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Gentlemen of New South Wales


THE VISITOR from England, arriving in Sydney in the 1820s, saw a bright prospect from the deck of his ship: Across the glittering blue of the harbor, under the immense clarity of the southern sky, a neat-looking town of freestone or whitewashed cottages with shady verandas, their gardens marked off from one another and from the still-encircling bush with paling fences or clipped geranium hedges, their kitchen-yards “teeming with culinary delicacies.” And yet, as the naval surgeon Peter Cunningham noted in his memoir of New South Wales life, the sense of domestic familiarity dissipated as soon as he stepped ashore, among the English faces and not-quite-English accents, the caged cockatoos and rosellas shrieking among the overflowing fruit stalls, and the silent caged men:

The government gangs of convicts . . . marching backwards and from their work in single military file, and the solitary ones straggling here and there, with their white woollen Parramatta frocks and trowsers, or gray and yellow jackets with duck overalls (the different styles of dress denoting the oldness or newness of their arrival), all daubed over with broad arrows, P.B.’s, C.B.’s, and various numerals in black, white and red; with perhaps the chain-gang straddling sulkily by in their jingling leg-chains,—tell a tale too plain to be misunderstood.1

Inequality did not stop with the public gangs. In penal Australia, the question of class was all-pervasive and pathological. Distance had made it so. Tiny as it was (about 7,500 people in 1807; 10,500 in 1812; 24,000 in 1820; and 36,598 at the time of the first census in November 1828), the colony was gnawed by isolation and boredom, plagued by foolish vendettas and extreme class-consciousness. Class barriers were translated into personal affront in the blink of an eye. The atmosphere of New South Wales at the end of the transportation period was summed up in 1839 by “A Settler,” writing pseudonymously but with piercing insight in the Sydney Morning Herald:

People come here to better their condition, many with limited means, their tempers a little soured with privations and disappointed expectations (for all expect too much); cut off from the ties of kindred, old friendships, and endearing associations, all struggling in the road of advancement, and no-one who reflects will be surprised that they jostle one another. Every man does not know his own position so well as at home. [Italics added.]2

One speaks of “colonial gentry” as though there were gentlemen in early Australia; but there were not. Frontiers have a way of killing, maiming or simply dismissing gentlemen. In any case, most folk with settled estates have no reason to go to a raw, new country. They can invest in it later, without needing to break their bodies on it now. To succeed on the frontier, a man needed the kind of violent, grabbing drive that only failure or mediocrity in his former life could fuel.

The male society of early New South Wales could be roughly sorted into three kinds of people. There were opportunists struggling to be gentlemen; convicts and outcasts waiting to be opportunists; and the failures, who would never become anything. Social life thus displayed a crude, insecure face, which the cosmetic application of airs and graces could not altogether hide. The mixture of ambition and social pretension wearied many a visitor. The relentless deployment of tooth and claw against the tentative mobility of the lower orders would impress Charles Darwin himself with its unpleasant naïveté when he arrived in Sydney on the Beagle in 1836.

The colonial elite after 1800 had arrived at an idea of gentility that was already becoming, if not obsolete, then certainly old-fashioned in England. It was feudal and rural. It belonged more to the 1720s than the 1820s. It parodied an ideal of privilege they had never had and, moreover, was distinguished by its absolute inability to relax. English gentility defined itself in relation to an aristocracy above and a peasantry and serving classes below. But its vision of the “good yeoman” did not apply very well in convict Australia, whose peasantry was, by definition, not good.

The Exclusives had come from nowhere in a generation or two. They were determined to prevent other men, also from nowhere, from getting what they had. Hence their stubborn resistance to the gathering social demands of the Emancipists and their Australian-born children. It was a campaign fought with extreme punctilio. When Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who correctly believed that some of the ablest men in the colony were Emancipists, invited four of them to dinner at Government House in 1810, the Exclusives were outraged. When he went further and appointed two of these men, the merchant Simeon Lord and the landowner Andrew Thompson, as trustees and commissioners of the new turnpike road that was to be built between Sydney and the Hawkesbury River, the third proposed trustee—the Reverend Samuel Marsden, senior chaplain of the colony and one of its biggest landowners, a merciless pharisee—was so piqued in his clerical dignity that he refused to serve. This in turn sent the governor into one of his military rages, and the feud between the two men poisoned relations between Church and State in New South Wales for the rest of Macquarie’s term.

The Exclusives could define their sense of class against the despised Emancipists, but they were snobbish as only provincials could be. The tone was faithfully echoed as late as the 1840s by Louisa Anne Meredith, a clergyman’s wife who wrote a delectably acerbic account of her five years in Australia (1839–44):

The distinctions in society here remind me of the “dock-yard people” described by Dickens. . . . Thus—Government officers don’t know merchants; merchants with “stores” don’t know other merchants who keep “shops”; and the shopkeepers have, I doubt not, a little code of their own, prescribing the proper distances to be obseved between drapers and haberdashers, butchers and pastrycooks. . . . [T]his pride of place is so very ridiculous and unbecoming in such a community, that were not its tendency so mischievous, it could only provoke a smile.3

All colonial standards—of rank, etiquette, taste and the “interesting”—were English. Until well into the 1820s, the word “Australian” was a term of abuse, or at best of condescension; it carried an air of seediness on the rim of the Pacific. Sydney’s was a heliotropic society, and the sun it faced—distant, abstract but commanding—was the Royal family, seen through its viceroy the governor. He was an autocrat presiding over a police state with certain social trimmings. His power was all-encompassing, as befitted the man who ran a continent that was also a jail. It had been so since 1788, when Arthur Bowes Smyth, hearing Captain Phillip’s commission read at Sydney Cove, found it “a more unlimited one than was ever before granted to any governor under the British Crown,” while Ralph Clark noted that he “had never heard of any single person having so great a power invested in him.”4 All political decisions ran through his hands; who got land, where and how much; who got labor; who was pardoned, freed or sent to a penal station; what religions were celebrated, other than the established rites of the Church of England, and at what hours; who filled administrative positions; what could be said in the colony’s embryonic press—a thousand matters, loaded or trivial, down to the vexed question of which side of the road the chaotic, ever increasing traffic of Sydney should move on (Macquarie chose the left, as in Britain). Nowhere in the British Empire did a proconsul have wider social power than in penal Australia.

It was in the person of the governor, therefore, that the class divisions of the colony found their basis, their reassurance. If a governor leaned toward populism, showing favor to small farmers or ex-convicts, immense resentments could be released, as they were against Lachlan Macquarie. It is not easy to exaggerate the entrenched mentality of the dozen or so clans, starting with the Macarthurs and their allies like Samuel Marsden, who made up the leading free families of Australia between 1800 and 1840.

John Macarthur (1767–1834) and his wife Elizabeth Veale (1767–1850) were the founders and prototypes of the colonial gentry. Macarthur was the son of a Plymouth mercer and corset-maker, a choleric man with a rage for gentility, who saw plots and insults everywhere and was as touchy as a Sicilian. He wasted half his life in imbroglios. Known to Emancipists as “Jack Bodice”—a nickname that reduced him to rage—and to his administrative enemies as “the perturbator,” he quarrelled furiously with judges, clergymen, sea captains and traders, and with a succession of governors from Hunter to Darling. From prison in 1808, he masterminded (if that is the word for so half-cocked and rash a gesture) the Rum Corps’s putsch against Governor Bligh.5

The fruit of his spleen was exile; he had to spend all but four years of the period 1801–17 in England, while his wife Elizabeth, most resourceful and levelheaded of women, bred their sheep and ran their growing estates by the Nepean River in Camden. Off the land, Macarthur was a poor businessman, betrayed by his enthusiasms and his hatreds alike. He was rarely conscious of any line between private and public interest, except when scrutinizing the behavior of his enemies. He died mad. None of this tarnished Macarthur’s name as the doyen of Australian pastoral conservatism.6

Macarthur had come out as a New South Wales Corps ensign on the Second Fleet in 1790 with his wife, their baby son and a maid. Francis Grose, the army governor, favored him and made him paymaster of the Rum Corps. Macarthur started small, with a mixed-breed herd of about a thousand sheep. He got all the land and convict labor he wanted from Grose and his successor Paterson. But the next two governors, Hunter and King, were navy men who saw no reason to do inside deals with Macarthur or to give him special patronage. “Jack Bodice” took this to mean war. His basilisk campaigns of innuendo against Government House reached their climax in September 1801 in a quarrel, and then a pistol duel, with his own colonel, whose allegiance Macarthur had tried to suborn from Governor King. He winged the colonel in the shoulder, and King, incensed by the doings of “this perturbator,” arrested him for trial. But he could not be given a court-martial in Sydney, because—King believed—his fellow officers would have supported the Rum Corps against the Navy with an acquittal. So he was sent back to be tried in England. This, by one of the bizarre flukes that often seemed to govern colonial life, made Macarthur’s fortune.

His sole punishment for shooting turned out to be a free ticket to London, with wool samples. King’s strategy backfired, as the English court-martial acquitted Macarthur. Before leaving, Macarthur had bought 1,250 more mixed-breed sheep from a brother officer, Major Foveaux, thus making him the biggest sheep-owner in Australia. The main source of first-class wool for the growing English textile industries had been the merino flocks of Saxony and Spain. But Europe was under naval blockade and the English woollen industry was in crisis. It looked as though no more merino fleeces would be reaching England. Even with his coarse hanks of colonial wool, Macarthur’s timing was perfect. He found the government more than willing to encourage the raising of fine wool in Australia. He got Treasury permission to buy and export some merino sheep from a small specimen flock owned by George III. He also persuaded Lord Camden to give him a special land grant on which to raise these aristocratic beasts—2,000 acres around Mount Taurus, by the Nepean River, an area called the Cowpastures, the finest known grazing land in New South Wales (which he later renamed Camden). Macarthur sailed back in triumph in 1805 on his own whaling ship, rechristened the Argo after the vessel in which Jason sought the Golden Fleece.7

The pure merino, two centuries ago, was a tricky and delicate animal, a pompous ambling peruke, unused to Australian heat and Australian grass. Its virtue lay in the size of its fleece and the quality of its wool. But to flourish in Australia the strain had to be cross-bred. Although Macarthur did not, as he often claimed, introduce the merino to New South Wales (both pure and cross merinos were owned by “Little Jack” Palmer and the Reverend Samuel Marsden before him), he turned it into the staple of Australian export by crossing it with hardier types, Bengal and Afrikaner Fat-Tail, while conserving a pure merino flock to improve the strains.8

Before long, “pure Merino” was colonial slang for any member of the pastoral elite, starting with the Macarthurs; and by 1808, when he had to run for England and stay there nine years, leaving his stud in charge of Elizabeth and his growing sons, Macarthur was the largest sheep-owner in New South Wales. In his absence, Elizabeth bought, built and bred their holdings far beyond the original Cowpastures grant, to 60,000 acres.

Few ways of life, one would think, demand more evenness of temper, perseverance, instinctive sympathy and financial prudence than stockfarming. Yet the curious fact is that both the founders of Australian sheep-farming were melancholies, given to attacks of extreme anxiety—the very opposite of the contented squire. Alexander Riley (1788–1833) was a genial Irishman most of the time, but his black fits were almost as bad as Macarthur’s. Riley had followed his two sisters, who married Rum Corps officers, from Ireland to Australia. He began as a general trader, raising sheep on the side at his station, Raby, near Liverpool. His coup, which would transform Australian grazing, was to bring in Saxon merino sheep, a better stapled and hardier strain than Macarthur’s Spanish merinos. In 1825 he landed a whole flock of them, each like a woolly pasha in its own padded pen. He wheedled from the government a grant of 10,000 acres of prime land, but further out, near Yass, on the western limits of settlement. He called this station Cavan, after his family’s district in Ireland. The essential bloodlines of Australian sheep-breeding run back to Camden and Cavan.

Riley and Macarthur were very different men. Macarthur had a plantation mind and could not keep his fingers out of politics. Riley shied away from public affairs and expected the convict system to wither away, leaving a society of free men whose elite were graziers. The contrast between them reminds one of the dangers of generalizing about early pastoralists as though they were units in a class, not individuals. And yet the values of most well-off free men in early colonial Australia were certainly closer to Macarthur’s than to Riley’s, especially since very few of them were Irish.

What was the ideology of the Merinos and those who aspired to their company—of the Exclusives in general? Mainly, gut Tory conservatism, reinforced by the doctrines of the established Church of England. Like the English squires they emulated, they hated all things French and were apt to treat any kind of Emancipist restiveness as unbridled Jacobinism.

