Section 2 [Because Men Went Hungry, by Rex Ingamells]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige (1951) by Rex Ingamells.]

§ 2. Pre-destined social evils

The Botany Bay Smear not only prejudiced opinion concerning New South Wales, but it did this in such a way as to father and intensify actual social evils in the Colony, so that the worst of these, even in the Colony’s fiftieth year, were in part attributed to the Smear. In other words, the appetite for bad reports of the Colony, which was induced and made fashionable by the Smear, found satisfaction, for half a century, in circumstances which the Smear helped appreciably to establish. This conclusion is supported by New South Wales: Its Present State and Future Prospects (1837), in which James Macarthur* expounds a series of well-signed colonial Petitions to King George IV in Parliament.

James Macarthur says: “there existed a radical fault from the very outset in the want of a sufficient number of settlers of respectability, and of fit persons to form a body of superintendence and police;” and he attributes the phenomenally high crime statistics of the Colony to the large proportion of convicts in the population. While the British Government is criticised for sending such a great majority of convicts in the first place, it is pointed out that Governor Phillip quickly urged the need for free settlers, and that more could have come subsequently had they been willing. There were, in the opinion of the Petitioners, two deterrents. One was “the extreme length of the voyage,” which originally took from eight to twelve months. The other was the bad name given the country at the foundation: “The unfavourable accounts of the soil around Sydney, the failure of the crops, together with the great hardships and privations (amounting at one time almost to starvation) which were suffered during the infancy of the settlement, would also operate as a serious discouragement to voluntary emigration.”

The Botany Bay Smear, although not by that name, was thus, in the Colony’s fiftieth year, considered, by a body of leading colonists, to have proved “a serious discouragement” to free settlement at a crucial time, when such free settlement would considerably have improved community life. The effects of the Smear to the detriment of the community were still felt in 1837 — by which time the voyage took less than four months — and the Petitioners used the present tense in declaring that “a flourishing condition of affairs is unhappily counter-balanced by a lamentable depravity of manners, and by the fearful prevalence of crime; arising . . . . more than all, from the want of a sufficient number of free emigrants, of moral and industrious habits, to check the contaminating influence, and infuse a better tone into society.”

James Macarthur, coming from a Corps family, and the great body of Exclusive-minded petitioners, would not wittingly project these twentieth century arguments, least of all as history’s verdict upon the Corps is now to be invoked.

It is inescapable that, had there been “a sufficient number of free emigrants, of moral and industrious habits,” — a consummation prejudiced by the Smear — the officer domination of early colonial progress would have been weakened; the Colony would have escaped that so ruthless induction of human weakness and vice which enriched the officers and further darkened the Colony’s repute; the Colony would have escaped that continuous Corps defiance of Governors, that train of events which resulted in — and increased colonial notoriety over — the Bligh episode; and the Colony would have escaped the dominant social cleavage between Exclusives and Emancipists, and the bitter publicity of the strife between these classes under Governor Darling. The whole course of our social history would have been different.

The officers of the Corps, which had arrived a year after the foundation, considered themselves, as a class, elite. Discovering and brutally pursuing advantage, they fostered great ideas of their own social consequence according to genteel English standards. The dramatic notoriety of the Colony was a foil to their privileged superiority. These officers might come to realize the value of the country for settlement, but their championship was selfish, and their actions, while making headlong for material progress, were callous and demoralizing to the whole community. They bullied the small body of free settlers, whose instinct was to dissent from their tyranny, and who, had they been stronger, would have given effective weight to the Governor’s authority in efforts to break the Rum Monopoly.

Besides making use of assigned servants, the officers employed ambitious emancipists in projects for amassing wealth, and necessarily rewarded them. In a measure, the officers thus aided the establishment of that class which was soon to challenge and disorganize the exclusiveness for which they stood. The Emancipists increased in numbers, wealth and importance in the life of the community, and more and more resented the social discrimination against them. Governor Macquarie’s advent proved a godsend to them, ushering an era marked socially by the Exclusive-Emancipist struggle.

