Monday, 30 September 2013

Sir George Arthur and transportation

Convict discipline was ‘the grand consideration to which every other in the Territory must be subservient.’ Arthur expected ‘unquestioning obedience,’ not only from convicts and convict officials, but also ‘established landholders and merchants.’[1] At least one secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Goderich, agreed with Arthur that a penal colony had to endure ‘the temporary sacrifice of many principles of law.’[2] This view antagonised many free settlers, especially in Hobart Town. They echoed their NSW counterparts by demanding a greater say in determining the colony’s future and the rights of freeborn Englishmen railing against what they saw as arbitrary and unjust government interference. Newspapers published in Hobart Town and Launceston were watchdogs of arbitrary government and outspoken proponents of the rights of the people. In 1826, the Colonial Times, which regularly referred to ‘free-born British subjects,’ wrote:

It must be recollected that we are in these Colonies, as far as our rights go, in England. By the privileges of our birth, the British Law is the only one to which we are subjected. Every immunity possessed by our brethren in England is also equally possessed by us de jure, notwithstanding many of them are withheld de facto. But when they are withheld, it is by the effect of the Law, specially enacted for that purpose.’[3]

For Englishmen, there was

...a natural feeling imbibed with our birth, cherished with our youth, and matured in our riper years which forbids our ever sinking to that abject state of being governed by absolute power or of becoming the slaves of despotism.’[4]

They were ‘not to be put off with the shadow of Liberty, after having once known the fullness of its enjoyments.’[5]

Support for measures such as trial by jury and representative government ‘increased as the free element in the population became proportionately greater’ and as it became clear that Chief Justice Pedder was subservient to Arthur.[6] In 1827, ‘the Gentry, Merchants, Landholders, Housekeepers, and other Free inhabitants of VDL’ petitioned the British Parliament for these two boons, which were ‘the pride and the birth-right’ and ‘the safeguard of every Briton.’[7] They declared that trial by jury was ‘essentially necessary to the preservation of our liberties’ because they lacked a representative assembly and therefore ‘no barrier between the People and the power of the Crown.’[8] Juries were ‘best calculated to protect man’s natural rights, and secure the pure administration of justice.’[9] In 1830, an ordinance empowered a judge to allow a jury in civil cases if desired by either party, but military juries were not removed for criminal cases until 1840.[10] A partially elected Legislative Council was not secured until 1850 and self-government until 1855.

In the 1820s and 1830s, the absence of trial by civilian jury and of representative government was not the only evidence that the rights of colonists were disregarded. To establish order and enforce convict discipline, Arthur created a powerful police force, comprised mainly of convicts, controlled by paid magistrates answerable to him. To pay for these magistrates, Arthur withdrew allowances from the gentlemen magistrates, thereby undermining their authority and status. Unlike the situation in NSW, lay magistrates had little say in police management and police control was not devolved but centralised.[11] The police infringed liberty in various ways, all detested by the citizens. The police arrested individuals on the flimsiest pretext, used excessive violence while so doing, acted as spies for the government, prosecuted offences that brought them part of a fine instead of pursuing thieves and were protected by the paid magistrates who supervised their duties.

Not unaware to their disadvantages or to criticisms of their methods, Arthur persevered with the appointment of convicts under sentence as policemen because of a shortage of suitable free settlers. In addition, the convicts’ desire to obtain a ticket of leave made them easier to control and, faced with Colonial Office directions to limit expenditure, he could pay them only a minimal wage, likely to attract only the most desperate free settlers. More important, the police achieved Arthur’s objectives. Describing them as ‘the pivot’ of his convict system, Arthur praised the police for providing him with unceasing surveillance and control over the convict population, for maintaining order, and for reducing crimes against person and property.[12] This paper subjects his police system, or ‘optical apparatus’ as one diarist called it, to close investigation and determines whether Arthur’s claims had validity.[13]

Hobart in 1823

Although Arthur was instructed by the British government to establish ‘a stricter surveillance and discipline’ over convicts, on his arrival in 1824 Arthur first had to deal with a number of threats to effective government.[14] Of particular concern was ‘a vast amount of crime amongst the Prisoners—Murders, constant Robberies, and other atrocious acts,’ perpetrated especially by bushrangers.[15] Given his ‘exceedingly limited’ military force, and his ‘inadequate means of punishing offences,’ Arthur was thankful that crime was not more widespread, but it was ‘truly distressing’ to the settlers on isolated farms. Arthur also predicted that the increasing ‘hostility’ of the Aborigines would stretch his limited resources, especially as ‘some strong measures’ would be required to remove them from the settled districts.[16] The administration of justice and supervision of convicts by inexperienced gentlemen magistrates was unsatisfactory. They awarded punishments without considering their ‘efficacy and propriety’ and without ‘uniformity’ and failed to create in the convicts