They thought themselves uniquely fitted to hold power in the colony—indeed, that no others were suitable. Not the Emancipists or their children, for the “taint” of convictry was ineradicable and hereditary; stock-breeding encourages a rigid view of genetic inheritance. Not the growing class of city traders and entrepreneurs, no matter how much money they were beginning to make, for trade was ignoble beside land, although much could be forgiven for a suitable dowry. Not the new-chum settlers, who were coming in growing numbers after 1820, for their roots in the land did not go deep enough, and they did not have the big holdings. Not being able to idealize their origins, the early Exclusives fetishized their achievements fiercely and rigidly, seeing themselves as an island of order in a lake of arrivisme and crime. They knew that what was good for them was good for the country.

They felt threatened by the rise of new money, generated by trade and property deals. Prudently, they married their offspring into the merchant families, crossing their lines as they had crossed their sheep for economic hardihood. Less realistically, they tried to cripple the Emancipists politically.

Was their conservatism nothing better than an exploitive, “un-Australian” style of baronial laissez-faire? This was the picture created by the Emancipists from 1815 onward—the pseudo-squire in an antipodean landscape, owning the land but not belonging to it; but it was mainly a rhetorical device.

In the 1830s this rhetoric was inflamed by the exacerbated quarrels between colonial conservatives—mainly landowners who had settled the Hunter River Valley in the 1820s—and their liberal governor Richard Bourke (1831–37). Appointed to office by the Whigs in England, Bourke had pushed through a number of reforms that endeared him to the Emancipists, the chief one being a new law which, in 1833, allowed criminal cases to be tried by civil juries and permitted former convicts to serve as jurors. This important enlargement of Emancipists’ rights was viewed with horror by conservatives. What anarchy, they asked, might not be unleashed by courts which allowed felons to try criminals? Bourke also restricted the power of landowners over their assigned servants, by decreeing that disciplinary sentences of flogging for offenses against the labor code now had to be given by two magistrates, not one, and setting their limit at 50 lashes instead of 100. Getting two magistrates to judge such cases was not a problem in the settled districts, but up in the Hunter River Valley it took time and trouble. There, a plantation mentality reigned among the big settlers, and they were furious at Bourke for his “leniency.” Emancipists and colonial liberals sided with Bourke, and in the crossfire of insult and polemic Bourke’s critics were painted as iron-souled blimps, men who would have been more at home among slaves on the banks of the Mississippi than in New South Wales.

The emblematic figure was “Major” James Mudie (1779–1852), cashiered marine lieutenant and failed medal publisher, now a rich man and a colonial magistrate, who called his homestead Castle Forbes and was said to have treated his assigned men so badly that they were driven to rebellion.* He pictured Governor Bourke as a shallow and misguided humanitarian, practicing (as Mudie later termed it) an “anti-penal, anti-social and anti-political system” which would lead the colony to “unbridled crime and lawless anarchy, and . . . its violent and sanguinary separation from the Empire.”9 (Moderation in attack was not a colonial habit, and certainly not Mudie’s.) In 1836 Bourke struck back by depriving Mudie (along with thirty-six others) of his magistracy. This loss of caste was too much for Mudie, who sold up and returned to England, vowing revenge. It came in the form of a hastily written book with the felicitous title The Felonry of New South Wales (1837). “Felonry,” Mudie explained, was his own word, encompassing all of the “criminal population” of the colony, including the Emancipists, no matter what their wealth or professional standing. It corresponded, he said, to the orders of the old world—“the tribe of apellatives distinguished by the same termination, as peasantry, tenantry, yeomanry, gentry, cavalry, chivalry, &c.” Such people, he argued, were “for ever infamous . . . infamous in law . . . unworthy of future trust”; they and their offspring should be disenfranchised forever. There was not the slightest chance that Mudie’s tirade could affect social relations in the colony, or be taken seriously outside a small group; but it certainly reinforced the Emancipist claim that men like Mudie were foreigners to New South Wales and outsiders to its social realities.

Yet most Exclusives, however rapacious and snobbish they were, identified themselves with Australia while drawing their models of hierarchy from England. The idea that egalitarianism was a true index of patriotism is mere piety. The Exclusives were more than marsupialized Englishmen; and against the boasts and toasts of the Emancipist party, one might set this, from James Macarthur in London to his aging father in 1829:

I shall now sit down peaceably and contentedly amongst our sheep-folds and under the shade of our own fig-trees . . . putting more trust in our own efforts, than in the acquaintance and connexions who have too many troubles of their own in this Country to think of the complaints of poor Australians. . . . [T]here are few people in England with whom I would willingly change places.10

Eden as property. It is hardly a populist utterance, but one cannot deny its Australian-ness.

In any case, no one held the exclusive rights on ambition or greed. It was William Charles Wentworth, the Emancipists’ trumpet, who in 1852 came round to lobby with James Macarthur for the creation of a hereditary colonial noblesse, the “bunyip aristocracy,” which, fortunately, the Crown saw no reason to create. No Merino ever came close to the kind of transaction that Wentworth, once cursed by them as a republican, a Jacobin and a leveller, attempted in 1840, when he and some associates gulled seven Maori chiefs into selling them about one-third of New Zealand—the largest private land deal in history. (It was, however, quashed by government order.) When it came to dividing the colonial pie, Whigs could behave exactly like Tories, Emancipists like Exclusives.


RILEY DIED in 1833, Macarthur a year later. Neither lived to see the wool industry dominate Australia’s economy. That did not happen until well into the 1830s, and when it did the graziers would be “home on the sheep’s back,” as the phrase went, for the next century. Wool became so big an export, so essential a part of the Australian imagination, that it is hard to imagine as a secondary industry. Yet for most of the convict period in New South Wales, it was. Between the failure of the naval-supply plans for flax and timber, and the enthronement of the sheep—that is, for about the first half-century of white settlement—much of Australia’s export wealth came from whaling and sealing, both trades dominated by Emancipists and their sons, the “Currency lads,” nativeborn white Australians.

“The fisheries,” as sealing and whaling were collectively known, were of an abundance hardly imaginable today. The southern oceans were a vast, undisturbed sanctuary for the black whale, the sperm whale and the fur seals. Every season, the huge cetaceans cruised north from Antarctica in millions, to mate and calve in the tranquil bays and estuaries along the coasts of New Zealand, Van Diemen’s Land and southeastern Australia. In the early 1800s, Hobart’s estuary was dangerous for small boats, which could scarcely steer between the pregnant and calving black whales. Whalers could sally out in dories and kill thousands a year. Because it did not need large vessels, bay-whaling was a cheap trade and easy for Emancipists to get into. It had been plied in Australian and New Zealand coastal waters since the 1790s; the first whalemen came on the Third Fleet.

Whaling in Australian waters could not, of course, be confined to colonists. In 1803 Pitt’s administration opened the whole Pacific Ocean east of 180° to unlicensed whalers. Scores of whaling ships, reeking and storm-battered, years out of Nantucket and Sag Harbor, came in for the killing. Colonial whalers learned from the American captains, those driven ancestors of Ahab, pressed on by flinty Quaker fleet-owners. By the 1820s, exports of whale oil and whalebone were paying for much of the iron, cloth, tools, salt provisions, tea, rum and Far Eastern luxury goods that came into the colony. The rest was bought with profits from sealing.11

Every beach of the Tasman Sea, each wild promontory of Bass Strait, every rock west of Kangaroo Island off South Australia bore teeming rookeries of seals and sea lions. They had no natural enemies and knew nothing of man except for the occasional Aborigine hunter. Tens of millions of them were wiped out in less than thirty years.

The sealers killed year-round, clubbing their prey to death. Because there was no closed season in mating and pupping time, pregnant seals were killed in myriads and the pups were left milkless on the rocks to starve. Disturbed in their ancestral rookeries, which soon became bogs of putrefaction—for the sealers took only the skins and left hills of flayed carcasses behind—the seals stopped breeding and abandoned their haunts. “The whole of this valuable trade is threatened with a speedy & total annihilation,” an official warned Lieutenant-Governor Arthur in 1826. The idea of appealing to the sealers was, of course, a joke. Most were the scum of the System, escaped convicts gone wild on a bitter shore:

The Islands . . . afford constant shelter, and secure retreats, for runaways and villains of the worst description. Amost every rock throughout the strait has become the habitation of some one or more amongst the most desperate and lawless of mankind. The whole of the Straits seem to present one continued scene of violence, plunder and the commission of every species of crime.—Natives, chiefly black women, are occasionally stolen from the mainland and actually sold to the leaders. . . . [F]rom 10 to 15 children, the offspring of these poor Creatures and of their oppressors, are now or were lately to be met with on the several Islands.12

There were many more than that. The rapparees and bolters who formed their bloody, troglodytic island colonies kidnapped hundreds of black women from their tribes not only because they needed sex, but because many coastal Aborigines were expert seal-hunters.13

Convicts could easily escape from Van Diemen’s Land on sealing vessels. By 1820 Hobart had become the main port and market for all whaling and sealing in the southern ocean. It was hard to monitor the passage of crews between ship and shore; and any convict could bluff his way past the wharf guards with a forged ticket-of-leave. Hundreds of men went through this loophole into the sealing trade. It was an excellent arrangement for the masters of the “fisheries.” Once aboard, the convict could not return to land without risking the gallows; he was shanghaied into another sort of captivity, masquerading as freedom. By the 1830s the southern bays and refuges, from the Bay of Islands in New Zealand to the Recherche Archipelago on the west coast of Australia, were littered with criminal flotsam left by the dying pursuit of seals and whales.

The first colonist to make money on the “fisheries” was a free Scottish merchant, Robert Campbell—“just and humane and a gentleman,” in Governor Bligh’s view, and no ally of Macarthur’s. To preserve its monopoly, the East India Company had arranged that no Australian-based trader could export whale or seal products direct to London. (Other “Southern whalers,” who were not actually based in Australia, were exempt from this ruling.) Campbell was determined to break this unfair restraint on trade, which in effect denied that New South Wales had any functions but penal ones. In 1805 he sailed to England with his family in his ship Lady Barlow. In her hold were 260 tons of oil rendered down from sea-elephant blubber and 13,700 sealskins. A few months behind her sailed the Honduras Packet, laden with 34,000 skins. The East India Company reacted predictably by seizing Campbell’s ship and cargo. The ensuing fracas, which Campbell handily won, led at last to free exports from Australia to England, bypassing the East India Company. Campbell returned to New South Wales a trader-hero, “father of the mercantile community.”14

Free colonial trade destroyed the chance that there would ever be another rum monopoly. Some Emancipists could plough their profits from whaling and sealing back into property. They became—on the balance-sheet, at least—the equal of an Exclusive.

In the early 1800s most sealing and whaling in Australian waters was run by three men: Henry Kable, Simeon Lord and James Underwood. All three were ex-convicts. Kable (1763–1846) was a burglar who came out on the First Fleet under a death sentence that had been commuted to fourteen years’ transportation. He became an overseer, then a rum trader, selling liquor to convicts the officers were too haughty to deal with directly.

Some time before 1800, Kable met up with James Underwood (1776–1844), another convict who possessed the inestimably useful skill of knowing how to build boats. Ships of any kind were in short supply in the colony, even then. Kable and Underwood built a sloop, Diana, and fitted her out for sealing in Bass Strait. Before long they had sixty men working for them and were skinning 30,000 seals a year; Underwood’s shipyard, at the head of Sydney Cove, was turning out vessels up to 200 tons in burthen.

In 1805 they took on a a third partner, Simeon Lord (1771–1840), who had been transported in 1790 for stealing several hundred yards of calico and muslin. His offense was a juvenile one and he never repeated it. A ruthless stone-squeezer of a Yorkshireman, Lord too had come up through the rum trade. Doubtless the officers felt that by using such shady men as distributors, they were saved from demeaning contact with convicts and Emancipists. In fact, they were creating just the social anomaly they feared. Lord was an entrepreneurial genius and fast as a dingo. By 1798 he had his own warehouse, and by 1799 his first ship. He cultivated Robert Campbell, who gave him useful introductions to important people in the sealskin market in London. Lord “traded up” from rum to iron and timber, and then to manufacture. In workshops staffed by assigned convicts, he made the consumer goods that were still in such erratic supply, and so costly, in Sydney: candles, soap, glasses, stockings, cloth, harness, boots and leather hats. Between 1806 and 1809 Lord, Kable and Underwood sold over 127,000 sealskins in London, more in China and Calcutta. Sealing led naturally to Pacific trade in sandalwood and other commodities.

