Chapter 15 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter XV

From Van Diemen’s Land to Tasmania

Death of Collins and Paterson — Davey Lieutenant-Governor — The rule of Colonel Arthur — The convict system — Macquarie Harbour — Port Arthur — Bushranging — The black war — Arthur’s black drive — Robinson’s work among the aboriginals — Irish political prisoners — The Dorsetshire labourers — Jorgensen — Tasmania named.

The reasons why settlements were made at Hobart in 1803, and at Port Dalrymple, (Launceston) in 1804, have been explained in Chapter VIII. Colonel David Collins, the founder of Hobart and its Lieutenant-Governor during the remainder of his life, died there in 1810, and his second in command, Lieutenant Lord, incurred the censure of Governor Macquarie by spending £500 on his funeral. The undertaker’s bill, which is extant, is surely one of the most curious documents of the kind on record. It included 120 yards of material for the pall, 11 black gowns for marines’ wives, 11 pairs of stockings for ditto, 11 petticoats for ditto, a large number of handkerchiefs, and two gallons of the best vinegar! Collins wrote the first History of New South Wales, and his work endures as an authentic and interesting contemporary record of the establishment of British rule in Australia. In the same year died, on his way home to England, Colonel Paterson, the founder and Lieutenant-Governor of Launceston, and one of the principal officers in the service of Australia since the days of Phillip.

The history of Van Diemen’s Land while it remained a dependency of New South Wales is that of a penal settlement whose system of control presented no remarkable difference from that of the parent colony. After the death of Collins and the departure of Paterson the dual lieutenant-governorships of Hobart and Launceston gave place to a single Lieutenant-Governor, appointed from England. The first was Colonel Davey (1813-17), a marine officer who had fought under Nelson at Trafalgar. A jovial but eccentric man, who made his official entry into Hobart in his shirt-sleeves, with his coat over his arm, because the weather was hot, Davey secured popularity by means which were not calculated to maintain either a fair standard of discipline or respect for his office. He would frequently carouse with boon companions, including convicts, and he revelled in rough, horseplay frolics. With those who pleased him he would drink deep; those who offended him he would flog or hang. He required plenty of rum and rope. This rollicking Toby Belch resigned under pressure from Governor Macquarie, who sternly disapproved of his manners and methods.

Davey was succeeded by Colonel William Sorell, of the 48th regiment, an excellent man and an admirable administrator. He was the last of the Lieutenant-Governors who ruled in subordinationn to the ‘Governor-in-Chief’ in New South Wales.

Colonel George Arthur inaugurated the new system of rule in 1825, a year after he assumed office. Under an Act passed by the Imperial Parliament, power was taken to separate the Government of Van Diemen’s Land from that of New South Wales. A Legislative Council was appointed, consisting of seven members, with powers and functions similar to those exercised by the corresponding body in the older colony; and the Lieutenant-Governor was given an Executive Council to advise him. The administration of justice was purified and strengthened. The island was divided into police districts, each under a paid magistrate. A Supreme Court was established. Arthur showed that he meant to keep a tight rein over the execution of the law by peremptorily dismissing the Attorney-General, Gellibrand, for having taken fees from a client for drawing the pleadings in his case and afterwards appearing against him in court.

