Friday, 20 September 2013

Sir George Arthur as Lieutenant-Governor

The fragile order of VDL concerned the British government especially as it planned to increase transportation to the Australian colonies.[1] After Bigge found that transportation was an ineffective deterrent, the British government removed the popular Sorell[2] and in 1824 appointed the strict disciplinarian Colonel George Arthur as lieutenant-governor, beginning the most important period of the penal colony’s history. Seeking to make transportation feared by British criminals, Arthur raised convict discipline to new levels and ensured that punishment was uniform and assured. The British government responded by increasing the annual average of convicts sent to VDL from about 800 between 1817 and 1827 to about 1,800 between 1828 and 1835; between 1830 and 1836 convicts formed on average 44 per cent of the population.[3] The increase in convicts and free settlers swelled the total population from 5,468 in 1820 to 24,279 by 1830. Using methods similar to Sorell’s, Arthur deployed the increasing number of convicts on a large programme of public works and assigned convicts to farmers throughout the island. By forcing convicts to work for long periods, Arthur hoped to break the habit of idleness associated with criminality and provide convicts with skills to earn a living on the end of their sentences. The combination of cheap labour, a sizable injection of British capital and a growing free settler population greatly stimulated the economy and further strengthened the power and wealth of the gentry and merchants.

Arthur imposed severe punishments and floggings on convicts who disobeyed his regulations and many were hung for committing serious crimes, but order was also encouraged by his offer of inducements, such as a ticket of leave and a pardon, to those who behaved correctly and showed signs of reformation.[4] A ticket of leave was a license given to convicts if well behaved for four, six, or eight years depending on the length of their sentence. It allowed them to earn wages and live independently while serving the remainder of their sentences. The convicts remained under surveillance and the ticket could be rescinded for bad behaviour. A pardon remitted part or a convict’s entire sentence. A conditional pardon required a convict to remain in the colony, while an absolute pardon made no such requirement. Appealing to the self-interest of convicts was a central principle of Arthur’s policy of transportation

Colonists praised Arthur for restoring order by suppressing bush-ranging and the Aborigines and by enforcing a rigid system of convict discipline. But the relationship between some colonists and Arthur was strained. Arthur wanted to dominate colonists, not bow to their demands, to centralise power, not disperse it, and to restrict liberty, not extend it. The institutions of government reflected his desires. In 1825, VDL secured administrative independence from NSW and was granted an Executive Council, a form of cabinet comprised of senior public servants and a Legislative Council, whose members included the executive councillors and some free settlers chosen by Arthur. Arthur, who initiated all legislation, expected the two Councils to approve his measures and they invariably did. Arthur also expected the Supreme Court, formed in 1824 with the arrival of John Pedder as chief justice, to uphold his autocratic rule, even where his powers might ‘trench upon the privileges or conveniences of the free.’[5] By holding a seat on the Executive Council until 1836 and on the Legislative Council, Pedder subordinated the judicial arm of government to the executive and destroyed confidence in his impartiality.[6]

Arthur used his power to initiate new legislation ‘sparingly’ when it became the only way of ‘varying the community instincts and activities’ that frustrated his policies.[7] In ten years under Arthur (1826 to 1836), eighty-eight statutes were passed compared with one hundred and thirty-six in six years under his successor Sir John Franklin.[8] Arthur’s statute law vested ‘executive powers in himself and those responsible to him; providing administrative directions to enable his policies to be implemented without too much statutory regulation.’ He argued against the notion that no colonial laws should be implemented unless they were ‘adapted to the spirit of the British Constitution.’[9] Those who ‘knowingly’ emigrated to a convict colony, which was in effect ‘an immense Gaol or Penitentiary,’ should not expect ‘to retain every immunity and privilege’ they enjoyed in England and should ‘abide cheerfully by the rules and customs of the Prison.’ There could be

...no happiness nor prosperity without personal security,’ and this could only be secured by ‘severe discipline’.[10]


[1] Boyce, James, Van Diemen’s Land, (Black Inc.), 2008, pp. 145-212 provides the most recent discussion of Arthur’s rule.

[2] Sorell’s removal had more to do with his relationship with Mrs Kent, whom he lived with in Government House than his governance of VDL. He was negligent in his family obligations and his failure to recognise the social conventions was a deliberate choice. For this he was apparently prepared to pay. He damaged the official career to which he was certainly dedicated, but the majority of the influential free Tasmanian colonists seemed to have overlooked unconventional conduct or impropriety and saw Sorell as a fair and effective governor.

[3] Ibid, Shaw A.G.L., Convicts and Colonies, pp. 365-67; ibid, Forsyth, W.D., Governor Arthur’s Convict System, p. 150; ibid, Hartwell, R.M., The Economic Development of Van Diemen’s Land, 1820-1850, p. 68.

[4] Arthur, George, Defence of Transportation, in Reply to the Remarks of the Archbishop of Dublin in His Second Letter to Earl Grey, (Gowie), 1835, pp. 48, 96-100; ibid, Shaw A.G.L., Convicts and Colonies, pp. 217-48; Davis, R.P., The Tasmanian Gallows: A Study of Capital Punishment, (Cat and Fiddle Press), 1974, pp. 13-33.

[5] Colonial Office (CO) 280, Arthur to Hanley, 4 April 1834.

[6] For a sympathetic view of Pedder, see Bennett, J.M., Sir John Pedder: First Chief Justice, (University of Tasmania), 1977. See also, Howell, P.A., ‘Pedder, Sir John Lewes (1793-1859)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 319-320.

[7] Ibid, Castles, A.C., ‘The Vandiemonian Spirit and the Law’, pp. 114, 116 n. 53

[8] The Public General Acts of Tasmania 1826-1936, Vol. 7, (Butterworth), 1936-1939, pp. 221-228.

[9] CO 280, Arthur to Hanley, 4 April 1834.

[10] CO 280, Arthur to Hanley, 4 April 1834, emphasis in original.

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