In 1803 Simeon Lord built himself a mansion in Sydney, the largest private house in the colony. It had three stories and a basement, and an elegant veranda carried on slender columns over the street; it was built of sandstone bound with imported mortar. “Lord’s palace” was to commerce what Macquarie’s estate was to landholding. His social betters passed it with distaste, unable to ignore this irrefutable monument to social permeability. “Mr. Lord (formerly a horse stealer) has built a house that he lives in that cost 20,000£,” sniffed a visiting naval surgeon in 1810, “but still these men are despised and any free settler would not deign to sit at their tables. . . . Most of these men have made their money by trading.”15

“These men” were not all men. Mary Haydock (1777–1855), convicted and transported at the tender age of thirteen for horse-stealing in Lancashire, married a young free merchant and shipowner named Thomas Reibey in 1794, learned the business of shipping and sealing from him and aggressively expanded her holdings after 1811, when he died and left her with seven children. She owned warehouses and trading brigs as well as seven farms on the Hawkesbury River and numerous buildings in the growing center of Sydney. This alert and formidably tenacious woman was the exception that proved the rule: No other convict woman made a success, or even a passing stir, at business in the male-dominated society of penal Australia, and it is unlikely that Reibey herself, for all her drive and cunning, could have done it without the start her husband gave her.

The most spectacular of the ex-convict merchants, and the most detested by the Exclusives, was Samuel Terry (1776–1838). Terry began as an illiterate Manchester laborer who was transported for seven years for stealing 400 pairs of stockings and became known to his contemporaries as “The Rothschild of Botany Bay.” Freed in 1807, he set up in Sydney as a pubkeeper and moneylender. Many nasty stories, some of them perhaps true (though none proven), were told of his exploitation of drunken Emancipists and ticket-of-leave men—how he would let them booze on credit for days and weeks and then seize their farms as payment. Whether by trickery, frugality or a judicious mixture of both, by 1820 he owned 19,000 acres, or 10 percent of the land possessed by all the eight hundred or so Emancipist landowners put together. He also held more mortgages on property than the Bank of New South Wales, in which he was a principal shareholder—about one-fifth of the total value of mortgages registered in the colony. Later in life, he turned to charity and politics, becoming an enthusiastic backer of Emancipists’ rights. His convict servants remembered him warmly as one who never had them flogged and never forgot the class bonds of his own past. When he died in 1838, Terry received the most lavish funeral ever held in Australia, complete with flags, full Masonic panoply and—to the disgust of his enemies—a procession through the crowded, silent streets of Sydney led by the military band of the 50th Regiment. “It is a piece of important news, certainly,” ran a letter to the London Times, “for the criminals of England, that military honours have given lustre to the obsequies of one of their most successful chums.”16

But the Terrys, Reibeys and Lords are memorable precisely because they were exceptions. Very few ex-convicts made big fortunes after 1821, although many of their free descendants would. Most Emancipists survived as handymen, “mechanics,” butchers, bakers or small farmers. These “dungaree settlers,” so called for the coarse cloth they wore, clung to the land by their fingernails until they were shaken loose by drought or debt or drink. Their truck-gardens produced the fruit, vegetables and chickens that the exalted Merinos would not condescend to raise except for their own kitchens; they feared the space and melancholy of the bush, and stuck to the land around Sydney while other settlers, more adventurous and better endowed with slave labor, pushed outward. Often they drank their small acreage away and died paupers. And yet, as Peter Cunningham remarked, they served “like the American backwoodsmen”—a breed not yet mythologized in 1825—“the office of pioneers to prepare the way for a more healthy population”: their own children, the Currency.

If the colony’s economy depended on ex-convicts, so did its professional and cultural communities. In Macquarie’s time, there was not one lawyer in Australia who had come there as a free man. No respectable lawyer would have contemplated going there to practice. But colonial life was bitterly litigious, and much of the suing and pleading therefore had to be done by fallen solicitors who had been struck off the rolls in England and Ireland.

Their status as lawyers was, to put it mildly, uncertain. But because Ellis Bent, Macquarie’s deputy judge-advocate, did not want to waste court time with the meandering, amateurish pleas of litigants acting as their own attorneys, he cautiously allowed three ex-convict lawyers to bring civil cases. Two of them built up quite flourishing practices, for a time. One was George Crossley (1749–1823), who, after twenty-four years’ blameless practice as a solicitor, had been transported for perjury.17 Governor King conditionally pardoned him in 1801, two years after he arrived; by 1803 he owned more than 400 acres on the Hawkesbury River and was handling cases for other settlers, despite a flurry of writs from newly acquired creditors. He advised Governor Bligh, who knew the law of the sea better than that of the land, on his legal dealings with the Rum Corps. Macarthur’s cabal, after their putsch against Bligh in 1808, had him arrested as a supporter of their “Tyrant” and sent to slave in the dreaded coal mines near Newcastle. Macquarie freed him to practice civil law again, but by 1821 he was crushed by debts and a last conviction, at the age of seventy-two, for perjury. He died two years later. His colleague, Edward Eagar (1787–1866), a Dublin attorney under life sentence for forgery, did slightly better: After getting his conditional pardon in 1813, he practiced law for two years. But then his and Crossley’s right to plead in court was struck down by the judge of the newly created Supreme Court of Civil Judicature, Jeffrey Bent.

Bent proved to be an idle, haughty drone, whose conservatism even embarrassed some of the Exclusives. He and Macquarie detested one another on sight, and the friction between them rendered the new court unworkable. Bent thought of Emancipists as permanent helots, and refused point-blank to hear any cases brought by ex-convict lawyers.18 Naturally, this was a catastrophe for the likes of Eagar and Crossley. Macquarie protested, but in vain. In May 1815 it was ruled that no lawyer disbarred in England could plead in Australia. Macquarie then wrote to the colonial secretary, Lord Bathurst, threatening to resign if Jeffrey Bent and his ailing brother Ellis, the colony’s judge-advocate, were not both recalled. Bathurst, realizing that the whole relationship between the government and the bench was about to break down, gave in. Ellis Bent solved half of the problem by dying a few months later, and soon after that Jeffrey Bent left Australia. Nevertheless it would be some time before an Emancipist lawyer could plead with much chance of being taken seriously by an Australian court. This legal disability continued to be one of the most potent weapons in the Exclusives’ armory of social discrimination.

Ex-convict doctors fared better than lawyers. One could hardly say that harried, shady writ-pushers like Eagar and Crossley, however badly they were victimized, founded Australian law; but William Redfern (1774–1833), another ex-convict, was certainly the father of Australian medicine.

A spirited and deeply altruistic man, Redfern began his career as a naval surgeon and was tried in 1797 for supporting the mutiny of British sailors on the fleet at the Nore. He was accused as a leader of the rising, although his only role in it was to exhort the tars “to be more united among themselves.” The court sentenced him to hang, but he was reprieved, due to his youth and rashness, and spent four years in prison before being transported to New South Wales in 1801.19

In a colony short of doctors, beset by grave problems of diet and sanitation, with a high accident rate and laws enforced by flogging, Redfern had plenty to do. He began as assistant surgeon on Norfolk Island, where he got a free pardon from Governor King in 1803. Returning to Sydney in 1808, he was made assistant surgeon to the colony and put in charge of the squalid and chaotic hospital on Dawes Point in Sydney. In 1816 he took effective charge of Macquarie’s new “Rum Hospital,” and by then his practice was the largest and most popular in the colony.

For Redfern, much of the social prejudice against ex-convicts was suspended. He was clearly the best surgeon in the colony; moreover, his forte was obstetrics, which meant that every family, “good” or not, needed him. He delivered Governor Macquarie’s only son Lachlan in 1814, and he was also the family doctor to the Macarthurs in Camden. Respect for Redfern’s skills was one of the very few matters on which Macquarie and Macarthur wholeheartedly agreed. Yet despite the strength of his connections at Government House and Camden, Redfern was not content merely to be a “social” doctor. He never forgot that he, like other convicts, had come in chains to Australia. He spent as much time on the convicts’ dysenteries, broken bones, eye-sores, infected lashcuts and bastard births as on the diseases of the rich. He was always accessible to them and ran an outpatient clinic for gang laborers at the back of the Rum Hospital. Above all, he fought to improve conditions on convict transports. Public health in Australia began with Redfern. Many convicts and Emancipists, therefore, considered him their savior; this gave the later political actions of this brusque, kindly and incorruptible man a real constituency.

Early colonial Sydney was not a cultivated town, and even its poor poet laureate Michael Massey Robinson was driven to metaphors of infancy and sunrise when he contemplated it. Cultural life among the better classes of Sydney society existed in a larval way, producing an occasional recitation or watercolor; but mostly it struck both visitors and residents as jejune and provincial. “A land without antiquities,” complained the well-named Judge Barron Field, who had come to Australia in 1816 to replace Jeffrey Bent. To Field, it was a place so raw as to be, except for a few oddities like the kangaroo, culturally invisible:

. . . where Nature is prosaic,

Unpicturesque, unmusical, and where

Nature reflecting Art is not yet born;—

We’ve nothing left us but anticipation,

Better (I grant) than utter selfishness,

Yet too o’erweening—too American;

Where’s no past tense, the ign’rant present’s all.

Sydney, he felt, was “a spireless city and profane.” The only evocative object in sight is a ship:

. . . poetry to me

Since piously I trust, in no long space,

Her wings will bear me from this prose-dull land.20

The only free professional artist to visit Australia before 1825 was John Lewin (1770–1819), a natural-history painter who, sensing that English interest in Australian exotica might make a journey worthwhile, arrived in 1800 to start work on two fine (and now exceedingly rare) illustrated books, Prodromus Entomology (1805), on Australian lepidopterous insects, and Birds of New Holland (1808).21 Lachlan Macquarie adopted this modest and uncomplaining young man as his quasi-official painter, taking him to do watercolors of the scenes on his gubernatorial “progress” across the Blue Mountains on the new convict road in 1815, and commissioning “transparencies” from him for the ballroom at Government House. He also gave Lewin a sinecure of £40, later £80, a year by appointing him coroner, which was as close to a direct subsidy of the infant arts as any governor could do.

Educated convicts—known as Specials—took pride in their literacy and their distance from the brutish laboring mass of felons, and Lewin was a source of comfort to them; his presence suggested that they were not totally severed from culture. “I view, admire, and venerate the Man,” cried the convict John Grant, in an an exclamatory panegyric on this “tender Genius,”

Lewin: rare, beauteous plant in Genius’ Vale!

Painter! Engraver! Nature’s Wooer! Hail!


Lewin apart, all artists in the early colony were in the literal sense counterfeiters—or thieves, or fallen clerks, or obscurely disgraced pupil-teachers. Australia was not short of convict painters. One of them, Joseph Lycett (ca. 1774–?) came under Macquarie’s erratic patronage. A mere “limner” in England and a helpless alcoholic, Lycett in 1811 received fourteen years for forgery. In Sydney he was made a post-office clerk. There, he had access to the post office’s small printing press. Lycett scrounged some copper plates and a burin, and before long the colony was flooded with dud five-shilling notes. He was sent to the penal station at Newcastle. Very luckily for him, the commandant was Captain James Wallis, an amateur painter himself; and instead of hewing coal in darkness, Lycett was set to designing a church and painting a triptych, long since lost, for its altar.

Wallis arranged a conditional pardon for Lycett in 1819, and then Macquarie—anxious, as always, to promote the beauties of Australia and attract free emigrant settlers—encouraged him to wander across the colony, sketching its landscapes. The watercolors became a volume of Views of Australia, published serially from 1824 on; these colored engravings were dedicated to the colonial secretary, Lord Bathurst, and presented an Arcadian image of Australia hardly distinguishable from the Cotswolds or a picturesque park.23 They proclaimed how the benign hand of the “Patriot-Chief,” Lachlan Macquarie, had transformed the harsh antipodes. “Behold,” the advertisement for the Views adjured its readers, “the gloomy grandeur of solitary woods and forests exchanged for the noise and bustle of thronged marts of commerce; while the dens of savage animals, and the hiding places of yet more savage men, have become transformed into peaceful villages.” There was something elegantly appropriate about setting a forger to such a task.