...such a reliance on the measures of Government towards them as alone can produce such an acquiescence of mind as is essential to the success of punishment.[17]

Arthur sought to portray VDL ‘as a terror in England rather than an allurement to vice’ by increasing penal discipline, preventing and punishing crime and keeping a record of the movements and behaviour of all convicts.[18] He believed his ‘first great improvement’ in criminal matters was to appoint a number of stipendiary magistrates.[19] With police magistrates already sitting in Hobart Town and Launceston, in 1827 Arthur appointed paid police magistrates, preferring men with military experience, at the smaller towns of New Norfolk, Oatlands, Richmond, Campbell Town, and Norfolk Plains, while military officers helped lay magistrates at Bothwell, Oyster Bay, and George Town.[20] These measures improved the behaviour of convicts and ‘the prevention and detection of crime generally.’ Masters were also keenly watched and brought to account if they mistreated their assigned convict servants.

According to Arthur, no government department was ‘more practically defective’ than the police.[21] His predecessors had failed to attract free men and all the petty constables were convicts, who were undoubtedly ‘in many cases the authors [rather] than detectors of crime.’ The constables were paid £10 per annum and received rations for themselves and their families and two suits of clothing.[22] As the chief district constables were landholders living on their own farms and spending most of their time on private interests, they neglected their police duties. Moreover, as they regarded their ‘emoluments’ as ‘trifling,’ Arthur did not ‘expect to derive much benefit from their services.’ Generally, the police were ‘ill-regulated and insufficient.’


[1] Korobacz, Victor, The Legislative Council of Van Diemen’s Land, 1825-1856: Some Aspects of the Development of a Colonial Legislature, master’s thesis, University of Tasmania, 1971, pp. 30, 53.

[2] Levy, M.C.I., Governor George Arthur: A Colonial Benevolent Despot, (Georgian House), 1953, p. 52.

[3] Colonial Times, 28 April, 26 May 1826.

[4] Colonial Times, 16 February 1827.

[5] Colonial Times, 2 March 1827.

[6] Ibid, Korobacz, Victor, The Legislative Council of Van Diemen’s Land, 1825-1856, p. 10.

[7] Colonial Times, 16 March 1827; ibid, Giblin, R.W., The Early History of Tasmania, Vol. 2, chapter 24.

[8] The Colonist, 15 July 1834. Trial by jury was the most important question decided during Pedder’s first years in office. The Act empowering the Crown to establish Supreme Courts in NSW and VDL (4 Geo. IV, c. 96, s. 6) provided that actions at law should be triable by a jury of twelve men if both parties concurred in an application to the presiding judge for such jury. In NSW, Chief Justice Francis Forbes construed s.19 of the Act to require that free men should be tried by juries of their fellows, but limited it to Courts of Quarter Sessions. In contrast, Pedder ruled that the Act had introduced trial by jury in the Supreme Court only and did not apply in inferior courts. The controversy that arose in 1825 in Hobart on this question branded Pedder as a member of the ‘government party’.

[9] Launceston Independent, 31 March 1832.

[10] See, West, John, The History of Tasmania, 2 Vols. (H. Dowling), 1852, reprinted, (Angus and Robertson), 1971, pp. 73-74, 81-83, 132-134; ibid, Castles, A.C., An Australian Legal History, pp. 273-275.

[11] Archives Office of Tasmania (AOT), Police Department (POL) 319/1, Forster to Assistant Police Magistrate, Great Swan Port, 19 September 1835; for the tensions between stipendiary and lay magistrates in New South Wales, see ibid, Neal David, The Rule of Law in a Penal Colony: Law and Power in Early New South Wales, pp. 115-140 and Golder, Hilary, High and Responsible Office: A History of the New South Wales Magistracy, (Sydney University Press), 1991, chapter 2.

[12] CO 280, Arthur to Goderich, 27 February 1833; ibid, Arthur, George, Observations Upon Secondary Punishments, p. 40.