Throughout its history as a convict settlement Van Diemen’s Land was the scene of such a degree of callous brutality as can hardly have been equalled in any other country within civilized times. Statesmen like Russell and Grey said that the assignment system really meant slavery; but, in truth, slavery as practised in America and elsewhere was usually conducted with less cruelty than was the assignment system in this beautiful island. That it was accompanied here by a degree of degradation and torture surpassing what prevailed in New South Wales is to be explained by several circumstances. From the beginning the convicts were to a large extent a worse class than those who were detained in New South Wales. Hobart was originally peopled with drafts from Norfolk Island, and that station had been used (though not exclusively so) as a place of intensified punishment for those who committed offences after transportation. Consequently it was thought necessary to make the discipline harsh. The class of convicts available for assignment to settlers being generally less dependable than was the case at Sydney, a custom of desperately severe punishment became established. The magistrates ordered the application of the lash on the mere complaint of an angry master. There are recorded instances of assigned servants being mercilessly whipped for the ‘insolence’ of smiling when given an order. Magistrates would flog a man to the point of collapse on his master’s request by letter. No evidence of wrongdoing was required; the mere application was sufficient. Semblance of justice there was none. Governor Arthur stated in evidence that, of 17,000 convicts in Van Diemen’s Land in 1833, 5,000 had never had any complaints made against them, and he regarded this as a favourable circumstance. But obviously his own figures showed that 12,000 had had complaints made against them — and the simple making of a complaint entailed flogging.

So much was Van Diemen’s Land regarded as a place for the reception of desperate characters that in 1821 Macquarie Harbour, on the west coast of the island, was especially chosen as a place of punishment for the very worst class of criminals. Situated on a lonely, bleak, rugged, and rain-drenched coast, frowned over by huge mountain masses of such desolate aspect that the navigator Flinders looked upon their peaks ‘with astonishment and horror,’ fronted by a sea constantly subject to the fury of Antarctic gales, Macquarie Harbour became a place of wrath and groans for untamed desperadoes. Here, covered by the muskets of their jailers, prisoners were clad in the coarse, ugly, yellow dress, marked in black with broad arrows, which was the distinctive and detested garb of the incorrigible class of offenders. Ordinary convicts wore grey or blue. Gangs of them laboured at felling the huge trees of the forests and dragging the timber to the shore, or were loaded with chains, left cold and hungry on storm-swept rocks, and exposed to privations that made life an agony and fastened upon many of them diseases which afflicted them till death. The narrow entrance to Macquarie Harbour was called Hell’s Gate, and the name was not inaptly chosen. It was used for its dreadful purpose until Governor Arthur reared a new prison on the Tasman Peninsula and set a guard of armed constables and a complete chain of trained ferocious dogs to patrol the narrow neck connecting the convict area with the mainland. The walls and turrets of Port Arthur, standing in picturesque ruin in a scene of solitary grandeur, remind later generations of a grim and terrible past.

One of the reasons for the abandonment of Macquarie Harbour was that it aggravated the trouble with bushrangers, which became acute during the governorships of Davey, Sorell, and Arthur. Bushranging grew naturally out of the conditions of the violent and profligate society which coined this convenient word for it. We read of ‘William Page, the bushranger,’ in the Sydney Gazette as early as 1806, and Bligh, writing of the state of Van Diemen’s Land in 1809, referred to ‘a set of freebooters, bushrangers as they are called.’

Both in Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales great, unoccupied spaces at the back of the settled portions offered unrivalled opportunities to men inclined to a lawless, predatory life. Convicts who had served their sentences or escaped from servitude would often ‘take to the bush,’ steal a horse, roam around plundering, and lead a life of wild excitement until they were shot or caught. More dangerous were bands of armed bandits who lived by outrage and spoliation. Van Diemen’s Land was the scene of wild bushranging escapades for about a score of years, the worst cases being those who had fled from custody, and, knowing that they would be hanged if they were caught, united cunning and bush-craft to the daring required by the life they led. There were mountain fastnesses hiding deep glens where a man could conceal himself with little risk of discovery. Kangaroo meat was abundant. A raid upon a country station, the robbery of a mail, the plunder of a store, would furnish other requirements.

Macquarie Harbour proved to be very difficult to manage. Its stormy approaches made it inaccessible at certain seasons. To escape from the secluded and desolate place, either by boat, or by land across trackless mountains and through thick tangles of the peculiar horizontal scrub which grows in the western part of the island, was indeed a desperate adventure. About a hundred tried, but most of them perished in the attempt or were shot. A party who got away to the bush were driven by hunger to murder each other, and ten are known to have been killed and eaten by their companions. Two of the wretched survivors were captured with portions of human flesh still in their possession. A few escaped and joined others of their class in plundering raids. Many assigned servants, there is no doubt, were driven to consort with the outlaws by the cruelty with which they were treated by their inhuman masters, and it is not strange that these took a terrible revenge on their former oppressors.