Although the list of convict artists is fairly long—from Thomas Watling (b. 1762) in Sydney Cove to William Buelow Gould (1801–1853) in Hobart—it contains no men (and of course no women) of more than local interest, except for the celebrated “painter-poisoner” Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794–1847), an epigone of Henry Fuseli who had mixed in London literary circles with Lamb, Hazlitt, De Quincey and the young Dickens. His reputation for poisoning heiresses was a posthumous canard (invented in part by Dickens: so much for literary friendships); in fact, he was transported for forgery. But most convict painters were obscure limners who struggled as best they could in a society without opportunities, lived drunk and died disheartened.24

Much of the same was true of writing, which, beyond the level of official dispatch, the legal opinion and the family letter, led a thin erratic life. Professional writers were of course unheard-of. There were convict balladeers, and no shortage of writers of “pipes” or anonymous pasquinades (the curious word came from their author’s habit of pushing them under doors, rolled in a cylinder) directed against Authority. Most of these were awkward expostulations, railing against well-known targets to whom they gave easily decodable names—“Parson Rapine,” for instance, for the sanctimonious Dr. Samuel Marsden.25

The first Australian publisher was a former shoplifter, George Howe (1769–1821), whose bastard son would go on to start the first newspaper in Van Diemen’s Land.

The first play produced in Australia was George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer, performed by an all-convict cast in 1789. Its prologue, supposedly written by some nameless felon bard, was to become famous in and beyond Botany Bay:

From distant climes o’er wide-spread seas we come,

Though not with much eclat or beat of drum,

True patriots all; for be it understood,

We left our country for our country’s good;

No private views disgrac’d our generous zeal,

What urg’d our travels was our country’s weal,

And none will doubt but that our emigration

Has prov’d most useful to the British nation.

Alas, later research has shown that this was not penned by a convict in Port Jackson, but by Henry Carter, a hack journalist in London, well after he heard the play had been performed; he also spread the tale that it had been spoken by the famed pickpocket George Barrington. (Nevertheless, even without its imperishable second couplet, the “Barrington prologue” deserves to be remembered as the first of a long series of gibes directed by the supercilious Pommy at cultural efforts in Australia.)

The most important cultural figure to emerge from the ranks of the convicts was, however, the architect Francis Howard Greenway. He was a touchy, arrogant, painstaking and uncompromising man, and these qualities ensured both his successes and his failures. Without that stubborn egotism his talent could scarcely have survived the humiliations of convict life intact, but his outspokenness about the poor taste, graft, incompetence and bad workmanship that surrounded him made so many enemies that after Macquarie, his patron, returned to England, his career soon withered. To call Greenway an innocent victim distorts the record; much of his reputation for greed and extravagance was deserved. For example, after drawing his salary for six years as Macquarie’s architect, he had the cheek to present a further bill for £11,000, which he claimed as his commission fee (about 5 percent of construction cost) on government work for which he had already been paid. He lost his official post when Macquarie left and got no real jobs after 1828; ten years later, Australia’s finest Georgian architect died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Three major Greenway buildings survive in their intended form: St. Matthew’s Church in Windsor, and the Hyde Park Barracks and St. James’s Church in Sydney, whose grave and spare pedimented façades face one another at the south end of Macquarie Street. Greenway had a genius for turning the relative poverty of colonial architectural resources—the lack of skilled carvers, for instance—to good account. He had to concentrate on proportion and material texture, rather than ornament: the simple-looking (but closely accounted) use of Palladian bays, with plain pilasters—brick on the Barracks, tawny sandstone on St. James’s—firmly stating the ratios of the walls. His Doric detailing, straightforward and masculine, suited the hard clarity of Australian light as well as the limitations of convict masonry skills. As in early American churches, the direct speech of Greenway’s idiom reinforced the content of the rituals: nothing Romish, every brick reflecting (as J. M. Freeland put it) “a vehemently evangelical society which saw all hope and cause for pride and pleasure in the unchallengeable rightness of the Protestant ascendancy.”26 The political engagement between Church and State was unambiguously put by the sole inscription in the cartouche on St. James’s pediment: not a motto or a Biblical text, just Lachlan Macquarie’s name, facing the same name in the same place on the Barracks a hundred yards away.

Architecture is a social art par excellence. A citizen sees his city’s buildings every day, whether he wants to or not; their speech is quiet but pervasive. Greenway’s public buildings publicly epitomized one of the “distasteful” facts of penal Australia—that free birth did not confer a monopoly of talent. For all the Exclusives’ obsession with status, and despite the armored barriers of class raised against the Emancipists, the free still had to employ an ex-convict to form and condense their desire for urban elegance and ceremonial space. To worship God in a house built by a forger, while across the way more criminals were confined in another house of equal elegance—this was a piquant contradiction, not to be dwelt on. It summed up the peculiar insecurity of the signals respectable people in Sydney devised to distinguish themselves from their Others.

In their desire for signs of status, the colonial Australians developed some unlikely fixations, refuting entirely the idea that remote societies are robustly free of snobbery. Of course, the reverse is true: It is the provinces that fix on style and “correctness,” since their fate is to reflect distant prototypes. Hence the attention the early Australian gentry paid to form, and their contempt for the pretensions of new Emancipist money. Louisa Anne Meredith, the recording angel of the antipodean drawing-room, took one of her finest flights on the subject of risen convicts:

Wealth, all-powerful though it be, —and many of these emancipists are the richest men in the colony, —cannot wholly overcome the prejudice against them, though policy, in some instances, greatly modifies it. Their want of education is an effectual barrier to many, and these so wrap themselves in the love of wealth, and the palpable, though misplaced, importance it gives, that their descendants will probably improve but little on the parental model. You may often see a man of immense property, whose wife and daughters dress in the extreme of fashion and finery, rolling home in his gay carriage from his daily avocations, with face, hands and apparel as dirty and slovenly as any common mechanic. And the son of a similar character has been seen, with a dozen costly rings on his coarse fingers, and chains, and shirt-pins, glistening with gems, buying yet more expensive jewelry, yet without sock or stockings to his feet; the shoes, to which his spurs were attached, leaving a debatable ground between them and his trowsers! Spurs and shoes are, I imagine, a fashion peculiar to this stamp of exquisites, but among them very popular.27

But how to distinguish oneself from the spur-and-shoe men? Much ingenuity was expended on the problem. Beyond drink, social climbing and fornication, the amusements of the upper crust of New South Wales were not the same as they are today, and generally not of a distinctively “Australian” kind. Superior people did not, for instance, swim in the sea or even go to the beach; sea-bathing bore the taint of the imprisoned, because when Sydney convicts washed they usually had to do it in the salt water. To get a tan, for a woman, was to plummet from gentility to coarseness; sunburned skin suggested convict labor and carried overtones of the despicable black savage. “Few ladies venture to risk their complexions to the exposure of an equestrian costume, and accordingly few appear on horseback.”28

The desire not to resemble convicts even affected diet. Mrs. Meredith was puzzled by her hosts’ refusal ever to serve fresh fish at lunch or dinner, despite the superb quality and variety of Sydney seafood. Instead, she was given smoked salmon or dried cod brought from England. This aimed to invert the convict diet. Convicts traditionally ate salted meat—which signified lack of property, for only the landed could enjoy fresh beef or lamb—and fresh fish. The ceremonial food of the free must therefore be fresh meat and salt fish.

One could live grandly in early Sydney, given the money and the adminstrative power. The extreme example was Captain John Piper (1773–1851), a very unthrifty Scottish Lucullus who had come out with the New South Wales Corps and obtained the plum job of chief naval officer in Sydney, giving him the right to take a percentage of all excise on spirits and customs dues exacted on imported goods. This was worth more than £4,000 a year to him, and with it he built Henrietta Villa—otherwise known as the Naval Pavilion—on a 190-acre harborside promontory granted to him by Macquarie and known today as Point Piper. “He lives in a beautiful house,” reported George Thomas Boyes, Governor Brisbane’s deputy-assistant commissary-general in Sydney,

but it stands alone for there is nothing like it in the Colony. He has laid out immense sums and no expense had been spared to ornament this fairy Palace. . . . He does the thing properly, for he sends carriages and four and boats for those who like the water, and returns his guests to their homes in the same manner. He keeps a band of music and they have quadrilles every evening under the spacious verandahs. At the table there is a vast profusion of every luxury the four quarters of the globe can supply, for you must know that this fifth or pick-pocket quarter contributes nothing of itself. . . . There is no honour in dining with Piper for he invites everybody who comes here.29

The respectable classes loved horse-breeding and horse-racing; Australia’s equine fixation was fully formed by 1820. They held lavish balls, which some pastoral families would ride 200 miles to attend—these being the main displays of the colonial marriage-market. The dancing was segregated, with Emancipists at one end of the room and Exclusives at the other, sometimes with different orchestras. Some gentlemen did what English gentry were known to do—they rode to hounds. But there were no foxes in Australia, and so the “Cumberland Hunt,” as it called itself, donned pink coats amid the old scribbly gray of the bush and went baying, belling and tallyhoing after dingoes. Rarely can Oscar Wilde’s definition of hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable” have applied so forcibly within the British Empire.

The aim was to be as English as possible, and to speak of England as “home.” But the settlers could not follow the change of English fashion; their conservatism was underscored by the great antipodean time lag. Ships would bring out-of-date magazines and newspapers, ancient Court news, obsolescent ladies’ clothes and overpriced luxury goods. There was a faded pleasure in gossiping about the Prince of Wales’s debts when, for all one knew, they might have been paid before one heard of them; or about the unwonted pregnancy of a county heiress if the baby had presumably already been born. The poverty of conversation could drive an intelligent visitor to despair. Louisa Meredith lamented that none of the colonial elite seemed to have read anything:

An apathetic indifference seems the besetting fault; an utter absence of interest or enquiry beyond the merest gossip, —the cut of a new sleeve, or the guests at a late party. “Do you play?” and “Do you draw” are invariable queries to a new lady-arrival. “Do you dance?” is thought superfluous, for everybody dances; but not a question is heard relative to English literature or art; far less a remark on any political event, of however important a nature:—not a syllable that betrays thought.30

And so the image of England slowly dimmed to a nostalgic wraith, a film of imperfect memory. What filled up the horizon, as in small isolated communities it always does, was local news. And the convicts were the necessary low-water mark to which all social heights were compared. The gentry needed them for self-definition, not just for labor.


ONE SAW GANGS of convicts everywhere. All around Sydney, on the Blue Mountain roads, or south toward Bowral, Goulburn and the Monaro plains, the visitor heard the colonial carillon of ringing leg-irons partly muffled by leather and coarse wool—the sound of chained men hewing the sandstone, dragging their fetter as though wading in air. Free settlers tended to conventionalize the sight, to turn these sweating, shuffling, unknowable Others into voids, mere yellow uniforms, man-shaped holes in the social landscape. One half-averted one’s eyes: There, but for the grace of God, go I.

