Lieutenant Governor Sorell revives interest in Public Education

Within months of his arrival in Hobart Town in 1817, Lieutenant Governor William Sorell set about improving the overall status of education in the colony. At that time, no government educational institutions existed though there were a few private schools for the children of those who could afford to pay fees.

He was not the first Lieutenant Governor to express an interest in education in Van Diemen’s Land. Colonel David Collins, who held that office from late 1803 to 1810, had seen the need for orphan schools, particularly for poor and convict children but received no support from the Colonial Office for his plans, even though they were designed to be largely self-supporting by the incorporation of a school farm.

Following Collins’ premature death in1810 his successor, Thomas Davey, did not arrive in Van Diemen’s Land until 1813.  Prior to Davey’s arrival, the first official notice relating to education in Van Diemen’s Land was issued in 1812 by Governor Macquarie, who was obviously keeping an eye on the affairs of the Island whilst it was being administered by a succession of military officers. The notice declares that His Excellency the Governor was:

… pleased to confirm Mr T Fitzgerald as schoolmaster at the settlement in Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land. Mr Fitzgerald will be entitled to receive from the Rev Mr Marsden, Principal Chaplain of the territory, the usual salary of £10 sterling allowed by the Society for the propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which salary is to commence from June last [1811].

In return he was to teach the children of the poor for free.

Following confirmation of Davey’s appointment as the new Lieutenant Governor, the authorities in London had felt it necessary to warn Governor Macquarie about his character and behaviour, and indeed the Governor’s own was assessment of Davey was that he showed  “an extraordinary degree of frivolity and low buffoonery in his manners”. Davey was often referred to as Mad Tom and appears to have been too busy frequenting local taverns in the evenings, and illegally declaring martial law to deal with bushrangers, to give any thought to the lack of schools and teachers in the Colony. Reports of his administration over the period of 1813-1817 point to a steady decline in the moral and social character of the settlement on the banks of the Derwent River.

Sorell, in contrast, proved to be a sound administrator, and sympathetic to educational development. His early correspondence with Macquarie about education received prompt and favourable responses.

Requests for funding for the payment of teachers, and the provision of bibles, prayer books and spelling books met with favourable responses. Requests for government funds to be paid to certain teachers, however, reveal a less than vigorous assessment of what kind of character reference was needed to be a teacher. In the case of Thomas Fitzgerald, who had been dismissed from his position as clerk to the bench of magistrates because he was too much of drunkard, Sorell had no compunction in assuring Macquarie “an increase in salary for this schoolmaster would be well bestowed”. The increase was granted, with no objections raised by Macquarie.

When Sorrel expressed concern about the plight of the children of convicts and poor parents, who had limited access to schools and teachers, Macquarie readily agreed to help, though with the proviso that he would like it to be done without too much government expense. In relation to affording suitable education to this group of children Macquarie had sought advice from the Reverend Mr Cowper, assistant chaplain to the Reverend Marsden in New South Wales which he passed on to Sorell.

Mr Cowper qualified his response by saying firstly that he did not know the clientele of the Van Diemen’s Land charity schools and his response was based on his Sydney experience. He did, however, feel he could comment on the two schools (run by Mr and Mrs Fitzgerald) that Sorell claimed to be inadequate. The Reverend Mr Cowper set out the ideal qualities of a teacher as being to have learning, morality and piety and to be freed from all other duties. Teaching should be an all-consuming occupation with teachers necessarily “devoting their time and talents to the children committed to their trust.” More schools were not the answer, rather more attendance and diligent discipline. Fine words about the desired qualities of teachers, but as in other appointments to colonial positions, Thomas Davey being but one example, there was often a blind eye turned on character failings to achieve the goal of “good riddance”.

It is hard to provide accurate figures on the number of government schools, teachers and pupils during Sorell’s tenure in Van Diemen’s Land, as the compilation of statistics by different officials, using different resources, does not provide a reliable result. However, it is estimated that by 1819 approximately 160 children were receiving education at public schools. By the time Sorell left Van Diemen’s Land in 1824, his aim of making education more widely available had seen the establishment of eleven public schools and a Sunday School, with over 200 pupils in Hobart Town, Launceston and other major areas of settlement.  The position of Superintendent of Schools was created in 1820 and was the first attempt to organise Tasmanian education.

In 1819 Thomas Bigge was instructed by Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, to carry out a wide-ranging commission of inquiry in the colony of New South Wales (including the dependency Van Diemen’s Land). He visited Van Diemen’s Land from 21 February 1820 to 28 May 1820. His report included a thorough examination of the state of education, laying bare the grim reality of government funded schools in Van Diemen’s Land which is discussed in separate post.

In fairness to previous Lieutenant Governors and Sorell, the point needs to be made that prior to 3 December 1825 Van Diemen’s Land was part of New South Wales and where decisions on a whole range of matters were required, they had to seek permission from the Governor of New South Wales. Acting on their own initiative was not open to them.

While an examination of Sorell’s achievements in furthering government funded education reveals only small victories, his efforts paved the way for his successor, Colonel George Arthur who, once Van Diemen’s became a separate colony, had the advantage of not being ham strum by oversight from a distance.

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Early Moves towards Government Support

From the mid-18th century, politicians and reformers were starting to look at ways of broadening access to education to include all levels of society. Derek Gillard’s Education in England: a History Chapter 5 provides a useful timeline, and list of resources, in relation to the evolution of government-funded education in England and the penal colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land.

In 1776 Adam Smith, in his book Wealth of Nations, put forth the argument that education is an essential element of a flourishing society and the costs of education should be such that “even a common labourer may afford it”. He expands on this to say:

… for a very small expence the publick can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people, the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education …

However when it came to setting up a penal colony in New South Wales in 1788, the ideas of Adam Smith and others were not foremost in the minds of British parliamentarians. Overcrowded gaols and prison hulks were highly visible social problems, and the general view of the ruling classes was that criminals were inherently defective, and incapable of rehabilitation. Solutions were limited: resort to the death penalty, or separate the worst of the prison population from the law-abiding citizens by exiling them.

The victory of the Americans over the British forces in the revolutionary wars ruled out continuing the option of shipping criminals across the Atlantic.  An alternative destination was needed, and New South Wales was identified as being, among other considerations, sufficiently far away to daunt any thoughts of escape by prisoners.

