Act 2: Lord Sydney rewrites the script
A young convict couple and their infant son embarked on the First Fleet, only to find on arrival that their luggage had vanished somewhere en route to Australia. Only the cheapest remnants of books, clothes and sundry other items were handed over to Henry and Susannah Kable as the ships unpacked onto the shore at Port Jackson. And this, decidedly, was where the script of the story would and should ordinarily have stopped, if it was being written according to ordinary, common or garden 18th century reality. For convicted felons, in England and just about everywhere else in the world, had no rights of property or law. They couldn’t own things anymore. By their crime they’d ceded worldly goods to the state. They certainly couldn’t take a ship’s captain to court to try and claim restitution for their lost or stolen goods.
And this, certainly, was the reality script which the original convict colony planners plotted out for New South Wales. The historian Alan Atkinson concludes from a close study of the relevant documents that as late as October 1786, a touch more than six months before the First Fleet set sail, the English government’s consensus was that all crimes in the penal colony would be resolved by ‘the Use of Martial Law and prompt Justice’. No civil trials. No juries. Definitely no absolute property rights for convicts.
But this is where our friend the Baron (Sydney) enters the frame. As Home Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons, Sydney was directly overseeing plans for the settlement, and he began to realise just how much power was being vested in the hands of one individual: the Governor.
In the new colony the Governor would be a kind of absolute sovereign, combining both legislative and executive powers. And this was the type of singular power which had triggered a civil war, the execution of a king and a parliamentary revolution in the 1600s. Sydney himself was finely calibrated to register this. He’d chosen his baronial name inspired by a 17th century forebear who’d been executed for his published attacks on royal tyranny – Algernon Sidney. To Parliament Sydney had made clear his aversion to absolute power when, speaking of an unrelated matter, he argued that no matter how virtuous the individual, they could not be trusted to wield power limited only by his own discretion – ‘In such a situation’ he said, ‘an angel would be suspected; nor would satisfaction be given by a god.’
The Governor to be, Arthur Phillip, Sydney knew, was a good, sound man – no would-be tyrant. But that wasn’t the point. It was too much power for any one ruler. So Sydney changed the rules of the new colony, ensuring that all convicts serving their sentences would, unlike in Britain, retain all their property and legal rights. The colony would run according to civil not martial law. Quite literally at the stroke of a pen, the type of society Australia could become was transformed utterly.
Artist: Bernard Caleo
Music: Bruce Woolley
A story told in three acts: