A personal connection with the Speaker’s Chair
Many visitors to the Museum of Australian Democracy may be unaware that the Speaker’s Chair, in the House of Representatives chamber, has a number of special features.
Specially designed Speaker’s chairs have traditionally been given to Commonwealth countries on their achievement of independence. On 11 October 1926 the chair was officially presented to the Australian Parliament by the United Kingdom branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association, and represents the blessing of the Empire for Australian self-government.
However, the piece is also drenched in symbolism. The Latin inscriptions on the chair read
The hand that deals justly is a sweet smelling ointment. A heedful and faithful mind is conscious of righteousness. Justice is influenced neither by entreaties or gifts. Liberty lies in the laws. Envy is the enemy of honour. Praise be to God.
The chair itself contains more physical links to the Westminster democratic tradition and British history. The Royal Arms on the chair are elaborately carved in oak taken from the original roof of Westminster Hall, built in 1399. The hinged arm rests are made of timber taken from Lord Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, in the Battle of Trafalgar 21st October 1805.
HMS Victory timber represents British success against Napoleonic forces at Trafalgar, resulting in British domination of the oceans, her trade and empire had been made safe, and now she could prosper. Many would say a battle to defend and preserve the British way of life. The inclusion of the HMS Victory timber has not been documented or reported upon, so we must draw our own conclusions. For me it represents a romanticised, personal connection that speaks volumes about my beliefs.
My great, great, great grandfather William Robinson (1787-1846) used a pseudonym, Jack Nastyface, in 1836 to publish a now-famous memoir, A Nautical Economy, one of the very first authentic accounts of life in Nelson’s navy from the viewpoint of the common sailor. Knowing that his all-too-realistic description of life on the lower decks would create a scandal, he hoped it also would provoke changes in the practices of impressment (seizing and forcing men to serve in the navy) and severe and unfair punishment of sailors. These ‘forecastle recollections’ also tell us much about the everyday routine of shipboard life and, in particular, the fierce disciplinary regimes, with its range of draconian punishments, describing the press gangs, floggings, keel-hauling’s, and poor food.
As one book reviewer has stated:
…What makes the memoirs so valuable is that Jack Nastyface was an intelligent observer, who never became embittered by the harsh conditions, and who wrote a wholly credible account with insight, verve and humour.
Such vivid accounts of forecastle adventures were rare in the literature of the day—and remain rare today.
William volunteered for naval service in May 1805, which was unusual at the time but, rather more true to form, he deserted in 1811. In his six years as an ordinary seaman he saw much action, including fighting at Trafalgar on the HMS Revenge, when he was involved with the celebrated rescue of Jeanette, the French woman plucked naked from the sea.
By 1839 William was aware the authorities were after him, his publisher having been imprisoned. Through the Government Assisted scheme William, his wife and three children boarded the Neptune for NSW as a free man. I feel proud of my ancestor’s creation and literary legacy, his compassion and acumen, conscious of righteousness and justice during a time of conflict and oppression and particularly courageous enough to criticise his government and institutions for their treatment of fellow countrymen.
I like to think that William represents that individual voice speaking up for social justice and the human rights of the day. Through a sense of moral duty he ‘outed bad behaviour’, bullying and enslavement within the British navy to a wider audience. And that while such published accounts and statements were considered treasonable and punishable by death, he was compelled to risk personal safety. I also like to think that he represents the ideal that an individual voice can catalyse change for the improvement of many.
And so we can arrive at contemporary parallels that challenge us all to determine our moral centre and the individual courage to express and defend it. I feel fortunate my ancestor had the foresight to emigrate ahead of the law; one wonders if contemporaneously his family wouldn’t be considered political boat refugees.