[13] The words ‘optical apparatus’ were used by G.W.T.B. Boyes, University of Tasmania Archives, Royal Society collection 25/2(5), Boyes diary, 16 March 1836; see also, Chapman, P., (ed.), The Diaries and Letters of G.T.W.B, Boyes, Vol. 1, 1820-1832, (Oxford University Press), 1985; for a brief account of Arthur’s police, see Stephenson, Richard, ‘The Rise of Governor Arthur’s Police State’, Historical Records of Australia: A Documentary Periodical, number 1, (1990), pp. 11-15.

[14] AOT Governor’s Office (GO) 33/1, Arthur to Bathurst, 14 September 1825; AOT GO 33/3, Arthur to Huskisson, 21 April 1828, minute by Arthur, 26 February 1828; CO 280, Arthur to Murray, 25 May 1829, HRA, Resumed Series III, Vol. 8, pp. 367-371.

[15] AOT GO 33/1, Arthur to Bathurst, 3 July 1825; ibid, Levy, M.C.I., Governor George Arthur, pp. 90-96; Maxwell-Stewart, Hamish, ‘‘I Could Not Blame the Rangers...’: Tasmanian Bushranging, Convicts and Convict Management’, Tasmanian Historical Research Association Papers and Proceedings, Vol. 42, (1995), pp. 109-126.

[16] AOT GO 33/3, Arthur to Huskisson, 21 April 1828.

[17] Mitchell Library: (ML) Arthur Papers, Vol. 5, Letters from Arthur, Arthur to Franklin, 29 October 1836, emphasis in original.

[18] AOT GO 33/1, Arthur to Bathurst, 3 July 1825; CO 280, Arthur to Hay, 24 November 1829.

[19] ML: Arthur Papers, Vol. 5, Letters from Arthur, Arthur to Franklin, 29 October 1836.

[20] AOT GO 33/3, Arthur to Huskisson, 21 April 1828, minute by Arthur, 26 February 1828; ibid, West, John, The History of Tasmania, pp. 85-86.

[21] AOT GO 33/1, Arthur to Bathurst, 3 July 1825; for a description of the police in 1820, see Superintendent Humphrey’s evidence to the Bigge Commission, HRA, Series III, Vol. 3, pp. 270-289; see also Jackman, A.K., Development of Police Administration in Tasmania, 1804-1960, diploma of public administration thesis, University of Tasmania, 1966, pp. 1-46

[22] AOT GO 33/3, Arthur to Huskisson, 21 April 1828, minute by Arthur, 26 February 1828; Arthur to Bathurst, 9 June 1824, HRA, Series III, Vol. 4, p. 142; ibid, West, John, The History of Tasmania, p. 81.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Reducing costs or simply all gas!

Ed Miliband’s announcement that, if he is elected to Downing Street in 2015, his government will freeze energy prices for twenty months.  It was one of several statements over the past few days such as cancelling the ‘bedroom tax’ and compulsory purchase of unused land held by business that are indicative, some suggest, of a shift to the left by the Labour Party.  Today, we have had the predictable response from the energy companies, whose shares dropped drastically, that it could lead to the ‘lights going out’ and Miliband’s worrying tone that he would not ‘tolerate’ any obstruction from the energy industry.  The critical question is whether the Labour Party wants to not simply rein in what it sees as the worst excesses of the free market or whether it’s a case of back to the future, what one former Labour minister says marks a return to ‘tribal socialism’.One of the country's biggest investors - Neil Woodford of Invesco Perpetual - today called Labour's plan ‘economic vandalism..insane’ and warned that ‘the lights will go off, the economy will shut down.’  While Lord Mandelson, a former business secretary, said that he believed that Labour had moved on from the days of having to choose ‘between state control and laissez-faire’. 
The strategy the current opposition has developed to counter the government—the question of people’s falling living standards—is high risk especially so far from the General Election.  With the economy at least in the early stages of recovery and with falling levels of unemployment, there is still ample scope for the Coalition to counter the strategy with some effect.  But has Labour hit the right tone with its pronouncement about energy prices?  Polling data suggests that people are very concerned by energy prices but offering people £120 (the estimated gain from an energy freeze per household) is, I suspect, too low to persuade sufficient people to change their vote to Labour for it to hit the 35 per cent of the vote they need to be the largest party in the next parliament.  The electorate is sufficiently sophisticated not to be bribed into accepting what could be a disastrous business decision.  Prices in energy, as elsewhere, are determined by the law of supply and demand not by government regulation and control.  The energy companies are, like the banks, easy targets for the opposition since many people believe, not without some justification, that they put profits before social justice. 
But in government, you have to work with both and punitive raids on profits, though they may have political justification, make little economic sense—they have the potential for weakening the economy and reduce business confidence and may well increase living standards not reduce them.  Controlled economies have never been particularly effective economies since government is rarely the right organisation to run the economy on a day-to-day basis.  Yes it should provide the framework for fiscal and economic strategy but running the economy is best left to business and we need to recognise that business will always put profit before social justice.  The proper balance between profits and social justice is the role of regulation and we certainly need to strengthen this in several branches of economic life.  What Ed Miliband did yesterday, though it appealed to the socialist tendencies of some in his party, was to lay down a strategy for electoral failure not electoral success.  This is not, as he would have it, ‘standing up for the British people’.

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.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

You wouldn’t know it was only a year away!

If you look at the ‘national’ newspapers you really would not know that the referendum on Scottish independence is only a year away and yet it is perhaps the most important decision that will be made in our lifetimes.  Certainly it is more important than the proposed referendum on the European Union about which everyone has an opinion.  I’m reminded of how ‘British’ history is taught in many schools—for ‘Britain’ read England or, more accurately, England south of the Watford Gap.  It is hardly surprising, given the enormous condescension of history, that Scotland is calling for independence.  The assumption appears to be that the Scots will see sense and vote to remain in the Union but that’s a hell of a gamble.  The polls suggest that most people are against independence so we just need to build on that…again remarkable complaisance.  Think again…a recent poll in the Herald shows that a majority of Scots favour ‘devomax’, the further devolution of powers short of independence that is not on offer…so the choice is between independence or nothing for this majority and ripe for picking by those who want independence.
Do I think Scotland could make it as an independent country…well actually yes.  It has the resources—natural, social, cultural, economic and political—to do so.  Devolution has given it a revived experience of governance and it is rightly believed that successive Scottish executives have done a good job.  It already has its own legal and education systems.  So there are strong arguments for an independent Scotland at a practical level.  There is also a persuasive historical case for restoring the independence of the northern kingdom, a process that devolution inevitably set in train.  There is a strong tradition in Britain’s history for local and regional identities that frequently transcend any notion of national feeling.  I come from the Fens and have always regarded myself first as a Fenman and still baulk at being seen as an East Anglian. Individual identity does depend on place and space.  In Scotland, the distinction between lowlanders and highlanders or whether you were born in Glasgow or Edinburgh makes a difference and has long been a feature of Scottish cultural identity.  What holds Britain together is its union of disparate and different people.
The problem with union is that it was the result of a long evolution and, other than being unitary, has little logical structure at all.  It was the consequence of conquest, cajoling, bribery and corruption…a constitutional structure based on decidedly unconstitutional foundations.  Until recently, the relationship between the centre and the peripheries was decided in Westminster and the degree to which the peripheries achieved political influence was dependent on their ability to influence politicians in Westminster.  It had been a very unequal union in which being English or being seen to be English has been its determining characteristic.  I happen to think that the four elements of Great Britain are better together than apart…but then I’m English and would say that anyway wouldn’t I!!  But not under the current union….what we need is a new federal union to replace the bankrupt unitary one. 
This would not be as difficult or radical as it sounds.  Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales already have devolved powers that could be extended by applying the principles of devomax.  In effect they would have independence to make most of the decisions about domestic policy simply developing what already exists.  England would need its own parliament to make decisions…again this is not a difficult proposition as currently Parliament makes decisions about education and the NHS, for instance, that apply to England rather than the United Kingdom as a whole.  There would need to be a peripatetic federal Parliament to decide issues that affect the union as a whole—foreign policy, defence, security on so on—that could sit in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff in existing parliamentary or assembly buildings for say six months at a time.  This would modernise what is increasingly a creaking constitutional structure that is not ‘fit for purpose’ as far as many people are concerned. 

Monday, 9 September 2013

Common-sense and Syria or doing something is better than doing nothing!

