According to the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the two hundredth anniversary of his country’s abolition of the slave trade on March 25, 2007, offered the chance to say how profoundly shameful slavery was. Equally, however, it provides the occasion to commemorate those who abolished the trade. In 1807, the British were the first people in the world to do so. This was one of the great feats in the history of human freedom and its originators and their motives deserve to be understood and celebrated today.
Moreover, there was a strong connection between the British colonization of Australia and those who campaigned against slavery. Today, our contemporary historians avoid this topic. Hence, few Australians are aware of how powerful the abolitionist sentiment was in colonial Australia or how strongly English abolitionists influenced the political and moral foundations of this country.
Soon after British Secretary for Home Affairs, Lord Sydney, appointed him governor of New South Wales in September 1786, Arthur Phillip drew up a detailed memorandum of his plans for the proposed new colony. In one paragraph he wrote:
The laws of this country [England] will, of course, be introduced in [New] South Wales, and there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment his Majesty’s forces take possession of the country: That there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves.
In all of Australia’s founding documents this statement stands out starkly. There are no other appeals to great principles, no declaration of independence, no constitutional preamble full of nation-building sentiment. Instead, we were founded by bureaucratic correspondence from the British Home Office to the Admiralty, the Navy Board and the Treasury, by letters, commissions of appointment and warrants for transportation, and by one Act of the British Parliament concerned mostly with “the transportation of felons and other offenders”.
Hence Phillip’s paragraph above, especially his unequivocal and spare avowal, “there can be no slavery in a free land”, is probably the best founding proclamation we have.
It was a remarkable declaration to make at the time. For a start, it demonstrated that its governor and those who appointed him had more ambitious plans for the new colony than they made public. “A free land” meant much more than a dumping ground for convicts. Phillip clearly expected New South Wales to eventually be composed largely of free settlers.
Moreover, Phillip’s objection to slavery was noticeably ahead of his time. At this distance, it might seem part of the stock opinion of the day, just one more expression of the abolitionist movement that persuaded the British Parliament to outlaw the transportation of slaves on the high seas. But there was more to it than that.
As Phillip said, the laws of England did not permit slavery. The ownership and sale of human beings had been illegal in England since the early middle ages but by the 1700s the growth of the slave trade to the Americas saw some thousands of black slaves employed as servants in London, Edinburgh and other urban centers. In the celebrated James Somerset case of 1772, Lord Mansfield found that English law did not permit slavery and that black servants were free to go as they pleased.
Nonetheless slavery still thrived across the British Empire. The merchant fleet of Liverpool dominated the transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas; the sugar plantations of Britain’s Caribbean colonies were completely dependent on slave labour; and slavery was widespread in the Muslim realms of British India. Moreover, Britain’s former colonies in North America had just formed an independent union based upon an appeal to freedom and equality, yet still they housed almost seven hundred thousand slaves.
Phillip wrote his memorandum before the abolitionist movement gained public momentum. At the time, to take a stand for this moral cause put him decidedly on the progressive side of politics. The abolitionists’ parliamentary leader, William Wilberforce, only decided to take up the issue in May 1787, eight months after Phillip declared his own attitude.
The abolitionist Evangelicals in the Church of England and their Quaker supporters were then a marginal group of activists. Their spokesman, Thomas Clarkson, had not yet begun the speaking tours of British cities that were to make abolition a popular cause. By 1791, when Wilberforce introduced his first bill to abolish the slave trade, the movement had made progress but parliament still rejected it decisively by 163 votes to 88.
Although the Evangelicals were the main force behind the abolitionist movement and Wilberforce its best-known politician, Phillip had not been greatly influenced by them. Indeed, he was not an especially religious man. His 1786 memorandum discussed his proposed colony’s housing, health care, clothing, relations with the aborigines, rewards and punishments for convicts, land grants, shipping regulations, exploration and trade. Conspicuously, he mentioned neither religion nor the church. In practice, he seemed to regard religion primarily as a utilitarian device for maintaining social order and good behaviour.
Instead, he took a more secular political position that saw slavery as an offence against the tradition of “the freeborn Englishman” that defined his country. This was a political and a folk tradition that extended back at least to the English Civil War but probably much further. It meant that no one in England could be born into slavery, bondage or vassalage. All were born with inalienable rights to freedom.
Phillip was also the inheritor of the British naval tradition that looked down upon Europe’s original imperial powers, Spain and Portugal. Ever since the Spanish Armada, English Protestant sailors had been nourished on a diet of anti-Spanish stories designed to show that the adherents of the Roman Catholic Church were capable of any cruelty. Tales of the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition and the brutal treatment of both African slaves and the indigenous peoples of the Americas entrenched the sentiment.
