George Fife Angas, the man who made South Australia [by Professor Ernest Scott, 8 July 1939]

[Editor: This is part eight of the “Men who made Australia” series written by Professor Ernest Scott.]

Men who made Australia — No. 8.

George Fife Angas, the man who made South Australia

Sir Ernest Scott joins issue in friendly manner with Dr. Grenfell Price on the question of who was “Father of South Australia.” He declines to “pursue a dubious controversy.” with Dr. Grenfell Price, (who gives the title to Wakefield) but proceeds to show that, whereas Wakefield’s South Australian Association of 1833 collapsed, Angas formed the South Australian Company which financed the province and the bank which maintained its solvency, bought and equipped the three emigrant ships which conveyed the first settlers to the new land, found money to establish settlers, and sent out communities of German migrants.

By Professor Sir Ernest Scott

In the published letters of Elizabeth Barrett (“of Wimpole street”) to Robert Browning there is one containing a curious bit of information about Australia. The letter bore the postmark August 27, 1846. Four other letters have the same date-stamp; but it was not infrequent for Miss Barrett to write a long letter to her beloved and not find an opportunity to post it to him for a few days. As a postscript to this particular epistle she wrote:—“We are going out in the carriage and shall post this note.” But as she wrote two later letters with the same date upon them, we may infer that, having to evade the domineering eye of her suspicious father, she had to defer posting this one; so that at length Robert received quite a budget of Elizabeth’s agitated outpourings.

The passage of especial interest in the letter just mentioned reads as follows:— “I had a letter today with a proposition to write ballads and other lyrics in order to the civilisation of the colonies, especially Australia. It appears that a Mr. Angas Fife has a scheme on foot nearly, about sending missionary ballad singers among the natives, and that I am invited to write some of them — or to be invited — for nothing is specified yet. Now, what do you think of that? One should take one’s mythology from the kangaroo, I suppose.”

A queer idea that was, as Miss Barrett evidently supposed. She was already celebrated as a poet, with half a dozen volumes to her name, and “The Cry of the Children” was as well known as Tom Hood’s “Song of the Shirt,” and for a similar reason. But the question — what she was going to do about writing ballads for Australian aborigines — was settled not so much by her as by Robert Browning, who in less than a month had dashed off with her on that elopement which matches Shelley’s flit with Mary Goodwin as one of the brilliant shooting star events in literary history.

Perhaps it was due to emotional stress — or maybe her dog Flush was barking in a disturbing manner as she wrote the letter — that she put the name of the gentleman in reverse gear. It was not “Mr. Angas Fife” who wished to commission the poetry, but Mr. George Fife Angas, and be was a person of some consequence at the time.

High principle

Angas has been styled “The Father of South Australia,” but Dr. Grenfell Price, the author of an admirable book on “Founders and Pioneers of South Australia,” disputes the parentage, though conceding that Angas did behave in a fatherly manner towards the new Australian State which came into existence in 1836. Dr. Price maintains that South Australia owes Angas a “deep debt of gratitude, and though he can not supplant Wakefield as the Father of the State he can be numbered in England with Gouger and Torrens, the leading founders, and ranks with the greatest of the late pioneers.” For present purposes we need not pursue a dubious controversy, but may fall back upon the French aphorism that “maternity is a matter of fact but paternity is a matter of opinion.” Moreover, if Edward Gibbon Wakefield was the Father of South Australia, who was its mother? The one term implies the other, generally.

Angas was an English shipowner who inherited a profitable business from his father and increased it under his own management; so that he was a man of considerable wealth when, in early middle age, he became interested in colonisation. A large number of thoughtful English people were similarly affected at that time, under the influence of Wakefield’s plausible writings. Angas was a sturdy Non-conformist and a liberal supporter of causes which commended themselves to his sympathies. It is likely that the example of the founder of Pennsylvania also attracted him, and certainly the writings of William Penn were likely to impress the mind of a man with the religious and philanthropic bent of Angas. Happily the establishment of a new English colony in Australia became one of the projects which fired his imagination.

