George Arthur


George Arthur (AOT, PH30/1/429)

George Arthur (17841854), Australia's longest-serving colonial governor. He had a prodigious impact on early colonial history and later interpretations of it. Notable were his strenuous practice of sometimes astonishingly modern theories of reform of crime, and his policy toward the Aborigines. He was the first colonial governor to argue that a treaty should have been negotiated with them.

Previously a soldier and governor of Belize, Arthur arrived in Van Diemen's Land in 1824. He vigorously continued the restoration of order and public institutions initiated by his predecessor Sorell. After ending the threat of bushranging in 1826, Arthur centralised the police administration about seven interlocking police zones, each under the charge of a stipendiary magistrate and chief constable. All reported efficiently, to form a Benthamite surveillance system over the whole colony, an island panopticon without walls. This was the heart of Arthur's reform of the convict assignment system, which rested on tight social control, by administrative rather than physical means, of both assigned convicts, some 60 percent of all convicts, and the free settlers to whom they were assigned. In 1828 Arthur described his system as 'a natural and unceasing process of classification the mainspring of which... is the silent yet most efficient principle of self interest'.

Arthur's means of ensuring that free settlers controlled their assigned convict servants brought him increasing unpopularity. Leading settlers were vocal in the movement for political reform, including representative government, trial by jury and freedom of the press. Arthur felt such reforms were inappropriate to a penal colony, seeing settlers as auxiliaries in the machinery of punishment and reform. These tensions lead to increasing opposition to Arthur, not diminished by his religiosity and evangelicalism which led his more militant opponents to accuse him of hypocrisy. The essence of his moral force and his modernity may be drawn from his Observations on secondary punishment (1833), in which he commented that convicts came from poor and ignorant backgrounds, victims of circumstance who in Van Diemen's Land had their first chance of developing honest traits of character. 'We are all in great measure the creatures of education.' This sentiment was not popular with the British authorities, though crime rates in Van Diemen's Land declined significantly. Arthur's 'system' was attacked as 'unscientific' and even as 'white slavery', and, despite his construction of Port Arthur as a centre of severe secondary punishment to counter charges of leniency in the assignment system, his system was abandoned under his successor for the ultimately disastrous probation system.

A major problem was the crisis with the Aborigines, which arose from the rapid expansion of land settlement in the 1820s. This brought economic success and formed the basis of the assignment system, but land was taken from the Aborigines, who retaliated to attacks from shepherds and herdsmen. Arthur realised that aggression originated with white inhabitants, but his attempt to solve the situation by dividing the island into separate zones of 'settled' and 'unsettled' districts failed, as it proved impossible to police Aborigines' movements or the settlers' violent reprisals against them. By 1830 the Aborigines' killing of white women and children, though balanced by equally abhorrent atrocities on the Aborigines, could not be ignored. In 1830 Arthur initiated the 'Black Line' military operation, which aimed to contain the Aborigines in the Forestier and Tasman peninsulas. This too failed, but the 'friendly mission' of GA Robinson persuaded all Aborigines to accept deportation, eventually to Flinders Island. This was unsuccessful, and in 1832 Arthur advised the British government that it had been an error not to have originally entered into a treaty with the Aborigines. (See also Frontier Conflict.)

Under Arthur's efficient management the colony prospered, although after 1831 the ending of free land grants removed his patronage of land and weakened his social control. His recall in 1836 may have been occasioned by the Bryan case in which the issues of trial by jury and due process became inextricably involved. Arthur should be remembered as a social reformer who achieved much, but was himself a victim of rapid processes of economic development driven by imperial penal imperatives. Later Lt-Governor of Upper Canada and Governor of the Presidency of Bombay, Arthur was knighted in 1837 and created a baronet in 1841.

Further reading: P Chapman (ed), Historical Records of Australia III, VII & VIII, 1997, 2003; W Forsyth, Governor Arthur's convict system, Sydney, 1970; A Shaw, Sir George Arthur, Bart, 17841854, Melbourne, 1980; M Levy, Governor George Arthur, Melbourne, 1953.

Peter Chapman