So it should not come as any surprise that Lord Grenville, Secretary of State for the Colonies, included, almost as an afterthought, in his instructions to Captain Arthur Philip, first Governor of the new Colony, that:

a particular spot in or as near as each town as possible to be set apart for the building of a church of 400 acres adjacent thereto allotted for the maintenance of a minister and 200 for a school master.

Box ticked – no further action required on our part! Have a good trip.

Six years later William Wilberforce, writing to Henry Dundas, Principal Secretary of State for Home Affairs, still felt comfortable to say, when referring to education:

… In my last letter I mentioned to you that I had been informed a sufficient number of tolerably qualified instructors for the children, both of the convicts and the natives, that the settlers themselves, would be teachers of the colonial children …

It was left to the Society for the Promotion of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPGFP) to secure the appointment of the Rev Richard Johnson as Chaplain for the 1788 expedition, but no one appeared to be responsible for making provision for a school master, even though nearly 40 children made the journey to  New South Wales with their parents (both bond and free). However in the first few years Johnson was kept busy with his clerical and magisterial duties and it was not until 1792 that he found time to write to the SPGFP suggesting that educated convicts could act as teachers, and receive an annual grant of ₤10 from the Society.

However in 1796 Governor Hunter approached the Colonial Office about the need for a public school. The following year saw around 100 children being instructed in the basics of education by convict teachers. and in 1800 and 1802 Governor King took the first small step towards establishing state-sponsored education by opening Male and Female Orphan Schools in the Colony, which provided elementary education, training and residential care within a religious setting, for children who were neglected, abandoned or destitute. It was the beginning of official recognition that government should accept responsibility for the welfare and education of children.

In another development in 1803, Governor King had become alarmed about the presence of French scientific explorers in the region. In particular, he feared that they might have plans to claim the island of Van Diemen’s Land as French territory. He decided that a settlement should be established in Van Diemen’s Land and the island officially claimed as a British territory, which would operate as an extension of the existing penal colony in New South Wales.

In 1803 John Bowen was hastily despatched to plant the British flag in the newly claimed territory, with a smart new uniform to wear and a proclamation to read to any Frenchman who might appear at Risdon Cove on the River Derwent. As it turned out the scientists on board the French ships were too busy collecting specimens along the southern coast of the continent to make the detour further south to hear the words penned by Governor King.

There was no mention of education or schools in Bowen’s instructions, which was not surprising as the new settlement’s primary purpose was to be used as a convenient relocation of the worst convicts in Port Jackson. Neither David Collins (who took over Bowen’s Risdon settlement in the south and moved it to Sullivan’s Cove across the River Derwent) nor William Patterson who established a settlement in the north in 1804, received any specific instructions on providing similar educational opportunities that now existed in New South Wales. Schooling was essentially left to the Lieutenant Governor and the Lieutenant Governor initially left it to the church, which was the institution responsible for rehabilitation of offenders, and by extension, their children. Free settlers were expected to take on the responsibility of teaching their children.

Initially both Collins and Patterson had to focus all their efforts on surviving, with the new settlements often facing starvation as crops failed and additional supplies did not arrive. But by 1806 conditions had begun to improve and Lieutenant Governor Collins went so far as to buy a 100 acre property in Sandy Bay to be used for the education of the colony’s orphans and children of the poor. He proposed that it could be funded in a similar way to the Orphan Schools in Port Jackson by setting up a maintenance fund and farming some of the property. In September 1806 Collins wrote to Lord Castlereagh also requesting:

… that a respectable man and his wife might be sent out in the capacity of schoolmaster and mistress who might be supported from the produce of the farm. I trust, my Lord, that my conduct in this instance will not incur your Lordship’s disapprobation.

No support for this venture was forthcoming (probably reflecting the attitudes expressed in the Parochial Schools Bill debate in the UK Parliament the following year)

In 1807 a bill designed to provide for the education of the poor in England had failed to get parliamentary support, with one speaker going so far as to say:

Giving education to the labouring classes of the poor … would in effect be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture, and other laborious employments to which their ranks in society had destined them.

Debate on the Parochial Schools Bill covered a wide range of opinions about the desirability of state assistance for schools in England, and goes some way to understanding the lack of any specific government policy towards the education of “the lower classes” (including convicts) in Van Diemen’s Land.

So it was left to private enterprise to provide the first schools in Van Diemen’s Land, supporting themselves by charging fees, and in some instances receiving modest funds from philanthropic bodies. Jane Noel, a schoolmistress from Sydney, was probably the first to open a school in Hobart, but little is known about this enterprise except that it only operated for a short time. In 1807 Thomas Fitzgerald, an ex-convict, set up the first regular school in Hobart, combining this with acting as a clerk to the bench of magistrates. In 1810, Thomas Macqueen began teaching in the north of the Island, receiving a grant of ₤10 from the SPGFP. Two years later Thomas Fitzgerald received a similar grant.

Following the sudden death of Lieutenant Governor Collins in 1810 there was a period of three years before the arrival of Thomas Davey to replace Collins. During the period 1810-1817 there were no new educational initiatives in the Island. Schooling continued to be provided by private teachers, and churches ran Sunday schools. It was not until the recall of Davey and the arrival of William Sorrell as his replacement in 1817 that education began to be taken more seriously by the local administration as well as being included in British investigations into the operations of the penal colony of New South Wales and its dependencies. These two topics will be the subject of future posts.

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Sir John Franklin – Explorer

Sir John Franklin was the fifth lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land, replacing Sir George Arthur who had administered the Colony for twelve years from 1824 to 1836. Arthur had no doubts about the nature of his responsibilities: first and foremost the colony was a penal establishment, and a convenient dumping ground for secondary convicted men (ie troublemakers) from the main settlement in Sydney. In 1818 arrivals were further boosted by a steady stream of convicts arriving directly from England and in later years by prisoners from other colonies.

Arthur’s attitude towards the free settlers who were arriving from the UK, lured by the prospect of land grants and convict labour, was that they could not expect to have all the rights of Englishmen “at home”. Not surprisingly he made many enemies who bombarded the UK government with complaints and requests for his removal. It is likely those in the Home Office and Colonial Office who were responsible for affairs in Van Diemen’s Land, thought the island population would be flattered to have the famous Arctic explorer take up duties in Government House, and hopefully his appointment would put an end to the voluminous correspondence of the anti-Arthurites pressing their case for the recall of the Arthur.

