Prison Hulk to Redemption sample

A History of a Catholic Family Part One 1788-1900, Second Edition


A brave and hardy people

OFTEN A SPARK of random interest develops into a major project. That spark came for me on a visit to my parents’ house. I picked up a book my mother had finished reading from the little table beside her armchair. It was Hugh Lunn’s bestselling Over the Top with Jim, a memoir of a Catholic childhood in Brisbane in the 1950s. Mum was not too taken with it, but the back-cover blurb raved about its humour. There was the usual warning about embarrassing yourself if you took to reading such a funny book on public transport. I am a contemporary of Hugh Lunn’s and a Catholic, so it was this and not the promise of a hilarious read that prompted me to borrow it, indeed, as it turned out, to filch it, for I never gave it back. I took it as a sign of her interest that she never asked for it.

I did have a good laugh, recognizing so much of my 1950s childhood. The humour was secondary, though. Lunn’s book set me to reading Australian childhood memoirs and reflecting on my childhood. Those reflections, which prompted me to write a childhood memoir, are in a separate chapter in the appendix, ‘The impetus for my family history series.’ They fall outside the project of writing a social history series focusing on my family, to which that spark led. The series traces continuities, of which the most important are social and cultural identities. In this first book, I set out on a journey through Australia’s colonial history with my ancestors, who gradually took on flesh and blood from the bone-dry official documents. My discoveries were startling. I found that of my British Isles ancestors, all arriving by the 1830s, two on the First Fleet in 1788, most were from southern and central England: Wiltshire, Lancashire, Middlesex, Essex, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, and Huntingdonshire. Astonishingly, four were from two neighbouring villages in Wiltshire: Semley and Donhead St Mary. They were from the Harris (Semley) and Bugden (Donhead St Mary) families. Surely, they knew each other.

Even more surprising was that two generations later, a member from the Harris line (my Wilson grandfather) would marry a member from the Bugden line, without being aware of the ancestral connection. In addition to my ancestry from the bottom half of England, there were Scottish and Irish contingents, as one would expect. Two convicts and one free settler came from counties Dublin, Monaghan, and Donegal. A farming family of four from Aberdeen, Scotland, the Burgesses, literate people with a keen sense of decorum, made up the full complement of original ancestors. It is surprising how much I discovered about them all – joys, successes, and tragedies. Their lives were anything but dull.

James Joseph Wilson, who narrowly escaped the gallows and was surprisingly literate for a man thrice convicted of burglary, arrived in Port Jackson on board the Prince Regent in 1827. The colonial authorities assigned him to Robert Lowe, one of the Colony’s early landholders. Lowe dispatched him to Mudgee in northwestern New South Wales to shepherd his flocks. Young 18-year-old hutkeeper James Joseph turned out to be one of the first inhabitants of the Mudgee area. Later, he teamed up with fellow convict Michael Jones to look for land. They married sisters Jane and Elizabeth Harris, daughters of free settlers, and travelled further northwest to the Coonamble area, 330 miles from Sydney, to set up their farms. In circumstances to be revealed, the two freed convicts and the Harris sisters became my great-great-grandparents. There were nine convicts in the direct line of my ancestors. I trace their lives against colonial Australia’s social and historical background, presenting a very different picture from the view usually found in school history books. I am happy to report they all thrived, taking advantage of their second chance. This book is the story of their redemption.

Besides offering the reader an interesting, sometimes gripping family story, I tease out the cultural continuities in which my ancestors acted and how they responded to those continuities in a totally different physical environment. I seek to discover how my ancestors’ outlook, culture, and character worked to make my extended family and me what we are. In this respect, naming our family Catholic is not gratuitous. Religion, as a social and political force, always plays an important role in a nation. It is emphatically the case in Australia where the national establishment threw together a sizable underclass of (Irish) Catholics with the Protestant Ascendancy. How was that to work out in a democratic order where there was no legal disqualification based on religion? I deal with that. Second, of my original ancestors (great-grandparents by 2 and 3), only three were Catholic. The rest were a mixture of Protestants, from the Church of England to Scottish Wesleyans, to dissenters. How the Wilsons ended up Catholic makes an interesting story.

In the same political mode, I sketch a picture of how Australia grew as a people and nation while unfolding my ideas on what it means to be a people and a nation. These ideas are drawn from my interpretation of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy, which I conceive as a Natural Law conservatism. Burke had distinct ideas on how a healthy nation develops and, if it is not careful, how it decays, collapses, and falls prey to takeover. Prison Hulk to Redemption is paired with my book, Tony Abbott and the Times of Revolution. The first is about the growth and development of Australia as a nation. The second is about the 1960s cultural revolution and signs of decay.

Finally, this first book in the series is not about the famous and heroic but about the small people, the anonymous people who were the heartbeat of a growing nation – people like my ancestors. In 1950, most Australians had an ancestry like mine.


MY FIRST ancestors in Australia were Frederick Meredith and convict Eleanor Fraser, both on my mother’s side. Frederick Meredith arrived in Sydney Harbour on board the convict transport Scarborough in January 1788 as steward to the ship’s master, John Marshall. Eleanor Fraser was first on the convict transport Prince of Wales but appears to have been transferred to the Charlotte during the Fleet’s stopover at Rio de Janeiro. The Scarborough, Prince of Wales, and Charlotte were three of the First Fleet’s eleven ships under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. The First Fleet brought the first European settlers to the continental mass referred to from ancient times as Terra Australis Incognita – Latin for Unknown South Land. The real story, however, of the Wilson family in the nation to be known as Australia begins with James Joseph Wilson. I will return to Frederick Meredith and Eleanor Fraser in a later chapter. Before looking at James Joseph Wilson, I must put his story in its historical context.


Chapter 1

Foundations of a new nation

ON 28 APRIL 1770, 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 of stingrays in its waters 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 to investigate the existence of the South Land, whose ancient mythology promised great riches. 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 Englishman 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 whatever was south of present-day Indonesia and New Guinea was Dutchman Abel Tasman’s voyage in 1642 and 1643. The Governor of Batavia had ordered Tasman to find the unknown South Land. On his eight-month voyage, Tasman sailed west from Batavia (today’s Jakarta). Keeping the Indonesian islands to the north, he eventually turned and sailed far to the south before turning 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 he had sailed 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. But Tasman was well short of Staten Landt.

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 northeast, 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 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 novelists’ wild imagination, there was serious discussion about New-Holland and the Pacific area’s imperial prospects. 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 about 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. Some found the idea laughable, some impossible, others morally fraught. But after much talk, 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 considerations were more extensive than the choice of a penal settlement. They 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 on Norfolk Island – sail and shipbuilding); and finally, the climate and soil of New South Wales was suitable for agriculture.

However, this last was based on the misleading impression that Cook and Banks had of Botany Bay’s physical environment. The soil was not nearly as fertile as they thought, and water sources were scarce. Blainey has concluded that Cook arrived in Botany Bay 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 an almost unimaginable imperial undertaking. Few people could comprehend its extent. At the time, Britons had every reason to see the plan as a grandiose fantasy likely to end in a spectacular failure. Ironically, the wretched, depraved, God-forsaken convicts were indispensable to the undertaking’s success.

The task of establishing 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 found a settlement at Botany Bay, cultivate the land for provisions, maintain religion and order, encourage the convicts to good habits, free them if their conduct warranted, and grant them 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 convict 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, including 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. Moreover, different firsthand accounts of this event are on record.

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 aggression or resentment. David Collins, Captain of Marines, appointed Judge Advocate and Secretary to Governor Phillip on arrival, wrote his version of what was possibly the same event but on a different day. It happened in the following way.

The day was mild and serene, and there being but a gentle swell without the mouth of the harbor, 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 did not find the conditions at Botany Bay as Cook and Banks had described them. Watkin Tench, reflecting Phillip’s concerns, 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.’ There was also nowhere to set up an encampment for more than a thousand people. More importantly, they could not find a sufficient supply of fresh water. 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.

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 harbor, 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. Indeed, in the first period, the contact was friendly. However, it was never going to remain so. The cultural gap was unbridgeable. History is full of examples of conflict caused by the expansion and migration of peoples. The clashes would come later, but they were not over Governor Phillip’s and his people’s colour. It was inevitable and necessary that one side would be the all-prevailing victor.

Once Phillip had decided on a place for the settlement, he lost no time ordering the Fleet anchored in Botany Bay to Sydney Cove, named ‘in compliment to [Lord Sydney] the principal secretary of state for the home department.’ He sailed to Sydney Cove in the Sirius on the evening of the 25th. On the morning of the 26th of January, he rowed ashore with his party. Philip Gidley King, second lieutenant on the Sirius, and later Governor King, wrote of the occasion:

At daylight the English colors 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 [a volley] was fired by the party of Marines and the whole gave 3 cheers which was returned by the Supply [now at anchor in Sydney Cove].

