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Arthur, Sir George (1784–1854)

by A. G. L. Shaw

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

George Arthur,  by J. W. Beattie, 1896

George Arthur, by J. W. Beattie, 1896

State Library of Tasmania

Sir George Arthur (1784-1854), soldier and colonial administrator, was born on 21 June 1784, at Plymouth, England, the fourth and youngest son of John Arthur of Duck's Lane and his wife Catherine, née Cornish. Early in the eighteenth century the Arthurs, formerly a Cornish family, had moved to Plymouth.

George Arthur joined the army on 25 August 1804 as an ensign in the 91st Regiment. He was promoted lieutenant on 24 June 1805 and captain on 5 May 1808; between 1805 and 1809 he served with the 35th Regiment in Calabria, Egypt, Sicily and with the unfortunate Walcheren expedition, where his gallantry attracted the attention of Sir Eyre Coote, who praised his gallantry in action. Coote appointed him deputy assistant adjutant general, and Coote's successor, Sir George Don, made him an aide-de-camp and took him to Jersey as military secretary. On 5 November 1812 Arthur purchased a majority in the 7th Regiment, and soon after became assistant quartermaster general in Jamaica. In 1814 he married Eliza Orde Usher, second daughter of Lieutenant-General Sir John Frederick Sigismund Smith and began a career under the Colonial Office by being appointed superintendent and commandant of British Honduras, with the local rank of colonel. On 1 June 1815 he was given the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the army and was appointed to the York Chasseurs on 8 May 1817. He admitted that he had gone to Honduras to gain promotion, 'promotion being my idol', for the superintendent had never been less than a lieutenant-colonel; this honourable ambition achieved, he proceeded to set his mark on the settlement.

During his eight years administration of Honduras he displayed many of the qualities he was later to show in Van Diemen's Land: administrative vigour, high ideals, a passion for reform and genuine interest in the welfare of the settlement, but also an intense dislike of the slightest criticism and a readiness to write voluminous dispatches to justify his activities. He improved the settlement's communications and its defences, began to drain its swamps, encouraged education and missionary work, regulated land settlement and bettered the administration of justice; but he provoked opposition by his high-handed assertion of the superintendent's powers, his denigration of the popularly elected magistracy ('frequently composed of the most exceptionable characters') and the irresponsible 'public meeting', his attacks on the cruelty of some slave-owners, and his protection of enslaved Mosquito Coast Indians. He quarrelled with his military second-in-command, Lieutenant-Colonel Bradley, who questioned his seniority when the York Chasseurs were disbanded in 1819 and refused to recognize his military authority. Arthur justifiably imprisoned him and in due course he was dismissed from the service though allowed to sell his commission, but because Arthur kept him in prison while awaiting royal notification of the decision on the case, though he had been told what it would be, Bradley sued him for illegal imprisonment, and was awarded £100 damages. General Taylor thought Arthur might have shown 'a greater disposition to relieve [Bradley] from distress and inconvenience', but he had broken no military regulation and eventually persuaded the government to pay, and thus recognize that his behaviour had been correct.

Meanwhile his efforts on behalf of the slaves had found favour with Wilberforce, James Stephen, Earl Bathurst and others, and, after returning from Honduras on sick leave in April 1822 and thereafter haunting the Colonial Office, he was chosen in July 1823 to succeed William Sorell as lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land. After making sure that he would obtain greater independence from New South Wales than Sorell had, he set sail in the Adrian, with his commission dated 22 August, arrived at Hobart Town on 12 May 1824, and took up office two days later. In November 1825 General (Sir) Ralph Darling called on his way to Sydney bringing news that Van Diemen's Land had been made a separate colony. Arthur thereafter had full power in the colony, though he retained the title of lieutenant-governor only.

