PostHeaderIcon Condemned to Repeating Our History

Condemned To Repeating Our History

(first published in The Australian, July 23-24 2011)

In Tasmania for the annual conference of the Australians Historical Association , I was struck how history was repeating itself. 'MP in Gay Hate Blast!' was the banner headline in the Hobart Mercury. 'MP Hits Back at Gay Hatred Claims' riposted the Launceston Examiner. [both newspapers 8 July 2011]

The Tasmanian habit of fighting about homosexuality dates to debate on convict transportation in the mid nineteenth century. Opponents ran a scaremongering campaign about convict 'vices', that began in Van Diemen's Land and spread to the mainland. New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were particularly affected. Queensland did not separate from New South Wales until the campaign was over, but was nevertheless a battleground when the British proposed it be a new penal colony. Western Australia endured pariah status in the Victorian and South Australian press because it continued taking convicts until 1868.

Clergymen of all denominations were proactive in the campaign which was led by the charismatic congregationalist Reverend John West. They were supported by disaffected convict officials and devout laymen many of whom such as Charles Cowper, later premier of New South Wales and Charles La Trobe, Governor of Victoria, were sons of clergymen. Their version of the cause as noble and moral has been accepted at face value.

Even today extravagant claims are made for Reverend West's virtuous character. Perhaps they reflect his compelling oratory which the Argus witnessed in Melbourne: 'The stream of eloquence with which he overpowers his hearers told with electric effect...he was listened to with earnest attention interrupted only by bursts of admiration. I can compare Mr West's peculiar power of enchantment to nothing but mental mesmerism. '

West's modern advocates credit him as 'The Father of Federation', claiming he was the first to suggest it. Essays he wrote as editor of the Sydney Morning Herald were strongly argued but it was Edward Gibbon Wakefield's idea. Shortly after this was reported, West suggested the colonies should unite as an Australasian League.

West's 1852 publication The History of Tasmania demonstrates that he wrote as beautifully as he spoke. A warning by 20th century historian A.G.L. Shaw that it was propaganda against convict transportation went unheeded until recently.

John West's tactics could be scurrilous. His public exposure of Governor Denison's epilepsy and the extended campaign West waged using the Governor's condition as a weapon, provoked the editor of Launceston's Cornwall Chronicle to declare: ''The man who could fall on his knees before his Maker, between the act of writing and propagating such allusions [to epilepsy], shews either a moral obliquity that seems judicial, or hypocrisy, which insults the throne of cannot be justified under any circumstances by morality or religion.'

Evidence of West's unsavoury tactics against convicts can be found in an emotional letter written by Launceston businessman James Aikenhead. Discussing the (alleged) evils of convictism with a medical practitioner, they were joined by a clergyman who convinced them. "Yes it is awfully true,' he said, 'a boy of my own was inveigled into a house: the miscreant exposed himself and but for the screams of my son would have perpetrated the offence." The clergyman told a second tale of a convict trying to seduce his daughter, then pointed to a boy who walked past saying, 'I venture to suggest that child has had simiilar proposals.'

Governor Denison checked if these predatory incidents had occurred but could find no proof they were even reported. He described John West as 'unscrupulous about the means he employs to gain his object.'

Proof that West was using this tactic, that it was used more than once and in locations around Australia, comes from linking the Launceston encounter with a report in the Melbourne Argus about the meeting that formed the Australasian League. John West and Tasmanian William Weston were in Melbourne to persuade the mainland colonies to join their opposition to transportation. Both men spoke but it is Weston 's remarks that are illuminating.

Weston told the audience 'he had lived in a convict colony for more than a quarter of a century... it was only occasionally by talking with medical men and ministers of the gospel, that he became fully acquainted with all the horrors of convictism. Only the other day, he heard from the Reverend Mr. West, some details which convinced him he had much to learn of the evils of the system.' He recommended they check the details with his well-informed colleague.

In Sydney, the Anglican Bishop refused to attend their meeting until Charles Cowper and former newspaper proprietor Charles Kemp called in person, probably with John West who was in Sydney. The next day the Bishop gave them public support. A vision of something horrible had changed his mind.

Essential context for this topic is awareness of the influx of clergy that occurred mid-century and of their preconceptions. West was influenced by Protestant Bishop of Dublin, Archbishop Whately who gave evidence to the Molesworth Select Committee of the House of Commons. Whately, who had never visited Australia, declaimed at length about convict depravity.