And indeed Sir John was welcomed throughout the Colony on his arrival in 1837 but political rivalries dogged him almost immediately, finally resulting in his recall in 1843. It is significant that the inscription (penned by Alfred, Lord Tennyson) on his statue in Franklin Square (the only Lieutenant Governor to be so honoured in the colony):

Not here! The white north hath thy bones;
And thou, Heroic sailor soul,
Art passing on thine happier voyage now
Toward no earthly pole

comes from the memorial in West Minster Abbey, and commemorates his life as an explorer.

Statue of Sir John Franklin, Franklin Square, Hobart

John Franklin was born in Spilsby in Lincolnshire in 1786 and from early childhood had a passion for the sea. This obsession was not viewed favourably by his father but his son was obviously persistent as he was allowed to join the Royal Navy when he was 14 and a year later saw his first active service in the battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Some three months after this action he was chosen to serve as a midshipman under Matthew Flinders, his uncle by marriage, on the Investigator, during its voyage of discovery in New Holland during the years 1801-04. This experience could be said to be life changing.

In his initial address to the Legislative Council in Hobart Sir John reflects on:

… my own early youth, to the period, when I was an eyewitness of the departure for Van Diemen’s land of the first expedition from the sister colony.

Gentlemen, I have much reason to remember that time. I was then a humble partaker in the labours of the lamented Flinders. It was whilst accompanying him in his surveys of the coasts of this and the sister island, that I imbibed that zeal for discovery, which afterwards conducted me into such different climes, which, in fact, determined the whole character of my future life, and which in its consequences has by the divine blessing led to my now addressing you as your President …

The “different climes” referred to, were the waters round the North Pole including the Bering Straits and land expeditions in northern Canada. Franklin commanded three polar expeditions. The first was in 1819 when the British Admiralty sent him to map the north coast of America, starting on the coast east from the mouth of Coppermine River and travelling overland as far as the North-West corner of Hudson Bay. While the voyage had not been well planned and was poorly executed, Franklin had shown extraordinary courage in the face of adversity, which led to his becoming a British hero. In the popular press at the time he became known as “the man who ate his shoes” after it was reported that when food supplies were running low, he survived on a diet of bits of lichen and shoe leather.

His second expedition was more successful and he and his fellow expeditioner, Sir John Richardson, charted over 1,000 miles of the North American coast, as well as collecting valuable information on geology, weather systems and plant species. His final voyages from 1845 to 1847, shortly after his recall as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, in HMS Erebus and HMS Terror ended in tragedy for him and all his men, becoming the worst disaster in the history of British polar exploration. A full account of Franklin’s voyages can be found on the web page of the Royal Museums Greenwich.

Over the years since the disappearance of the ships and crew, three graves, two skeletons, personal effects, letters and notes, have been recovered and finally in 2014 and 2016 the discovery of the Erebus and Terror perhaps have written the final chapter of an intrepid explorer.

Upon his appointment as the new Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land in April 1836, Sir John’s passion for exploration carried over into his civil responsibilities. A H Markham in his book, The Life of Sir John Franklin published in 1891, relates that one of his first acts was:

… to make a requisition of the Imperial Government for means to enable him to carry out a more perfect survey of the channels leading towards the anchorage of Hobart Town. Lieutenant Thomas Burnett was appointed by the Admiralty to carry out this service under the directions of Sir John Franklin …

Burnett travelled with Sir John aboard the Fairlie, arriving in Hobart Town on 6 January 1837. He was given the use of the colonial cutter Vansittart and surveyed the southern entrance to D’Entrecasteaux Channel and the approaches to the Derwent River before his untimely death by drowning on 21 May 1837. A monument in St David’s Park, Hobart, commemorates the Royal Navy surveyor.

Monument to Lieutenant Thomas Burnett, St David’s Park, Hobart

Sir John expands on this event and his plans for more exploration:

… Having been thus led to revert to my earliest professional recollections, let me add, that it was my hope to be enabled to superintend during the first year of my government, the completion of that survey which I had aided in commencing. But you are well aware of the fatal event which for the present has disappointed that anticipation, and which has deprived the Crown of a meritorious officer, and myself of a valued friend. The examination of the coasts, unhappily, must now be deferred, but it is still my wish to cause an exploration to be made at an early period, of those districts in the interior, which are as yet almost unknown. Knowledge of this description is in itself valuable. But the demand for land, and the limited extent and high value of that already discovered, are additional incentives – and powerful ones too – to such an inquiry.

 Throughout his tenure as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land Sir John supported the work of scientists like John Gould and Paweł Edmund Strzelecki. He founded the Tasmanian Natural History Society and subsidised the publication of the Tasmanian Journal of Natural History. He continued to be an advocate of exploration in the Island and, along with Lady Franklin, made an expedition through the wild country between Lake St Clair and the West Coast. Favourable reports on his continued interest in, and support for, exploration from the officers of several scientific and surveying expeditions that visited Van Diemen’s Land during his governorship, would have enhanced his standing with the Admiralty and contributed to his appointment, on his return to England, to lead his final voyage in the quest to discover the North West Passage.







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Address of Sir John Franklin to Legislative Council 1837

On Friday 14th July 1837, the Hobart Town Courier reported on the first meeting of the Legislative Council that had taken place in Hobart four days earlier. At 1 o’clock the Lieutenant Governor, Sir John Franklin, took the Chair and read his first address to the Council. He began by commenting on his appointment and his initial impressions of the Colony:

The state of public business, being, at length, such is to enable me to meet you in the discharge of your legislative functions, I gladly avail myself of the opportunity, which the occasion affords, of renewing personally those expressions of regard, which have already been so warmly reciprocated between myself and the community generally in a different relation.

Received, as I have been so cordially – I will, say – so affectionately, by all classes, the obligation by which I am bound to my most gracious Sovereign to watch over the interests of his people in this his island of Van Diemen’s land is in no trifling degree strengthened and confirmed. It has ceased to be merely a duty. It has become a privilege, to the exercise of which I look forward, notwithstanding the anxieties that must frequently attend it, as so a source of the highest and purest enjoyment.

