Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sievwright, Charles Wightman (1800–1855)

by Lindsey Arkley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Charles Sievwright, c.1825

Charles Sievwright, c.1825

photo supplied by the author

Charles Wightman Sievwright (1800-1855), soldier and protector of Aborigines, was born on 31 March 1800 in Edinburgh, third of seven children of Andrew Sievwright, a solicitor and merchant burgess, and his wife Ann, née Robertson. When Charles was 15, £400 was paid to gain him a commission as an ensign in a Scottish infantry regiment. He served for twenty years in the army, half the time in Britain and half in the Mediterranean, without being involved in combat. On 3 April 1822 he married Christina Watt in the Episcopal church, Stirling, Scotland. They had seven children. 'A fine, soldierlike man, muscular and strong, straight as a ramrod', Sievwright was forced to sell his commission to pay off gambling debts in 1837 and returned to London from Malta, where he had been a captain in the Royal Fusiliers. Well-connected friends helped him to gain a post in Australia as assistant to G. A. Robinson, recently appointed chief protector of Aborigines in the Port Phillip District.

Reaching Sydney in the Lord Eildon in November 1838, Sievwright moved with his family to live in tents among the Aborigines near the tiny settlement of Geelong. With responsibility for the whole of what would later become the Western District of Victoria, he was charged with protecting the Aborigines 'from cruelty, oppression and injustice' and 'from encroachments upon their property'.

From his first official report, he was complaining to Robinson about Aboriginal deaths, as their traditional sources of food and clothing were depleted. Sievwright also began what would become a lengthy series of investigations into massacres of Aborigines. His determination to seek prosecutions for mass murder—in one case of up to eighty people—helped to make him 'the most unpopular man that ever breathed' among his countrymen. Inaction by the authorities in Melbourne and Sydney were constant themes of his reports. The deterioration in his relations with the white community soon extended as far as Superintendent Charles La Trobe and Governor Sir George Gipps.

Despite his limited ability to address their needs, Sievwright won considerable respect from the Aborigines who lived with him at several camps—as many as 270 at a time—most having had little or no previous contact with Europeans. With sporadic supplies, he attempted unprecedented food-for-work schemes, hoping to replace some of the lost traditional food with crops grown by the Aborigines themselves. But guerilla attacks by Aborigines and stock thefts continued, and the squatters and the press blamed him for failing to stop them. When the colonial administration received Sievwright's report outlining the murder of three unarmed Aboriginal women and a child by a group of white men, he was suspended without pay in 1842 for alleged incompetence. Simultaneously, there were references to disharmony within his family. Gipps and La Trobe, nervous about the possible reaction in London to Sievwright's claims that the protectorate had not been given a fair trial, ignored his demands for an official inquiry.

Following confimation of his dismissal, Sievwright returned to Britain in November 1845 to clear his name, leaving his family in poverty. A limited investigation by the Colonial Office in 1847, largely comprising statements from his detractors, found his dismissal justified. As late as mid-1849 he was still campaigning in London for a full inquiry. Having gone both deaf and blind, he never again saw the family he left behind in Australia. Sievwright died of rheumatic heart disease on 10 September 1855 in Belgrave, London, and was buried in a common grave in Brompton cemetery. Christina had died in 1854 in Melbourne. Seven children in Australia survived him. A miniature oil on ivory portrait of Sievwright (c.1825), held privately in Victoria, shows him as a young man with curly, red hair, dressed as a Royal Fusiliers officer.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Arkley, The Hated Protector (Melb, 2000), and for bibliography.

Citation details

Lindsey Arkley, 'Sievwright, Charles Wightman (1800–1855)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sievwright-charles-wightman-13194/text23887, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 31 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Charles Sievwright, c.1825

Charles Sievwright, c.1825

photo supplied by the author