Father William Ullathorne, who was Molesworth's tool in making homosexuality an issue, later boasted 'The time came when all the inhabitants of the Australian colonies came round to my way of thinking. At Sydney 100 000 people met to proclaim with one voice the convict system an abomination and pollution of the land...Among the speakers who addressed that great assembly was my old friend Archdeacon McEncroe.'

There were three local triggers. Firstly the change from individual assignment with private employers to gang labour in Van Diemen's Land which for 2-3 years saw an increase in convicts sent there. This coincided with new settlers who had not envisaged the reality of an open-air gaol. They were frightened.

Their fears increased when management of Norfolk Island transferred from New South Wales to Van Diemen's Land. Only six years earlier, the Molesworth committee had made the island a global sensation. Even the prisoners attempt to steal a ship's launch was reported as proof of their depravity rather than a rational attempt to escape.

A third trigger was allegations by Hobart solicitor Robert Pitcairn about falsified records. Detailed analysis reveals this was mainly anxiety about 'unnatural crimes' which Pitcairn claimed were under-reported. Combined with the trial of two men for rape and sodomy, it provoked the first protest meeting against transportation in December 1845.

The discrepancy in figures was the difference between arrests on suspicion and convictions. No one ever denied that homosexuality existed. Both Governor Eardley Wilmot & later Governor Denison described the various allegations as grossly exagerated. So did virtually everyone else - except clergymen and some self-interested officials. The credulous colonial gentry relied on hearsay. And rumours.

The moral panic in Van Diemen's Land meant thousands of convicts were examined by medical officers searching for 'proof' of homosexual activity. The men would not have blamed their humiliation on people like John West. They would have blamed homosexuals.

The New South Wales Anti-Transportation Association first met in October 1846, nearly a year after Van Diemen's Land created the impetus. Charles Cowper chaired the meeting with Father McEncroe and Reverend Saunders as primary speakers. During the evening Mr Tracey from Van Diemen's Land described how that colony now resembled Sodom and Gomorrah.

Initially, the Sydney gentry believed their peers. William Wentworth quoted Tracey verbatim in his report on whether New South Wales should resume transportation but Wentworth remained an implacable opponent of the campaign against convicts.

Virulence about convicts developed just as the colonies approached representative government In its latter stages, anti-transportationists stood for election. By 1851 when John West visited Sydney, transportation had trumped constitutional topics. Henry Parkes was induced to shift emphasis when anti-transportationists funded The Empire for him to edit. Radical William Duncan had moved to Moreton Bay. Chartist Edward Hawkesley had switched from condemning rhetoric about 'contamination' from the prisoners to calling convictism 'the ugly foulness that is rooted in our blood'. Historian Terry Irving identified eight clergymen who spoke at transportation meetings in Sydney. Only two attended any about constitutional issues. In public they grew increasingly bold. While Henry Parkes would only dog whistle about being 'true to our nature' but congregationalist Reverend Robert Ross called John Darvall, Stuart Donaldson, James Martin and William Wentworth 'sordid-minded men'.

The Australasian League claimed wide support but they specialised in collecting token representatives. The Argus supported their goal to enlist every bishop: 'We are no admirer of political parsons but the Transportation Question is a social one and not political...more good might be done by putting aside their usual silence and lending their powerful influence to this cause.'

The League was short on Governors. Provincial Sydney gentlemen lost their confidence before aristocratic Governor Fitzroy. Denison remained immoveable but they trumped him with La Trobe. 'The word of one governor is as good as another,' declared West's colleague, William Weston.

Much was made of 'the ladies' support but we should not assume this was early feminism. These were women as 'God's Police', supporting their husbands and told just as much as the men thought fit. Attempts to co-opt locally born young men occurred only after West visited the mainland, a delay which reveals previous exaggeration about support.

The League did not end well although celebratory dinners, parades and commemorative medals, accompanied by self-congratulatory media, obscured the truth. Transportation to Tasmania ended in 1853 and the League disbanded in 1854. Distracted by the excitement of gold and self government, New South Wales had already moved on. Victoria and South Australia continued the fight for another twenty years. Now paranoid about infiltration by convicts, both colonies passed legislation to keep them out. Passport controls operated as late as 1870.

John West became editor of the Sydney Morning Herald from where he influenced Australian attitudes beyond his lifetime. The reality of his role against convict transportation was forgotten.

A small group still fight to keep these details secret: bettter to let the gays carry the obloquy rather than hold the Australasian League accountable.

The anti-transportation campaign occurred at a pivotal moment in Australia's history. How we interpret it shapes our interpretation of the decades before and the century afterwards.

@Babette Smith 2011

Based on a paper delivered at a conference of the Australian Historical Association. July 2011