Arthur's concern for the slaves of Honduras, like his interest in the settlers' morality, was no hypocrisy: he wanted to be able to 'impart the glad tidings of the Gospel' to people less fortunate than himself. In letters to his sister in 1818-19 he had denied that he was a Methodist; he was, however, a most devout Calvinist Evangelical. He believed that the 'heart of every man' was 'desperately wicked'; one 'must preach Christ crucified and faith in Him' as the only means of salvation, have 'always in view the nearness of Eternity' though not dwelling 'too much in Faith, setting at nought good works' for 'the latter are the result of the former'. With these views he was anxious to raise the moral tone of Van Diemen's Land. This high-minded, autocratic but thoroughly efficient administrator seemed a very fit person to reassert the relaxed authority of the government and to tighten up the convict administration on the lines suggested by Commissioner John Thomas Bigge.

To the British government Van Diemen's Land was primarily a gaol; with this Arthur fully agreed, and to make it an efficient gaol was his first objective. He argued that the convicts were subjects of a kind of 'mental delirium', seeing things 'through a false medium'. A 'firm and determined, but mild and consistent supervision' was to remove this 'infirmity', and to accomplish their reform. He sought to achieve this end by a carefully graded system of rewards and punishments, but his rules had to be meticulously observed, and settlers and officials had to set a good example while religion taught reform.

Penal settlements and the chain-gangs would hold the worst of the convicts. Arthur closed the old penal establishment at Macquarie Harbour in 1832 because he thought it too inaccessible. He founded one for less serious offenders on Maria Island in 1825, and in 1830 he set up the famous establishment at Port Arthur. Isolated on Tasman Peninsula, joined to the mainland only by the fifty-yard-wide (46 m) Eaglehawk Neck, yet easily reached by boat from Hobart, the place was secure and easy to supervise. Discipline was severe and toil, especially on timber-working, coal-mining and boat-building, was hard and unremitting. When Arthur departed it still needed much to make it an effective penal settlement: a church, a penitentiary, solitary cells, more classification; but these defects were not all the fault of the lieutenant-governor. The severity of its harsh, though at this time on the whole impartial, discipline precluded much hope of reform there, but as the ne plus ultra of the system it proved a fairly effective deterrent. Between 1831 and 1836 about 7 per cent of the convicts were sent there during their sentences, but of these only about a tenth were sentenced to serve there a second time.

Next on the scale were the chain-gangs. These were originally established to prevent their members from escaping, but Arthur used them extensively for punishment. The gangs were employed on 'great public works' like the Hobart wharf or the Derwent causeway. By 1835 they contained about three-quarters as many as Port Arthur. On the roads men might be worked in chains, if so sentenced by the magistrates; more often they were not ironed. The gangs were regarded as places of punishment for the less refractory, while also being useful for the colony.

To increase the 'dread' of transportation at home Arthur told the Colonial Office on 1 December 1827 that the convicts 'should be kept rigidly at the spade and pick-axe and wheel-barrow … from morning till night, although the immediate toil of the convicts be the only beneficial result of their labour'. Such emphasis on 'hard labour' reduced the efficiency of their work; because it was so costly, Arthur thought it should be used only as a punishment.

The basis of Arthur's system was the assignment of prisoners to work for settlers, and it was here that his imprint was most obvious. He tried to insist rigorously on the mutual good behaviour of master and servant, and he kept the minutest watch over the conduct of both as recorded in the magistrates' reports and the convict registers. Not only were servants liable to summary punishment for misconduct, but they might be withdrawn if their masters ill-treated them, gave them grog, failed to keep the Sabbath, or broke any of the many other regulations. This surveillance depended on the ordinary police force which Arthur constantly strengthened, the appointment of stipendiary district police magistrates and district courts in 1827, and the establishment of the field police at the same time, which resulted in closer supervision of the convicts, quicker recapture of absconders, suppression of bushranging, better maintenance of law and order and more effective protection of property.

As an incentive to reform, the convicts were entitled to tickets-of-leave after prescribed periods of good conduct; for special services, such as the capture of bushrangers or absconders, or faithful service in the police, they might be pardoned on condition that they remained in the colony, but Arthur personally scrutinized very closely all records before granting either of these indulgences. His administration of convicts certainly benefited both prisoners and 'well-behaved' settlers, but it increased the governor's patronage and aroused the bitter hostility of those whose servants were withdrawn, and the activities of the police were denounced as part of a tyrannical and despotic system of government.