David Collins describes the same ceremony, recording that the Supply and Sirius’s crews 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 seed. He sowed the seeds of a new nation on an ancient continent, bringing civilization 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 First 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, a direction which would be an essential (or ontological) modification of their homeland’s culture. 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 intractable of convicts had the template of that (cultural) system in their heads and were unconsciously following the pattern. Accommodating the supreme ruling authority and organizing living quarters for the newly arrived happened as a matter of course. Watkin Tench writes:

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, a rocky incline, was called The Rocks within months of settlement and still bears the name today. 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 for 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 new pristine nation. The following is 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 demanded of him. He had come on its 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 migration 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 conquest or settlement following migration. Both, in time, are legitimate origins. To deny this would mean the absurd 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 the great 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 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 search culminated in the crucial discoveries of Abel Tasman, who narrowly failed to join the dots. After Tasman’s discoveries, the continent was referred to as New Holland. Even after Cook’s success in establishing the continent’s fixed coordinates, 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 distinguished from the territory of another tribe with whom they sometimes had murderous disputes, as they did eventually with the British settlers. The concept of continent did not feature in their worldview. They were not a civilization 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 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! Warra!’ at the vessels sailing by.

It is misleading and false to talk about the Aboriginals before British settlement as ‘Australians’, and altogether wrong to refer to them as the ‘first Australians’. Indeed, the word ‘Aboriginal’ is a post-settlement term to refer to a group of several hundred distinct tribes with different languages. It is reported that 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 British migration and settlement. After settlement, everything changed in the same way it had done throughout history when peoples were on the move. Indeed, the continent’s nomadic tribes were also arrivals at some point in the past. The peoples of Aboriginalia would, in time, become integral members of the new nation of 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 infant 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 colonization 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 leadership of Governor Phillip and his tough persevering, people 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 Colony’s success 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 their own land. 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, and 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, the 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 he would not favour them in vain. Those determined to work towards self-sufficiency would be assigned convicts for labor. 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, to replace the First Fleet’s marines. 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 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. Major Francis Grose, the commandant of the New South Wales Corps, became the administrator with his departure. Grose made several decisions that would have far-reaching effects. He made land grants 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 their work 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 New South Wales Corps officers 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. As a result, much of the Colony’s wealth became concentrated in their hands.

Despite the accusation that his decisions handed the settlement over to ‘grasping hands,’ Grose recognized that freeing up the economy with trade and land grants helped the settlement prosper. Private farms did far better than 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 becoming wealthy through trade and shrewd investments.

Among the New South Wales Corps officers 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 recognized his talents and 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 labor at his disposal, he developed Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta as 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. So 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 trying to rein in the officers’ trading, but he was done for when he came into conflict with Macarthur. 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 were decreasing. There was a go-ahead feeling in the Colony. King had only to encourage the economy’s direction and recognize where its powerhouse lay. A shrewd assessor of human nature might have recognized 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 gotten 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 Colonial Secretary Earl Camden’s best wishes, 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 shared the responsibility for beginning an industry that would underwrite Australia’s fantastic economic and social growth, Macarthur’s insight, ambition, and unrelenting force of character 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 civilization 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 Colony’s moral standards and 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 realize 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 Colony’s development. 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 shrewder governor might have recognized that he could only make adjustments to the direction. In shrewdness, 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 New South Wales Corps’ monopolistic rum trading, 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. In essence, it was 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 organized resistance to mining fees at Ballarat in 1854 about which writers with a fecund imagination like to fantasize. There is too much to the episode to relate adequately, but to give the bare outlines, Bligh’s attempts to restrict Macarthur’s undermining of his administration 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 Colony’s founding, 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 under house arrest.

Johnston put himself in charge, making only a few changes to the administration. With suitable irony, a citizens’ meeting 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, hold cultural continuity precious, and 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 harmonize with the mother country’s interests. He was right about the wool industry’s potential, 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 why Bligh was deposed. 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 possible to support his case against the rebels and 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 in London for the next eight years until he was 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 the Colony an upper class of 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.’ The title is not at all undeserved. Though interrupted and bent at times, the basic lines of his regime would carry on into the future and be the foundation of the nation that would officially bear the name Australia before his return to the mother country. He was conscious of his supreme authority and the administrative and moral tasks ahead but was determined to be just to all. Above all, he accurately sized up the cultural groups that were jostling 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 community’s moral standards. 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. Accordingly, 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 attempting 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 recognize 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 their culture’s proper customs, religion, and moral standards, 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 the 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 that, 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 securing 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 his wife’s arms 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, subject to the new ideas on prison reform, should be utilized 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 to breed and manage 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 exclusives’ ascendancy, those same people would promote and forward 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 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 would 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 arrived in 1821 before Macquarie’s departure with the charge of implementing the Bigge reports’ recommendations. The convict system was to undergo an overhaul, following the new ideas on prison reform. The convicts would find their proper place in colonial society. They would be rounded up 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 undergo necessary reformation. 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. Brisbane would uphold the distinction between free settlers and emancipists 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 decrease.

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 written his vision for his nation and the emancipists with whom he identified? His vision was for constitutional self-government in the British Constitution’s spirit 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 that I have not dealt with. 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 Catholics were the class.

Chapter 2

The Protestant Ascendancy

ACCORDING TO Manning Clark, the landing of the first group of Irish convicts in 1791 had a profound influence on ‘the texture of civilization in Australia.’ It may be an exaggeration that the arrival of the Irish precipitated a clash of civilizations, meaning a clash between the Protestant Ascendancy and Catholics, but the image makes a valid point. If the English had scrutinized the tea leaves at the bottom of the teacup of any superstitious Irish granny, they might have seen that the evolving conflict – more social than religious – in the Colony of New South Wales was a warning for England’s Protestant elite, complacent in their unruffled conviction that the Protestant religion and British institutions were the sole guarantees of liberty and a well-ordered society. The Ascendancy seemed to forget that the foundations of British institutions were laid well before their class arose.

The background to the alarm that the Colony’s Protestants felt at the sight of those ignorant, deluded, dirty, ragbag Irish convicts being brought ashore was the Reformation in general and King Henry VIII’s breaking with the Catholic papacy in particular. Putting papal authority aside together with its inconvenient rules about the indissolubility of marriage, Henry Rex appointed himself head of the ‘English Church,’ plundered the Church’s religious establishments, redistributed much Catholic property to court favorites, and liquidated immovable assets to pay for his pleasures. The six wives were a costly indulgence.

The following decades to 1688 saw a struggle between Henry’s church and a dwindling number of prominent and noble Catholics who seemed out of touch with political and social developments, particularly with the forms of political rule that maintained continuity with the ideas of Magna Carta. The idea of absolute and arbitrary rule of the one was no longer in the Englishman’s marrow – if it ever had been.

The culmination of the political struggle between the Henry Protestant faction and their Catholic opponents came with Catholic James II’s last-ditch attempt to usurp the English throne. That attempt ingloriously ended for James and his followers in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688—glorious for the Protestant elite. James fled to the Continent, and the throne was gifted to Dutch Protestant King William I and his wife Queen Mary, who was James’s daughter, to rub salt into the wound. There were two further Jacobite (Catholic) attempts to wrest political power in 1715 and 1745, but they were a mopping up by the Protestant Establishment.

Penal laws in the form of various acts – the Corporation Act (1761), the Act of Uniformity (1662), and the Test Act (1673) – disqualified Catholics from holding any significant civil and military position, restricted trade and educational opportunities, and imposed severe penalties of confiscation, imprisonment or death. Captured priests suffered the exquisite punishment of hanging, drawing, and quartering, their severed bodies adorning London’s main entrances. Although the acts forming the penal laws were framed in religious terms, the object was indisputably political. It was to secure and hold political power and render impotent those with opposing political principles. All Catholics were judged seditious. Indeed, though the Jacobite attempts to usurp power did not justify Catholics’ wholesale disqualification, there were grounds for that eager opinion.

The conflict in Ireland paralleled that in England and Scotland. And again, the Protestants of the Established Church convincingly won the day. After the military victories, a series of government acts introduced harsh penal laws. Their application was more severe than in England. They instituted the dispossession and destitution of two-thirds of the Irish population because they would not budge from their Catholic beliefs. The motivation for the Irish Catholics was religion, not politics, in contrast with the Protestant Ascendancy, who used religion as a pretext for political power and a property grab.

Edmund Burke, who fought for Catholic relief throughout his career in the House of Commons, condemned the Penal Laws as ‘a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.’ In 1788, the British brought the Protestant Ascendancy as heavy baggage on the First Fleet. The Irish convict dregs brought the torment of dispossession and hatred for their British overlords. The attitude of the Protestant elite, however, was not invariable.

Governor Phillip was typical of the eighteenth-century British gentleman. He was not motivated by the radical ideas of equality and freedom that were intoxicating the French and fluting them to the euphoria of a destructive revolution at the time of the Sydney Cove landing. The Enlightenment that was taking place in Governor Phillip’s Britain was markedly different from the French Enlightenment, where individual reason reigned as the final tribunal of social and political judgment, in the face of which the authority of religion and tradition would fall.

In the British Enlightenment, social virtue was paramount, virtue arising from the conviction that a moral sense and a sympathy for one’s fellowman were embedded in man’s nature. Moreover, reason and religion did not necessarily clash, especially if the religion were a religion of charity and obedience to rank. It explains why Phillip did his best to offer the hand of friendship to the natives, even when a native responded to Phillip’s offered hand by spearing him through the shoulder. It explains his genuine desire to help those willing to reform and promote the harmony of the Colony.