When I accepted the honourable post to which his Majesty was graciously pleased to appoint me, I felt a peculiar satisfaction, that my first administration of the duties of a Governor should be in a colony which, separated as it is by the widest of oceans from the land of our birth and our affections, is so essentially British in its origin, its elements, and its interests – one, in whiçh whatever there may be of evil in its composition, is full of energies for transmuting that evil into good.

Let us shew then our filial allegiance to our mother country and our brotherhood of sentiment in this land of our duties, or of our adoption, by cultivating amongst ourselves and endeavouring to transmit to our children, the hereditary virtues of our race; the same integrity and public spirit, and the like active philanthropy ; as firm an attachment to liberty and social order, as devoted a loyalty to our King, and as fervent, or rather a yet more fervent, diffused, and enlightened piety.

With these stirring words of patriotism perhaps this a good time to mention a quirky footnote to the year 1837: for a period of around four months there were two separate monarchies in the British Empire. From 20 June people in England went about their business under the rule of a teenage girl while, in the words of Sir John, colonies “separated as it is by the widest of oceans from the land of our birth and our affections” happily carried on giving their allegiance to King William IV. The news of this regal change-over did not reach the Australian colonies until 8 October, thereby creating some regnal year legal citation quandaries for future researchers.

Back to the confidences of Sir John, the sub-text of which can be interpreted as ‘I’ve heard your complaints but need time to make up my mind, with your help of course”:

When I consider the extent of those interests which have been confided to me – and the sanguine anticipations which I know have been formed regarding my future measures, and when I contrast the importance of some of those questions which now call for adjustment with my own as yet defective local experience, I feel that under other circumstances I might well shrink from encountering them. But when I see you, Gentlemen, assembled to assist me, who have witnessed the transitions of the colony through successive states of social existence – who have seen its capabilities gradually developing, and who yourselves have had no small share in drawing them forth, when in consequence I feel the assurance that you are able to discern the springs of action operating around us, and therefore to distinguish the causes which retard, from those which accelerate improvement, surely I am justified in indulging the hope that our labours will not terminate in disappointment.

He then announced quite a significant decision, and one that would never have been countenanced by the previous Lieutenant Governor, Sir George Arthur. The first sitting of the Legislative Council in 1826 was held in camera, no press or other publicity given to its proceedings except the promulgation of the final measure in the Gazette for public information. Members had to swear an oath of secrecy not to disclose information of the Council’s proceedings. Some greater publicity of Council business did occur in 1828, with the abolition of the requirement to swear the oath of secrecy and the requirement to notify in the press, or make an adequate public announcement, eight clear days beforehand of any law was to be passed. These measures were not sought by Arthur, but forced on him by English legislation.

I have decided also, and I trust that in the present circumstances of the colony you will concur with me in the expediency of that decision, to avail myself of the aid which may be derived from a discussion extended beyond these walls of the measures before us. With this intention I have made arrangements for the admission, to witness our proceedings, of such a number of colonists as the limited size of this apartment will admit of being accommodated. The result of this will, I trust, be such a thorough sifting of every point admitting of a difference of opinion as will tend most materially to confirm us in the propriety of our decisions when they are right, and on the other hand, lead us at an early period to retrace our steps, should we occasionally wander into error. But, be this as it may, of one thing I feel convinced, the better the reasons for your several decisions are known, the greater will be the weight attached to them by the public, while the general result will be an increased confidence in the wisdom of your deliberations.

Hence the presence of a Hobart Town Courier journalist at the meeting of the Council on 10 July and following days, and the publication of the Address and Council business on 14 July.

Sir John’s Address went on to set out a wide range of his plans for the Colony which will be discussed in future posts.

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Changing the Guard

When Sir John Franklin arrived in Van Diemen’s Land to take up the position of Lieutenant Governor in January 1837, the shadow of twelve year’s autocratic rule by Sir George Arthur loomed ominously over the future administration of the Island. Franklin inherited an entrenched bureaucracy, the personal power base created by Arthur, which consisted mainly of family and friends appointed in crucial positions. As far as Arthur was concerned Van Diemen’s Land was essentially a penal colony and, following his departure, the Arthur faction was determined to see the new Lieutenant Governor maintain the status quo. Set against this was the unrealistic expectation of the anti-Arthur faction that Franklin would take a more reasoned approach to their concerns about restrictions to their civil liabilities. From the outset there was little chance of a happy ending to the story.

The finances of the Colony also contributed to Franklin’s ability to govern effectively. Prior to 1828 the finances of Van Diemen’s Land were quite simple: the Lieutenant Governor could levy taxes which he considered necessary, and from 1831 received the revenue from crown land sales. The UK Government paid the rest of the Colony’s expenditure. Just six months before Franklin arrived in Hobart, the British Government instructed that the costs of maintaining police and gaols were to be transferred from the Colonial Establishment and become a charge on the fund arising from the sale of colonial lands. The expense of erecting gaols and police offices, maintaining mounted and foot police, the Marine Department Board of Assignment, salaries of the Director General of the Assignment System and his staff were now to be charges on the local colonial revenue. Given that all these expenses were a direct result of England being relieved of paying for convicts after they were shipped off to Van Diemen’s Land, it seems a very unfair financial impost on the Colony’s Treasury.

A further complication for Franklin was that Arthur, as well as being Lieutenant Governor, had also been the military officer commanding the troops stationed in the Colony. Sir John was a naval man and could not succeed Arthur in this dual role. This created a situation where initially army officers were communicating directly with their senior officers in England, and not through the Lieutenant Governor. It took a directive from the Secretary of State for the Colonies to confirm that “the supremacy of the Governor over all officers, Civil and Military, should be acknowledged in the most clear and simple terms”. It was not the most auspicious start for an easy relationship between Franklin and the Army.

By inclination Sir John was a maritime explorer, his exploits the stuff of Boys’ Own adventures. Newspapers lauded his achievements and there was genuine optimism when it was announced he would be the next Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land.  However during his six years in the Colony there was very little plain sailing, beset as he was by the storms and tempests of warring interests in the colony along with the unpredictable nature of the instructions sent from England. While his achievements were considerable, it is not surprising that the skulduggery of local and English officials that led to his ultimate downfall made a far more sensational and memorable story. Future posts will look at his success as well as his failures and hopefully provide a more balanced picture of his time in Van Diemen’s Land

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Proclamation 5 January 1837

Three days before the departure of Lieutenant Governor Arthur from Hobart on 31 October 1836, Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Snodgrass arrived from Sydney to take up the position of interim acting lieutenant governor until the arrival of Sir John Franklin. He was sworn in on the same day as Arthur’s departure and administered the colony for two months and six days. According to the historian John West he was well received by the colonists, but his tenure was too brief to leave any impression on colonial affairs.