In opposition to English opinion Arthur insisted again and again in his dispatches, in his pamphlets Observations Upon Secondary Punishment (Hobart, 1833) and Defence of Transportation (Hobart and London, 1835), and in his evidence to the select committee on transportation in 1837, that under his regime transportation was a very severe punishment. Assigned convicts, he said, were slaves, except that their slavery was terminable. They were always subject to their masters' caprices and vaguely defined offences were liable to severe punishment. He was opposed to flogging, as he had been in Honduras, but he was not able to reduce it greatly, for it was the easiest and cheapest punishment to administer for minor offences, and solitary cells, the most favoured alternative, were few.

To encourage reform Arthur sought more religious instructors, and increasingly demanded these from Archdeacon William Broughton, James Stephen and the secretaries of state, but his requests met some resistance in London for the British government had to pay clergy who were allotted to the convict establishment. Considering the 'mixed character of the population', he wanted to support all denominations including Roman Catholics, for the government was 'supported by respectable persons of all sects'. He found the Wesleyans especially successful among the convicts. From the Church of England he wanted men 'from the Evangelical party', for 'clergy of other views' would 'not promote the interests of religion in this colony'. Although he 'had at heart the extension of the Church, and would go all lengths … in the conviction that some [Church] Establishment is necessary', he disliked Broughton's intolerance and did not think 'the support of an exclusive system … wise … the great mark to be set up … is to increase and establish the Spiritual Church of Christ'. Another reason for this policy perhaps lay in the claims of some Anglicans that they and their church were outside the lieutenant-governor's jurisdiction. His quarrel with the senior chaplain, Rev. William Bedford, certainly showed up his intolerance of opposition, his dislike of inefficiency, and his rigid standards of conduct; but Broughton, despite continued friendship, objected to the policy of subordinating the church to state control, and failed to back up Arthur's complaints against the erring clergy.

With the churches went the schools, which Arthur also insisted that the government must help. Parochial schools, widely extended after Archdeacon Thomas Hobbes Scott's visit in 1825, orphan schools and infant schools, if not 'exclusive', all received his support. In 1835, finding the Anglican parochial system breaking down, he appointed a committee to report on education. Its report broadly favoured the National system, whose proposed establishment was then under bitter attack in New South Wales, though Arthur preferred the system of the British and Foreign School Society, with general undenominational education accompanied by the unrestricted use of the Bible. Both were objectionable to Broughton and Archdeacon William Hutchins, but whatever the defects in the eyes of 'denominationalists', on church and school policy Arthur stood in the 'liberal' and 'progressive' camp.

When he arrived in Hobart the settlers' relations with the Aboriginals were as bad as they could be. There were probably only about 1000 of them, but, understanding nothing of white man's law, seeing their hunting grounds occupied, their women ravished and their men maltreated whether by bushrangers, convict servants or others, they naturally retaliated, spearing livestock and attacking the whites. Both Sorell and the British government deplored these developments, but Arthur was able to do little to modify them. He tried to explain the colonists' law to the native people, and to punish impartially the guilty on both sides; but the Aboriginals could not understand. On 29 November 1826 he ordered the capture of their leaders; hostile natives were to be treated as 'open enemies' and those guilty of felony to be arrested and punished. Exactly a year later he reminded the settlers of these instructions and ordered out the military to help to enforce them. On 15 April 1828 by an absurd demarcation proclamation he forbade all natives to enter the settled districts, and followed this on 1 November by a declaration of martial law. Taken together these orders appear as 'plans of military operation', and they mark Arthur's adoption of a policy of removal, or extermination, and his surrender to the demands of the settlers. 'The aboriginal natives of this colony are and ever have been a most treacherous race', he wrote on 15 April 1830, though he still welcomed attempts at friendly parley; but, though he forbade the capture of 'inoffensive' natives, a notice of 27 August 1830 reiterated his determination not to 'relax in the most strenuous exertions' to drive all others from the settled country. In October 1830 he decided to try, by a comprehensive operation, to drive them into Tasman Peninsula, for he told Murray on 20 November, 'the hope of conciliation cannot be reasonably entertained'. Five thousand men took part and Arthur left his wife in child-birth to direct operations; but only two Aboriginals were caught and on 26 November the Black Line, which cost £30,000, concluded in failure.