Manning Clark claimed Phillip did not care a fig for the consolations of religious belief but only saw its social and political utility. A true Christian was a person of virtue whose moral priority was the peace and harmony of society. That meant unwavering obedience and subordination to rank. Clark may be unfair to the governor in giving an air of cynicism to this view. Like many of his class and rank, Phillip exhibited a latitudinarian attitude to religious belief. He thought the principles of the Christian faith were important, not the doctrine. He was prepared to tolerate whatever doctrinal nonsense people favoured as long as they adhered to the cultured person’s self-evident virtues and contributed to society’s peace and harmony.

It is essential to understand that Phillip’s overriding priorities were administrative as governor of the new Colony. It would be the same for each governor. Each governor of New South Wales, even those harbouring the most bitter anti-Catholic feeling, was circumspect in dealing with the growing population of Catholics. The stability of the Colony was always foremost in their minds. They ensured the presence of (Anglican) clergy, promoted Bible study, and established churches and schools because they secured the Colony’s stability. They expected the clergy to act as their moral police force. That expectation, Clark pointed out, appeared as repugnant clerical hypocrisy to those of a different faith or of no faith at all.

Reflective of Governor Phillip’s sense of religious duty, the first religious service took place on 3 February 1788 ‘under a large tree at what is today the intersection of Hunter, Bligh and Castlereagh Streets.’ Rev. Richard Johnson conducted the service. It was the first available Sunday, the second Sunday after the landing on Saturday, 26 January 1788. Everyone was expected to attend, the convicts, of course, having no choice. Johnson was the second type of Protestant in the Colony. He was an orthodox Christian subscribing to the doctrine all Christian confessions agree about. Others like him would follow. As an indication of Johnson’s commitment to Christian orthodoxy, Major Francis Grose, Governor Phillip’s temporary replacement, considered his gratuitous emphasis on personal salvation an interference in and a threat to the Colony’s running.

Rev. Johnson returned to England in 1808, dispirited by his lack of success in bringing Christ’s Good News to the people of the Colony. Whether he realized it or not, he was up against it from the start. It was not that the Colony showed a pig-headed aversion to the Gospels’ message. They were the ‘lukewarm’ of the Book of Revelations (3:16). They did not care. Patrick O’Farrell writes in The Catholic Church and Community in Australia that a general atmosphere of irreligion pervaded the early Colony – and that included the small population of Catholics. Johnson should not have beaten himself up too much in failing to convert a population of criminals under an authority that did not have time for personal salvation and the irrelevance of subtle doctrinal distinctions. 

However lacking Catholic convicts were in their faith, Governor Gridley King, who replaced Governor Hunter in 1800, thought their presence and their needs pressing enough to consider organizing the ministry of a Catholic priest. By 1800, there were 1,207 Catholics in the Colony. This thought went with King’s seemingly contradictory request to the Home Office in London to send ‘as few as possible of those [Irish] convicted of sedition and republican practices, otherwise, in a very short time, the whole colony would be imbued with the same seditious spirit.’ He was referring to the Irish convicts transported for their role—sometimes innocent of the charge—in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The request shows his concerns about the Irish were chiefly political, not religious. Irish sedition was the great fear, not their religion in isolation. When the Home Office suggested in 1802 that he utilize the convict priests for education and some clerical tasks, he expressed fears that such employment ‘would be giving them the means, were they so disposed, of instilling improper ideas into the minds of their pupils … an artful priest may lead them to every action that is either good or bad.’

It was a tribute to convict Fr James Dixon that in 1804 King permitted him to attend to the Catholics’ religious needs. Fr Dixon was deemed to have the right character to satisfy the permission conditions. In other words, King considered Dixon cultured, educated, and temperate enough not to abuse the indulgence of the Protestant authorities. The Irish priest was near enough to an English gentleman. High praise, indeed. A possible consideration in the appointment was that Fr Dixon was innocent of the charge of sedition that resulted in his transportation. He had been caught up in the general rounding up of rebels after the crushing of the 1798 rebellion.

The permission conditions were for the priest to restrict himself to religious matters. He was forbidden to engage in any talk that could hint at seditious conversation. Second, he was to show ‘becoming gratitude’ to the warm condescension of the (Protestant) authorities. I should not be too satirical about King’s and the Home Office’s reaching out to the Colony’s Catholics. Two years later, a turn of events seemed to prove King’s intuitions sound and to give a ringing endorsement to the anti-Catholic citizens of the Colony.

In March 1804, on a fine sunny day at Castle Hill, about 20 miles from Sydney Cove, a delirium of vengeance and republican fervour struck William Johnston, transported for his part in the 1798 rebellion. He harangued a mob of around 300 convicts in response to which they took up the frightening weaponry of hoes, rakes, sticks, and staves and marched forth with great resolve on the conquest of Sydney. Unfortunately for them, a Protestant authority, always alert to what they knew in their hearts to be the seditious nature of the Irish, had noted the gatherings of Gaelic whispering. King had his redcoats march forth with similar resolve. Johnston and his deluded entourage were swiftly cut down. The leaders were hanged. Severe floggings or exile to one of the Colony’s penal settlements were the rewards for others in this episode of madness. The harsh reprisals doused the panic-stricken Protestant population’s alarm but left them convinced the Irish were a barbarous lot, infatuated with nauseating superstition.

One cannot help feeling sorry for Fr James Dixon. King had sent Dixon to reason with the rebels, but the priest failed to prick the bubble of their military fantasy. Some were convinced that he must have been a player in the rebellion. Others thought his ministry at least gave occasion for planning sedition. King terminated his position, and any idea of entertaining a Catholic ministry to the Catholic population was abandoned for many years. For the more frightened and indignant in the Colony, the only sound solution to the Catholic menace was to institute an educational system that would excise the Catholic cancer for good. Reverend Samuel Marsden represented this hardline view (the third type of Protestant).

Reverend Samuel Marsden arrived in Sydney in March 1794 as the assistant to Rev. Richard Johnson. Marsden was of the extreme Evangelical strain of English Protestantism, believing that Biblical faith, personal conversion, and righteous action were the Christian life’s key features. He took his place in the exclusive class’s front rank. His ranking was due to his Christian ministry, his success as a farmer, and his development of the Colony’s wool industry. He played a crucial role in these secular endeavours, though outshone by John Macarthur.

With Johnson’s return to England, he took on the role of the Colony’s senior chaplain. As with many clerics, he was appointed a magistrate, his jurisdiction being Parramatta. As a strict evangelical, he had an unshakeable conviction that the prime method of dealing with sin and social iniquity was the unhesitating application of discipline. In his close evangelical reading of the Scriptures, he skipped over Christ’s examples of compassion and forgiveness. He became notorious for the extreme severity of the punishment he handed out to convict miscreants. Before everything else in his unyielding religious vision, he harboured a hatred for all things Catholic, and he embarked on an unceasing war against that barbarous sect. When King permitted Fr Dixon’s restricted ministry, Marsden rose and declared it a victory for Satan.

Like Governor King, Marsden saw in the failed Castle Hill rebellion confirmation of the Irish people’s rebelliousness. Unlike King, though, he thought it confirmed more than their natural propensity to rebellion; the rebellion was a manifestation of the malignancy of their devilish faith. Marsden kept up his public warnings about the Catholic menace. In 1807, he predicted, ‘it is more than probable that if the Catholic religion was once allowed to be celebrated by authority, that the Colony would be lost to the British Empire in less than one year.’

The Irish, he said, were of the lowest class, great in number, ‘wild, ignorant and savage … men that have been familiar with Robberies, Murders and every horrid crime from their infancy.’ They were ‘destitute of every principle of religion and morality … governed entirely by the impulse of passion, and always alive to rebellion.’ The ‘natural ferocity’ of the Irish could not fail to influence their fellow convicts, inciting them to rebellion. The Mass would be an occasion for Catholics to get together to plan the sedition of the Colony. Marsden’s views making little distinction between Catholic and Irish, would dominate in the Colony until Macquarie’s arrival in 1819. They would persist in Australian society well into the 21st century – indeed, until today.

Was there any basis at all for Marsden’s views about the barbarism of the Irish? There was, but it could hardly be called a full justification of his overwrought bigotry. For a start, a small percentage of the Irish convicts were transported for their part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and all before 1803. One can suppose it reasonable for the people of the Colony to think they had not lost their motivations. Marsden, and those sharing his views, conveniently overlooked the small percentage and extended a Jacobin revolutionary fervour to all Irish convicts. They blinded themselves to the effects of the Penal Laws. It should be no surprise that people beaten and crushed would end up rebelling. Many would resort to crime to survive. The greater part of the Irish was convicted for stealing cattle and sheep. Among those, it is true, were vicious, depraved criminals who resisted all forms of correction. Again, Marsden and his followers extended the colour of the worst of the criminals to all Irish transportees. It helped Marsden’s inexhaustible propaganda that the Irish were well represented among those swinging for murder or put away for other crimes of violence in the Colony.

Authors O’Farrell and Campion paint a bleak picture of the Irish population in those early years. O’Farrell’s account is bleaker than Campion’s. The cherished view entertained by many Catholics, especially by members of the Australian clergy (at least until the 1950s), has been that pious Irish Catholics were the innocent victims of anti-Catholic bigotry for clinging to their faith. The picture is false in some respects and to be qualified in others. It is true, as I have related, that Marsden’s bigoted views held sway for many years. As in the case of Governor King, it is also true that the Protestant colonial authorities acknowledged the needs and desires of the Catholic population and took steps to improve their circumstances. Some governors did more than others. What was false, Campion and O’Farrell insist, is the picture of the Catholics as a uniformly pious innocent group downtrodden for their faith.