We now have an admission from the White House that it has no ‘irrefutable’ evidence of Mr Assad's involvement in the August attack, but said a ‘strong common-sense test irrespective of the intelligence’ suggested his government was responsible.  I’m always a little sceptical when anyone says…common-sense dictates..and this is intensified when it comes to whether or not there is intervention in Syria.  We similarly have the view of William Hague against believing anything that Assad said in an interview for American television: ‘We mustn’t fall into the trap of attaching too much credibility to the words of a leader--President Assad--who has presided over so many war crimes and crimes against humanity.’  So there’s no need to apply the beyond all reasonable doubt principle because, as the American Secretary of State pronounced ‘intelligence does not work that way’ and anyway, despite his denial of culpability for the attack (well he would say that wouldn’t he), he’s not to be believed.  Now both William Hague and John Kerry may be right and Assad was responsible for the attack but is there not equally the possibility that we are ‘attaching too much credibility’ to their words.  In a war of words, truth is often the first casualty.

image

Whether or not there is intervention seems to hinge on the response of the American Congress.  A Washington Post survey said 224 of the current 433 members of the House of Representatives were either ‘no’ or ‘leaning no’ on military action as of Friday, while 184 were undecided and just 25 were backing a strike.  In the Senate, the survey suggested that 27 of the 100 senators were ‘no’ or ‘leaning no’, while 50 were undecided and 23 supportive of military action.  Many US politicians remain concerned that military action could draw the nation into a prolonged war and spark broader hostilities in the region.  The critical question is not whether punitive action is or is not justifiable but what the possible consequences of such action could be.  It is this issue perhaps more than any other than contributed to Parliament’s defeat of the government’s motion on the principle of intervention ten days ago.  Even if you think that the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical attack, you can still oppose intervention because it would make the situation worse and fail to resolve the question of Syria’s civil war.  Other than punishing the Assad regime and presumably degrading its potential for further use of chemical weapons, you have to ask whether this is sufficient justification for intervention.  It represents action that has no obvious end.  What it certainly does not do is bring about the end of the civil war…surely the only justification for any action, military or diplomatic. 

The problem of intervention is that there are no winners.  The Syrian oppositions (the plural is deliberate) will be no closer to winning their wars, whether with each other or with the Syrian regime.  For some, an external attack on the regime will bolster their support for Assad with increased military and logistical aid.  It does nothing to heal the fractious relationship between the United States and Russia and China, a relationship that is fundamental to finding a diplomatic solution to the military impasse.  For the Middle East generally, further United States intervention will raise again the spectre of Iraq and the largely unsuccessful mission in Afghanistan and increase not diminish the suspicion by Moslems of the American imperialist state.  It makes the creation of a democratic state in Syria (always an unlikely eventuality in the short-term) even less likely.  The legacy of the ‘Arab spring’, and in this respect it echoes the ‘democratic spring’ of 1848, is not the creation of democratic states but fractious communities in which democracy is seen, not as an expression of liberal principles, but the means for establishing the tyranny of the majority  over the rights (often previously tolerated in dictatorial regimes) of minority groups. 

If the only argument for intervention is common-sense dictates, then there is no case at all.  This is not appeasing dictators (something dominant powers have always been prepared to do when it suited them) but recognises that intervention makes what will be the only solution to the problem of Syria—a diplomatic and politic one—more difficult to achieve.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Red lines, Syria and intervention

One of the dangers of laying down red lines is that when they are crossed (as they almost inevitably will do) you are then in a position of having to do something about it without losing credibility.  Over Syria, red lines have been crossed..not a fortnight ago in the horrendous attack..but earlier when on fourteen occasions previously chemical weapons were used.  There is a growing disconnect between the view of some politicians on the need for intervention in Syria and the view of many people—polls indicate a majority of people in France and Britain and barely a majority in the United States—who are either opposed to or sceptical about intervention.  Some oppose intervention on principle or war-weariness but most oppose intervention because they are unclear what the purpose of intervention is, other than it being a punitive action, and do not see how it could resolve the intractable problem of the civil war.

Members of the crowd hold up signs against military action in Syria as US Senator John McCain speaks in Phoenix, Arizona, on 5 September 2013

The disconnect between politicians and the people is paralleled by the disconnect between those countries that support intervention and those who oppose it without the agreement of the United Nations Security Council as evidenced in the G20 meeting that ended today.  There is no agreement over who perpetrated the atrocity, though the balance of probability lies with the Assad regime; there is no agreement over the value of intervention; and there is very little likelihood of agreement in the Security Council.  Relying on the UN to act over Syria David Cameron has said, would be tantamount to ‘contracting out foreign policy and morality’ to a Russian veto. 

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.