Next year, he adopted a plan of conciliation; had it 'been tested at an earlier period', commented West, 'the expenses of the campaign might have been spared'. He sent George Augustus Robinson on a mission to the 'hostile tribes', and set aside Gun Carriage Island as a refuge for them; later in 1831 they were removed to Flinders Island. Though the Aboriginals' 'atrocities' did not cease, the natives quickly declined in number, and offenders, when captured, could be removed without being executed. On the island they were supplied with a catechist and left in peace. In 1835 Arthur wanted to transfer them to Port Phillip, a proposal which Glenelg firmly rejected. He argued that 'an understanding' should be reached with the Aboriginals at Port Phillip, 'before operations are commenced by the emigrants'; but though this was sound advice, his suggestion that the 'understanding' take the form of a trifling sum being paid for their land was ridiculous. Arthur's attitude was determined too rigidly by his own standards of morality and by his belief in the rights of property. He showed neither wisdom nor understanding in his attitude and, though hampered by past abuses, he adopted the policy demanded by popular opinion, with which, in this case, his own interests were bound up, and he turned to 'conciliation' only when extermination was almost complete.

Arthur's attitude reflected his idea that co-operation with the settlers was essential for the discipline and reform of the convicts. As 'substantial yeomen' became more numerous in the colony, the settlers ceased to be a 'most troublesome set' of whom the government 'has far greater cause to be apprehensive than of the emancipated convicts', as he had described them in March 1827. He now felt that on the whole he could rely on them. He shared their attitude to the Aboriginals. He vehemently opposed charging them either for their convict servants or for their land. He suggested that payments to England be remitted in wheat. This encouragement was understandable, but it also suited the private interests of the lieutenant-governor, who by 1830 had become one of the most extensive landowners and mortgagees in the colony.

During his term of office, by personal thrift and shrewd investments in land, Arthur became extremely wealthy. Between 1828 and 1836 he bought 15,048 acres (6090 ha) of land, for a total price of £9765, and in 1833 he had lent £14,000 on mortgage to settlers and officials such as John Burnett, Matthew Forster and John Montagu. He profited both from a normal rate of interest exceeding 10 per cent and the enormous rise in land values. When he left he sold nearly all his landed property except Cottage Green in Hobart; the total value in 1839 was nearly £50,000 and he thought he could safely calculate on an annual income of £5000 from the colony apart from what he was about to lose when Montagu, his 'attorney', invested in the 'Port Phillip speculation'. That this property was 'improperly' acquired, or that he 'clandestinely' used official means to improve it, is 'not even capable of suspicion', declared West in 1852; but then and since many have suspected it, and West himself admitted that 'the moral weight of government was compromised … by the air of mystery which veiled … it', and 'Arthur benefitted by his foreknowledge'.

The standards of the time were not those of today, but Arthur's acquisition of this great wealth, like the power he wielded in the disposal of lands and servants, provided many opportunities for criticism. On the controversial Cottage Green property, which gained much from the public improvements in Sullivan's Cove on which it abutted, Alfred Stephen declared, in July 1836, when not on best of terms with the lieutenant-governor, that the plan was 'a matter of notoriety' when the purchase was made; but Arthur's marginal comment, that a 'common doubt … when it would be executed prevented public attention being earlier given to the subject', suggests that his conduct was not entirely blameless in the matter, though Lord John Russell later declared that it was. In 1831 Stephen wrote optimistically to Arthur about the prospects of a whaling company being formed, though admitting that it needed well-sited ground for its sheds. 'Without assistance from Government, many will think the undertaking a bold one', he declared, but he put down Arthur's son Frederick for ten £100 shares. Perhaps this was a very proper investment, though it might be misconstrued; but Arthur's refusal of shares for his son refers only to the financial prospects of the company and not to any possible impropriety. The Colonial Office knew nothing of this.