The bushranging evil was at its height when Arthur became Lieutenant-Governor. An army of as many as a hundred resolute ruffians, well mounted and fully armed, roamed over the country in 1825, imposing a reign of terror upon settlers. They murdered, burnt, and pillaged. Brady, a Macquarie Harbour escapee, led a band which captured the town of Sorell, surprised and locked up the military force sent to arrest them, and liberated the prisoners in the jail. In Launceston the same brigand chief conducted a raid with the organized skill of a military operation. Michael Howe, the most notorious of the bushrangers of this period, called himself ‘Governor of the Rangers,’ and the head of the Government ‘Governor of the Town,’ and so largely did this foul rascal terrorize the country that there was a smack of truth in the saying.

Governor Arthur was compelled to take the suppression of bushranging in hand in an organized fashion. Farms were barricaded against attack and loopholed for defence. A law was enacted enabling any settler to shoot at sight a convict in arms. Companies of soldiers, strengthened by armed settlers, swept over the country in search of the malefactors. Arthur himself took part in the hunt, which was so thoroughly pursued that thirty-seven bushrangers were tried and sentenced to death at one sitting of the court. More than a hundred were hanged in the two years 1825-6. If these vigorous measures did not eradicate bushranging — and they did not because it was an inevitable consequence of depositing thousands of criminals in a rough and sparsely populated country — at all events they suppressed the most serious aspect of the evil, the ravaging of the colony by organized companies.

Some popular fiction of a later date has cast a kind of glamour over bushranging, just as in England poetry and romance have gilded the deeds of the highwayman. But in sober truth there was no chivalry in the escapades of these men. They were simply ferocious criminals, dangerously at large.

There was some bushranging on the mainland, and in 1834 Dr. Wardell, Wentworth’s friend, was shot dead by a bushranger in the grounds of his own house in New South Wales. The depredations and capture of the Kelly Gang in Victoria (1880) made a very exciting story of crime and adventure. But the trouble in the mainland colonies never attained the proportions that it did in Van Diemen’s Land.

The bushrangers were only partly responsible for the ‘Black War,’ which led to the extermination, within half a century, of one of the races of mankind — homo tasmanianus. The aboriginals of Van Diemen’s Land were different from those of the mainland. At some remote geological period there was land connection between the island and Australia. But a subsidence of the ocean bed broke the bridge, and left the negrito stock isolated and unaffected by the fresh blends which changed the characteristics of the mainland blacks. These natives were disposed to be a harmless and peaceable people. English and French explorers who had met with them had found them unaggressive and good-humoured. Had they received decent treatment they would not have been likely to cause trouble. But neither the settlers nor their assigned servants would allow the natives to live in peace. As settlement spread, cases of murder and outrage were frequently reported. The evidence is conclusive that the wrong-doing was on the side of the whites. ‘The resentment of these poor, uncultivated blacks,’ wrote Davey in a proclamation of 1813, ‘has been justly provoked by a most barbarous and inhuman mode of proceeding, viz. the robbing of their children. Let any man put his hand to his heart and ask, which is the savage, the white man who robs the parent of his children, or the black man who boldly steps forward to resent the injury and recover his stolen offspring.’ During Sorell’s term of office the outrages continued, aggravated now by the fiendish depredations of the bushrangers. No form of physical torture and moral wrong was spared to these hapless children of nature by the decadent outcasts of civilization who were thus thrust among them.