In most sketches and paintings of these landscapes, even those by convict artists, the convicts do not appear. When they do, as in the former purse-stealer Charles Rodius’s sketch of Convicts Building the Road to Bathurst, 1833, they are reduced to inconspicuous staffage figures against the notch of Western plain that opens promisingly to view. Much less common are sketches like Augustus Earle’s somewhat earlier View from the Summit of Mount York, Looking towards Bathurst Plains (ca. 1826–27), where the road gang moves into close-up and there is as much interest in its work and garb as in the immense landscape behind: a man in punishment irons carrying water, three felons hewing sandstone, an imperious—though in Earle’s drawing, rather limp—gesture from the military guard. The laboring convict, unlike the Neapolitan fisherman or the Provençal peasant, never became a picturesque feature in the landscape whose social use he typified. He was a pictorial embarrassment, since his known propensity for evil prevented any kind of idealization. He was not so much “brutalized” (in the modern sense: deformed by ill-treatment) as he was “a brute,” whose criminal nature was written on his very skin. He was a kind of abstraction to the traveller. “The villainous countenances of the greater number, the clank of their chains, and the thought of how awful an amount of crime had led to this disgraceful punishment, made me positively dread passing or meeting a band of the miserable wretches,” wrote Louisa Meredith of her journey across the Blue Mountains.31

The otherness of the convict was further reinforced by his language, for his argot declared that he came from another society, an Alsatia of the mind. The linguistic class barriers in penal Australia were absolute—the very opposite of today, when all classes share the robust vernacular of Australian slang. English criminal cant, an entire sub-language, immediately branded its users and the aspiring Emancipist had to unlearn it or stay where he was. Purely colonial terms like scrubbing brushes (bad bread full of chaff), smiggins (prison soup thickened with barley), canary (a sentence of 100 lashes) or sandstone (a weak man, who crumbled under flogging), classified the speaker as plainly as the broad-arrow stamped on all prisoners’ clothes. The fantastic richness of Australian slang, its power of invective and its curious metaphorical twists, are ultimately traceable to convict days, although the full blossoming of Australian language belongs to the later nineteenth century. Among themselves, old lags used the cant of transportation: They had “been married together” (gone fettered in a chain), “piked across the herring pond,” or been “on my travels,” or “marinated,” or “napped fourteen penn’orth” (drawn a sentence of fourteen years’ exile). Because such a sentence was a blow that knocked the wind out of the victim, the transported felon called himself a “bellowser.” But there was also a great need for euphemism, because class was such a sensitive issue. In the ears of Emancipists and their descendants, “convict” was a fighting word. In the 1820s, the polite form was government man or legitimate, and these were later displaced by exile or even empire-builder. Such usage was part of what amounted to a social agreement to soften the rub of convict status. One did not throw his bondage in a man’s face. Until 1840 and the end of transportation, few (if any) emigrants to New South Wales would have thought of calling themselves “Australian”—a British colonel in Bombay would have as soon called himself “Indian.” One was British, and it demeaned one’s own standing within the conventions of British society to think that New South Wales was radically different from a “normal” civil community. Of course it was not normal, but to make it seem so the convicts had to be treated, in law and language, as belonging to such a community, lest the free emigrant colonists come to regard themselves as parasites on a jail. To its settlers, New South Wales was not a jail but a free community with rather a large preponderance of prisoners in it. This seemingly casuistical point had important social consequences. One sees them, for instance, in the policy that prevented governors sending prisoners, at will and without trial, from assignment to the secondary settlements. A man had to stand trial and be convicted again before losing his rights as a member of the civil community and going to Norfolk Island. If New South Wales had been thought as much a jail as Norfolk Island, no trial would have been needed—it would have been a technical matter, like moving a prisoner from one cell to another. Convicts arrested and held on suspicion in New South Wales could apply for habeas corpus, and in granting it a Supreme Court judge named John Stephen remarked that “the rights of prisoners were as sacred in the eye of the law as those of free men.” This was no idle figure of speech. In the same spirit of civil conciliation, judges in New South Wales (especially those of the Supreme Court) could be extraordinarily careful of convicts’ and former convicts’ rights—so much so that one judge in 1838 ruled it improper for the attorney-general to ask a witness, “What were you sent for?” This, said the judge, invited the witness to degrade himself in court. Thereafter, even if witnesses were known to be ex-convicts, they could not be questioned about their past and their convict origin could not be mentioned.32

Outside the courts, in the private sphere, a particularly sensitive area of contact between bond and free lay in the use of convicts as maids, nannies, stewards and even teachers. The very idea of assigning convicts as personal servants “for the purposes of Luxury” gave later governors qualms33; but, since no butler or groom in London was likely to emigrate to raw Sydney to ply his skills, there was no socially acceptable alternative. For domestic service, preferences were altered. The farmer on his station might crave the labor of a horse-thief or a rick-burner. But in Sydney, the idea of some “barn door gentleman,” an untutored hayseed, big-booting nervously about the drawing-room and breaking the china, filled matrons with horror. Thus, there was a demand for city convicts, preferably refined and literate forgers, who might know from which side to pass the roast; or, if not forgers, at least thieves, who could protect their masters’ property:

It is very seldom that any thieves is sent up the country, as most of the gentlemen resides in Suydney, and would sooner take for his servant a man that he knows has been a regular thief at home, than one of them barn dore gentlemen; why is it, he knows he can depend on them, for they won’t see no tricks play’d with his master’s property, nor play none himself; you never hear of a thief getting into any trouble.34

The servant problem was “as common a topic of conversation with the ladies . . . as the weather,” remarked the Catholic prelate William Ullathorne in 1838. “Whenever persons meet it is a constant topic.” There were more than enough domestic horror-stories of drink, impropriety and clumsiness—particularly drink—to go round.35

The mistress of the house had to lock everything up—the “tantalus” (security-frame for the decanters), the cellar, the pantry, the dressing-table, the desks, the sewing-kit. Sometimes she had to put up with insults from her servants unknown in England, for convict women in domestic service were “very much in the habit” of raking their mistresses with curses and oaths of such obscenity that a proper lady could not repeat them to her husband, much less in evidence to a magistrate in court; so the foul tongue could not be punished.36

Given the choice, colonists would have preferred free servants. Sir John Franklin, when he was lieutenant-governor in Van Diemen’s Land, proposed in 1837 that all assigned persons—including domestic help—should wear a distinguishing badge or patch on their clothes; the governor, Sir George Gipps, held back on applying this idea in New South Wales because he feared repercussions from rich colonists who did not want the splendor of their flunkies’ uniforms dimmed by this mark of infamy.37

A few settlers in Van Diemen’s Land managed to keep a domestic staff of free people, but they were scarce and apt to leave without warning; there was, in any case, little difference of quality between convict and free male servants. However, up to the mid-1830s, most efforts to bring in respectable women as nurses or governesses failed utterly. For women convicts seemed particularly uncontrollable. (Respectable settlers supposed that their own mercies ensured this.) Parents were plagued by the fear that the running of their households was in the hands of vengeful and immoral women.38 Convict nannies and nurses would corrupt those innocent bearers of the Australian future, its children. The everyday peculiarities of growing up in a penal colony were striking enough, and domestic scenes like those set down by Marcus Clarke in His Natural Life must have been enacted many times:

“You’re an impertinent man, sir,” cries Dora, her bright eyes flashing. “How dare you laugh at me? If I was papa, I’d give you half an hour at the triangles. Oh, you impertinent man!” And, crimson with rage, the spoilt little beauty ran out of the room.

Vickers looked grave, but Frere was constrained to get up to laugh at his ease.

“Good! ‘Pon honour, that’s good! The little vixen! —half an hour at the triangles! Ha-ha! ha, ha, ha!”

“She is a strange child,” says Vickers, “and talks strangely for her age . . . [H]er education has been neglected. Moreover, this gloomy place, and its associations—what can you expect from a child bred in a convict settlement?”

In a society where violence against the person was all-pervasive and institutionalized, children were bound to acquire strange habits that mimicked those of their elders. They played flogging games and judgment games as freely as their descendants would play bushrangers. “I have observed children playing,” wrote one colonial observer in 1850,

at the Botany Bay game of Courts of Petty Sessions, and noted the cruel sentences which were uniformly pronounced on those who were doomed to be “damned,” and the favour and partiality which was extended to others! Justice appeared never to be thought of:—the gratification of a licentious and an unlimited Power being all they sought.39

Childhood became even more a theater of coercion in Australia than in England. On one level, children could threaten their parents’ convict servants in grotesque omnipotence: where else could a spiteful brat promise a nurse or a butler 25 lashes? On another, the habit extended into—and was reinforced by—adult society. As the Scottish penal reformer and future commandant of Norfolk Island, Alexander Maconochie, observed, “The total disuse . . . of moral motives in the domestic relations of life, and the habit of enforcing obedience by mere compulsion, give a harsh and peremptory bearing in all transactions.” Children learned contempt for others early. “Being very much in the hands of assigned servants,” Bishop Ullathorne testified, “they of course are aware of the condition of these servants; they look down on them with contempt. This creates an early habit in the minds of the children of looking down on those who are placed over them; it creates altogether . . . an insolence of feeling and of bearing towards their elders.”40

The female convict’s alleged revenge was to teach the tots bad habits, from swearing to sexual precocity. “They do . . . much damage to the rising generation,” John Russell told the 1838 Select Committee on Transportation, “being generally most mischievous in attempting to seduce or contaminate the daughters of settlers.” The committee’s witnesses, anxious to depict the antipodes as Sodom and Gomorrah, told stories of how colonists’ girls had seen female convicts “in connexion” with their satyr-like lovers, and how the three daughters of one family had been so deranged by this penal primal scene that each went forth and got pregnant “by a connexion of her own, which was just the result of being left . . . to the tuition of a convict servant maid.”41

No wonder, then, that Specials—educated convicts—were much in demand as servants. Because such people were uncommon (less than half, probably no more than a third, of the prisoners arriving in Australia at any stage of its penal history could sign their names), they were of value to government, which by the mid-1820s needed a small army of clerks to keep track of convicts’ records. The bureaucracy of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land was almost wholly made up of forgers, none averse to palm oil. Governor Darling complained that “these people are guilty of all sorts of nefarious practices, altering and interpolating the Registers, and cannot be restrained by any fear of punishment or disgrace . . . [T]hey cannot resist a bribe.” But there were few free clerks, and so government demands meant that few Specials were assigned.42

Nevertheless, private influence sometimes worked. Thus, several wealthy families boasted their convict tutors, who steered the children through mensa or tinkled away the eucalyptus-scented afternoon on a slightly warped Broadwood. The first grammar school in Sydney was started by a ruined Irish clergyman, Laurence Halloran (1765–1831), transported at the age of forty-six for forging a tenpenny frank. Certainly he was a better pedagogue than John Mortlock, a former officer in the British Army who had seen service in India and who was made headmaster of a small Hobart grammar school in the 1850s: “To impress myself with a sense of my dignity, and to lighten my spirits, I immediately belaboured several of the boys (particularly those whose parents had never been transported). This refreshed and consoled me.”43

Because they had known respectability, most Specials found it very difficult to accept their fate. They looked down on the “decent” society of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Some of them were utterly convinced of their own innocence and could not perceive themselves as criminals: How could the mere alteration of a document be compared to house-breaking or mugging? The shock of transportation caused a reflex of denial, leaving them with an aggrieved posture of superiority to convict trash. They tried to believe that transportation had not ruined the class position they had sinned to hold.

One such man was a would-be poet, John Grant (1776–?), whose character typified the Special’s occasional sense of unreality. He was the unstable son of a landed English gentleman in Buckinghamshire, who, trying to better his lot, wooed a titled heiress but found his efforts frustrated by a lawyer in his family circle. In a fit of rage, he shot the solicitor with a pistol in the buttocks, in full daylight on a London street. His family connections saved his life; a petition was sent to the daughters of George III and instead of hanging, he sailed. Grant arrived in Sydney in May 1804 and within months was asking Governor King for a ticket-of-leave. Rebuffed, he wrote again: “Why hesitate, Governor King, to do an act of justice? If you had presented to me the freedom of the Colony as soon as I landed, you would only have rescued a much-injur’d Gentleman from Highwaymen and Housebreakers.” King took no notice. “You must feel with me,” Grant lamented to his mother,

the cruelty of keeping one thus upon the footing of the Highwaymen I came with in the eye of the Law. . . . But there is in this colony a disposition to humble those who come here, on the part of the Civil and Military.

If one ponders the last sentence, it could be no surprise that Governor King thought Grant quite mad. This opinion was self-fulfilling. King banished him to Norfolk Island, where he could tell the cormorants about his innocence and his pretensions to gentility. Grant collapsed under the stress of three years’ isolation and ill-treatment on this remote settlement, and was invalided back to Sydney in 1808; Macquarie in his mercy pardoned him, and he returned to England in 1811.44

Now and then a Special’s sense of superiority would be flavored with a touch of irony. “Our society now became somewhat improved. Though I did not hear of any naval or military officers, barristers or doctors of medicine,” wrote John Mortlock, who had been transported for the attempted murder of his uncle, a clergyman of Christ’s College in Cambridge,

I could count two Protestant clergymen convicts, one of them a doctor of divinity, several solicitors, including one of them an ex-mayor, and many Chartists. What a sensation would be caused by the transportation of a bishop! The colony was also honoured by the advent of an ex-member of parliament, a gentleman at no time treated as an ordinary offender.45

Giving themselves airs and graces, most Specials were disliked—and some detested—by laboring convicts for their flashness and arrogance. Officialdom could make life difficult for those suspected of freethinking. It was especially sweet to see these uppity nobs reconvicted and sent to a punishment gang on the Blue Mountain roads or at Port Macquarie. “Many of them were so flash that they used to look down on the other class of men, and try to play a game of ‘bluff,’” recalled the convict whose memoirs were published under the pseudonym of “Woomera”:

Their hands were very soft . .  [T]hey schemed and wasted their time. In the middle of work I often heard them commence to talk about the fine wine they had drunk at some of the big inns in London—“The Angel at Islington,” “The Hole in the Wall,” or “The Elephant and Castle,” for instance, and some of them had never tasted wine in their lives. At night they began to “blow” about how they had done some of the honest merchants in England out of large and small sums of money. But it was a different tale now—they saw very little money in the road party.46

Probably the rank-and-file convicts’ resentment of Specials helped consolidate the prejudice, long to be felt in Australia, against brainworkers as “bludgers” or social parasites. Be that as it may, the question of the Specials (who never formed more than a tiny minority of the convicts) bears directly on the much-vexed question of convict solidarity. Here, at least, was one group of convicts that received no trust from the majority and gave no loyalty to it—which only means that the existing class divisions of English society were preserved, as one might expect, among transported felons of all stations.