The straitening of the Colony’s affairs into this particular character of cleavage was, in no small measure, a result of the Botany Bay Smear. The weakness of the free civilian immigrant element in colonial development to this stage ensured that, despite disbandment of the Corps, the Exclusive class found its temper in the officer tradition. To the same weakness the Emancipist class owed much of its advancement and consolidation in the Colony. The Smear, handicapping New South Wales for free settlement, and intensifying the force of the System, was a projector of internecine friction in the Exclusive-Emancipist struggle, long after strife between Governor and Corps had been concluded.

Before Macquarie’s day, the two classes were well marked; the social disdain of the Exclusives and the smouldering resentment of aspiring Emancipists were equally evident. Had the Emancipists continued to experience social frustration, it may be that they would have built up a strong antipathy against not only the Exclusive class, but the fashionable British gentility which that class regarded as its peculiar right in the Colony. Be that as it may, when the Emancipist class received Government countenance in social as well as material advancement, it was effectively rendered innocuous to the cause — or travesty, whichever it was — of fashionable British gentility in the Colony.

Now prominent Emancipists — in addition to having fine houses, fine clothes, fine carriages, assigned servants, and commercial significance — could bear really important responsibilities under the Crown, and they could dine at Government House. The tender susceptibilities of Emancipist families in the matter of their stigma found ineffable balm under this genteel providence. Emancipists, striving hard to equate themselves with the supercilious “pure merinos,” were Government sponsored, and could feel some triumphant contempt towards their enemies. Most notable in point of the Colony’s social history at this time is the fact that, division notwithstanding, fashionable British gentility, or what passed for it in the Colony, was assured of long life in tribute from both parties. The Exclusives declared, in effect, their right to a monopoly of it; the Emancipists scrambled, not without success, to stand as scions of British fashion along with the Exclusives. The growing proportion of native-born in New South Wales, Emancipist no less than Exclusive, were trained to seek consequence in the Colony by conformity to fashionable social vogues, wherein — whether the native-born accepted them in all respects or not — acceptance of the Colony’s essential disrepute was ingrained.

The bitter conflict for social monopoly, on the one hand, and social vindication, on the other, precluded any considerable weight attaching to purely colonial concepts of integrity. The class hatred absorbed immense energy and constant scheming, with Governors favouring now this side, now that, until the situation reached a climax of disreputable publicity in the libels and suppressiveness of Governor Darling’s day.

* * *

Throughout the vicissitudes of settlement, economic and social, during the first half of the nineteenth century, both in “the Mother Country” and in Australia, the British, individuals and combines, enjoyed the wealth and power to be derived from exploitation of virgin country. Fresh settlements, fresh Colonies, expanding and consolidating, found crude, lusty individuality in pursuits that served both themselves and Britain. Life advanced, a vigorous rough-and-tumble of progress. But, through it all, colonial individuality was evidenced in material circumstance rather than in distinctive attitudes of mind, so far as the general temper of colonial society was concerned. Mental attitudes for the most part, however crudely distinguished or illusorily associated, were pendent upon colonial conception of what was proper to Britain. Generations of Australian born, so trained, were compromised to the fashionable British Opinion of the Australian Colonies. They acquiesced in the theme of colonial inferiority, reflecting upon themselves and their issue.

Popular conception in England, although waking to the profits to be made in Australia and, at one stage exaggerating the fertility of the country, had thoroughly absorbed the earliest and most virulent prejudices, and had found support for these in the record of colonial society. New South Wales, any Australian Colony, if profitable for exploitation — and properly made inviting in handbooks for free colonists, increasingly to be encouraged — was yet no place for people who could afford to remain in England. Lavishly though the productiveness of the land might be lauded . . . . desirable as it was for certain classes to emigrate from Britain and go there . . . yet . . . Nature was reversed . . . Nature was reversed . . . Society was marked by the preponderance of crude and ungenteel elements . . . criminals were so very numerous . . . Life was raw, quite unfashionable, hopelessly behind the times, deplorably lacking in comforts and culture.

There were travellers to endorse such opinions, and travellers to belie them in part, according to individual outlook, experience and fortune. In any case, such opinions were very fashionably, and in many respects quite truthfully, expressed. The most unpleasantly extreme aspects of colonial society, however, had evolved under the aegis of the Smear and served to endorse prejudice established by it.

* * *

In the Australian Colonies, after fifty years, there was some stirring of local pride. There had always been individuals, at least, to paean the virtues of the country, but the Smear, its aftermath, and the general rude conditions had left patriotic impulses to expend themselves for the most part ineffectively. Indignation against the long continuance of Transportation did at last find popular expression in the Colonies through concerted efforts in the Anti-Transportation League, and the triumphant refusal of the Colonies to accept more of Britain’s felons. The great increase of free population had over-ridden the Exclusive-Emancipist issue in public attention, and had enabled the town merchants and artisans to carry the day against the squatters, who desired continuance of convict labour. The victory was a major one for the dignity of an Australian way of life, but it was equally a victory for the British way of life. The colonists rejoiced at this vindication of their British rights, and looked forward to self-government in the same frame of mind. Their resentment against Downing Street subversion of colonial life was real, and at times bitter, but the colonists clung to their British conceptions of constitutional living, which was well, and to their awe of British fashion and British opinion, which fact was proof of their colonialism.

The prospect of self-government carried the thoughts of the colonists forward; its achievement, and the discovery of gold, gave them new horizons. However, the Smear had not finished with Australia.

* Much of the work for this publication was done by Edward Edwards, Librarian of the British Museum, “ghosting” for James Macarthur.

Rex Ingamells, Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige, Jindyworobak, Melbourne, 1951, pages 12-19

Editor’s notes:
aegis = the protection, backing, control, guidance, sponsorship, or support of a particular person or group

Corps = in the context of colonial Australia, the New South Wales Corps (a regiment of the British army sent to garrison NSW)

Emancipists = convicts whose sentences had expired or who had been given an absolute or conditional pardon (who had been emancipated, i.e. freed)

Exclusives = (also called Exclusionists) in colonial New South Wales, the free settlers and military officers who objected to the rising social status being given to the Emancipists (emancipated convicts), who wanted minimal social interaction with the Emancipists, because the Emancipists were convicted criminals, and they therefore believed that ex-convicts should be excluded from being given important government positions, and preferred a more exclusive social structure, with Emancipists being excluded from official social functions

foil = (archaic) check, defeat, repulse, or setback

pendent = awaiting action, decision, or settlement; pending (another meaning is to be dangling, hanging down, overhanging, or suspended, as with a necklace or pendant)

Rum Monopoly = the officers of the New South Wales Corps dominated trade in early NSW and had a virtual monopoly over the importation of rum and other spirits; due to a lack of money in the colony, rum was used as a form of currency, and therefore having a monopoly in rum gave the officers a large financial advantage

scion = a young member of a wealthy, famous, or important family

squatter = in the context of Australian history, a squatter was originally someone who kept their livestock (mostly cattle and sheep) upon Crown land without permission to do so (thus illegally occupying land, or “squatting”); however, the practice became so widespread that eventually the authorities decided to formalise it by granting leases or licenses to occupy or use the land; and, with the growth of the Australian economy, many of the squatters became quite rich, and the term “squatter” came to refer to someone with a large amount of farm land (they were often regarded as rich and powerful)

transportation = in the context of the Australian colonies, the transportation of convicts to the colonies, used as a means of punishment

[Editor: Corrected “phenominally” to “phenomenally”; “to stands as” to “to stand as”.]

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