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Sir Ralph Darling (1772–1858)

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Ralph Darling (1772-1858),  by John Linnell

Ralph Darling (1772-1858), by John Linnell

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an3291077

Sir Ralph Darling (1772-1858), military officer and governor, was the eldest of three sons of Christopher Darling, who in 1778 was adjutant of the 45th Regiment. Darling entered this regiment as an ensign in 1793 and served in the West Indies until 1802, acting as military secretary to successive British commanders-in-chief. He was promoted captain in 1796, major in 1800 and lieutenant-colonel in 1801. After holding several staff posts in London, he became senior assistant adjutant general at the Horse Guards in August 1806. In 1808 he went to Spain with the 51st Regiment and served at the battle of Corunna, and next year he was deputy adjutant general in the disastrous Walcheren expedition. He then resumed his position in London under the Duke of York as commander-in-chief. The duke was a zealous and efficient administrator, with a staff remarkable for hard work and clockwork routine, and for introducing much needed reform in all branches of the army. Darling himself was credited with having packed off to Spain 800 officers who were living comfortably on lodging allowances in Britain. He became major-general in 1813 and deputy adjutant general in 1814.

In February 1819 Darling arrived at Port Louis, Mauritius, to take over the military government of the island which had been captured from the French eight years before. The colonists were mostly French and the economy was based on sugar plantations worked by 70,000 Negro slaves. The abortive efforts of General Farquhar to suppress slave-smuggling from Madagascar had led to his recall to London for consultations in 1817, and for the next few years a succession of military commandants ruled Mauritius. Darling, in particular, incurred the animosity of the planters by his vigorous determination to end the slave traffic and by brusquely dissolving the local council when it presumed to criticize him. Farquhar returned in July 1820, but Darling remained as commander of the garrison until June 1823.

In 1824 Darling was appointed governor of New South Wales and its island dependencies in place of Sir Thomas Brisbane. Next year he was promoted lieutenant-general, sailed from England in the Catherine Stewart Forbes, and in November arrived at Hobart Town where he proclaimed the separate government of Van Diemen's Land. In London he had received two commissions, one as governor of New South Wales, and the other as governor of Van Diemen's Land, though the latter territory was to be administered by a Lieutenant-Governor in Darling's absence. He reached Sydney on 17 December, sixteen days after Brisbane sailed.

Darling's brief dictatorship over an alien population in Mauritius was an unfortunate preparation for his heavier and much more complex responsibilities in New South Wales. His concept of government was one of military simplicity: strict adherence to regulations, and the unquestioning personal allegiance of his subordinates. He found these qualities in his private secretary Henry Dumaresq, and civil engineer William Dumaresq, brothers whom he had brought with him from Mauritius and whose sister Eliza he had married, in his colonial secretary Alexander McLeay whose daughter William Dumaresq married, and in his own nephew Charles Darling who arrived in 1827 and was appointed assistant private secretary, but in few others among his senior officials. With this family circle behind him, Darling saw himself as the chosen defender of the King's authority in an immense territory, where he suspected the loyalty of even the small garrison outnumbered though it was more than fifteen to one by a population largely convict. In his zeal for efficiency Darling introduced many long-overdue improvements in the machinery of the colonial government, not the least of them being an expertly integrated and supervised civil service. He wanted his officials to be respectable as well as efficient and in 1826 told the Colonial Office, 'Surely there is no colony under His Majesty's Government where attention to the selection of Individuals is so important … not only the character of the Government, but the moral improvement of the people mainly depend on it'.

One of his outstanding achievements was his monetary and banking reform. At the time of his arrival the British Treasury had decided to eliminate the dollar currency in New South Wales by sending out British coin. As the dollars fell in value, they were exported in large quantities, leaving the colony temporarily short of currency. This economic slump combined with three years of drought to cause much distress, but gave Darling an opportunity to inquire into the colony's banks and to introduce stricter control before granting them the government loans they asked for. Another inquiry into civil departments revealed that the colonial treasurer, collector of customs and other officials had long been using government funds for their own profit. This revelation resulted in orders from London that all public moneys were to be collected regularly and locked in a vault under triple lock and key, leaving a maximum of £10,000 to be deposited in the two banks. By such devices the public accounts were brought to order. During his administration the colonial revenue doubled without additional taxes and became adequate for the entire costs of the civil government.

Darling's commission and instructions, unlike those of earlier governors, ordained that he should be assisted by a newly constituted Executive Council, its members to be the lieutenant-governor, chief justice, colonial secretary and the archdeacon. Darling also had orders to nominate the four executive counsellors and three non-official members to the Legislative Council. In both councils the members were sworn to secrecy and Darling was under orders to act on their advice as far as possible and, when he did not do so, to give his reasons to the Colonial Office. Although he alone could initiate legislation, until 1829 he had to obtain a certificate from the chief justice, (Sir) Francis Forbes, that each proposed measure was 'not repugnant to the Laws of England, but consistent therewith so far as the circumstances of the colony would admit'. At first Forbes found Darling 'business-like, attentive to counsels and firm in the execution of his measures', but they became estranged when Forbes asserted the rule of law and would not tolerate the governor's encroachment into what he deemed the sphere of the judiciary. In private letters to his friend, Under-Secretary (Sir) Wilmot Horton, Forbes described the colonial scene and criticized the autocratic government. At the same time Darling's confidential dispatches sedulously denigrated the Supreme Court judges, and in August 1828 Sir George Murray, soon after taking charge of the Colonial Office, warned them that if the estrangement continued the judges would be recalled and Darling relieved of his command. However, by 1831 Darling could declare that these strained relations had long been forgotten.

In 1827 when the Act of 1823 (4 Geo. IV, c. 96) was about to expire, some of Darling's critics petitioned for a house of assembly. Darling, ever 'fearful of encouraging an immoral and republican party', scorned this proposal. Instead he suggested to London that the Legislative Council be further enlarged; but he wanted to retain a small Executive Council, unlike Forbes who wanted a strong council with which the governor would have to co-operate. Under the new Act of 1828 (9 Geo. IV, c. 83), the Legislative Council was enlarged to fourteen, seven of them non-official. The governor retained his initiative in introducing measures, but members could submit their bills and, if refused, record their dissent. The governor was also required to preside in the council even while his bills were discussed, and to abide by a majority decision, though he had an original and casting vote. The oaths of secrecy were abolished, and notices of proposed bills were to appear in the press; certificates from the chief justice were no longer required, but although each new enactment was to be sent to the Supreme Court for enrolment, any one of the judges could protest its repugnancy to the laws of England and thereby compel its amendment.

The Act failed to satisfy the reformers in Sydney, for it left the Executive Council under oligarchic control, introduced no element of popular government and did little to modify Darling's executive powers, especially in the vexed questions of land and convict labour. After the Bigge report, the Tory government appeared to discover that crown land in New South Wales was a valuable asset for purposes of revenue. Under Brisbane, land sales had been introduced and large grants were restricted to those who undertook to maintain one convict labourer for every hundred acres. Darling had orders to establish a Church and School Corporation and to complete the division of the settled parts of the colony into counties and parishes. Before leaving London Darling and half the earl of Liverpool's cabinet had been dined by the directors of the Australian Agricultural Co., but he had already been briefed at the Colonial Office on the undue alienation of land. Soon after his arrival in Sydney he established a Land Board to examine the claims of applicants. To stop fraud and absenteeism, land was to be granted only to bona fide settlers in proportion to their capital and alienation within seven years was forbidden. With little respect for his instructions, Darling also granted land to the daughters of worthy men as dowries, to widows as pensions, and to officials as rewards for loyalty. Yet, however sincere his purpose, his efforts to collect quitrents and his giving and withholding of grants appeared as arbitrary as earlier practices. They did not reduce the demand for land, but won him many enemies; one disgruntled land-seeker allegedly threatened his assassination. Under pressure from the Colonial Office, Darling gave the Australian Agricultural Co. a second choice for its location and a monopoly of the government coal-mines at Newcastle for thirty-one years. He denied extra men and equipment to the surveyor-general, T. L. Mitchell, who promptly transferred his staff from marking out settlers' sections to the trigonometrical survey. Crown land sales came to a stop, the Church and School Corporation received no land until 1828, and the quarrel with Mitchell continued. Nevertheless Darling's administration brought the beginnings of a uniform land system and, with Mitchell's survey, valuation and division of sixteen counties into parishes, paved the way for the successful introduction of the Ripon regulations in 1831.

