One People, One Destiny

Lieutenant Colonel George Arthur was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land in 1823. Two years later, when Van Diemen’s Land was declared a separate colony, George Arthur became the first governor, taking his orders directly from London.

Governor Arthur was a committed, evangelical Christian with a passion for souls. A fellow-Christian in the Colonial Office, James Stephen, had impressed on Arthur the importance of establishing a “Christian . . . state in the centre of the eastern hemisphere and within reach of the Chinese, Hindu and Mohammedan nations which surrounded him”. So Arthur set about this task with zeal. The settlers, who had been killing the Aboriginal peoples, were told to treat them with kindness and compassion. Immoral behaviour was condemned and punished, and the drive against the bushrangers continued. Governor Arthur also encouraged the building of schools and churches.

Governor Arthur saw the colony as primarily a penal settlement, and ruled it as such. In his mind, convict bad behaviour should be severely punished, while good conduct should be consistently rewarded. The choice of the path taken – downward or upward – lay with the convict. The downward path led through the chain gang to places of secondary punishment, ending in the gallows. The upward path, led through assignment, to receipt of a ticket of leave and a conditional pardon, to full freedom.

Arthur believed it was necessary to deal with both the internal and external causes of crime. The external temptations could partly be removed through transportation. (Arthur likened this to moving weak plants from an exposed part of the garden to a sheltered part.) Internal reform (a change of heart) was primarily the responsibility of the chaplain and of upright citizens.

In 1833, Macquarie Harbour was abandoned in favour of the new model convict settlement at Port Arthur. This was a place of secondary punishment for the most hardened criminals. Discipline was severe, but just. Governor Arthur was convinced that Van Diemen’s Land could be made a terror to evildoers for the next quarter century at least. In this, however, he was out of step with the free settlers who were pressing for representative government, freedom of the press and trial by jury.

Governor Arthur’s character may be judged by this story. On 24 August 1832, with a southerly gale blowing, news reached Hobart Town that the Princess Royal, with the first assisted unmarried female immigrants on board, had run aground in the Derwent estuary. Unwilling to trust the civil officers with such precious cargo, Arthur himself set out in a small boat with the Chief Police Magistrate to supervise the rescue of the women and their safe transportation to shore. In the weeks that followed, he appointed a ladies’ committee to find suitable employment for the new arrivals. As a result, 72 were provided with employment as milliners and dressmakers, or placed in respectable domestic service.

Governor Arthur was not popular with some people. His enemies labelled him the “saint of Hobart Town”. They resented his refusal to grant them the rights of free Englishmen, and mocked his attempts at moral reform. Yet, on his knees in church on Sunday, Arthur “received the strength to confront a hostile world with dignity, and a deepening of his faith in God’s saving grace for the whole of mankind”.