'Of all the Governors which this department has employed in my time, you have enjoyed the most uninterrupted reputation for all the qualities which a Governor ought to possess and the strongest hold upon the favourable opinion of your official superiors', wrote James Stephen to Arthur in 1835. Complaints against him invariably failed. His case was always watertight and fully documented, and the complainants rarely had clean hands. Land administration inevitably aroused charges of favouritism, but there is no evidence that Arthur was guilty. He appointed relatives to important colonial positions, but it was an age of patronage and they were efficient and honest public servants, which could not be said for the officers he dismissed, such as Edward Bromley, George William Evans, John Burnett, Joseph Gellibrand, Jocelyn Thomas and R. O'Ferrall. He was economical in his public administration and the colonial revenue was sufficient not only to meet general expenditure but to pay for the police and gaols, despite his protests over the imposition of this charge, one of the two important matters on which he was overruled.

His other major defeat lay in the decision, made in 1831, to sell crown lands instead of granting them, though he evaded this policy by making large grants before the new regulations came into force. In six years he granted about a million acres (404,686 ha); though a third of this was to the Van Diemen's Land Co., in obedience to orders from England, Arthur paid too little heed to the future interests of the colony. But if worsted in part on this question, he successfully resisted the instructions of the British Treasury to carry out public works by contract, holding that convict labour was cheaper and that this employment was an essential part of his convict system.

His public works helped to develop the colony. To encourage private investment he supported the lifting of the usury laws, which had never been enforced; he encouraged the Derwent Bank to break the monopoly of the older Bank of Van Diemen's Land; but he was never very sympathetic to the Van Diemen's Land Co., which he seemed to regard as too big and too far away for him easily to control, nor to the idea of free immigration, except of 'yeomen' and other men of substance. Assisted paupers interfered with assignment, he thought; they were unsatisfactory labourers and a burden on the government.

Confronted with a large convict-emancipist population, determined on the policy he wanted to carry out, and always liable to criticism for abuse of patronage even where no such abuse existed, this efficient and conscientious soldier-administrator had no time for civil liberties or freedom of the press. In 1826-27 he prosecuted the editor Andrew Bent for libel, and in 1827 persuaded the council to pass an act imposing a revocable newspaper licence. When this was annulled in England he again had recourse to the courts and prosecuted Gilbert Robertson of the True Colonist and Henry Melville of the Colonial Times. He opposed trial by jury and a popular assembly and supported the Draconian powers given to the magistrates in 1832; but by 1836 the progress of the colony was making these authoritarian methods out of date.

Though by then he had held office for the unusually long term of twelve years, his recall was a bitter blow. Four years before, rumours that James Stephen was anxious to succeed him had temporarily weakened their friendship, for the lieutenant-governor was certainly tenacious of his position. Now he left Hobart on 30 October 1836 and reached England the following March. But his enemies had not triumphed. His recall in January 1836 was in no way a result of their charges, against a collection of which by William Bryan and George Meredith Glenelg found Arthur's answer 'conclusive and triumphant'; it 'placed on a yet firmer basis his claims to the approbation of the King and to the gratitude of His Majesty's subjects', and this approbation was further indicated by Arthur being appointed K.C.H. and gazetted colonel.

In December 1837 he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, which he administered successfully though repressively in the period between the rebellion and the union of the Canadas early in 1841. On his return to England he was created a baronet. He refused two requests to stand for the House of Commons at the general elections that year, but hoped for an appointment in India. Unsuccessful in the case of Madras, he was appointed governor of the presidency of Bombay in March 1842, and assumed office in June. In March 1846 he was nominated provisional governor-general in the event of the death or absence of his superior, but ill health forced him to resign and return to England. Promoted major-general in 1846, sworn of the Privy Council in 1847, granted an honorary D.C.L. by Oxford in 1848, appointed colonel of the Queen's Own Regiment in 1853, and gazetted lieutenant-general next year, he died on 19 September 1854, survived by five of his seven sons and his five daughters.