Much ink has been spilt by Australian historians arguing whether or not convicts in general not only sympathized with one another but also brought these sympathies, tempered by mutual suffering, to the point of “class solidarity.” Did they stick by one another as members of an oppressed class? Or were their loyalties so atomized by self-interest as to have no collective reach at all?47

At moments of famine and stress, convicts could and did behave ruthlessly to one another. The weak went to the wall among the bond as well as among the free. The Reverend John Morison heard an ex-convict in Van Diemen’s Land utter the significant words, whose reductio ad horroremwas the cannibalism of Pearce: “What is the use of a friend, but to take the use of him?” “Very comforting doctrine, this,” he commented, “and the friendships of some people are more to be dreaded then their enemies.”48

Convicts were seen to treat one another with special ruthlessness in the chain gangs and the outer penal settlements, such as Macquarie Harbor, Norfolk Island and Moreton Bay. The official strategy of breaking down their trust in one another by encouraging convict informers undoubtedly worked in these places. “Trusty” convicts, promoted to overseers, could be as brutal as the guards—and worse. Absolute punishment, such as existed on Norfolk Island under Lieutenant-Colonel James Morisset or at Moreton Bay under Captain Patrick Logan, degrades absolutely; as men are treated, so will they become. But only a tiny fraction of those transported to Australia spent any time in those penal stations. Most convicts lived under conditions that sustained and often increased their sense of mutual oppression; so that, from the earliest days of the settlement, whole groups of prisoners would stand mute rather than surrender one of their number to authority, whatever the promised bribes and rewards. When someone in the late 1790s burned down the only church in Sydney, Governor John Hunter offered the colossal incentive of a free pardon, a passage home and £50 to anyone, even a lifer, who informed on the culprit. “One would have thought that irresistible,” he recalled some years later. “But it brought no evidence; I never learned who it was; it was a designed thing.”49

The church was Anglican and the arsonist was undoubtedly Irish. The Irish convicts had brought a “primitive” collectivism with them on the transport ships, a common will to stick together that had nothing to do with ideology (although it would greatly affect the tenor of socialist movements in Australia a hundred years later) but everything to do with kin and clan. They were seen, and despised, by English authorities in Australia as tribal people whose allegiances were not touched by the work-ethic of Protestant individualism. They were “depraved beyond conception . . . designing and treacherous,” ranted the Reverend Samuel Marsden from the depths of his bigotry; and their loyalty to one another could not be broken:

they consider their Engagements to each other of whatever nature they be, as sacred; and when any are detected in the Commission of any Capital Crime . . . they will suffer death before they will give Information of any of their Accomplices: and when brought to the fatal Tree, will deny their Guilt with their last Breath. . . . Thus many of them live and die in the most hardened and impenitent State.50

The Irish were the largest and most cohesive white minority in penal Australia, and their folkways were bound to make a deep mark on the ethos of all convicts and their descendants. The cohesion of the group is what resists pressure from outside it, and the clannish solidarity of Irishmen seems to have been experienced by many convicts who were not Irish as a way of resisting the overwhelming power of the organs of State discipline. Crime is by definition anti-social; criminals are lumpen individualists. But as Russel Ward pointed out, “When the criminal becomes a long-term convict, his scope for exercising individual cunning is very severely limited, while the forces impelling him towards social, collectivist behavior (within his own group) are correspondingly strengthened.”51 From this rude collectivism, set against the harsh environment of the country and the framework of inquisitorial law, emerged the basic traits of Australian mateship.

There is no doubt about the ties of mutual recognition, sometimes amounting to a non-ideological sort of class loyalty, that could bind convicts together. Strong friendships were forged by repression, and they were so plentiful that one example must do for all. When the convict Mellish had served out his time in Macquarie’s New South Wales, he “left the bay” as servant to a married Emancipist couple, who had made their pile in New South Wales and were returning to England. He soon found there were six convict fugitives stowed away on board, two of them friends of his. “The reason I was unhappy was, I could not do by those men as I could wish; I was oblig’d to go out a thieving every night for provishions for those men; to be shoor I brought some tools with me such as would unlock any of the harness casks where the meat was kepd.” He stole for them for a month, at great risk, before he was caught and subjected to six weeks of appalling privations, chained in the darkness of the hold. When the ship reached Cape Town, “my flesh was black and blue, and all around the wastebands of my trousers was scratch’d to pieces. . . . I have never so to say been right well since.” Yet there is not a breath of resentment in his memoir against the fellow convicts he had kept alive. “They were men that I had a very great respect for, and I do mean to say, that no man will leave behind him a friend in bondage, if they choose to chance the consequences of it.”52

Visitors to Australia noted what Alexander Harris called the “mutual regard and trust engendered by two men working together in the otherwise solitary bush”—the typical situation of convict shepherds on far out-stations. “Men under these circumstances often stand by one another through thick and thin; in fact it is a universal feeling that a man ought to be able to trust his mate in anything.”53

Such feelings of trust and recognition could readily run between men who had shared the same experience of servitude. Harris described how, in his wanderings in the Hawkesbury district, he met an Emancipist farmer and public-house keeper who, “like most of those who have risen from the ranks of the prison population by their own efforts” had “a sort of open sturdy manliness about his character which was very agreeable.”

He had several convict-servants, who I could see were governed in quite a different manner from those I had met with in my Illawarra jobs under free settlers. The free settlers governed their men with capriciousness and by terror, and so could never trust them beyond their sight; whilst these settlers, who had once been prisoners themselves, seemed rather to obtain a willing obedience, founded on respect for their judgment and fairness; and consequently they could trust their men as well out of their sight as in.54

Governor Bligh told the Select Committee in London in 1812 that “the convicts unite with one another, and get on very well.” Commissioner Bigge in 1822 pointed out that Emancipist settlers tended not to punish their assigned men out of “sympathy with that condition which was once their own.” Ten years later this had not changed; Governor Bourke in 1832 reported that most assigned men hoped to work for Emancipists, preferring “their coarse fare to being better fed and Cloathed with a More opulent Master and less liberty.” Such utterances (and there were many more) can only suggest that loyalties between convicts, throughout the life of the System, regularly went beyond personal friendship.55


OF COURSE Australia was marked for glory, some wag said (and the saying would be repeated for generations), for its people had been chosen by the finest judges in England.

And clearly, one of the things its people did best was breed. A rough census of New South Wales in 1807 showed a total population of 7,563 people. Of these, 1,430 were women, mostly convicts or Emancipists, and one woman in three was married. But the number of children was very high: 807 legitimate, 1,025 not. One person in four in the colony was a child; more than half the children were illegitimate; and most of them were the offspring of convicts.

In 1828 the first official census revealed that there were at last more free people (20,870) than convicts under sentence (15,728) in New South Wales. Almost half the free population were ex-convicts who had done their time, received their pardons and stayed. Most of the rest were children born in Australia, whose parents were either ex-convicts or “came-free” settlers—soldiers, marines, officials large and small, settlers, emigrants of every kind. This first generation of Australians were born free but were raised in a police state. The term for these native-born “Currency lads” and “Currency lasses” came from monetary slang—“currency” meaning coin or notes that were only good in the colony, makeshift stuff, implying raffishness or worse, unlike the solid virtues of the “Sterling,” the free English immigrants. The Currency also called themselves “natives,” a word not applied to Aborigines, only to locally born whites.

From England, the identity of these people looked simple: They were seen in a bald, one-dimensional way as “the children of the convicts,” heirs of a depraved gene pool, from whom little good could be expected. That many of them did not have convict parents; that many of those who did were not raised by stereotyped villains and whores; that crime may not run in the blood—none of this affected English opinion very much. Sin must beget sin, and the “thief-colony” was doomed to spin forever, at the outer rim of the world, in ever worsening moral darkness. This idea was epitomized in 1819 by one of the many experts who had never been there, the Reverend Sydney Smith, the clerical wit who founded the Edinburgh Review and, unfortunately, was sometimes consulted on colonial matters by Peel:

There can be but one opinion. New South Wales is a sink of wickedness, in which the great majority of convicts of both sexes become infinitely more depraved than at the period of their arrival. . . . It is impossible that vice should not become more intense in such [a] society.56

Almost everything that was said about the native-born in England, and by English visitors to Australia up to about 1835, tended to assume that they formed a homogeneous group, the “children of the convicts.” However, the native-born did not think of themselves that way—not because they felt up to denying the facts of the colony’s birth, but because their society was so much more intricate than England’s “instrumental” view of Australia as a convict dump, a society defined by criminality, would allow. In this real society, the children of the free were inextricably mingled in a web of social and economic relations with those of Emancipists. The poor were not all convict-born, the rich were not all free; menial workers as well as Macarthurs had come there free, and there were rough Midases as well as sober tradesmen and illiterate, broken helots among the transported. Some children of convicts grew up fighting for crusts, others had private tutors or went to ladies’ schools in Parramatta. Because the native-born were the sons and daughters of all conditions of people, bond and free, they were at every level of colonial Australian society by 1825 and could not be treated as a “class” on their own.57

Thinking and writing of them as “the children of the convicts” exposed them to condescension. The very word “convict” carried a crushing load of moral opprobrium. “Atrocious” crimes had put the parents in Australia, with predictable results for the native-born. Few of the observers of colonial life, from generally sympathetic ones like Peter Cunningham to prejudiced Tories like John Bigge—let alone choleric bigots like James Mudie—made allowance for the fact that many of their parents had been transported for small crimes. Such folk were not habitual criminals, still less limbs of that chimera the “criminal class,” but ordinary sinners without much opportunity, who had offended the law once and had been caught. But to their moralizing observers, simply to be in Australia against one’s will was a proof of wickedness.

In particular, the moral prejudices invoked against convict women—the stereotypes of their boozing, promiscuity, rebelliousness and lack of talent for motherhood—distorted the picture of Emancipist family life, suggesting that the native-born were reared on rum and abandoned to fate. Some of the native-born shared this prejudice against their social “inferiors.” They were the smallest group: the sons and daughters of the Exclusives, the high officials and the wealthy free settlers, who believed they were a colonial aristocracy.

The idea that, in the words of a colonial judge in the 1850s, “crime descends, as surely as physical properties and individual temperament,” was the very axis of the idea of a “criminal class”; it was also, of course, the key reason for all social discrimination by “respectable” Australians against their Others, the Emancipists. But it turned out not to be true. Despite all the jeremiads directed against their origins, despite the widespread perception of a permanent groundswell of crime for which they were supposed to be responsible, the first generations of the native-born turned out to be the most law-abiding, morally conservative people in the country. Among them, the truly durable legacy of the convict system was not “criminality” but the revulsion from it: the will to be as decent as possible, to sublimate and wipe out the convict stain, even at the cost—heavily paid for in later education—of historical amnesia.58

This was to be confirmed by the crime statistics in New South Wales. In 1835 W. W. Burton, judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court, speaking at length on the prevalence of crime, declared that it was as though “the whole colony were continually in motion towards the several Courts of Justice.” But five years later, reflecting on his experiences on the colonial bench—and on the sensational revelations about Australian vice that had filled the ears of the Molesworth Committee—he protested that the Molesworth report “no more represents the true state of society in New South Wales than an enquiry into the horrible particulars of an ill-regulated gaol in England would represent the state of society in the county in which it is situated.”59

For instead of growing up depraved, the Currency showed the lowest crime rate of any group. Out of 827 men he had tried in the years 1833 to 1838, 450 (54 percent) were convicts under sentence, 241 (29 percent) were Emancipists, 50 (6 percent) were free emigrants, and only 30 (4 percent) were Australian-born. Moreover, none of the Currency had committed murder or grand larceny; and he had never even heard of one being charged with rape. Of the 30 Currency defendants, 13 (nearly half) were up for horse-stealing or cattle-rustling—which, like poaching in England, ordinary Australians hardly thought were crimes at all.60

Then how did the cankered stock of English criminality produce such fresh, green shoots in Australia? Observers like Bigge pondered this and came up with a theory. The children had a “natural aversion” to the spectacle of sin. They “neither inherit the vices nor the feelings of their parents,” he reported in 1822. They “felt contempt for the vices and depravity of the convicts even when manifested in the persons of their own parents” [emphasis added].61 The Currency lasses, Cunningham thought, were “anxious to get into respectable service . . . [to] escape from the tutelage of their often profligate parents.” So there must have been a general rupture between parents and children, a fissure that traversed whole generations—the young, en masse, rejecting the old, and exiling felonry from their lives as it had been exiled from Mother England. They were so hurt by the behavior of their parents that they resolved, no matter how difficult it was, to be as little like them as possible—to go straight. Thus the “viciousness and indolence” of the parents could be squared with the “honesty and industry” of their children.