However his cameo appearance in the pages of the history of Van Diemen’s Land did lead to a day of drama, with undertones of farce, some three months later. Members of the Presbyterian community in Hobart, knowing of the Colonel’s connections to, and sympathies with the Church of Scotland, were able to convince Snodgrass to issue a Proclamation convening a synod of ministers and elders on 5 April 1837, with the aim of establishing a firm foundation for their church in Van Diemen’s Land. The Proclamation was issued on 5 January 1837, and Sir John Franklin arrived on the barque Fairlie the following day to begin his term as Lieutenant Governor.

Fast forward to Wednesday 5 April when the Ministers, Elders and a considerable number of the Presbyterian congregation meet in St Andrew’s Church in compliance with the January Proclamation calling on them to:

Form a Synod and adopt the necessary steps for the future regular government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in this Colony, in conformity with the rules and discipline of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Following a sermon, delivered by Dr Anderson of Launceston, the meeting was about to commence when Captain Maconochie, Private Secretary to Lieutenant Governor Franklin, advised those present that he had been sent by his Excellency to inform the meeting that there was a technical objection to the constituting of a Synod under the Proclamation issued by Colonel Snodgrass. It was the opinion of the Crown lawyers that the Acting Lieutenant Governor did not have the power to convene a Synod in the Colony without the sanction of the Legislative Council. Therefore it was the request of his Excellency that the meeting should not be constituted as a Synod, under the authority of the January Proclamation.

He then went on to say because of circumstances not under his control (the severe indisposition of the Attorney General) he could not positively declare the meeting was illegal, and disannul it. He asked for one hour’s postponement of their proceedings as he was expecting to receive a document enabling him to speak more decidedly. This request was accompanied by the strongest reassurances of Sir John Franklin’s desire to do everything in his power to favour the interests of the Presbyterian body in the Island, and stated it was more a technical difficulty than any other which required to be overcome.

The favour requested, after an exchange of sentiments between both parties, was positively refused. Scarcely was this done, and a moderator chosen and the meeting about to proceed when a messenger made his appearance with a Proclamation from his Excellency the Lieutenant Governor, which dissolved the meeting.

Captain Maconochie again most politely assured the meeting of the desire of Sir John to promote the interests of their church and of his readiness to receive every suggestion which the members of the Synod could offer in furtherance of this end, even saying that were they to frame an Act themselves in reference to the Presbyterian Church, it would be received, and if on consideration approved by his Excellency and the Legislative Council, passed.

It was, however, argued that promises on paper, were preferable to oral ones, and Captain Maconochie readily agreed to providing a written confirmation of the promises he had made on the part of his Excellency. The reference to “promises on paper” probably arose from the Presbyterians’ less than satisfactory dealings with Lieutenant Governor Arthur.

A Statement by the Provisional Meeting of Presbyterians, published in the True Colonist on 2 June 1837 sets out their reasons for believing the Proclamation issued on 5 January 1837 to be legal and that they were bound to carry out the instructions in that document. They believed that their church and ministers took direction from the General Assembly in Britain and  there was no need for approval by the Legislative Council in the Colony. The advice of the Crown law officers, however, was that the Proclamation of Colonel Snodgrass was illegal because it was not ratified by the Legislative Council.

This incident is little more than a side show to the wider discussion on the development of the relationship between Church and State in Van Diemen’s Land as well as the legislation that laid the foundations for State assistance to religious bodies in the Colony. A future post is planned to explore this topic further.

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English Maritime Explorers

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook undertook three Pacific voyages during his service with the Royal Navy. The first voyage was a joint venture between the Royal Society and the Admiralty, and its stated aim was to expand the scientific knowledge of the world – an altruistic and worthy cause, reinforced by the name of his ship: the Endeavour. However the Admiralty had also given Cook Secret Instructions, (for his eyes only) which laid out certain tasks he was to perform in order to identify the potential for expanding Britain’s power and prestige in the Pacific.

Cook left Plymouth in August 1768 on the Endeavour, sailing via Madeira, Rio de Janeiro and Tierra del Fuego, to reach Tahiti in April 1769, where he set up a fortified camp in preparation for observing the transit of Venus across the Sun on 3-4 June.

Once this was accomplished, and he had mapped the islands around Tahiti, he set out in August to see if he could find any evidence of Terra Australis Incognita (undiscovered southern land). By October he had headed west, circumnavigating and mapping New Zealand and then sailing up the east coast of New Holland, again charting the coastline. While he would have been aware of Van Diemen’s Land, given the publication of Abel Tasman’s discoveries in the 17th century, he did not go far enough south to include it on his charts.

A year after his return in 1771, the Admiralty sent Cook on his second voyage to resume the search for the Great South Land. He left Plymouth on 13 July 1772 in the Resolution, accompanied by Tobias Furneaux in the Adventure. During 1773 and 1774 both ships criss-crossed the Pacific Ocean in their quest, with the Resolution sailing below the Antarctic Circle three times. At one stage, after becoming separated from the Adventure, Cook did consider sailing north to see whether Van Diemen’s Land was the southernmost tip of New Holland, but the winds were not kind and he sailed east in the hope of reuniting with Furneaux. However, Cook was convinced that the Royal Society’s predictions about possible locations for a great southern land mass to balance the land round the North Pole were baseless, though he did think that there was probably an Antarctic land beyond the ice barriers that prevented his sailing any further south.

Cook’s final and last voyage aboard the Resolution along with Charles Clerke in the Discovery was a further cloak and dagger exercise. The Admiralty was keen to find a passage from the North Pacific to the North Atlantic to provide a shorter sea route for trade between Britain and the Pacific. However they did not want this to become public knowledge, so they announced that the expedition was to return Omai, the first Polynesian to visit Britain, to his homeland in the Pacific.

On his voyage to the Pacific Cook stopped off at Adventure Bay, in Van Diemen’s Land, on 26-29 January 1777, establishing friendly contact with the natives. He left a plaque nailed to a tree, inscribed “Cook 26 Jan” 1777”. For a timeline of Cook’s three voyages see the British Library’s The Voyages of Captain Cook.