Able and high-minded, but a military martinet and unable to suffer fools gladly, he was almost inevitably an autocrat. He naturally quarrelled with 'liberals' and pressmen in Van Diemen's Land, and also with many others who were able to frustrate his activities; but Broughton admired him to the end, despite differences about the church, and Arthur was able to maintain friendly correspondence with both Darling and Bourke, even while the former was abusing his successor in emphatic terms.

His personal conduct was strict, his entertainments at Government House were generally thought economical, staid and dull. He built up a huge fortune by constantly watching every penny he spent, as his account books show, and by most judicious investment. Despite his wealth he never relaxed claims for increases in salary or repayment of expenditures and his claims over the extra costs incurred on his passage home in the Elphinstone, if strictly justified, seem petty for a man in his position. Though the prolixity of some of his dispatches must have made great inroads on his time, his attention to detail made him a most able administrator in Van Diemen's Land. His control was far-reaching and efficient and set the pattern for much of the later colonial administration in Tasmania and elsewhere. Truly his hand and his eyes were everywhere and, if his inability to delegate responsibility might have been a fault in a more complex society, in the colony it helped rather than hindered his work and so did his habit of preserving all his private letters and filing so carefully the official papers of the colony.

Avid for recognition from his temporal superiors, Arthur did not forget his spiritual obligations. 'No one has more reason to cast himself unreservedly upon the providence of God than I have' he wrote in a private letter to Montagu on his voyage home. 'Although I have deserved nothing but wrath, yet his mercy and goodness have always protected me, and if I were not to resign myself altogether to Him, my equal in ingratitude could not be found on the face of the Earth … What I now most desire is to give glory to God and what I now most highly lament is that I have hitherto been such an unprofitable servant to Him'. These reflections, when coupled with the hope that Montagu would be 'very careful in the mortgages you take for my money', give some clue to the very complex character of this distinguished public servant.

His portrait is in the Mitchell Library.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 11-18, series 3, vols 4-6
  • John Armstrong, A Candid Examination of ‘The Defence of the Settlers of Honduras’ (Lond, 1824)
  • C. R. Sanderson (ed), Arthur Papers, Being the Canadian Papers, vols 1-3 (Toronto, 1943-49)
  • H. Melville, The History of the Island of Van Diemen's Land from 1824-1835 (Lond, 1835)
  • Statistical Returns of Van Diemen's Land from 1824 to 1835 (Hob, 1836)
  • J. West, The History of Tasmania, vols 1-2 (Launceston, 1852)
  • W. D. Forsyth, Governor Arthur's Convict System (Lond, 1935): R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol 2 (Melb, 1939)
  • C. Turnbull, Black War (Melb, 1948)
  • M. C. I. Levy, Governor George Arthur (Melb, 1953)
  • Copies of All Correspondence … on the Subject of the Military Operations … Against the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Van Diemen's Land Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1831 (259)
  • Correspondence on Secondary Punishments Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1834 (82, 614)
  • Select Committee on the Aborigines, Reports Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1836 (538), 1837 (425)
  • Select Committee on Transportation, Reports Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1837 (518), 1837-38 (669)
  • N. Leon, Social and Administrative Developments in British Honduras, 1798-1843 (B. Litt thesis, Oxford University, 1958)
  • A. McKay, Assignment System of Convict Labour in Van Diemen's Land, 1824-1842 (M.A. thesis, University of Tasmania, 1954)
  • Arthur papers (Royal Commonwealth Society, London)
  • Arthur papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Bourke papers, letters from Arthur (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Executive council minutes (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CO 280/1-90, 408/1-12.

Citation details

A. G. L. Shaw, 'Arthur, Sir George (1784–1854)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/arthur-sir-george-1721/text1883, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

George Arthur,  by J. W. Beattie, 1896

George Arthur, by J. W. Beattie, 1896

State Library of Tasmania

Life Summary [details]

Birth

21 June 1784
Plymouth, Devon, England

Death

19 September 1854
England

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation