Friday, 6 September 2013

Early policing in Van Diemen’s Land

The penal colony of VDL was founded by the British in March 1803. Since this island of 65,000 square kilometres was strategically placed to the south of the Australian mainland, Governor King of NSW feared French attempts to colonise it. [1] Accordingly, he established there a small community of convicts, soldiers, and some free settlers. Two main settlements emerged, Hobart Town in the south, later its capital and Launceston in the north. The colony was administered by a lieutenant-governor, a military officer, who reported to the governor of NSW.

In the first decade or so, the convict settlement faced various difficulties. Because of irregular supplies from NSW, colonists barely survived by supplementing their diet with fish and native animals. Prosperity emerged after the Napoleonic Wars ended and free settlement expanded. The free settlers extended their occupation of the arable land in the north, northeast, and southeast. An economy based on trading, the wool industry, wheat farming and whaling developed and Hobart Town and Launceston grew into thriving towns. A small but wealthy farming and trading community emerged that benefited from the capable and pliable administration of William Sorell, lieutenant-governor from 1817 to 1824.[2] In 1818, convicts began to be transported directly from Britain to VDL. Affluent settlers appreciated Sorell’s effective deployment of convicts on public works and as assigned labourers on their farms, thereby consolidating their wealth and power. Unlike NSW, very few ex-convicts were prominent in public life in the younger island colony.[3] Through land grants and purchases, free settlers owned ‘a very large proportion of all the property’ and expected to exercise ‘that influence which is usually associated with large means.’

File:John Glover - Mr Robinson's house on the Derwent, Van Diemen's Land - Google Art Project.jpg

Mr Robinson’s house on the Derwent, VDL, c1838

Sorell was appointed in the hope that he would be able to restore order and bring direction and organisation into the government to VDL. Once he assumed office in April 1817, he immediately proceeded to try to reform the abuses prevalent on the Derwent. He found much disorder in the administration, government activities were not co-ordinated and corruption was common.[4] The convicts were under little control and bush ranging had almost reached open armed revolt against authority. Sorell knew that his powers were severely limited and his authority in most matters was confined to carrying out instructions received from Macquarie; he was not allowed to allocate land to settlers or to employ government funds or prison labour without sanction and he was required to submit details of public expenditure to Sydney.

Sorell firmly met the challenge of Michael Howe, the leader of the bushrangers and self-styled ‘Governor of the Woods’. Well planned and executed military operations quickly ended Howe’s career and sent most of his followers to the gallows. The stern warning was not lost on those runaway convicts who sought to emulate Howe. The ‘Old Man’, as Sorell was known, probably because of his white hair, was rightly feared as nobody in the colony before him. Sorell knew that large-scale bushranging was only made possible by help given by outwardly law-abiding free colonists and, in less than eighteen months after taking office, he had arrested all the known sympathisers of the bushrangers and those who assisted them. With law and order restored, Sorell was able to carry out the reform of government. Organising a proper personal staff and successfully employing his considerable diplomatic skill, he secured the co-operation of the newly appointed deputy Judge-Advocate Edward Abbott[5], the senior chaplain and the commanding officer of the troops. The duties of each public officer were clearly defined and a proper system of accounts, records and correspondence installed. Sorell can be regarded as the founder of sound administrative systems in the colony.

Recognising that the British government regarded the colony principally as a community for the reception, punishment and wherever possible the reclamation of prisoners, Sorell organised governmental agencies for these purposes. He established a ‘system of perpetual reference and control’ over convicts through regular musters, the strict issue of passes and a full series of registers. He built convict barracks in Hobart that were first occupied in 1822. He tried to assign prisoners only to reputable employers and to guard against the lax granting of tickets-of-leave by restricting them to convicts who gave evidence of good behaviour, apart from a few with special skills. For reconvicted prisoners he established the penal settlement on Sarah Island in the then remote Macquarie Harbour. Later generations, with little knowledge of contemporary conditions and the lack of humanity in his generation’s attitude to crime and punishment, have severely criticised Sorell for the conditions there. However, he had no funds or authority to establish a proper penal settlement or to build costly prisons.