But there is little to support this idea. Australia was not only a country of opportunity for the Merinos and their friends—men like John Macarthur, in England a draper’s boy, a dynast in the antipodes; it was a frontier society that rewarded hard work at any level, to a degree undreamed-of by the English or Irish poor. The out-of-work blacksmith, reduced to petty theft by lack of opportunity, could soon become a flourishing tradesman in Sydney once his sentence was completed. Hope, effort and luck enabled thousands of Emancipists to make a second start in life, better than anything they had known in their British lives. The difference was biggest of all for unskilled workers, whose chances in England had been nil.

To read what these people said about themselves, instead of what their superiors like Bigge and Cunningham said about them, is to get a different impression. Its main source is the “Memorials,” or petitions to the governor asking for land grants, which had, of course, to be accompanied by character references from magistrates and chaplains. By the first census, in 1828, one native-born man in three owned land, and the surviving Memorials (written by men on their own behalf, or by fathers seeking land grants for their sons) show a consistent pattern of family ties: Parents asked for land for their sons, sons petitioned for land grants close by their fathers’ farms, and this somewhat confutes the “assumption of parental abandonment and neglect” among the native-born.62The language in which the memorials are couched always speaks of fathers as “tender,” “respectable,” “loving,” “honest”; of the sons as “deserving,” “sober,” “devoted.” Part of this, no doubt, is the standard language of scribes making formal addresses; one would not expect to find a petition asking the governor to give sixty acres to the “lazy, brutish, undeserving” son of a “drunken, dissolute, hard-hearted” ex-convict. Yet one may feel that the language reflected social facts as well as epistolary conventions.

By 1828, about one adult Currency man in three owned land, but not all the native-born aspired to. The landless did not want to become agricultural laborers either, since that carried the stigma of working alongside assigned convicts. It was noticed that the Currency shunned farm labor “partly from a sense of pride: for, owing to the convicts being hitherto almost the sole agricultural laborers, they naturally look upon that vocation as degrading in the same manner as white men in slave colonies regard work of any kind, seeing that none but slaves do work.” By the same token, the Currency did not look to the sea for work. The harsh regime on board ship, the absolute authority of the captains and their way of keeping discipline with a rope’s end was too much like convict life for their taste.63

The great area of opportunity was skilled labor and small trade. It took patience to succeed as a farmer. But a carpenter, joiner, bricklayer, wheelwright, cooper, cobbler or blacksmith—in short, any artisan skilled at one of the basic trades on which transport, construction and storage depended—had success at his fingertips in colonial Australia. There was little demand for luxury trades; the colony could support any number of house-carpenters but not many ivory-turners, perfumers or bookbinders. At the end of the 1820s, a good carpenter could make 7s. 6d. a day in Sydney, whereas his counterpart in London might manage to earn two-thirds that. This was the main reason why, despite the seasoning of “political” workers transported to Australia for their protests against trade and labor conditions in England, no radical ideas took root and no trade-union agitation of any note was heard from either the Emancipists or the Currency in New South Wales. Sweated free labor and the exploitation of child workers were equally unheard of there; it was the convicts who sweated and were exploited. Pay and conditions for skilled workers were so much better there than in England that, relatively speaking, they had no gripes.

The native-born Australians did not look like their parents and grandparents, those dark and often stunted emanations of English slums and mills. As children, they were well if plainly fed, cradled in sunshine, and grew into tall and stringy cornstalks, “like the Americans,” the resident naval surgeon Dr. Peter Cunningham remarked in the 1820s, “generally remarkable for that Gothic peculiarity of fair hair and blue eyes.” They did not have the typically apple-red cheeks which, some etymologists think, were the origin of that mysterious and durable Australian slang term for an Englishman, “pommy.” Their complexion was sallow, and they lost their teeth early. They were punctiliously honest and sober, with “an open manly simplicity of character . . . little tainted with the vices so prominent among their parents.”64

The men were very “clannish”; mateship and class solidarity were absolutely fundamental to their values. They were great street-fighters. One in, all in: “If a soldier quarrels with one, the whole hive sally to his aid; and often they have turned out at Christmas-time, and beat the redcoatsfairly into their barracks.” The Currency lasses tended to be gauche, pretty, credulous, sexually precocious (virginity had no special value for the “lower classes” on the marriage-market of penal Australia) but astute in improving their lot through matrimony. They married early, “and do not seem to relish the system of concubinage so popular among their Sterling brethren here.” They spent a lot of time at the beach and swam “like dab-chicks.” They were, in short, very like their seventh-generation descendants.

The Currency were also warmly patriotic. “You cannot imagine,” wrote George Thomas Boyes, the sensitive and irritable colonial diarist, from Van Diemen’s Land to his wife Mary in far-off England in October 1831,

such a beautiful Race as the rising generation in this Colony. . . . As they grow up they think nothing of England and can’t bear the idea of going there. It is extraordinary the passionate love they have for the country of their birth. . . . There is a degree of Liberty here which you can hardly imagine at your side of the Equator. The whole country round, Mountains and Valleys, Rock Glens, Rivers and Woods, seem to be their own domain; they shoot, ride, fish, go bivouacing in the woods—hunt Opossum and Kangaroos, catch and train parrots. . . . They are in short as free as the Birds of the Air and the Natives of the Forests. They are also connoisseurs in horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and wool . . . and this they all understand before they can speak that two and two make four.65

This would become a common theme of visitors: In the midst of all the constraints of a penal colony, the native-born had developed for themselves a sense of physical liberty and kinship with the landscape—like Australians in the 1950s, accepting all manner of censorship, Grundyism and excess police power, but feeling like the freest people on earth because they could go surfing at lunch-time.

Surgeon Peter Cunningham was startled to find that most of them thought Australia’s “very miserable-looking” gum trees more beautiful than any oak or elm. (It was contagious, for after a time, he wrote, “I myself, so powerful is habit, began to look upon them pleasurably.”) The Currency lad who visited England could hardly wait to get back and tell his friends what a dull time he had, how thin the beer was and how slow the horses. Most of them did not want to visit England at all, because it was so full of thieves.

They also had by the 1820s a peculiar accent, lacking both the euphony of standard English and the glottal patter of Cockney: twangy, sharp, high in the nose, and as utterly unmistakable as the scent of burning eucalyptus.

They shared certain grievances with the Emancipist stock from which so many of them had sprung. The prime one was the general attitude of the colonial Exclusives to labor. Convictry had induced the Exclusives to think of all labor as with “supercilious intolerance.” Masters used “to tell [convicts] they have no rights, and to taunt and mock them if they talk about seeking redress for any ill treatment. . . . The habit and the feeling have become rooted in their very nature; and they would wish to treat free people in the same way.” Women behaved similarly: “It is most laughable to see the capers some of our drunken old Sterling madonnas will occasionally cut over their Currency adversaries in a quarrel. It is then, ‘You saucy baggage, how dare you set up your Currencycrest at me? I am Sterling, and that I’ll let you know!’”66

By far the most galling manifestation of this—the point at which the colony’s penal, police-state nature rubbed incessantly against the freeborn—were the restrictions of movement and the farm-constable system. Many Currency lads were wanderers, constantly “on the wallaby track.” They would roll their swag and go from one end of New South Wales to the other, picking their work. Most of them carried no identification and, being free, were not required to. Nor did they want to: The convict’s pass or ticket, much folded and tattered, was as plain an image of servitude as a scarred back. But fear of escaped convicts had led, by the 1830s, to an oppressive patchwork of regulations, chief among which was the Bushranging Act. Under it, anyone could be arrested on suspicion of being an absconder; and the primitive communications in the outback (and records in the towns) made it hard to prove one’s identity. Since police were thinly scattered, most of the arrests were made by “farm constables,” “trusty” convicts still under sentence, who knew their sentences would be shortened if they could bring a bolter in.

The result was a widespread system of arbitrary arrest, without habeas corpus for innocent men fettered in the crude farm lockup with the “log on their toes.” Alexander Harris, whose books Settlers and Convicts was the only substantial account of life in penal Australia from the free worker’s side, told of one “native lad” who had to spend seven weeks out of three months marching in handcuffs under the Bushranging Act; arrested by a farm constable in a distant area of the Hunter River, he had to walk at a horse’s stirrup 250 miles to Sydney. Once cleared, he set out in the opposite direction—southwest, toward the Murrumbidgee—and was arrested again and forced back to Sydney, to prove his name all over again. Such exasperations were so common that the Currency did not even sue for wrongful arrest—but then, they were workingmen and did not have the money to litigate, so they grumblingly accepted their fate in what would become the usual Australian manner: cursing authority, but obeying it all the same. “Whole shoals of men, both emigrant and freed, are daily passing to and fro from one police office to another ‘for identification,’” Harris noted. “Yet I have never seen one syllable [written] on the subject.”67

Common oppressions make common causes, and by the end of Macquarie’s governorship, Emancipists and Currency were ranged together against the Exclusives. The Anglophile “aristocracy” was scorned as a thin, derivative elite whose standards had little of benefit to add to the emerging folkways of life in New South Wales. The Currency felt they were disenfranchised and the Emancipists knew they were. Looking for a tribune, they soon found him—a slouching, copper-haired, rasping mixture of Irish rage, English manipulation and pure Australian brashness named William Charles Wentworth (1790–1872), “the Great Native.” Wentworth’s birth had put him neatly between all factions. He was a Currency bastard begotten by a free man on a convict woman, with more than enough property to qualify as a Merino. But his father, D’Arcy Wentworth, was only free by a hair, and conservatives thought of him as an Emancipist.

The Wentworths came originally from Yorkshire and were related to one of the great English families, the Fitzwilliams. D’Arcy Wentworth, son of a Protestant pub-keeper in Northern Ireland, had been born in Armagh around the year 1762. He grew up a man of great charm, cheerful, gregarious, and liberal in his political views. After duty as a medical ensign in the Irish Volunteers, he went to London to continue his medical studies. The Fitzwilliams gave him social introductions and soon this personable lad was living far beyond his means. He came up on three charges of highway robbery at the Old Bailey in 1787. Acquitted of all three, he was haled before the court again in 1789 on yet another robbery charge. At the start of this fourth trial, Wentworth, who cannot have been too sure of his innocence, asked his counsel to tell the judge that he was going to Botany Bay anyhow; in fact he had got a post as an assistant surgeon. He was acquitted a fourth time, but now he had given his word and had to go. He sailed on Neptune, the hell-ship of the Second Fleet. A third of her five hundred convict passengers died, but Wentworth survived and so did a twenty-year-old girl named Catherine Crowley, transported for stealing cloth. By the end of the voyage she was heavily pregnant by D’Arcy Wentworth. Their son, William Charles, was probably born at sea on the way to Norfolk Island, where D’Arcy Wentworth became an assistant in the hospital.