It was but natural that the aboriginals should at length turn upon their oppressors; and this they were doing when Arthur became Lieutenant-Governor in 1824. The revenges which they took did but increase the number of those who shed their blood. Black hated white, and white thirsted for the blood of black. But the whites had the better weapons. Waddies and spears were no match for muskets. Blacks were shot in groups, as they bathed or sat round their camp-fires at night. John West, the author of a History of Tasmania, who wrote near enough to those times to get his facts from living witnesses, tells the story in one vivid sentence: ‘The wounded were brained; the infant cast into the flames; the bayonet was driven into the quivering flesh; the social fire around which the natives gathered to slumber became before morning their funeral pile.’

Arthur was well informed as to the treatment which the aboriginals had received, and made an honest effort to protect them. An Aborigines Protection Committee, formed under his direction, pointed out that the instances of savage vengeance which the native people had taken were the result of injuries they had received. But he could not, as a responsible administrator, permit a state of anarchy to prevail. The blacks no longer made any distinction between friends and foes. They killed all whites who came within range of their spears. Arthur tried to abate the evil by offering rewards for the capture of aboriginals uninjured — £5 for every adult and £2 for every child — and this led to the formation of capture parties, who hunted them like game. John Batman, the Port Phillip pioneer, distinguished himself by the employment of kinder methods to secure the surrender of blacks.

As, however, the efforts of these independent parties did not sufficiently abate the trouble Arthur determined to organize a great ‘drive,’ with the object of sweeping the whole of the blacks in the centre and south of the island into the Tasman peninsula. A complete chain of soldiers, police, and armed settlers stretched right across the country from the Great Lake to St. Patrick’s Head on the east coast. Nearly five thousand men shared in the operations, and the Governor himself took supreme command. The forces were marshalled under military officers, each of whom superintended the scouring of an allotted area. Great stores of cartridges, guns, and handcuffs, were gathered.

The line commenced the advance southward on October 7, 1830, and every man in it believed that he was helping to push the natives into a compound where they would be held as captives. But at the conclusion of the operations only one man and a boy had been caught. With these exceptions the whole of the aboriginals had quietly slipped through the line. Arthur’s Black Drive cost £30,000, and was as futile as trying to catch sunbeams with a butterfly net.

After this failure George Robinson, a Methodist bricklayer, who had already had a little experience among the aboriginals, had learnt their language, and had a warm-hearted sympathy with them, made a proposition which seemed to his contemporaries to mark him out either as a lunatic or an impostor. He actually proposed to go among them unarmed, as a friend, to reason with them, and explain to them that, however some settlers and convicts might treat them, the object of the Government was to better their condition. His one stipulation was that the hunting of the blacks should cease, and that it should be prohibited even to carry firearms in their presence. And this little obscure man did wonderful things. He tramped hundreds of miles, he endured extraordinary hardships, he dared anything to accomplish his mission; and the most wonderful of all the things he did was to show that these hunted black people had the souls of human beings, and to bring their souls into grateful communion with his own. He took a few blacks whom he knew well as companions, and, guided by them, visited the far-off hiding-places where the tribes had taken refuge. Often he was in grave danger, but his cool confidence always saved him. He would walk up to a group of warriors who had their spears poised to hurl at him, and shake hands with them. He led the remnant of one of the most savage tribes to Government House in Hobart, where Arthur, to welcome them, ordered the brass band to play. The natives screamed with terror, and clustered round Robinson for protection.

It was evident, however, that there could be no settlement of the difficulty so long as aboriginals, settlers, and convicts lived together in the same country. Robinson could not be everywhere at once. He could make the tribesmen do anything by sheer force of persuasion, but where he was not trouble recurred. It was, therefore, resolved in 1832 that Robinson should gather together all the surviving blacks and should take them to Flinders Island in Bass Strait. This policy was carried out in 1835, though the total number removed was only 203, the survivors of a race of whom several thousands were living when Van Diemen’s Land was first colonized by Europeans. This small community was tended by Robinson and others with every kindness. But all efforts to keep the race alive failed. They sickened and pined and died. Some half-castes still remain, but the last pure-blooded homo tasmanianus died in 1860.