The written reflections of Angas on the responsibility attaching to wealth are illuminating. There was, he wrote, “constant conflict in my mind as wealth has increased how to dispose of it.” And again: “It is undesirable for a man to be rich, and in proportion as he becomes so he will need more grace to save him from the temptations peculiar to his position.” Yet this self-critical man wielded so much influence in the City of London that he easily floated the South Australian Banking Company, without whose aid the new colony could scarcely have been launched; and he became a leading promoter and an original director of the Union Bank of Australia, now one of the greatest financial institutions of this country.

Initial failure

The earliest attempts to found a new colony in southern Australia were made by persons who were less
enamoured of Wakefield’s theory than of the apparent opportunity of making profit. Learning of Sturt’s discovery of the Murray, and of the flow of that river into Encounter Bay, several optimists thought that a suitable area for trying out a Wakefieldian experiment existed there. Speculators and theorists combined to form a joint-stock land company which was to finance the colony and dispose of land to settlers. The Colonial Office, in this as in the case of Western Australia, frowned severely. There were “serious doubts of the policy of farming another settlement in that quarter of the globe.” Dr. Grenfell Price thinks that these early proposals “were made largely for the financial benefit of the promoters.” The sheepskin of philanthropy inadequately disguised the wolf.

Wakefield had no direct part in those earliest ventures, but he was a promoter of the South Australian Association in 1833. That organisation obtained influential support among influential men, and Parliament in 1834 passed an Act for the establishment of South Australia. It was now intended that the Wakefleld system — the sale of land at a fixed uniform price — should be tried. The price was to be 12/ per acre. The Government was to be responsible for the political control of the colony, whilst land sales and settlement were to be the concern of a board of commissioners. But the scheme broke down within a few weeks of its being launched. The association collapsed, leaving a few of the more wealthy of its members to pay its debts.

The Act of Parliament then looked like becoming a dead letter. To save the whole project from failure, the Government appointed a fresh board of commissioners — and one member of that board was George Fife Angas. With his financial acumen — his biographer Hodder, writes of his “genius for banking” — he perceived that nothing could be done without a substantial backing of capital. Founding a colony was not so easy as building castles in the air.

The detailed history of the various moves for setting the new colony going, is confusing, and needs to be explained at considerable length to make it plain. Dr. Price has done that in his chapter on Angas in “Founders and Pioneers of South Australia.” Wakefield quitted the movement when he could not get his own way; the “father” abandoned the child before it was born! Some went into the venture for what they expected to get out of it, and dropped out of it when their expectations were deprived of nourishment. Some were mere inflated idealists and dabblers, who seemed to think that El Dorado glittered round the corner and that fortune would come with beckoning.

Angas’s vision

The one man who united idealism with practical business knowledge and energy with organising skill, was Angas. He formed the company which financed the colony. He founded the bank which maintained its solvency. He bought and equipped the three ships which conveyed the first colonists to South Australia. He lent money to settlers to help them to start life in the new country, and was for a time embarrassed because they could not repay by the specified dates. As time went on, South Australia became the great design of his life, and its success at length his noble reward.

Moreover, Angas had clear ideas of what he wanted the colony to be. His “principles of colonisation” were:— (1) The exclusion of convicts; (2) the concentration of settlement; (3) the taking out of “persons of capital and intelligence, and especially men of piety”; (4) the emigration of young couples of good character; (5) “freedom of trade, free governance, and freedom in matters of religion.” There was nothing particularly Wakefieldian in these principles, nor is it apparent that he was much enamored of the Wakefield “system.” But he envisaged the kind of colony he wished to help to form, without speculative theories.