D’Arcy Wentworth went on to make a fortune in land, rum and trade. As a doctor, he was mediocre; but as a public figure, he stood large in the tiny colony. When he died in 1827, the funeral cortege was a mile long. With tact and care, he had managed throughout his life to avoid the crab-basket quarrels and ignore the slights of colonial society. Not even the censorious pen of John Bigge could accuse him of social climbing. “Mr. Wentworth has very rarely mixed in the society of New South Wales altho’ he has always been distinguished by propriety of demeanour when invited to partake of it and has been observed to shun rather than court attention.”68 In private, there was plenty of courting. He sired (and supported) at least seven other children by various mistresses in Australia, and his tombstone bore the sly scriptural text, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”

From the beginning, the Exclusives disliked him as a rake, a liberal and a convict manquè. His son William Charles, idolizing his father, heard and resented their whispers. The boy went to school in England and came back to New South Wales in 1810, a rawboned lad with thin skin and blood in his eye, just in time for the first clashes between Macquarie and the Exclusives over the Emancipists’ rights to serve as jurors and magistrates. He wrote “pipes” against John Macarthur and Macquarie’s lieutenant-governor, Lieutenant-Colonel George Molle of the 46th Regiment, whom Wentworth thought a hypocritical anti-Emancipist. His couplets offered “dirty, grovelling Molle” “some bum-tingling kicks” and a “mutton fist upon thy bleeding nose.” No doubt Wentworth, who moved gracelessly but had shoulders like an Irish ox, could have made good on this threat. But since the verse was anonymous and not printed, there was little Molle could do.69

In the meantime, William Charles had larger matters on his mind—in particular, the crossing of the Blue Mountains, a feat that he accomplished with Blaxland and Lawson in 1813. He was a public figure in the colony by then, and one of its largest landowners (Macquarie, never adverse to the exercise of patronage, granted him 1,750 acres at Parramatta in 1811 and a further 1,000 for penetrating the ranges). In 1816 he set off to England again to study law. His aims were large: He would study the British Constitution so that he could draft one for Australia; and in the meantime he hoped to marry Elizabeth Macarthur, daughter of John, so as to form a great colonial dynasty, Merino inseminated by Currency. In this he was rashly overconfident, since the fierce, aging John Macarthur well knew that young Wentworth had written an anonymous “pipe” against him before quitting New South Wales.

By 1819, his marriage plans had foundered and his touchiness about his father was more inflamed than ever. When Henry Bennett, an English MP, publicly insinuated that D’Arcy Wentworth had been transported as a convict, William Charles bullied a public retraction from Bennett. Thus, the future “Emancipists’ friend” could explode at the mere suggestion that he was an Emancipist’s son. He remained hypersensitive about his family name for the rest of his life: “I will not suffer myself to be outstripped by any competitor and I will finally create for myself a reputation which shall reflect a splendour on all who are related to me.” In his deeper heart, Wentworth believed as strongly in the “convict stain” as any Englishman or Exclusive, and part of him longed to be English; hence the frustrated ambition of his later life, the creation of a new nobility, derided by his opponents as the “bunyip aristocracy” and modelled on the Whig aristocracy of Georgian England.70

At first the Emancipists were not so much his friends as his enemies’ enemies. But Wentworth saw that the issue of Emancipists’ rights could levitate him quickly into the public eye, since Currency so far outnumbered Sterling in Australia. So he wrote a tract, arguing that Australia should cease to be a jail and become, instead, a free colony with its own elected government, rivalling America in its attraction for the English emigrant. “A native of New South Wales,” he put on the title page—the first time an author had claimed Australian identity. Inside, he argued for government by a legislative council, nominated, and a small assembly, elected. Ex-convicts should be able to vote for any candidate and stand for any office. But Wentworth’s own conservatism rejected the principle of “one man, one vote”; the legislative council would bear “many resemblances to the House of Lords” while landed property was “the only standard by which the right of electing, or being elected, can in any country be properly regulated.” He defended Macquarie’s Emancipist policy and bitterly attacked the Exclusives:

The covert aim of these men is to convert the ignominy of the great body of the people into a hereditary deformity. They would hand it down from father to son, and raise an eternal barrier of separation between their offspring, and the offspring of the unfortunate convict.71

His book ran through three editions in Sydney but fell flat in England. “A Botany Bay parliament would give rise to jokes,” the Reverend Sydney Smith sniffed in the Edinburgh Review, and as for juries, what settlement in New South Wales could produce four dozen men fit to serve on one?72

But Wentworth began lobbying in London. Soon after he got there, the King’s Bench invalidated all pardons, conditional or absolute, granted by past governors of New South Wales. This was a disaster for the Emancipists (for one thing, it invalidated all their titles to property), and in 1821 they met to draft a petition to the Crown, pointing out the “infinite danger and prejudice” to which it exposed them and demanding the restoration of their rights. “It has been by their Labour, Industry and Exertions,” the ex-convicts begged to remind George IV, “that this Your Majesty’s Colony . . . has been converted from a barren Wilderness of Woods into a thriving British Colony.”73 Governor Macquarie forwarded the document with strong endorsements to London. It bore 1,368 signatures—a quarter of the Emancipist population of New South Wales.

The secretary of its drafting committee was the ex-convict lawyer Edward Eagar, whose modest practice in New South Wales had been wiped out by Jeffrey Bent. Eagar brought the petition to London, and his fare was paid by the Emancipist doctor William Redfern, who went with them. Wentworth helped them lobby the government for validation of colonial pardons, trial by jury and representative government. They did not succeed—at least, not immediately—but their presence in London helped plant the awareness that Emancipists were not just inferior social abstractions in a distant colony but people of British blood with a cause. Lobbying and letters mattered a great deal in shaping official English policy toward Australia. This was the unintended result of setting up an authoritarian, penal regime there. New South Wales had neither free press nor parliament; English officials did not suppose its governor’s reports told the whole sociopolitical story; and so unofficial letters from the antipodes to men of influence soon found their way to upper Tory and Whig circles. Only a free assembly in Australia could have reduced this exaggerated power of private correspondence, by supplying a record of debate on issues. Failing that, lobbyists had to pull what strings they could reach.

In 1823 Wentworth wound up his law studies in London and went to Cambridge. This was merely to brown the crust, as he did not work for a degree. His time was taken up writing a lengthy poem in heroic couplets, his entry for the chancellor’s gold medal, whose set subject that year—by a happy coincidence—was “Australasia.” If he could win this, he reasoned, he would become a public literary man as well as a lawyer and political aspirant—the thirty-three-year-old Byron of the antipodes. Alas, the Native’s verses, creaking with trope and figure, came in second. Yet second place was better than none, especially when viewed from Sydney; and Wentworth’s peroration, in which Britain sinks in decadence while her old values rise brightly in Australia, would be quoted there for years to come:

And, oh Britannia! shouldst thou cease to ride,

Despotic Empress of old Ocean’s tide:—

Should thy tam’d Lion—spent his former might—

No longer roar the terror of the fight;—

Should e’er arrive that dark disastrous hour,

When bow’d by luxury, thou yield’st to power;—

When thou, no longer freest of the free

To some proud victor bend’st the vanquish’d knee;—

May all thy glories in another sphere

Relume, and shine more brightly still than here;

May this, thy last-born infant,—then arise,

To glad thy heart and greet thy parent eyes;

And Australasia float, with flag unfurl’d.

A new Britannia in another world.

The poem sank without a trace in England, along with its dedication to Lachlan Macquarie and its defiant signature, “by W. C. Wentworth, an Australasian.”74

He sailed back to Sydney in 1824 with a printing press and started a newspaper, The Australian, the first of a line of nationalistic, pro-Currency, pro-Emancipist journals whose eventual heir in the 1890s would be The Bulletin. It was meant to compete against the moribund Sydney Gazette, whose every word was vetted by Government House.

Two years earlier, Lachlan Macquarie, hailed in departure as the “Patriot-Chief,” had retired to England, and to his obsessive, time-wasting efforts to rebut the criticism of the Exclusives’ allies, chiefly Bigge and Marsden. His successor was another Scottish protégé of Wellington’s, Brigadier-General Sir Thomas Brisbane (1773–1860). Brisbane had one main thing on his mind. He had been instructed to carry out Bigge’s recommendations that security and discipline be tightened up in the colony, so that it would once more become a place of dread and cease to be seen by the poor as one of possible opportunity. Macquarie’s detractors had accused him of granting too many tickets-of-leave too early; Brisbane would cut down their number and make sure that sentences were fully served. He had Norfolk Island reopened as a place of terrible secondary punishment, “the ne plus ultra,” as he put it “of convict degradation.” But at the same time, he realized that the colony had grown to the point where not every detail could be overseen by the governor’s office. To the dismay of the Exclusives, he decided to free the press, thus giving Wentworth his inch.

The Native Son promptly grabbed a mile. In a few months The Australian became so popular that most native-born Australians and every Emancipist accepted him as their tribune. Nobody in Australia had ever built a political base so strongly or so fast. In speeches and editorials, Wentworth hammered away at the issues of jury trial and political representation for Currency and Emancipists, at the prejudices and pretensions of the Exclusives. On the thirty-seventh anniversary of white settlement in Australia, January 26, 1825, eighty of the leading Currency met at a Sydney hotel for a banquet given by Wentworth and Redfern. Michael Massey Robinson, the convict bard who had been Macquarie’s poet laureate (to his pique, the post was not renewed by Brisbane) was seventy-nine now and doddery from years of rum; but he roused himself to compose an Emancipists’ toast in jingling couplets. It disclaimed Republican sentiments; the Emancipists were Britons reclaiming their ancient rights. Mercy and Justice made the allegorical appearances and agreed to foil the plans of the Exclusives: “Your names shall, unstain’d, to your children go forth / Distinguished for virtue—remember’d for worth.” It ended with glasses raised to Australia:

Then to thee shall our hearts’ purest homage be given,

And the toast that succeeds be: “The land, boys, we live in,”

Governor Brisbane sympathized, up to a point, with such feelings. He hardened the line on convicts under sentence, but his policy toward the Emancipists was virtually an extension of Macquarie’s; and he thought Exclusivist attitudes not only pretentious but unworkable, given the human material of which Australia was composed. He was also tolerant in religious matters. Although he was not fond of Irish Catholics, to whose “barbarous ignorance” he ascribed “every murder or diabolical crime that has been committed in the Colony since my arrival,” he felt the best way of saving them from barbarism was for the government to subsidize the building of their long-delayed diocesan church in Sydney to the tune of £3,000, a proposal that struck horror into Protestant hearts.75 He also incurred Marsden’s wrath by suggesting that the Protestant clergy should live on their stipends, not their trade. For these reasons as well as his amateur passion for astronomy, the Exclusives nicknamed him “the stargazer” and bombarded their official contacts in London with hate-letters about him. He was recalled to England at the end of 1825, but he tacitly showed his opinion of the Macarthurs and Marsdens by allowing Wentworth and his friends to hold a public meeting in Sydney whose object was to frame a farewell address to him.

This was the first public political meeting of any kind ever held in Australia, and Wentworth made the most of it, turning it into a forum from which to dare “the yellow snakes of the colony” (meaning the Exclusives) to come out of their holes. The Exclusives had pursued Macquarie and now Brisbane with “a deadly hostility,” “a system of persecution,” private calumnies of every sort, turning the public and ministry of England into “the dupes of their habitual and filthy misrepresentations”; but now, where were they? Not “manfully” opposing him and his majority, but skulking in silence. All this robust invective, and more, was duly reported in The Australian.

But the reforms that the Emancipists and Currency wanted were slow in coming. In 1823 a British Act of Parliament had created legislative councils for both Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales, whose administrations were formally separated. This was a slight gain, for it meant that the governor was no longer a complete autocrat. But the councils were tiny, appointed by the governor himself, and could do no more than advise; only the governor could initiate a new law in the colony. In 1828 another act increased the size of the legislative council to fifteen people, none elected, all appointed. Not until 1842 did the legislative council acquire members who could present issues for public debate—twenty-four men out of thirty-six. But each representative had to own at least £2,000 in landed property, so that, even if all its members were not “pure Merinos,” they had to be as rich as one before getting elected. As a democratic body, this “Squatters’ Council” left much to be desired. Wentworth, irresistible in coarse oratory and an expert on procedure, became its de facto leader. But transportation to New South Wales had been abolished in 1840, and the convict presence in New South Wales, which stood around 45 percent of the total white population at the time of Brisbane’s departure, had dwindled to a mere 12 percent. The social tensions of convictry were winding down (though not in Van Diemen’s Land) and the role of the Emancipists’ tribune was less politically useful. The issue of Emancipists’ rights fizzled out before it could create an Australian democracy.

Meanwhile, the prospects for the convicts themselves had grown considerably worse. Brisbane had begun to re-convert Australia into a place of dread for the lower classes of Britain. The process did not stop with him. Between 1825 and 1840, the separate colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land found their penal systems refined, expanded and rendered ever more efficient and excruciating. This work was begun by two military martinets: Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Darling, who governed New South Wales from 1825 to 1831, and Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George Arthur, who ran Van Diemen’s Land from 1824 to 1836. Vast differences—of character, ideals and methods—lay between these two men. But their styles of oppression and philosophies of reform shaped Australia during the last years of the Georges.

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