The final phases of convictism in Van Diemen’s Land will be related in Chapter XVII. While the island was devoted to penal purposes it was the place of exile of some remarkable men. Thomas Wainewright, forger and poisoner, artist and man of letters, the friend of Charles Lamb and the painter of Royal Academy pictures, was one of these. The Chartist leaders Frost, Jones, and Williams were transported in 1839 on account of their share in a riot at Newport, Wales. In an earlier age the punishment for high treason, of which they were convicted, would have been death; but these three led very comfortable lives in Van Diemen’s Land, and lived to see nearly all the ‘points’ of the English chartists adopted as part of the political system of Australia. The Irish Rebellion of 1848 brought a distinguished group of political prisoners to the country, including Smith O’Brien, Thomas Meagher, and John Mitchel, men of ability and education, who, as Meagher quite frankly wrote, had ‘played for a high stake and lost the game.’ They were marked out for especially considerate treatment, and were allowed a large measure of freedom on parole. One of them, O’Donohue, started a newspaper in Hobart, called the Irish Exile. They were indeed regarded as belonging to what Arthur described in an official paper as ‘that class of offenders denominated in familiar language gentlemen convicts.’ ‘With a willing heart and ready hand we ought like honourable men to pay the forfeit and say no more about it,’ wrote Meagher to his friend, Gavan Duffy. Smith O’Brien fretted in exile and brought upon himself more restraint than he need have done. Mitchel brought his wife and children from Ireland to live with him. After nearly five years in the island he made his escape to America, and half a dozen of his companions, aided by Irish American sympathizers, managed to do the same.

Another little group of prisoners were the victims (1834) of the antipathy of the English Government to the beginnings of the Trade Union movement. George Loveless and four other Dorsetshire labourers were transported for seven years for their connexion with the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, which pledged its members not to work for less than 10s. per week. They were liberated in response to public agitation in 1836. Loveless, a sincere and honest man, who worked with a simple desire to improve the lot of his fellows, wrote after the conclusion of his term of servitude a little book called Victims of Whiggery, wherein he said some interesting things about the convict system as he saw it in operation.

One of the most singular characters who inhabited Van Diemen’s Land during these wild, bad years was a tall, blue-eyed Dane named Jorgensen, a rascal touched with genius, whose life had been crowded with romance and adventure. He had made whaling and discovery voyages and had been mate on board the Lady Nelson. He was an officer on the ship which conveyed the first company to Risdon Cove, and therefore witnessed the establishment of the colony which he was afterwards to inhabit as a convict himself. On returning to Europe he had served on a Danish privateer during the Napoleonic wars, and been taken prisoner by the British. Being sent on a ship to Iceland to carry provisions to the inhabitants, he assisted in capturing the Danish Governor and announced to the people by proclamation that he had been sent by the British Government to annex the island. He established trial by jury, improved the educational system, set himself up as Governor, and sent a despatch to London announcing that he had taken possession of Iceland as a part of the British Empire. His unauthorized raid was of course disowned. On his return to England he was sent to the Continent on a secret Foreign Office mission. After this he gave free play to his gambling propensities, and, being pressed for money, stole some articles of furniture from his lodgings. For this offence he was convicted and served four years of a sentence of seven in Newgate, where he made himself useful as an apothecary’s dispenser. Liberated from prison upon his promise to leave the country, he failed to do so, was re-arrested as an alien at large, and transported for life. In Van Diemen’s Land he had a strange career as explorer, hunter of blacks, and author. He impressed those who met him as a man of unusual ability. He certainly was versatile, for he had written books on travel, theology, and political economy.

The old name of the island whose coasts had been explored by Dutch, French, and English navigators, and which had witnessed so much agony and remorse, went with a change of system. Even before transportation ceased, but when the hope of ending it had taken possession of the inhabitants, they began to use the name Tasmania; and when self-governing institutions were conferred upon the island in 1853 that name was adopted by statute.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 163-175

Speak Your Mind