It is a characteristic of our age that what no one truly believes so often and so quickly becomes intellectual orthodoxy — look to the escalating denigration of Captain Cook as but one example — and from which the slightest deviation invites opprobrium and banishment
The main task of a conservative intellectual these days (in my youth the very term conservative intellectual was widely regarded as a contradiction in terms and almost risible) is putting out the fires started by intellectual arsonists. As the anarchist Bakunin might have said if he had matured, the passion to conserve is also a creative passion.
Of course, this means that one is forever making arguments that should not have to be made. This is depressing and frequently boring. But since the modern pyromaniacal urge can never be assuaged, let alone satisfied, one is obliged nevertheless to rush from conflagration to conflagration. The price of conservation is eternal vigilance.
Anthony Daniels’ column appears in every Quadrant.
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It is depressing to read of the assaults on Captain Cook and his legacy in Australia. Have people nothing better to do? And have they really no imaginative appreciation of the scale and greatness of his achievement? What strikes me most about the attacks, however, is their sheer intellectual, moral and emotional dishonesty. For an Australian to regret the life and career of Captain Cook is not far short of wishing that he (the Australian) had never been born. Some people may genuinely wish this, perhaps, but surely not the average university-educated, bourgeois Australian intellectual. The attacks on Captain Cook have all the authentic stigmata of humbug.
Gibbon said that history is little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind: but Gibbon was an ironist, which I think it fair to say most contemporary “progressive” intellectuals are not. They believe, or affect to believe, with Marx that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” and that it falls to them (happy coincidence!) to transform nightmare into dream come true.
The history of Australia has proved a happy hunting ground for miserabilist historians: at first sight somewhat surprisingly, given Australia’s fortunate history by comparison with most places on the earth’s surface. But the greater the apparent good fortune, the greater the real misfortune; and it isn’t enough that history should be chequered, as all history is, but it must be densely black.
Some time ago, I spent three months on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. I had followed my wife there, as she worked as a locum doctor. I had to do something to occupy my time (Jersey being so small, its sights are quickly exhausted), so I did some research and wrote a book about three murders that took place there in three months in 1845 and 1846. All three culprits were transported to Van Diemen’s Land.
The first and most interesting of the three was Madame Le Gendre, who ran a brothel in Mulberry Cottage in St Helier (the cottage still stands, and goes by the same name, but is now next to a multi-storey carpark).
Madame Le Gendre was expecting a visit from a local voluntary constable, George Le Cronier, who was going to charge her with keeping a house of ill-repute. She said she would kill him if he came. She had a large knife specially sharpened for the occasion, which she had ready in the room in which she would receive him. When he arrived, she stuck it in him with the concise and expressive exclamation, “La!” Le Cronier recoiled and staggered out of the cottage, saying to an awaiting colleague, “Oh mon garçon, je suis stabbé!” (The main language of Jersey was in the process of changing at the time from Norman French to English.) Le Cronier died the following day. I examined his will, made while he was dying, which was stained with his blood. He was the only policeman in Jersey history ever to have been murdered.
No stronger case for premeditated murder could ever have been made, but Madame Le Gendre was transported to Van Diemen’s Land rather than executed. She was hardly penitent. As she left on the boat that took her to Millbank Prison in London preparatory for her final deportation, dressed in her finest finery, she held up her handkerchief and agitated it in a farewell wave to the angry mob that had gathered to see her off and howl at her in their detestation.
The second killer was a Thomas Nicolle, who shot a man dead through the shutters of a bar after he had had a quarrel with the bar’s owner. Nicolle, a hatter, had been behaving strangely of late, and it is much to my regret that, while writing the book, I did not recognise something that should have been obvious to me: that Nicolle had been suffering from erethism, a form of mercury poisoning. Mercury compounds were used at the time in smoothing the felts of hats, and Nicolle was a mad hatter. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land after his advocate travelled to London to see the Home Secretary, who then recommended mercy.
The third killer was John Noon, a coarse and drunken sailor who stabbed his victim during a quarrel and was found guilty only of manslaughter because he thought (or at least, his advocate said that he thought) that he was acting in self-defence. He, too, was transported for life.
By virtue of the internet, without leaving my desk, I was able to trace a little of the fate of the three killers after transportation. It appears that John Noon remained what he had apparently always been, a petty criminal. Thomas Nicolle was freed after eleven years, remarried and went to New Zealand, where he died in 1864. As for Madame Le Gendre, she was allowed, with official blessing, to remarry a year after her arrival in Van Diemen’s Land. This suggests that the authorities were flexible about bigamy, recognising its necessity and perhaps, in the circumstances, its humanity.
It is far from clear to me that the three of them were treated more harshly or cruelly than they would have been treated today. In one respect they were treated much better: they were tried within two weeks of their crime, instead of the eighteen months that it would take today. They each received a fair trial in which they were provided with a vigorous and effective advocate for their defence, and though the death penalty was still in force, there was clearly a reluctance rather than an eagerness to employ it. Transportation, at least by the 1840s, was probably a preferable fate to being detained for years in prison, and certainly to being hanged. For whatever reasons, humane or prudential, the authorities seem to have winked at bigamy. Thomas Nicolle’s victim, incidentally, was Jewish, and there was not the slightest hint of anti-Semitism in any of the proceedings (Nicolle had shot at random through the bar shutters, aiming at no one in particular).
Reading this tiny corner of history close up, I found no justification for finding in it nothing but the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind. Crimes there certainly were, of course, for crimes there will always be: but there was also a striving for justice and humanity. I did not feel entitled to look down on the participants in this history as being unenlightened by comparison with me or my contemporaries. The defence advocates, the judges, the Home Secretary and His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (at least in his treatment of Madame Le Gendre in allowing her to remarry) seem to me to have behaved honourably: but this is not to set them up as plaster saints. Nor would it be difficult to find instances of discreditable conduct, because it is never difficult to find them.
The view of Australian history as nothing but, or even very largely as, the record of genocidal catastrophe, is not merely wrong but bogus, about as sincere as television evangelism. If anyone truly believed this historiographical nonsense rather than merely affected, usually volubly and in public, to believe it, he would abandon Australia, leaving his all to those he claimed were the ancestrally dispossessed. It would not be enough merely to denigrate the memory of Captain Cook and his legacy. Self-sacrifice would be required, instead of which the historiography is now a career opportunity for people who combine within their breasts both intellectual and bureaucratic ambition. But it is a characteristic of the age that what no one truly believes quickly becomes an intellectual orthodoxy, defended with all the vengeful ferocity of disbelief, and from which the slightest derogation has the effect of losing caste.
Anthony Daniels’s most recent book is The Knife Went In: A Prison-Doctor on Modern Britain (Gibson Square), published under his pen-name, Theodore Dalrymple.