From 1817 onwards, free colonists began to arrive in increasing numbers. Sorell personally carried out investigations of land that seemed suitable for grants. Although there are no records of his having been engaged in farming in England, he showed a very practical concern in expanding production from the land. All through his letters and dispatches are references to the care of livestock, the proper selection of seed for grain crops and their proper harvesting and storage. A community that ten years earlier had faced famine became a producer of surplus crops which were exported to Sydney and even abroad. Sorell recognized the value of the Midland plains for pastoral production. With Macquarie’s co-operation he arranged for the importation of several hundred merino sheep from the Camden flock laying the foundations of the Tasmanian fine-wool industry. Commerce increased as a result of stable conditions and land development, but the chaotic condition of the currency proved a problem. Sorell could not withdraw the debased coins and promissory notes in circulation or abolish the custom of the use of rum for exchange but he constantly endeavoured to keep all official values expressed in sterling, despite the fact that the Spanish dollar was the commonest coin and he made an important contribution to commerce by taking steps, with the aid of leading merchants, to establish a bank, the Bank of Van Diemen’s Land. Sorell’s policies were so successful that the colony’s conditions and prospects became well known and favourably regarded in Britain. The ready availability of land suitable for sheep-breeding and wool-growing and of cheap assigned labour attracted a considerable number of former army and navy officers who brought their families, household goods, agricultural implements and in many cases substantial capital with them.[6]

This picture of developing prosperity should not mask the problems of maintaining law and order in the first two decades. Convicts dominated the population, but were not easily controlled by the military and convict constables. Many convicts escaped into the densely forested and mountainous terrain found throughout the island, there developing a subculture of banditry. Although Sorell made significant inroads, bush-ranging remained rampant in the mid-1820s. Settlers also faced attacks from the Aborigines, who numbered between four and six thousand in 1803 and waged a form of guerrilla warfare against the military and settlers, using their knowledge of the rugged interior. [7] Although many were killed and even more succumbed to European diseases, they remained a threat in the mid-1820s. The court system was a parody of the rule of law. In 1816, a deputy Judge-Advocate began to hear civil cases up to £50 in the lieutenant-governor’s court, but the colony did not have a resident judge until 1824 and colonists were unwilling to spend money prosecuting cases in Sydney.[8] Despite lacking legal authority, powerful lay magistrates heard many capital cases and imposed severe sentences, such as flogging. In many criminal cases, the offenders escaped punishment or were punished contrary to law and in 1814 NSW Judge-Advocate Ellis Bent found it difficult to give ‘an accurate idea of the state of misrule and uncontrolled profligacy in all classes’ in VDL.[9] The arbitrary imposition of the criminal law engendered ‘a deeply honed resentment of government.’[10]


[1] Roe, Michael, ‘Introduction: The History of Tasmania to 1856’, in Stone, C.R., and Tyson, Pamela, (eds.), Old Hobart Town and Environs, 1802-1855, (Pioneer Design Studio), 1978, pp. 7-16; ibid, Robson, L.L., A History of Tasmania, Vol. 1, Van Diemen’s Land from the Earliest Times to 1855.

[2] Reynolds, John, ‘Sorell, William (1775-1848)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 459-462.

[3] Arthur, George, Observations Upon Secondary Punishments, (James Ross), 1833, pp. 74-76.

[4] See discussion by Curnow, R., ‘What’s Past is Prologue: Administrative Corruption in Australia’, in Tiihonen, Seppo, (ed.), The history of corruption in central government, (IOS Press), 2003, pp. 37-64, especially pp. 39-46.

[5] Townsley, W.A., ‘Abbott, Edward (1766-1832)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 2-3.

[6] Hartwell, R.M., The Economic Development of Van Diemen’s Land, 1820-1850, (Melbourne University Press), 1954.

[7] Reynolds, Henry, Fate of a Free People, (Penguin Books), 1995.

[8] Castles, A.C., ‘The Vandiemonian Spirit and the Law’, Tasmanian Historical Research Association Papers and Proceedings, Vol. 38, (1991), p. 109.

[9] See Bennett, J.M., and Castles, A.C., (eds.), A Source Book of Australian Legal History, (Law Book Company), 1979, p. 38.

[10] Ibid, Castles, A.C., ‘The Vandiemonian Spirit and the Law’, p. 110.

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