Darling was also largely responsible for many important explorations. Captain Charles Sturt led expeditions to the western rivers and to the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers. Allan Cunningham went north to discover other rivers and the Darling Downs, and to seek the sources of the Richmond River in the Macpherson Range. Captain (Sir) James Stirling's examination of the Swan River led to its settlement, and other expeditions by Collet Barker, Patrick Logan and Henry Dangar also proved useful. Through suspicion of French explorers, Darling was responsible for opening stations at Western Port and King George Sound, but they and the settlements in North Australia were short lived. More immediate expansion was made possible by Darling's policy of building and improving the main roads that led south, west and north from Sydney and up the Hunter River from Newcastle.

Darling had arrived in the colony with instructions to assign all convicts capable of reform to settlers, and to send all incorrigible convicts to the penal settlements. The latter proved impossible but he increased the severity of conditions there and employed hundreds of prisoners in chain-gangs on the roads and other government works. This policy and the first choice given by the Colonial Office to the Australian Agricultural Co. in selecting convict servants from each incoming transport often left other landholders with fewer labourers than their contracts required. To deal with the claims of settlers, Darling established an Assignment Board, but later persisted in punishing his critics by removing their convict servants. Again the governor's severity won him enemies, who overlooked the devoted zeal of Mrs Darling in working for the reform and education of female convicts.

At first Darling won wide respect for his punctual and industrious habits, but his military attitudes were soon resented by the self-appointed champions of civil liberty. He thought their criticisms were subversive and determined to silence them, but his ignorance of the law played into the hands of his enemies. One source of trouble was that Darling discerned among the soldiers of the garrison 'a dangerous disposition … to obtain their discharge by maiming themselves or committing transportable offences'. When Joseph Sudds and Patrick Thompson, privates in the 57th Regiment, deliberately committed theft for this purpose and were convicted and sentenced to transportation for seven years, Darling commuted the sentence to seven years hard labour in the chain-gangs. At a parade on 22 November 1826 the two privates were clad in felon's garb with iron collars round their necks attached by chains to leg irons, and drummed out of the regiment, an exemplary punishment designed to deter any further attempts by soldiers to return to civilian life. After Darling had committed himself irretrievably, he sought the advice of his judges who told him that his action in varying the decision of the court was illegal. In due course he was ordered by his superior in London to release Thompson. Sudds had already been released by death, probably from dropsy, five days after the drumming out.

Darling had not realized that his commutation of the sentence was unlawful, and he was badly served by the prison doctors who failed to tell him of Sudds's sickness or to hold an immediate post-mortem. Nevertheless the newspapers seized on the incident and used it to stir public opinion against Darling's administration and to strengthen their own demands for trial by jury and a legislative assembly. The Australian, published by William Charles Wentworth and Robert Wardell, and Edward Smith Hall's Monitor condemned the severity of the sentence. Darling was convinced that 'nothing short of positive coercion' would curb the licentiousness of the press, and in April 1827, on Earl Bathurst's advice, he submitted to the Legislative Council a bill to regulate newspapers, and another to impose a newspaper stamp duty. Forbes refused to certify the licence clauses of the first bill, but the remainder was certified and became law. Forbes also refused to certify the second bill, although he emphasized that there was no objection in law to a moderate duty on newspapers; it was passed by the Legislative Council and the governor gave it his assent, but was later disallowed by the Crown.

The Newspaper Regulating Act compelled publishers to lodge recognizances of £300 to ensure payment of any fines for libel, and empowered the courts to order banishment from the colony on conviction for a second offence. The first prosecution for libel met with small success, in Darling's opinion because the government could command no legal ability equal to the 'effrontery and talent' of Wentworth and Wardell. By 1829, however, the increasing intemperance of Hall's attacks had landed him in gaol, and A. E. Hayes, editor of the Australian, was heavily fined. In January 1830 an amendment of the Newspaper Act made banishment mandatory on a second conviction for libel. A year later this amendment was disallowed. The fall of Wellington's government had ended the Tories' long rule, and in a changing political atmosphere the new under-secretary of state, Viscount Howick, rebuked Darling for attempting to repress free discussion instead of allaying discontent by using the power of the law 'solely for public objects and on public grounds'. In several later dispatches Viscount Goderich praised Darling's administration but in March 1831 he notified the governor that he was to be relieved because his six-year term was about to expire. Darling sailed from Sydney with his wife and children in the Hooghly on 22 October.

