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A new date to celebrate Australia Day

To the Editor,
The Sydney Morning Herald

A Date Worth Considering

The 7th of November is worth considering as an alternative date for Australia Day. On that evening in 1825, Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane attended a farewell dinner in the Long Room of Nash’s Woolpack Inn at Parramatta, given in his honour by a group of emancipists, former convicts who had served their time.[i]

On 26 January we celebrate Governor Arthur Phillip coming ashore from the First Fleet and raising the Union Jack. On other public holidays we honour millions of our young men who served, were killed, wounded or taken prisoner in British and American Wars. In comparison dinner at Parramatta may seem a very modest occasion to remember, but it was a significant milestone for the future of Australia, for our society and our values.

On Australia Day the 750 convicts carried on the First Fleet barely rank a mention. They were the first shipment of the 162,000 convicts transported here between 1788 and the mid 1850s. Most had been convicted of petty crimes, and many were political prisoners. They were sent to stay, no provision was made for them to return home after they had served their sentences. Today their descendents make up around 20% of our population.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who arrived on New Year’s Day 1810, recognised the importance of former convicts to the Colony. In April 1810 he wrote to Lord Castlereagh: I was very much surprised and Concerned, on my Arrival here, at the extraordinary and illiberal Policy I found had been adopted by all the Persons who had preceded me in Office respecting those Men who had been originally sent out to this Country as Convicts, but who, by long Habits of Industry and total Reformation of Manners, had not only become respectable, but by Many Degrees the most Useful Members of the Community. Those persons have never been Countenanced or received into Society.

I have nevertheless, taken upon my self to adopt a new Line of Conduct, Conceiving that Emancipation, when United with Rectitude and long-tried good Conduct, should lead a Man back to that Rank in Society which he had forfeited, and do away, in as far as the Case will admit, All Retrospect of former bad Conduct. [ii]

Macquarie’s recognition of the emancipists made him many enemies within the military and among the Exclusives, the self appointed upper class of Sydney. The mailbags of the Colonial Office spilled over with their petitions and letters of complaint.

In 1823, Britain sent John Bigge to the Colony and review its administration. He was instructed to constantly bear in mind that Transportation to New South Wales is intended as a severe Punishment applied to various Crimes, and as such must be rendered an Object of real Terror to all classes of the community. [iii]

Bigge was asked to consider the Propriety of admitting into Society Persons, who originally came to the Settlement as Convicts… I am aware that the Conduct of the Governor in this respect, however approved by the Government at home, has drawn down upon him the Hostility of many persons, who hold association with the Convicts under any circumstances to be a degradation.[iv]

The first volume of his report, State of the Colony, was tabled in the House of Commons on 19 June 1822. By then Macquarie had left New South Wales, to die two years later in London, a broken man.

Bigge rejected Macquarie’s vision of emancipists as the backbone of the growing Colony, and his aspiration to return them to society with full rights as British subjects. Instead he recommended an end to their recognition, and the suspension of any progress in their legal rights. Emancipists were to have no access to Government appointments, they were to be excluded from land grants, and not permitted to fill public office.

Bigge recommended increasing the salutary terror of transportation. Conditions for convicts were to be made more oppressive: flogging increased; all pardons, tickets of leave, early release and remissions of sentence discontinued or repudiated, as they diminished the effect of the punishment of transportation.

Sir Thomas Brisbane, appointed as Governor on 1 December 1821, was given clear instructions to break with Macquarie’s policy towards emancipists. He was forbidden to invite them to his table; he could not grant land to ex-convicts, appoint them as magistrates, or to any office of responsibility.

Brisbane was recalled in May 1825 and he arranged to leave the Colony in December. As the time drew near, the leading Exclusive settlers planned a public dinner to farewell him. When Brisbane learnt that emancipists were to be excluded from the dinner he tactfully asked the committee to reconsider, and to accept six of their representatives. The Exclusives refused to be conciliatory, and on 23 October, they cancelled their farewell dinner.

The emancipists proposed a second public farewell dinner where they could thank the Governor and pay their respects to him. On 26 October, Governor Brisbane formally accepted their farewell address in the presence of a large number of public officials, civil and military; merchants and members of the public. The address was published in the press and the Governor accepted the emancipists’ invitation to dinner.

On the evening of 7 November 1825, a hundred guests attended the official farewell dinner for Governor Brisbane at the Woolpack Inn in Parramatta. Despite the Exclusives boycott most of the Colony’s leading officials attended.

Brisbane had obeyed instructions not to invite emancipists to dine at his table, but this evening he was ready to break bread with them. It was a significant event in the evolution of Colony, despite Bigge’s recommendations, the representative of the British Crown gave formal recognition to the emancipists, discrediting the pretensions of the Exclusives.

Brisbane recognised the timeliness of their desire for rights and recognition, he agreed to support their claims for the extension of their civil rights, and the desire of the colonists for colonial independence. He undertook to take up these issues with the Government when he returned to England. I shall conceive it my duty to make such representations to His Majesty’s Ministers.

Brisbane declared that the Free Institutions of Great Britain should not any longer be withheld from the Colony. I am decidedly of the opinion that it has arrived at a state fit for their reception. He closed with a toast to the Happiness and Prosperity to New South Wales. [v]

It was a political turning point, the emancipists had the numbers, talent and wealth, and on this evening their importance for the future of the Colony was recognised by Brisbane’s viceregal patronage. They had achieved ascendancy over the Exclusives.

On his return to London, Brisbane supported their campaign for political recognition and rights. His farewell dinner heralded the historic shift of Australia from a penal colony to a viable mature society. November 7, 1825 marked the beginning of our inclusive, just and free society.

17 January 2018

[i] Wal Walker, Such Talent & Such Success, Jane & D’Arcy Vol 2, Chapter 14, Sydney, Arcana Gallery, 2017.

[ii] Governor Macquarie to Viscount Castlereagh, 30 April 1810, Historical Records of New South Wales, Volume VII, page 356.

[iii] Earl Bathurst to Commissioner Bigge, 6 January 1819, Historical Records of Australia, Series I, Volume X, page 4.

[iv] Earl Bathurst to Commissioner Bigge, 30 January 1819. Private letter, ibid, page 11.

[v] Governor Brisbane, Reply to Address of Farewell, 26 October 1825, Historical Records of Australia, Series IV, Volume I, page 629.