In one of his pronouncements Angas said that “my great object was in the first place to provide a place of refuge for pious dissenters of Great Britain,” a colony where they could perform “civil and religious duties without disabilities.” There is more in that purpose than leaps to the eye. Angas was by ancestry and predilection a Nonconformist. In his time, before the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828, Nonconformists could not legally hold any office under the Crown, or in municipalities. The Acts were sometimes evaded, and to meet such cases Parliament passed yearly indemnity Acts which, as Lord John Russell said, were “to forgive men for doing good service to their country.” Angas was the kind of man who in our own more liberal age might have become Lord Mayor of London; but before 1828 Dick Whitttngton’s cat, or another, would have had as much chance of donning the robes and insignia.

Such Nonconformists as were inspired by a desire to render public service felt bitterly about the humiliating position they occupied under the law, and it seems quite clear that Angas shared that view. He did not stiffen the idea of a “colony of dissenters” into a principle; to do that would have been as exclusive as was the English law against which he had protested. But he signifled the thought that was in his mind; and there were sufficient social, and other disabilities, remaining in England to warrant that attitude.

Next to Angas’s great service to Australia in the founding of South Australia was his personal exertion in providing the country with citizens. The most interesting of his efforts in that direction was the organisation of immigration from Germany.

German migrants

A crisis was provoked in that country when King Frederick William III. of Prussia sought to enforce religious uniformity. On the occasion of the third centenary of the Reformation, that Monarch thought it would be a good idea to amalgamate the Lutheran and Calvinist churches. With that confidence in his own omnipotence which has often been manifested as a Hohenzollern characteristic, the King published a new liturgy and commanded the adoption of it in the churches throughout his realm. The result was very much like what occurred in Scotland when Charles I. endeavored to foist Laud’s liturgy upon his Presbyterian subjects. The German Lutherans refused to comply. The King proceeded to force them.

The stirring up of religious controversy aggravated the differences which the King had been most anxious to allay. Incidentally, it aroused the rationalist movement and the storms which centred around the new Tubigan school of textual criticism. And one of the several back-wash influences emanating from Frederick William’s dabbling in theology was the considerably important migration of Germans to South Australia, amounting, it has been calculated, to about 8,000 within a few years.

Angas advanced the money to enable the first German company to migrate to South Australia. They consisted of almost the whole congregation of Augustas Kavel, the Lutheran pastor of Klemzig. Bitter persecution had been wreaked upon the orthodox Lutherans throughout the province where Kavel and his people lived; imprisonment, deprivation of property, brutality by officials, and threats of worse to follow. Angas incurred commitments amounting to thousands of pounds to enable these people to go to a new country, where in the end they completely justified the confidence reposed in them as good citizens and valuable contributors to industrial and agricultural wealth.

Angas did not go to South Australia himself, and settle there, till 1850, fourteen years after the foundation; and his subsequent part in the public life of the State was not very remarkable, as he had little aptitude for ordinary political life. His great work was done in the years when the question was being considered whether there should be a new colony in that part of Australia, and when capital, organising ability and enthusiasm were required. All three were provided by him in unstinted measure.

In the history of colonisation a few men may be instanced as pre-eminent in the foundation of the States with which their names are associated — John Winthrop in Massachusetts, William Perm in Pennsylvania; in our own time Cecil Rhodes in Rhodesia, and Lord Delamere in Kenya. The difference between the cases are naturally clear. Penn’s case resembles that of Angas more distinctly than his leadership resembles those of Rhodes and Delamere. Not that Angas possessed all the qualities which distinguished Penn. He could not have written a page of Penn’s “Fruits of Solitude,” or his tract on “The Peace of Europe.” But in other respects the old Quaker-Coloniser seems to have been the model and exemplar of Angas, spiritually and as the architect of a new Commonwealth; and his career is a commentary on Penn’s aphorism: “Be not fond of praise but seek virtue that leads to it.”

The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 8 July 1939, page 22

[Editor: The editorial introduction to this article has been italicized, so as to distinguish it from the text written by Professor Scott. Corrected “possesed” to “possessed”.]

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