty period before ‘coming in’. Some of those who did surrender later returned to their old ways.
With no additional military forces, and no local criminal court, Davey resorted to declaring martial law in 1815, even though being advised by Edward Abbott that he lacked the authority to do so. With martial law in force the military were able to punish individuals as they saw fit, trying captured bushrangers by court martial. Several were executed before Governor Macquarie reacted by revoking martial law after six months.
The six months of martial law impacted the civilian population by:
- The trade in kangaroo skins being banned
- Curfews being imposed
- Licensed houses closing early
- The limitation of small boat movements
The end of martial law allowed Edward Abbott to finally take up his position as Deputy Judge Advocate in Van Diemen’s Land. He had opposed the imposition of martial law, arguing that it was incompatible with holding a court under civil law. He did, however, serve on several courts-martial during the six months of military rule.