Tobias Furneaux

Furneaux, who accompanied Cook on his second voyage in the Adventure became separated from the Resolution in Antarctic waters and set sail for Van Diemen’s Land on his way to a pre-determined rendezvous in New Zealand should the two ships lose contact with one another. He explored much of the south and south east coast of Van Diemen’s Land. His charts are the earliest by an English mariner  but unfortunately contain some errors, some of which were later correct by Cook on his third voyage.

On 9 March 1773 he sighted what was probably South West Cape, and eventually found a good anchorage in Adventure Bay where he stayed for five days, gathering wood, replenishing water and overhauling the ship’s rigging, but made no contact with the natives. Like Cook he sailed north with the intention of proving if Van Diemen’s Land was an island. However, as the winds were unfavourable, he changed course and set sail for New Zealand.

Sketch of Van Diemen’s Land explored by Captain Furneaux


William Bligh

William Bligh, who had accompanied Cook on his final voyage, returned to Adventure Bay as Captain of the Bounty in 1788. He saw the trunk of a dead tree, inscribed AD 1773, (a relic of Furneaux’s visit); and planted fruit and plantain trees, vines and a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds in what appeared to be fertile country. Again there was friendly contact with the local natives and he even recognised one whom he had met in 1777. After leaving Adventure Bay and setting course for Tahiti, the crew mutinied in April and put Bligh into an open boat, along with 19 sailors. After a remarkable 3,600-mile voyage to Timor and thence home to England, he was given command of a second expedition with two ships, the Providence and the Assistant; again this was to transplant bread-fruit trees at suitable locations.

Bligh visited Adventure Bay for a third time, anchoring on 9 February 1792 and remaining till the 24 February. They found one apple tree from his previous trip and planted more trees. He almost discovered the Derwent River but Furneaux’s misleading charts sent him to a series of wrongly names places and though his men caught glimpses of the entrance to the Derwent, they thought it was Frederick Henry Bay.

He did eventually sail up the Derwent some 17 years later, after being removed as Governor of New South Wales by the officers of the notorious Rum Corps. He managed to sail to Hobart, where he was out of the reach of the mutineers, and still be able to interfere in the affairs of the Government, as well as becoming a thorn in the side of Lieutenant Governor David Collins.

John Henry Cox

The Wikipedia article paints a picture of a colourful character, an adventurer, a merchant, an opportunist. He flits briefly across the pages of maritime history in Van Diemen’s Land before his death in 1791. On the lookout for possible trade areas, Captain John Henry Fox in his armed brig Mercury, struck land around South West Cape on 3 July 1789. Blown north by a storm he found himself in a sheltered bay on Maria Island which he called Oyster Bay. He and his crew also established friendly relations with the natives and made similar observations on their way of life, as had previous explorers.

John Hayes

Lieutenant John Hayes was an adventurer and trader in the service of the East India Company. After failing to find a cargo of nutmegs in New Guinea he sailed south with two small ships, the Duke of Clarence and the Duchess of Bengal. He arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on 24 April 1793 and stayed to 9 June. While many of his explorations covered areas already charted, he did make his own map of the Southern Extremity of New Holland (see left). He sailed up the river that Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux had named River du Nord as far as New Norfolk. He renamed it the Derwent River as it reminded him of the geographical features of Derwentwater and the Derwent River in the Lakes District of his native Cumberland.

Impressed by an area in the lower reaches of the Derwent, he named it Risdon Cove after William Bellamy Risdon, second officer of the Duke of Clarence. It is likely his favourable account may have influenced Lieutenant John Bowen to choose it for the first European settlement in 1803.

George Bass and Matthew Flinders

It is an interesting fact that all the explorers mentioned so far who visited Van Diemen’s Land, had sailed along the south and south eastern coastlines. None had sailed far enough north or north west to see it was possibly an island and not the southern extremity of New Holland,

However Governor Hunter, of New South Wales, was of the opinion that Van Diemen’s Land was an island and in December 1797 provided George Bass, surgeon and explorer, with a six-oared whaleboat to test his theory. By 18 January 1798, having reached as far as Western Port but being short on provisions, Bass was forced to turn back. While he had failed to pass through the Strait, he was certain that Van Diemen’s Land was an island.

Governor Hunter, eager to follow up the discovery, provided Bass and Lieutenant Matthew Flinders with the sloop Norfolk instructing them to sail through the Strait. Once this was accomplished the pair proceeded to circumnavigate the island. Flinders named two mountains on the west coast after two of Tasman’s ships, the Heemskirk and Zeehan.


Flinders and Bass corrected many of the remaining inaccuracies in previous charts for the south and south east, and arrived back in Sydney on 12 January 1799 – a journey of just over three months.

Route taken by Bass and Flinders

English maritime exploration was now complete in the Island. The next phase would be the arrival of Lieutenant John Bowen and Lieutenant Governor David Collins to establish settlements, both free and convict.

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The legal system 1803-1832

Colonial Office Instructions on treatment of natives

From 1788, when the First Fleet arrived in Port Jackson to set up a penal colony for convicts sentenced to transportation, governors and lieutenant governors had quite specific instructions on how they were to interact with the native population.

The draft Instructions issued to Governor Phillip on 25 April 1787 specified that he was:

… to endeavour by every possible means to open an intercourse with the natives and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them; and if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or give them an unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, it is our will and pleasure that you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence.

Similar instructions were given to Lieutenant Governor Collins on 7 February 1803 when he sailed for Port Phillip, and then on to Hobart to take over the administration of the newly claimed territory of Van Diemen’s Land from Lieutenant John Bowen.

Lieutenant Governors from Collins to Sorell

The first serious confrontation with the local aborigines was at Risdon Cove on 3 May 1804, when a number of aboriginals were killed by a group soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Moore. The incident was recorded by the Rev Knopwood in his diary and Lieutenant Moore gave a report to Collins who then reported to Governor King about the incident stating “Not having been present myself, I must take it for granted that the measures which were pursued were unavoidable.” It was later established that the aboriginals were simply engaging in a kangaroo hunt to provide themselves with food. It would seem no action was taken against the solders.

Following this early confrontation, both Collins, in the south, and Paterson, in the north, issued general orders urging the settlers to establish friendly relations with the natives and warning them that the aboriginal inhabitants were under the protection of the British law, and that acts of violence against them would be punished.

Following the death of Collins in 1810, the three subsequent lieutenant governors of Van Diemen’s Land continued to exhort the settlers to behave humanely towards the aborigines. These requests largely fell on deaf ears with Thomas Davey writing:

… he could not have believed that British subjects would have so ignominiously stained the honour of their country and themselves as to have acted in the manner they did towards the aborigines.

and William Sorell frequently found it necessary to issue proclamations because of “cruelties [that] have been perpetrated upon the aborigines repugnant to humanity, and disgraceful to the British character”, declaring:

The Lieutenant-Governor thus publicly declares his determination that if, after the promulgation of this publication, any person or persons shall be charged with killing, firing at, or committing any act of outrage or aggression on the native people, the offender or offenders shall be sent to Port Jackson to take their trial before the Criminal Court.

Such proclamations were, however, of no avail while convict stockmen, shepherds, and bushrangers, themselves the product of a brutal punishment regime, continued in the words of historian James Bonwick, to:

… indulge a demoniacal propensity to torture the defenceless, and an insatiable lust, that heeded not the most pitiable appeals, nor halted in the execution of the most diabolical acts of cruelty to obtain its brutal gratification.

Lieutenant Governor Arthur’s dilemma

Arthur was shocked at the treatment of the aboriginal population by the settlers and his correspondence with the Colonial Office displays a genuine, albeit misguided, zeal to save the souls of the natives. He appears troubled when writing to his superiors on the condition of aboriginal people, declaring it “a fatal error in the first settlement of Van Diemen’s Land that a treaty was not entered into with the Natives” going on to say the Natives should have received compensation for territory surrendered. He claimed it would have been preferable if “adequate laws” had been introduced to protect them “from the very first” and “enforced for their protection”. Hampered as he was by a lack of legal authority to change the legal status of aborigines Arthur did, however, demonstrate more empathy for their suffering than did his mainland counterparts in their dealings with local aboriginal tribes.

Shortly after Arthur’s arrival in Hobart in 1824 a tribe of natives had appealed to him for protection, which was granted. They were able to establish a camp at Kangaroo Point on the Derwent River, living there untroubled for a couple of years, until one of their white neighbours committed a savage murder on a tribe member, which saw the whole tribe to disappear into the wilderness.

Throughout his 12-year administration Arthur was literally between a rock and a hard place. He was sympathetic to the plight of the natives, deploring the violence inflicted upon them, but was also dependent on retaining the good will of the Colonial Office for future career appointments. The Colonial Office, in contrast, reacted like a weather vane shifting position whichever way the wind was blowing: it had no problem with decreeing that aboriginals should be treated equally with white settlers, while at the same time encouraging free grants and then sales of land in the colony, resulting in the reduction of traditional hunting areas for the native population, which in turn put pressure on their food supply, causing an increase in raids on livestock owned by farmers.

Driven by the demands of white settlers, many of whom had the ear of influential officials in England, Arthur devised a scheme that would create two zones in the Island: the settled districts for whites and wilderness areas for natives. Little thought was given to the seasonal tribal journeys that were undertaken by the aboriginals and which in many cases now impinged on the artificial boundaries created by settlers fencing the land that had either been granted or sold to them. In theory aboriginal leaders could apply to landholders for permission to travel through farmland but, as with all of Arthur’s instructions on the humane treatment of the native population, the edict was ignored.

From the mid-1820s hostilities between settlers and aboriginals steadily escalated, until ordinary law was superseded by the declaration of martial law in 1828: this legal environment remained in place until 1832. In the initial proclamation Arthur decreed that, wherever possible, peaceful means had to be used and the use of firearms would only be justified when this failed; Europeans who failed to obey this dictate could be subject to trial and punishment. However despite Arthur’s repeated orders throughout the conflict about the circumstances in which deadly violence could be justified, no colonist was ever charged, or committed for trial, for assaulting or killing an aboriginal person.

In 1829 Arthur agreed with a proposal by George Frankland to use illustrated story boards to help explain that British laws applied equally to black and white.Nailed to trees and given to aboriginal groups they were yet another example of the mindset of colonial authorities: that the authority of British law was universal, and the use of this pictorial material would make that clear to the native inhabitants.

Other efforts by Arthur to resolve the conflict included offering bounties for the capture of aboriginals, the employment of George Augustus Robinson to carry out conciliarity missions and creating an Aborigines Committee to inquire into the origins of the hostility and make recommendations on how to stop the violence and destruction of property.

By the time martial law ceased in January 1832 the aboriginal population was in serious decline in Van Diemen’s Land (probably less than 1,000). Lyndall Ryan, Tasmanian Aborigines (2012), estimates that from November 1823 to August 1834 some 878 aboriginal people were killed and 201 settlers.

Their treatment exposed the hypocrisy of a legal system that could stipulate that the native population were to be regarded as British subjects, entitled to the rights of “freeborn” Englishmen and, at the same time, condone their being hunted down, arbitrarily exiled from their tribal lands, and dispossessed of their traditional way of life. There has been considerable discussion by historians as to whether these events fall within the definition of genocide. Historians like Robert Hughes, and James Boyce believe it was, while Henry Reynolds is of the opinion that Arthur’s focus was on using the land for profitable purposes that would benefit the colony and the British government and not the destruction of the aboriginal people.

Sir George Murray, in a letter to Arthur in 1830, warned that the extinction of the aboriginal race would leave “an indelible stain upon the character of the British Government”. Writing on the treatment of the aborigines in 1832, Arthur also acknowledged that their treatment in the colony was a “stain on the Colonisation of Van Diemen’s Land”.

What seems undeniable is that there were two irreconcilable sets of beliefs about the land. The Australian Museum’s The Land web pages describe the aboriginal relationship with the land as:

Changing it and changing with it. The land was not just soil or rocks or minerals, but a whole environment that sustains and is sustained, by people and culture.

To European eyes the land was terra nullius, belonging to no one, and the soil, the rocks and minerals were commodities to be used, bought and sold. That belief was to prevail until 3 June 1992, when the High Court of Australia decided that terra nullius should not have been applied to Australia. The judgment  recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to the land – rights that existed before the British arrived and can still exist today.


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Martial Law – Van Diemen’s Land 1828-1832


Colonial correspondence from the Colonial Office to the first four Lieutenant Governors in Van Diemen’s Land (Collins, Davey, Sorell and Arthur) stressed the need to conciliate with the native population of Van Diemen’s Land. A letter to Collins stated he should

… endeavour by every means in your power to open an intercourse with the Natives, and to conciliate their good will, enjoining all persons under your government to live in amity and kindness with them; and if any person shall exercise any act of violence against them, or shall wantonly give them any interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, you are to cause such offender to be brought to punishment to the degree of their offence.

Sorell is reminded that the “Natives should be considered as under the British government and protection” … “[that he should] punish any ill-treatment of the native people” … “and to support and encourage all measures which may tend to conciliate and civilise them”. The key word is “civilise” which assumes that the English class system is the natural order for society.

Arrival of Governor Arthur

When Lieutenant Governor Arthur arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1824, the native population  was considered to be subject to, and protected by, the laws of England. A General Order issued on 4 November 1824 exhorted the citizens of Hobart to manifest the utmost the utmost kindness to a group of visiting natives “until some arrangements can be made by the government for providing for their accommodation, and removing them to some proper establishment”. There is an ominous undertone here pointing to an attitude on the part of the Colonial Office and the Van Diemen’s Land administration that the aboriginals should be taught to take their “proper” place in society and live in equality with its “lower orders”. No account was taken of their deep relationship to the land; indeed it was probably beyond the comprehension of local government officials and settlers because since the 13th century in England arable farming in open fields had been steadily eroded by enclosures that benefited the rich and powerful and created a “working class” that was deprived of a direct relationship with the land. The situation in Van Diemen’s Land (as in most other colonised or settled areas of the time) was that all land was now deemed to belong to the Crown and only available as land grants for military personnel and settlers (both free and emancipist). It was a situation that was not going to end well.

For his first few years in Van Diemen’s Land there is minimal reference by Arthur in his Dispatches to the Secretary of State about problems between settlers and Aboriginals. However tensions were rising and conflict steadily increasing until on 10 January 1828, Arthur felt it necessary to report that he was going to initiate stronger measures.

He explained that on his arrival in 1824 he had found it necessary to issue a Proclamation that any individual found to have committed any criminal act of aggression upon the aboriginals should be prosecuted before the Supreme Court, and that he had instructed magistrates and respectable settlers to use every means to conciliate and protect the native population. While he believed that the Proclamation initially had a positive effect, by 1827 he is reporting that “repeated outrages by aboriginals in the settled districts have led to several petitions by the settlers to free them of these troublesome assailants”. At the same time he acknowledges that the aggravation had originated with the brutal and callous behaviour of settlers and their servants (in particular those employed by the Van Diemen’s Land Company).

While Arthur considered negotiating with the aboriginals, he did not question British sovereignty either in practice or theory. He issued a Proclamation on 19 April 1828 in the Hobart Gazette which stated on the one hand “humanity and natural equity, equally enforce the duty of protecting and civilising the Aboriginal inhabitants”, and on the other, that “The Aborigines wander over extensive tracts of Country, without cultivating, or permanently occupying any portion of it”. On several occasions he laments the lack of any treaty or deed with the aborigines which might have lessened “the injurious consequences which have followed our occupation”.

The April 1828 Proclamation sets out a dual policy of legislating “to restrict the intercourse between the White and Coloured inhabitants” and negotiating “with certain Chiefs of Aboriginal Tribes”. The rationale for this is based on the doctrine of terra nullius” (”no man’s land”), a concept derived from 17th century sources of international law that would remain as part of Australian law until the High Court handed down the Mabo decision 1992, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights, and their unique connection with the land.

Declaration of Martial Law

When there was no decrease in hostilities over the following six months, on 1 November 1828 Arthur issued a further Proclamation declaring:

… I the said Lieutenant Governor, do by these presents declare and proclaim, that and after the date of this my proclamation, and until the cessation of hostilities shall be my me hereafter proclaimed and directed, martial law is and shall continue to be in force against the several black or aboriginal Natives, within the several districts of this island, excepting always … the country extending southward of Mount Wellington, the Tasman Peninsula; the whole of the western and southern parts of this island bounded by a line drawn from Piper’s River to St Patrick’s Head; and the whole of the western and south western part of this island …

The declaration of martial law against the aborigines effectively deprived them of any protections they had under English law. Civilian ‘roving parties’ were employed to aid the military and police, later to be supplemented by volunteers, in rounding up aboriginal people and relocating them to specially designated areas.

Two years on, neither the settlers nor the press were satisfied with the progress of the campaign and agitated for even more drastic measures, finally leading Arthur to issue a direction that all able-bodied male settlers were to join forces with the military and police and create a human cordon to drive all the aboriginal tribes out of the settled districts, with the intention of relocating them on a reserve on the Tasman Peninsula.

This operation, commencing on 7 October 1830 and notable for its cost (₤30,000 paid for by the British Government), resulted in the capture of only two aboriginal males, and the death of two aboriginals over a period of less than two months; it became known as the Black Line. A second line of 50 soldiers and stock keepers quickly followed, killing two natives and a third and final line of 200 soldiers and settlers in the Freycinet District in September 1831 failed to capture anyone.

The prolonged operation, where the aboriginal people had no legal protections and were literally on the run, effectively ended on 31 December 1831 when a group of 26 aboriginals surrendered to George Robinson a government agent, near Lake Echo, Two weeks later in January 1832 Arthur declared that martial law was over. It had been in operation for over three years, the longest period of martial law in Australian history and resulted in further depleting the aboriginal population.

The following extract from a Dispatch from Secretary Sir George Murray to Lieutenant Governor Arthur on 20 February 1830 can be read as a rebuke to the government and settlers of Van Diemen’s Land, as well as an acknowledgement of a policy failure by the British government :

… it is impossible not to contemplate such a result [extinction of the Aboriginal population] of our occupation of the island as one very difficult to be reconciled with feelings of humanity, or even with principles of justice, and sound policy; and the adoption of any line of conduct, having for its avowed, or for its secret object, the extinction of the Native race, could not fail to leave an indelible stain upon the character of the British Government.

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May 1824 – December 1825

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.


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