O’Farrell writes that Irish Catholicism was one ‘of poverty and peasantry, violent, crude and ignorant, with a priesthood sharing its passions and prejudices.’ Many Irish convicts only spoke Gaelic. He paints a convincing picture of the Colony’s Catholics generally wandering in an irreligious wilderness, neglecting their religion, and given to crime and, if not crime, to material pursuits. If this picture reflects reality, it is a wonder Catholicism not only survived but struck thick deep roots, as O’Farrell goes on to relate.

Edmund Campion, in my view, gives a more balanced picture of the Catholic Church’s development in Australia – at least as I know the Church through my experience and reading. ‘Irish Catholicism’, he says, ‘was a bewildering mixture of formal Catholicism, debased Catholic practices, family piety, superstition, magic, and Celtic mythology.’ Yet, despite these qualities and the habitual crime, Catholic belief was tenacious. Where O’Farrell gives examples of crime and religious neglect among Irish Catholics, Campion provides many examples of how the faith carried on in private, individually and in groups. He gives examples of convicts maintaining religious observances in all manner of circumstances and of groups coming together to share and pray their faith.

Marsden’s views set the attitude towards Catholics, and Protestant evangelism trumpeted the moral tone. The Catholics ignored them. They retreated into their faith, resisting any effort to force them to conform. Marsden’s plan of monopolizing the education of the young and banning Catholic services to destroy Catholicism would never work. Catholics would prefer their children illiterate rather than put them in danger of apostasy. While a minority married in an Anglican ceremony but ignored Anglicanism thereafter, most Catholics cohabited rather than subject themselves to heretical services.

Although cohabiting gave the evangelical elite the impression of sinful living, stability among emancipist Catholic families grew. The Catholics’ unshakeable faith and their memory of the cruel repression in Ireland created a gap between the Protestant elite and the Irish Catholics wider than between the jailer and the jailed in the Colony. The gap was a chasm of distrust, incomprehension, and antagonism, if not hatred, on both sides. The chasm would endure unchanged until Macquarie’s governorship. The unannounced and illegal arrival of a maverick Irish priest would precipitate change.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie thought priests were troublemakers, but he was open to a priest’s appointment of suitable character and properly appointed. Such a priest, he said, ‘possessed of talents’ would be of ‘great utility.’ He told Lord Bathurst, the Colonial Secretary, that ‘if it should at any time be advisable to sanction the Ministry of popish priests in New South Wales, I would beg to suggest that they should be Englishmen of liberal education and sound constitutional principles.’ Again, Macquarie’s concerns were administrative, not religious. Lord Bathurst, by this time, was also sympathetic to the appointment of Catholic clergy. Enter Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn.

Fr O’Flynn was semi-literate in English, possessed deficient theological knowledge, and was impulsive and heedless of the manners required for official converse. Despite this, by pulling strings and shrewdly manoeuvring among Church authorities in Rome and London, supporters for a priest in the Colony brought about his appointment as ‘Prefect-Apostolic of New Holland.’ With this appointment in hand, O’Flynn approached Lord Bathurst for permission to serve the Colony’s Catholics. Bathurst was quick to see that Fr O’Flynn was not the sort of priest of character and education he had in mind and certainly not one he should inflict upon the Macquarie administration. He refused permission. Unperturbed, O’Flynn set sail and arrived in Sydney in November 1817. Macquarie, bemused by his unexpected arrival but taking notice of his weighty title, allowed him to exercise a private ministry until the Home Office clarified the situation.

With all the zeal in a priest dedicated to bringing souls home to Christ, the Redeemer, O’Flynn went into full ministry mode, baptizing, marrying, saying Masses, and so on. He seemed to think the fire of his missionary zeal made up for tricky dealing, telling tales, and flagrantly disobeying Macquarie’s instructions. In the long run, Macquarie saw O’Flynn was ‘disseminating principles of resistance to the general orders of the Colony.’ He ordered the priest to leave. O’Flynn went to ground, protected by supporters. It was a pitiful struggle that O’Flynn would not win. Macquarie had him escorted under arrest onto a ship that departed in May 1818, just six months after his arrival.

It was a sign of the intractable conflict and lack of understanding between the growing Catholic population and the Protestant elite that Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn became a legend. The legend was of a dedicated priest merely pursuing his sacred vocation who became a victim of British anti-Catholic bigotry. There were many appeals, even from some Protestants, to allow O’Flynn to carry out his ministry. Knowing as we do now of Macquarie’s efforts to treat the Catholic population with fairness despite his aversion to Catholicism, we can understand if he felt like tearing his hair out. But the O’Flynn fiasco had a positive result, which Catholic authorities later called providential. The administration developed a more ‘liberal and tolerant’ attitude towards Catholics. The authorities recognized the need for Catholic clergy, even if it was just a tool to keep them in check.

The upshot was the official appointment of two Catholic priests to the Colony. Frs Philip Conolly and John Joseph Therry, on £100 per year, arrived on 3 May 1820. Campion names this date as the formal beginning of the Catholic Church in Australia. There were now six to seven thousand Catholics in the Colony. A meeting followed that included Governor Macquarie, some sympathetic Protestants, and the two priests. It was an amicable meeting during which Macquarie laid out the conditions for the priests’ ministry. They were to follow Church of England administrative procedures; minister only to Catholics – no weddings of Protestants or Catholics and Protestants; no interference in the education of orphans; no proselytizing; no incitement of political resistance.

The priests expressed ‘confidence in and gratitude to’ Macquarie for the Protestant support. A subscription for a Catholic chapel was begun. Protestant J.T. Campbell was appointed treasurer and remained so for many years. Macquarie offered to contribute pound-for-pound to the chapel’s building. In 1821, he laid the foundation stone, saying he hoped that the government’s supply of priests ‘will be the means of strengthening and augmenting (if that be possible) the attachment of the Catholics of New South Wales to the British Government, and will prove an inducement to them to continue, as I have ever found them to be, loyal and faithful subjects to the crown.’

Within the context of his administrative obligations, Macquarie had come a long way to regularize the Catholic community’s place in the Colony. Indeed, he could hardly have done more without alarming the Protestant community and his masters in London. Marsden and his ilk were already flapping their arms around because of his dangerous toleration of Catholics and his association with the low emancipist class. They were keeping a close eye on him. They had a mouthful for Commissioner Bigge when he was compiling his evidence against Macquarie. It was a delicate line Macquarie had to negotiate between the fiery bigotry of Marsden and the readiness of Catholics to cry persecution.

O’Farrell makes the point that if Macquarie could be accused of anti-Catholic bigotry, as the more sensitive of the Catholics claimed, then it was institutional bigotry that constrained him. It was not only the general English prejudice against the Catholics, with its roots in the Reformation, that influenced Macquarie’s administration. Macquarie and the governors that came before and after him would have been conscious of critical events in British history, some of which were in living memory. They were about the management of the Empire. No one with any education in Britain would have been ignorant of Edmund Burke’s great speeches on the conflict with the American colonies. George III and his administration were heedless of his warnings. A great part of the Empire was lost with American independence.

Although Burke bored the British public to death over the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Governor of Bengal, the message about the abuse of arbitrary power in India as it related to the affairs of empire was not lost on many. Then there was the convulsion of the French Revolution and the threat of Jacobinism spreading to Britain. The spectre of Napoleonic wars still hung over the Empire. These would have all played on the minds of those responsible for the proper and efficient management of the British dominions. No governor assigned to the Colony of New South Wales would have wanted to be guilty of harming the Empire through his mismanagement. Macquarie and his fellow governors had to act with great prudence.

O’Farrell also makes the valid point that relations between the Protestant elite and Catholics would have been smoother and produced better results if the Catholics had more appreciation of the willingness of Macquarie and succeeding governors to improve their circumstances and meet their needs. The Catholics were too ready to cry foul when the administration did not meet their wishes. The misunderstandings and lack of appreciation of the other between Protestants and Catholics presented another obstacle.

Protestants were blind to … the intensity and otherworldliness of the Irish faith, its charm, nobility, humanity, and its astonishing perseverance. And Irish Catholics, in their rejection of Protestant England, rejected too its cultivation of refinement, learning, urbanity, the arts and pleasures of a liberal civilization – rejected, and at the same time coveted.

Still, Catholics were more or less second-class citizens. There had been significant gains for them under Macquarie, but it could never be enough in a society where the principles of liberalism and toleration were implicit. The struggle would continue. Fr John Therry would take that struggle forward. Therry was a heroic figure – a sort of a Lone Ranger in a cassock – who dominated Catholic life in the Colony until 1833, exciting love and hatred, appreciation, and condemnation. I will have more to say about Therry in the next chapter.

This account of religion’s place in the Colony of New South Wales has been summary and selective, lacking the nuances of the clash between Protestant and Catholic. There were, of course, individual cases of genuine willingness of Catholics and Protestants to get along for the good of the community. There were cases of wealthy Protestants helping Catholics to build their churches, for example. The summary, however, has enlarged the social and political environment in which my ancestors arrived from the old country. Most of those ancestors were Protestant. That leaves the curious question of why and how the Wilson family ended up Catholic – with a degree of popery that would have had Marsden and friends running to the governor in disgust and dismay.