From 1828 much comment adverse to Darling had reached London, although some of it was countered by favourable addresses from leading colonists and by reports of inquiries by the Executive Council. Darling's most persistent accuser was Captain Robert Robison of the Royal Veterans, whose open disapproval of Darling's regime had been deemed 'dangerous' and led in 1828 to his court martial, conviction and dismissal from the service. Although Saxe Bannister and Dr Stephen Lushington later found his trial highly irregular, Robison's petitions to the King, the Colonial Office and the commander-in-chief brought no redress. Nevertheless his complaints reinforced the long 'impeachment' sent to London by Wentworth in 1829 and the charges of such dismissed officials as Henry Grattan Douglass, Alexander Baxter and John Stephen junior. Their pleas of 'great private injury and a still greater public wrong' had already been raised in parliament by Joseph Hume and others, and were pressed more vigorously in 1831. An exchange of published statements refuting and supporting the accusations culminated in a pamphlet by Robison, on which Darling founded an indictment for libel. After unaccountable delay, Robison was found guilty and on 15 June 1835 was sentenced to four months imprisonment. Six weeks later Maurice O'Connell, supported by Hume and Lushington, successfully renewed the attempt to institute a parliamentary inquiry into Darling's conduct in New South Wales. The select committee was poorly attended and most of its inquiry was limited to the charge that Sudds had died as a result of torture. Evidence was taken only from Robison and two other witnesses. Patrick Thompson was found in Ireland and brought to London but before he arrived, the committee's hurried report freeing Darling from blame was presented to the House of Commons and adopted on 1 September 1835. Next day Darling was summoned by the King and appointed G.C.H. Darling was not actually employed again, although he was promoted general in 1841. He died at Brighton on 2 April 1858, survived by his wife, at least one son and several daughters.

Darling was an able administrator and it was an unkind fate that pitchforked him into the governorship of New South Wales at a time when the penal settlement was rapidly becoming a free colony, and when the British government itself was undergoing change. As an ultra-conservative his heart was with the old establishment; he had little sympathy with popular reform and less with its restless symptoms. As an old soldier he carried out his orders with zest, but he saw public life as a battlefield. With total victory as his end, his means were often regrettable and his relentless pursuit of Robison marred his career. Yet his avowed enemies, however vocal, were few. The public petition endorsing his recall was signed by two attorneys, three editors and eighteen nondescripts of whom at least half had been convicts. By contrast the seventy-two names on the non-official address at his departure were well-known and respectable clergy, magistrates, landholders and merchants. Some of their goodwill towards the governor had been won by Mrs Darling. Although occupied with her own nursery and painting, she still found time to entertain hospitably, to write comforting letters of sympathy and encouragement, and to preside over many benevolent committees. Darling himself could win respect, but not friends, for his manner was dull, forbidding and humourless; one perceptive observer thought that he mistook formality for dignity. Certainly he warmed to praise, but criticism, except from his superiors, convinced him of his rectitude and in his own eyes justified vindictive and often petty reprisals especially in his dispatches to London. 'General popularity' he wrote sententiously, 'is not always the companion of integrity … it would have been impossible to satisfy many of the [colonists] without an abandonment of every principle of justice and duty'. In this negative strain he could boast in his last report to the Colonial Office that the 'King's authority has been duly upheld'.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 12-17
  • E. S. Hall [sic], Reply in Refutation of the Pamphlets of Lieut-Gen R. Darling (Lond, 1833), by R. Robison
  • L. N. Rose, ‘The Administration of Governor Darling’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 8, part 2, 1922, pp 49-96 and vol 8, part 3, 1922, pp 97-176
  • Parliamentary Debates (Great Britain) (3), 29, 30
  • Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1828 (538), 1830 (586), 1830-31 (241), 1831-32 (163, 620), 1835 (580)
  • A. S. Forbes, Sydney Society in Crown Colony Days (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under Ralph Darling (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

'Darling, Sir Ralph (1772–1858)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ralph Darling (1772-1858),  by John Linnell

Ralph Darling (1772-1858), by John Linnell

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an3291077

Life Summary [details]




2 April, 1858 (aged ~ 86)
Brighton, Sussex, England

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