Chapter 3

Arriving in Sydney Cove

THERE WOULD be few families without some ancestral legend to divert them when the living room conversation began to flag. Our family was no exception. Although I cannot recall any sustained chatter about the family’s background – just remarks here and there about country towns – there was one Wilson story I heard my father tell. He would launch into a proud retelling of that story, often with no discernible reason, at least as far as I could see. It had to do with the first explorations out of the infant colony, spreading around Sydney Harbour. For us in primary school in the 1950s, the prelude to Australia’s beginning was the arrival of Lieutenant Cook’s royal navy research bark, HMS Endeavour, in Botany Bay in 1770. The beginning came eighteen years later, with the First Fleet anchoring under Captain Arthur Phillip’s command in Sydney Cove in 1788, his rowing ashore and planting the Union Jack. The expeditions of the early explorers in and around the unknown continent followed that seminal act of establishing a new nation.

Urged by Governor Macquarie, one of the vital expeditions was the first crossing of the Great Dividing Range in 1813 to open the interior for the growing settlement. From the Colony’s early days, the Great Dividing Range, around fifty miles west of Sydney, was called the Blue Mountains because of its blue eucalyptus haze. As a result, our teachers called that expedition ‘the first expedition to cross the Blue Mountains.’ Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson, and William Charles Wentworth led that ground-breaking trek. The same Wentworth was the leading emancipist and co-owner of the Australian mentioned in chapter two. And this is where my father’s story makes its appearance.

At one of their rest points, as the official story goes, the explorers carved their initials into the trunk of a tree: ‘WB’ with ‘L’ underneath. That tree became known as Explorer’s Tree. The local authorities fenced it off to ensure due honour to the explorers who first breached the Great Dividing Range. Later, they lopped off the top, leaving a stump in a fenced-off area on the side of the highway in present-day Katoomba. It became a national symbol. But people will be perverse; the story’s authenticity was put in doubt, coming under sustained attack in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1905.

It does not matter to my story that its basis might be apocryphal. I will leave that to others to decide. My father’s family claimed that the ‘W’ in the WB and L stands for Wilson, not Wentworth. It was an example of nature’s indifferent justice, erasing the glorious role of one of history’s small people. Dad said he was the ‘expedition’s fire boy.’ How did he know it was lowly James Joseph Wilson standing shoulder to shoulder with those of an illustrious class carving their initials into that tree? Well, it was an unchallengeable fact, wasn’t it, that Wentworth did not join the expedition until later?

Dad did not have an explanation for Wentworth’s late arrival ‘further on’ or for a humble fire boy’s presumption in putting himself on the same level as Blaxland, and Lawson, foremost figures in colonial society. We did not think to raise those crucial questions. We kids never for one moment entertained any doubt about family history told with such an air of confidence. To be fair to Dad, I learned later that he was merely repeating a story an older romantic family member had been most active in propagating. That guilty member was unmarried Granduncle Leo, Dad’s father’s brother and a colourful character in his own right.

With much pride, I retold the story to friends and teachers, never doubting it until one occasion when Dad was enthusiastically repeating it to Brother Milsom, my sixth-grade teacher and coach of the Prep Firsts football team. I was a member of the Prep Firsts, St Pius X Chatswood primary school’s top rugby team. The occasion was a football match. Our matches always took place on a Saturday morning. Dad used to ferry half the team around the city in our Holden station wagon to the playing grounds. Brother Milsom was a strait-laced, sober man who was strict but not unfair. He politely nodded while Dad told his story, saying when Dad had finished, ‘Is that so, Mr Wilson?’ I noticed Dad’s lips form limply into a rather silly smile. I was astonished to see that there may have been a crack in what I always considered a rock-solid story with rock-solid evidence. After all, it was my dad telling it, and my dad knew everything.

As the years passed, and though admiration for my father never wavered, even when I found he did not know everything, the story became increasingly implausible. Despite that, I still harboured a secret hope right into advanced adulthood that even a little of the story might have had some foundation. Alas, it was not to be. It was my father who destroyed that hope while researching the family tree in the 1980s. He discovered the first Wilson ancestor in Australia did not come in 1813 or earlier. He did not arrive until 1827. What was more interesting, he arrived in Sydney Harbour, staring at the ancient rocky cliffs and pristine inlets from the prison hold of the convict ship Prince Regent. James Joseph Wilson was eighteen. He was born in the centre of Dickensian London in 1808. He could thank his lucky stars he was in the prison hold of that convict ship, staring into a future he could not have imagined and not dangling from a rope to the cheers of the ogling, swarming crowds outside Newgate prison.

James Joseph Wilson had been tried at London’s famous Old Bailey in January 1827 and convicted of burglary. It was not his first offence (there were at least two others), which might have been the reason for the harsh death sentence. But labour was needed in the Colony, and like many others sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to transportation for life. A few months later, on 18 April 1827, James Joseph found himself on board the prison hulk Retribution moored on the Thames at Woolwich. Two months later, on 8 June 1827, he was herded onto the Prince Regent with other convicts. Ahead of him was a long, dangerous trip to the other side of the world—and a future, as I say, he could not have imagined. It was 27 September 1827 when James Joseph and his convict colleagues were staring at the Arcadian surrounds of Sydney Harbour.

With the knowledge of James Joseph’s circumstances, we can speculate with reasonable accuracy about how he and his fellow convicts must have felt sailing into Sydney Harbour. Wonder at the physical surroundings and relief that they were at the end of a long, dangerous voyage would be understandable. But we can do more than speculate. It is fortuitous that Major Thomas Mitchell was on the same ship carrying eighteen-year-old James Joseph, his fellow convicts (180 of them), crew, and soldiers. Thomas Mitchell would become an acclaimed explorer and the Surveyor-General of the Colony. He was to acquire a reputation, not all of it favourable. Sir Thomas, as he was to be known, kept a diary of the hazardous trip out to New South Wales, some of which is in a barely legible scrawl. The entries are short, but to us, nearly two centuries later, they make intriguing reading about the journey so many undertook to the other side of the world to take part in building a new nation.

Mitchell speaks of the passage from bone-numbing cold to stifling heat and then back to cold, through tempestuous weather to dead calm and finally whisked by the trade winds into the dragging westerly currents below the Australian continent. He reported all each day with the latitude and longitude coordinates. Onboard was a range of activities that included the ‘flogging’ of two convicts for ‘disobeying orders’, and a convict falling overboard but rescued. On 27 August, a soldier fell overboard in bad weather but was lost. Then, on 19 September, after days of buffeting by gale winds and stormy seas, Mitchell writes with excitement: ‘At half-past ten, I was the first to see King’s Island.’ As it is known today, King Island is about halfway between the northwestern tip of Tasmania and the Victorian coast. The next day (20th), he writes: ‘Close inshore early in the morning. Vessel nearly ashore on King’s Island …’ It would not be the last time the Wilson line almost came to grief on the high seas.

A mood of expectation prevails in the short entries as the Prince Regent turns up Australia’s east coast after passing through Bass Strait. On 23 September, there is a jubilant, ‘First saw Australia’ while off Cape Howe, near what was to be Victoria and New South Wales’s border. The seas turn ‘calm,’ and the weather is ‘clear and warm.’ On the 25th: ‘Fine breeze at noon sprung up at last.’ They pass Montague Island, about six miles off the New South Wales coast and a little below present-day Narooma. The next day there was hardly a breath of wind. But then he follows with this revealing comment: ‘A breeze sprung up at 4 and we made all sails for Sydney. Much singing among the crew, soldiers, and convicts’. And on 27 September:

At 2 am made Sydney Lighthouse—entered the Heads at 9 am—anchored to wait for the sea breeze, which got up at 1 pm and we anchored in Sydney Harbour about half past 2. Went on shore and looked at the town …

These are revealing comments. Mitchell unwittingly writes with a feeling of solidarity with his fellow passengers. Despite the single case of convict flogging, there is clearly a feeling that everyone, convicts included, is together for the voyage’s purpose. Particularly revealing is the communal singing of the crew, soldiers, and convicts. There is even a hint that Mitchell himself, as a representative of the ship’s elite, was in unison with the singing of songs and sea shanties everyone knew. There is cultural solidarity. The communal singing and cultural solidarity were one of many indications I came across in my research that convicts were not regarded as animals and were treated with unrelenting brutality, as our teachers taught us.

After Mitchell writes that he went ashore to look at the town, he frustrates the reader’s eager expectation that he will tell us something about Sydney Town in 1827. He does no such thing. Instead, he tells us he presented his credentials to the Chief Justice and was taken to Governor Ralph Darling, who kindly received him. He visited John Oxley, explorer and Surveyor-General of the Colony, who also greeted him kindly, and whose assistant he was to be. His other concerns were landing his luggage safely onshore and searching for a house he eventually finds in Pitt Street for £100 per annum. Mitchell shows himself peculiarly insensitive to the curiosity of those of his posterity who may try to read his scrawl. Fortunately, others with keen observation wrote about their impressions of Sydney Town around the same time Mitchell and fellow passenger James Joseph Wilson came ashore from the Prince Regent.

One of those writers, calling himself ‘An Emigrant Mechanic,’ did his best to remain anonymous for reasons unknown. Rigorously guarding his identity by leaving out revealing names and dates, he wrote an absorbing account of life in the early years of New South Wales: Settlers and Convicts: Recollections of Sixteen Year’s Labour in the Australian Backwoods. The first edition appeared in 1847. Although the author remained a mystery until the 1950s, it is now accepted he was Alexander Harris, a soldier and teacher who lived and worked in New South Wales between 1825 and 1841. His book, considered part fictional and part autobiographical, gives a faithful account of life in the early Colony.

Harris begins his story as his ship is about to enter Sydney Heads ‘early summer’ (probably December) in what historians agree is 1825, the year of Harris’s actual arrival in Port Jackson on the Medina. It is less than forty years since Captain Arthur Phillip arrived with the First Fleet. The following passages are from the first chapter, where he describes entering the harbour, sailing along Port Jackson’s shores, sighting Sydney Town, and going ashore in Sydney Cove. The town he describes is a fully functioning society with lively commerce. It is an impressive achievement, given that the settlement began from scratch with people, supplies, and building materials from the other side of the world. This is the scene convict James Joseph Wilson gazed at from the Prince Regent’s prison hold in 1827. I am looking through the eyes of my great-great-grandfather.

The long, the precipitous mountain-like wall of the rocky coast of New South Wales,’ Harris writes in a poetic style, ‘is broken by a gigantic chasm; the crags on the south side are called the South Head, those on the north, the North Head. Passing between the two, the voyager finds himself navigating a capacious arm of the sea, with both the banks picturesque as fairy land. Here points bare, grey, and bolder heaped jut out into the stream; and there the waters retire back into deep bays, mazing off among shores clad with evergreens and winding away into far-off tortuous channels, that to the mariner’s glass yield back nothing but a tale of thwart-currents and impenetrable shadows.

Piloted dexterously up the main inlet, passing the Sow and Pigs (a larger and some smaller sunken rocks dangerously scattered in the channel), and sailing on past Garden and Pinchgut islands (two small scrub-clad piles of hoary stones, each standing solitary amidst the whistling winds of the Stream), you come, after several miles, to the town of Sydney. The mainstream goes onward, forming the Parramatta, and, in a minor branch, the Lane Cove rivers: over a great ridge-backed promontory, that stands out in no easily describable shape among the irregular waters on the left, is scattered the town of Sydney; adjacent to which in the broad waters of the harbor is Goat Island, an insulated rock famous in the records of convict discipline.

This is a vivid and accurate description for someone like me who grew up in Sydney. I have stood against the Manly Ferry’s rails, the ferry that takes the commuter from Manly Wharf to Circular Quay, and felt the same wonder and regard for Sydney Harbour. On my first reading of this passage, I experienced a thrill at the Lane Cove River’s mention. The Lane Cove River was a scene of my childhood and within walking distance of our house in Barwon Road, Lane Cove. My brother Michael and I often fished there. Once, while we were standing on the river’s bank, our lines in the water, a shark cruised by within casting distance of our rods. Michael wound his line in and cast out, the sinker landing close to the shark. The shark, calculated to be at least twelve feet long, lazily dove in response to the plop of the sinker. Was Harris lucky enough to catch sight of one of those monsters cruising the harbour? On this occasion, he might have been too preoccupied because he continues with a detailed description of the settlement that comes into view as the ship approaches Sydney Cove.

On getting sight of Sydney, you see a waterside town scattered wide over upland and lowland, and if it be a breezy day the merry rattling pace of its manifold windmills, here and there perched on the high points, is no unpleasing sight. It gives, even from the distance, a presage of the stirring, downright earnest life (be it for good or evil) that so strongly characterises the race that lives, and breathes, and strives around: a race with whom it is one of the worst reproaches to be a crawler.

Looking a little more narrowly at the town, you observe that it has several very large piles of building; the most of these, as may be supposed, are offices erected by the Government with the profusion of convict labor which it has had at its command, and with no stint of an excellent free working sandstone, which breaks up in masses through the ground in every quarter of Sydney, and on every shore of the hill-bound bays of the adjacent country. Toward the extremity of the promontory on which Sydney is built, the ground is very steep and lofty in the middle; and this, together with a concurrent tendency in the flats presented in places by the freestone strata, has led to ranging the houses in this part of the town in a series of terraces rather than streets. Anchoring just under the south side of this acclivity, off the King’s Wharf, you observe most of the rows of houses looking down upon you from above one another’s roofs. A moderately wide street is left in front of each row, but so full of shelves and jump-ups as to be of little use except to foot-passengers; and even to require for their accommodation, in many places, sets of steps cut in the rock or laid more regularly by the mason. It was just as twilight darkened into the night of an evening in early summer of the year 18 … that the good ship … in which I had made my passage from London, dropped anchor in the very spot I have indicated, a few fathoms offshore abreast of the King’s Wharf …

After dark has fallen, Harris goes ashore with the ship’s unnamed second mate ‘for a stroll down the town.’ He continues: ‘At this period, Sydney was but ill-lighted: only a few lamps were scattered throughout the whole length of George Street (the main thoroughfare), which, from the King’s Wharf to the end of the houses at the foot of the Brickfield Hill [near present-day Haymarket], can scarcely be less than a mile and three-quarters.’

As we walked down George Street, we found Sydney, according to custom during the first hour of a summer’s night, all alive, enjoying the cool air. The street was clear of vehicles, and parties of the inhabitants, escaped from desk and shop, were passing briskly to and fro, in full merriment and converse. At the main barrack-gate, the drums and fifes of the garrison were sounding out the last notes of the tattoo. In Sydney, the barracks occupy a noble sweep of ground in the very center of the town …

Leaving the long line of barrack-wall behind us, we at length reached the market-place. The fine building that now occupies the spot under the same name, was then not even in projected existence; but the settlers drove their drays into the open area amidst the old shed-like stalls that here and there stood for the occupation of dealers; and the whole was surrounded by the remains of a three-rail fence. As we wandered through the rows of drays and carts, I could not but remark a striking difference between them and the contents of the carts of any general market for the produce of the land at home [England].

There was no hay, but its place was abundantly supplied by bundles of green grass, much of it almost as coarse as reeds, and evidently produced by a very wet, rank soil. In other carts, we found loads of such vegetables as the country and the season yielded; some of these, we were given to understand, were grown in the Curryjong Mountains, no less a distance from Sydney than forty miles. In several carts, we found sacks of last year’s maise; and in a very few, some sacks of last year’s wheat. Two drays only were loaded with new wheat, and these, we were told, were the property of rich settlers. It was very much the custom of the poorer settlers at this time, and indeed is so still, to sell all or the greater part of the wheat they grow, and live upon their Indian corn …

After wandering around the market, the emigrant mechanic and his companion enter one of the many licensed (or unlicensed) ‘public houses’ in Sydney Town for a drink. He describes the people he sees in the taproom: ‘we found a strange assemblage; and stranger still were their dialect and their notions. Most had been convicts: there were a good many Englishmen and Irishmen, an odd Scotchman, and several foreigners, besides some youngish men, natives of the Colony. Amongst them was present here and there a woman, apparently the wife of a settler. The few women were all sober and quiet, but many of the men were either quite intoxicated or much elevated by liquor.’

The chief conversation consisted of vaunts of the goodness of their bullocks, the productiveness of their farms, or the quantity of work they could perform. Almost everybody was drinking rum in drams, or very slightly qualified with water; nor were they niggard of it, for we had several invitations from those around us to drink. I could not, however, even at this early period of my acquaintance with this class of people, help observing one remarkable peculiarity common to them all – there was no offensive intrusiveness about their civility; every man seemed to consider himself just on a level with all the rest, and so quite content either to be sociable or not, as the circumstance of the moment indicated as most proper…

When Major Mitchell came ashore two years later to look around, he probably traced the same course along George Street. It is unlikely, though, he entered the sort of tavern Harris lingered in. His social visits and recreation would be in a more elevated sphere. His stroll along George Street would have taken him past traders such as S. Lyons, who offered his colonial clientele ‘Gentlemen’s London made boots and shoes,’ diverse stationery, furniture, clothes, and hardware items. There was C. Wilson at 21 George Street, offering glasses, counterpanes, clothing, and ‘the usual assortment of shop goods.’ T. Ferris had just received from the ships Lion and Harvey ‘a range of groceries.’ As he continued his explorative stroll into Pitt Street, where he and his family would live, he could have seen the business of J. Melville at 31. Mr J Melville offered a broad range of clothing for the fashion-conscious—no doubt of interest to the wife of the future Surveyor-General. Then at 104 Pitt Street, he could have acquainted himself with Mahoney’s ‘newly-established wine stores and drapery warehouse.’

Like all his competitors, Mahoney respectfully ‘begged leave’ to make the public and his friends aware of this new commercial venture from which they could profit handsomely. Around the corner into King Street, he would have found Smith and Horton, Waterloo Fruiterers. They were also begging leave ‘to inform their Friends and the Public, that they always have on hand every description of Fruits in their Season, of unexceptionable qualities, which they offer upon the most reasonable terms. Shipping supplied with Fruit and Poultry on the shortest notice.’

Further on into York Street, Thomas Spicer was right in there with the competition. He humbly begged leave ‘to inform his Friends and the Public, that His Excellency the Governor has been pleased to grant him a License as Vendue Master, Auctioneer, and Appraiser, in and for the Town of Sydney, and begs to assure his Friends and the Public, that he will hold a Sale for goods every Week at his Residence, No. 13, York Street.’ Today’s Sydneysiders could trace Mitchell’s stroll in their minds because these streets are some of the major thoroughfares of modern Sydney’s Central Business District.

We know of this enthusiastic commercial activity because Spicer, Mahoney, Ferris, and businesses of all types were advertising their goods and services in that day’s edition of the Monitor. It is safe to assume Mitchell purchased the late ‘stop-press’ edition for 1/- (one shilling) during his stroll to see what was going on in the town besides what the merchants and traders were up to. He would leave those traders to his wife, who was undoubtedly concerned about where to commence her provisioning. In that rushed-out edition, he would have read announcements about stock, the law courts, politics at home and in the Colony, shipping arrivals and departures, property for sale, and agricultural matters. In a word, he would have perused announcements and news about all those subjects that drive a vibrant town and community. He and convict James Joseph were not arriving in a depressed community with no idea where it was going. On the contrary, having passed through Macquarie’s regime, the Colony was now far more than a nation in embryo.

Intriguing for me, who has had little interest in horses or horse racing, was a cluster of announcements of where thoroughbreds were ‘standing’ at ‘this season’ in the Colony. Chanter ‘who, for size, symmetry, and strength, stands unrivalled in the Colony.’ Perhaps a man of Major Mitchell’s standing and interests would have noticed that horses Hector, Young Model, Worthy, Defiance, and others were also ‘standing’ at different times and places. Generous terms of ‘two pounds sterling for the horse and ten shillings for the groom’ were given. These offerings were followed by an announcement that the Parramatta Races would ‘be held on the 3rd and 5th days of October ensuing to commence at half-past eleven o’clock in the mornings of each day, precisely being the days before and after the Parramatta Fair.’

The Sydney Turf Club would donate some prizes for the busy two-day program. The early establishment of the Sydney Turf Club was a sign of how quickly British culture was transported to Australia – and what parts of that culture were favoured. Horse breeding and racing in Britain were out of reach for the labouring classes. Not so in the growing Colony. If there were little interest in the horses on that day, the Monitor’s two-part announcement of the Prince Regent’s arrival bringing young Charles Joseph Wilson must have drawn the prickly major’s attention. But there was no thought of the rascally convict. Annoyingly, the editor had got the vital detail wrong.

This Afternoon, the Barque Prince Regent; Captain William Richards, from London 11 June and Teneriffe 2 July, with 180 male prisoners. Surgeon superintendent, W. Rae,  Esq. R. N. Passengers – Ensign  Darling, 57th.Regt. (Nephew of Lieut. Gen. Darling,). Lieut. Hughe, R. S. C. and Mr. P. Elliott, Assistant Surveyor. The Guard consists of Lieut. Campbell and 29 men of the 47th Regiment. At 4 o’clock another Ship was entering, name not known. The Prince Regent brings a Mail, which had not landed in time to enable us to extract from our London Papers …

5 o’clock p.m. We stop the Press to announce the arrival of the Ship Harmony, (since the arrival of the Prince Regent at 2,) Capt. Middleton, with 80 female prisoners. Sailed from London the 6 June. Passengers.—Colonel Morriset, lady and family, and Major Mitchell, Assistant Surveyor-General. It is reported that Norfolk Island is to be placed on the same footing as the other penal settlements. Both bring Mails, but they are not yet opened. On Monday, we shall lay before our Readers the latest Political intelligence. The Tory Aristocracy seems to mourn the King’s attachment to liberal principles …


WHATEVER the major’s annoyance, the sarcastic comment about the Tory Aristocracy and liberal principles would have signalled to Mitchell the political orientation of Edward Smith Hall, the Monitor’s editor and proprietor. Mitchell would soon discover, if he did not already know, that Hall was a fierce political warrior and one of a group of clever zealous young men determined to lead the Colony to self-government, a free press, and trial by jury. Hall was in close cooperation with Wentworth and Wardell, owners of the Australian, and Robert Howe, editor of the Sydney Gazette. As an indication of where the Monitor stood politically, the sarcasm is supported by a lengthy report taking up a full page and a column under the heading: ENGLISH POLITICS.

The headline of the challenging piece is: ‘Address of the Friends of Civil and Religious Liberty residing in the city of Augusta in the State of Georgia, America—To the Catholic Association of Ireland.’ Hall obviously thought the people of the Colony (particularly the Catholics) should know what the people in Augusta thought about civil and religious liberty. There was nothing mealy-mouthed about the Georgia friends of the Irish Catholics. The piece is unrelenting and full-throat in condemning the ‘Orange oppressors’ of the Catholic population in Ireland, uttering many of the accusations levelled by British supporters of Irish relief in the British parliament – and by the Colony’s Catholics at the Protestant elite.

It seems daring of the Monitor’s editor to reproduce such a virulent piece in a place where the Protestant Ascendancy was just that—ascendant on the wings of Marsden and company. Apparently, without too much concern, Hall would have realised that he risked being branded a Catholic sympathiser – a career-damaging charge in the home country if sustained. An unabashed notice encouraging contributions to the ‘Catholic Chapel’ would have put him in more sectarian peril.

THE NOMINAL LIST OF SUBSCRIBERS to the Catholic Chapel, Sydney, will be published in the Course of the ensuing Month; in the Interim, John Thomas Campbell, Esq. J. P. Treasurer, Edward Wollstoncraft, Esq. J. P. G. Bunn, Esq. J. F. and Edmund Burke, Esq. will have the kindness to receive any subscriptions that may be offered in aid of that very useful Work. His Excellency the Governor and the Honorable Mr. A. McLeay [the Colonial Secretary and close confidante of the Governor] have already honored the list with their names.
Chapel house, Hyde Park, 18 September 1827

It is noteworthy that Governor Darling contributed to the establishment of a Catholic building for the performance of Catholic ritual and thus of the Catholic Church in Australia. Governor Ralph Darling by his office – and cast of mind – was the supreme head of the Ascendancy in the Colony and already had a reputation as a ruthless puritanical tyrant – of the Protestant sort. Darling expressed disgust for the Catholic religion in official communication with his masters in the home country. He had told Lord Bathurst in 1826 that he wanted no more popish priests in the Colony. ‘The good they might effect through the medium of education,’ he wrote, ‘is counteracted by the subjugation of mind, in which those under their influence are kept.’

After Macquarie’s (alleged) laxity with Catholics, there had been a hardening in officialdom towards Catholics. Why, then, did Darling contribute? And then allow editor Hall to give his contribution the appearance of approving of a ‘sect’ many of his class saw as enslaved to a pernicious superstition? Given the growing conflict between the young emancipist leaders and Darling with his hardline military-style governorship, it might have been an insincere act of appeasing diplomacy. He had already exercised caution with Fr Therry for the sake of the Colony’s peace and order.

From Darling’s arrival in December 1825, Wentworth and his friends had been harrying the governor over his autocratic style. In 1827, before Mitchell’s arrival, Darling had played into their hands by brutally punishing two soldiers who attempted to bring about their discharge by wounding themselves. They were to be an example to others contemplating this standard manner of escaping from the military. Darling’s unnecessary severity allowed the Australian, Gazette, and Monitor to accuse him of being a cruel, oppressive despot in the most intemperate language. If Darling’s contribution to the chapel fund was an attempt to appease enemies like Wentworth, Hall, and Wardell, it would be in vain.

To return to Hall’s apparent sympathy for Catholics and its purpose, a third report from London under the title ‘Clerical Intolerance’ describes a Church of England curate’s maltreatment of a ‘poor Catholic.’ The poor Catholic had infuriated the curate by making the sign of the cross at a funeral. With his religious sensibilities deeply wounded, the curate had the poor Catholic thrown into the nearby watchhouse ‘where he was confined throughout the whole of one of the cold and frosty nights!’ The curate’s appalled parishioners had him released.

The colonial reader could not have missed the point of this account of an Establishment cleric’s bigoted behaviour. Hall’s outspoken support for Catholics was politically motivated – and aimed at Darling. It had to do with his uncompromising defence of liberty in general and, in this case, religious liberty. In the following edition of the Monitor (1 October), Hall stated his position with an aggressive lucidity that could not be mistaken. ‘In advocating the cause of liberty in the most extensive sense of the word, for the professors of all religions whatever,’ he wrote, ‘we proceed on a principle which leaves entirely out of consideration the merits or demerits of the particular religious systems.’ He then spoke disparagingly about Catholic devotional customs to clarify his position, and to dispel any impression that he had a particular sympathy for the Catholic religion.

Hall’s entrenched stand on political liberty, of which religious liberty was an expression, was intended to challenge Governor Darling. But, as Darling had amply demonstrated by September 1827, he entertained other ideas about the kind of liberty he would permit the Colony’s citizens to enjoy. A strong government uncompromising on civic and religious duty and the rule of law was necessary for a community where unruliness threatened to break out at any moment. Discipline and order were indispensable for the political, financial, and civil service reforms he wanted to push through. Hall and his like-minded emancipist friends wanted an increasing measure of civil liberty and self-government for the Colony.

The more Hall pursued his cause in his newspaper, the more he came into official conflict with Darling. The more Hall hit the mark in his attack on the governor’s administration, the more autocratic Darling became. The people of the Colony took sides. Darling had support. Many of the Colony’s senior administrative staff stood behind him. Whatever Hall and his mates could say about the governor’s poor understanding of liberty, Darling was getting things done. He was pushing through needed reforms and building projects. It seems Darling was the type of able administrator who saw what reforms were imperative and how they could be achieved but had a poor understanding of human nature and how societies form.

He made a fatal mistake in attempting to restrict press freedom in a lively community with growing confidence and optimism. The attempt caused an uproar. It was just what Hall, Hayes, Wardell, and Wentworth wanted. Darling had Hall jailed several times for libel, but Hall continued his crusade from jail, together with A.E. Hayes of the Australian, who had joined him in the meantime. Lawyer Wentworth’s intemperate language in defending his jailed mates knew few bounds. General agitation for Darling’s recall grew. It became irresistible, helped along by Darling’s perverse insistence on shooting himself in the foot by his misjudgment of people and the Colony’s particular needs and aspirations. Hall saw Darling off and had the pleasure of announcing his recall in the Monitor on 1 October 1831, six years after the governor’s arrival. Wentworth threw a party at his Vaucluse Villa ‘for all respectable visitants,’ with food and grog laid on – and two huge bonfires as a symbol of their burning democratic ardour.

Some accounts of Darling’s governorship describe Darling as a ‘conservative’ and present the conflict between him and the young emancipists as a contest between conservative and liberal outlooks. Now Darling may have been conservative in a general sense of the word, but he was not conservative in a Burkean sense, the important sense in political terms. Anyone acquainted with Edmund Burke’s thought (as was lawyer William C Wentworth) would see a parallel between Darling’s autocratic and often arbitrary rule and George III’s abuse of Crown power around forty years before Darling’s colonial administration.

As the Crown stepped beyond the power and authority given by the British Constitution, which Burke so vigorously condemned, so Darling stepped beyond the terms of his commission and, by implication, outside the Constitution he swore to uphold. This was the point behind Wentworth’s wild language. Darling’s autocratic rule was contradictory and self-defeating because its effect was to scuttle that which he strove to uphold. The second grave error of Darling’s rule from a conservative point of view was that he did not consider the temper and concrete circumstances of the people under his charge. It was a refrain throughout Burke’s speeches and writings that efficient government must take into consideration human nature in general and the character and the circumstances of the people in particular. Darling did neither.  

Finally, if Wentworth’s and his emancipist friends aimed to defend and secure the freedoms guaranteed in the British Constitution, fully operative in the Colony, their behaviour had more of the mark of conservatism than Darling’s autocratic behaviour. But it is more than just the defence of the British Constitution with its systems of the legislative, judiciary, and executive government. It is more than just a line of cultural continuity that Hall and company strove to defend. They were doing far more; they were extending and modifying British culture to match the circumstances and wishes of the Colony’s people. It was the development of a unique Australian-Britishness.

One line of Wentworth’s and Hall’s liberal/conservatism can be drawn through to the beginning of Federation, where the non-Labor political parties were consolidating in a long-formed Australian (British-modified) social and political context, and on to that landmark day in 1944 when Robert Gordon Menzies founded the Liberal Party. In particular, the experience of my early Australian family showed that Hall and others had much success in their efforts to establish the principle of religious liberty in the Colony.

The Colony was dealing with one other critical political issue at the time of James Joseph’s arrival. It was ongoing, culturally determining and directly relevant to James Joseph and his fellow convicts. The background was Darling’s arbitrary assignment of convicts – to favourites in particular – while there was a drastic need for convict labour. Editions of the Colony’s three newspapers (Monitor, Australian and Sydney Gazette & NSW Advertiser) dealt with it in detail. To satisfy this need, they wrote, many in the Colony wanted His Majesty’s Government to bankroll the passage of ‘free mechanics’ to the Colony.

On 22 September 1827, the Colonial Secretary’s Office issued a ‘Government Notice’ about Governor Darling’s communication with his Majesty’s Government. That communication resulted in a ‘Despatch’ from His Majesty’s Colonial Secretary, in which he expressed sympathy for the request and understood the need for labour. He nevertheless named two objections. First, there was the ‘impracticability of preventing other persons… from taking advantage of the offer.’ Second, there was the difficulty of ‘selecting individuals of industrious habits’ and the burdensome expense of the plan. The Colonial Secretary said that if the colonists considered ‘defraying the expense of the [free mechanic’s] voyage out, or even a considerable part of it, as well as to ensure their constant employment … His Majesty’s Government would be disposed to assist.’ The issue boiled down to who was going to pay for the project. The British government did not want to foot the bill. Neither did the settlers. Negotiations would continue.

While these negotiations were proceeding, the lack of free skilled labour meant that the ‘convicts were sought after by the settlers,’ as the Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser noted in its 28 September (1827) edition. Despite the undersupply, it added, ‘the demand for convicts – at least for their labour – is great, but not so great as to induce the settlers to be at the expense of bringing out the prisoners free of all charge to the government.’ The settlers maintained this position even though the cost of convict transportation would have been markedly less than the cost of bringing out free mechanics. The dilemma remained for the moment unresolved.

The arrival, then, of the Prince Regent with its 180 male prisoners, entirely funded by the British government, must have been welcome for those in need of labour. After Bigge’s report, the policy was to assign all convicts except those beyond rehabilitation. The growing demand for convict labour meant the ability, reliability, and commitment of the convict, a scarce resource, was of keen interest to those lucky enough to be the beneficiary of convict assignment – those enjoying Darling’s favour. There was much resentment among those that missed out. The assignment of convict labour was not the only source of class friction.

By the end of Darling’s governorship, the power relations between the exclusives, free settlers, and the emancipists and their native-born children, though remaining, had shifted. The careers of John Macarthur and Samuel Marsden, leaders of the exclusives, were in sharp decline, and their characters under attack within their class. On the instructions of Lord Bathurst, the Colonial Secretary, Darling publicly rebuked Marsden for behaviour unbefitting of a clergyman. The snobbishness of the exclusives had, at last, left them discredited. The sharp increase in emancipists with their native-born children and free settlers had given their factions more social and political voice – and increased the friction between them. The emancipists burned with resentment about the favouritism in land and convict allocation shown to the free settlers. The emancipists and the native-born were insistent on their native rights. These class frictions would continue. The convicts, of course, had no power and were subject to military authority, whether arbitrary or reasonable.

When eighteen-year-old James Joseph Wilson came ashore to go to the staging point for his assignment, he surely had no idea of the economic and political environment he had landed in. He had no way of knowing that after the psychological pain of the prison hulk and the four-month voyage, his literacy and trade skills were in high demand. I can only wonder what was going through his mind as he was marched along George Street on the way to Bringelly near Penrith and, bemused, gazed at a recognisable but, in some ways, different townscape. If he did not understand the value of his labour as a commodity to be bought and sold, I feel sure it did not take him long to get a glimmer of the stakes he could throw into the colonial mix.

Such talk about a convict having an advantage or simply being someone more than an animal a master could flog at will may surprise some readers. The lessons I received in primary school about colonial Australia gave the impression that the convict, someone often transported for ‘stealing a loaf of bread’, was treated with unrelenting brutality. Several highly respected Australian authors have made a name from their accounts of such brutality. I did not question my primary school lessons and the accounts of such eminent writers until I began researching my family history. The nine convicts I found among my ancestors did not fit this picture. Further research and inquiry revealed a penal scenario not altogether consistent with the lurid images of floggings, chain gangs, and psychological torture.

From the beginning of the Colony, convicts were set to work or assigned to government farms and works or private landholders. By 1821, all convicts were so assigned. They were not locked up, chained, or manacled, nor was their clothing different from the free settlers who worked beside them. Instead, they were encouraged to make the best of their new opportunities. Because the Colony lacked skilled people, convicts with particular skills and qualifications were quickly appointed to carry out tasks requiring their expertise. Governor Phillip went so far as to appoint convicts as policemen. They were subject to a system of rewards and punishments, rewards such as extra provisions and money paid for the work they did in their own time.

About half of the convicts proved reliable, cooperative, and productive, keen to profit from a new start in life. The other half were punished according to the seriousness of their violations, violations committed with full knowledge of the repercussions. Convicts who had transgressed followed the standard legal procedures. They were charged and brought before a magistrate who decided the sentence if the transgression was proved. Nobody – the military or the convict’s master – could interfere in the court process. The punishment was harsh.

Floggings were the first step. A convict supervised the flogging, and another carried it out. Floggings were followed by reassignment to government gangs, iron gangs, or for the gravest misdemeanours, to penal settlements established in the Colony. Those beyond rehabilitation ended up in places like Tasmania’s Port Arthur, places of such severity that most of us today find hard to comprehend. But such harsh penal establishments catered mostly to an incorrigible minority. My ancestors will bear out this account of convict life, none of whom were transported for the theft of a loaf of bread or something else of similar value. I will leave James Joseph for the moment while he is taken out to Bringelly. Before catching up with him, I want to lay out the paths ahead of him in 1827.


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