A further influence on Phillip was the humanitarian movement that emerged within the British Enlightenment in the late 1700s. This movement, which had support both from early British anthropologists and the Anglican church, emphasized the unity of human kind. All human beings, whatever their skin colour, were members of the one species and were thus equal, both at law and before God.
This sentiment led several Scottish intellectuals to openly condemn slavery, especially Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), plus George Wallace and Adam Ferguson. In England, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–9) made a firm break with Roman law on the subject.
In April 1787, Phillip made another memorable statement that applied this egalitarian sentiment to the Aborigines of New South Wales:
Any Man who takes the life of a Native, will be put on his Trial the same as if he had kill’d one of the Garrison. This appears to me not only just but good policy.
Ever since his early twenties, Phillip had found slavery repugnant. As a junior naval officer on a tour of duty to the Caribbean in 1760–62 he saw the Spanish and British slave plantations on Jamaica, the Leeward Islands and Cuba. “By the time he left the lavish islands,” writes his biographer Alan Frost, “Phillip has come to see that behind their gleaming skin lurked a gruesome skull.” The evil commerce and the lot of the slaves, Frost records, made an abiding impression on the young naval officer.
Phillip spent the years 1775–78 in Brazil as a captain in the Portuguese navy. During a lull in duties at sea, he made an investigation of the King of Portugal’s Brazilian diamond mines. He discovered much about Brazil’s “Forbidden District” where five thousand African slaves mined diamonds under the constant gaze of their individual overseers. This experience confirmed his aversion to slavery.
Phillip’s successors as governors of New South Wales, John Hunter, Philip Gidley King and William Bligh, were all naval men who shared similar ideas and experiences. All had served in either the West Indies or North America and subscribed to the same naval values and humanitarian spirit.
They had either directly encountered or heard tales of the slave trade to the Americas much like that experienced by Lachlan Macquarie in August 1809 while en route to New South Wales. Off the Brazilian coast, his ship accosted a Portuguese slaver bound for Rio de Janeiro carrying 540 African females. Disease had broken out and, to prevent the infection from spreading, the captain had thrown fifty live women overboard. Mrs Macquarie was shocked. Her husband’s biographer, John Ritchie, records: “Elizabeth’s humanity shuddered at this monstrousness and caused her to think of the abolitionist, William Wilberforce.”
As well as the Enlightenment tradition of the naval officers, the Australian colony harboured a vigorous Evangelical movement. Indeed, Evangelicalism was the founding version of Christianity in the colony. Wilberforce (right) himself had lobbied his friend, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, to appoint the recent Cambridge graduate, Richard Johnson, to sail with the First Fleet as first chaplain of New South Wales. In 1793 Wilberforce was instrumental in the appointment of another of his protégées, Samuel Marsden, as the colony’s second chaplain.
Evangelicalism was a reform movement that arose within the Church of England in the late eighteenth century. It aimed to apply the principles of the Gospels to social life. Its major causes were penal reform, the abolition of slavery and missions to the native peoples of the empire. The founding of New South Wales as a convict society in the Pacific, where both the Australian and Pacific Island tribes seemed ripe for conversion, was tailor-made for the movement.
While Wilberforce’s main project was the abolition of slavery, he was also concerned with improving the living conditions of convicts, Aborigines and Pacific Islanders. From the outset, he took a close interest in New South Wales, soliciting reports from his Evangelical followers in the colony and acting as patron of their appointments.
He thought the key to good colonial order was religious observance. In 1792 he wrote to Home Secretary Lord Dundas saying he had information from New South Wales that “amongst the higher, as well as the lower ranks, a degree of open profligacy and vice is allowed if not encouraged there”. He urged Dundas “to introduce and keep alive amongst the bulk of the people such a sense of religion as will make them temperate and orderly, and domestic and contented”.
Outside of the Colonial Office, of all those in London who pulled strings in the Australian colony during its first thirty years, Wilberforce was probably second in influence only to Joseph Banks.
Even though they occurred halfway round the world, serious political disputes in Sydney generated messages from Sydney to London asking Wilberforce to use his influence to resolve them. In 1808, when the officers of the New South Wales Corps mutinied and arrested Governor William Bligh, the governor’s supporters in Sydney immediately appealed to London to enlist the help of both Wilberforce and Banks to put their case to the Colonial Office. In 1815, when relations between Lachlan Macquarie and Samuel Marsden had virtually broken down over the governor’s liberal approach to emancipists, Wilberforce was the man who tried to mediate between the two.
As well as the colonial clergy, Wilberforce had military followers in New South Wales who sailed with the First Fleet. One of these was the officer of the marines and astronomer, Lieutenant William Dawes (left). As well as becoming the first authority on Australian Aboriginal languages, Dawes earned himself the title of Australia’s “first conscientious objector” when he defied Phillip by refusing to participate in a party to capture an Aborigine who had killed the governor’s gamekeeper.
In 1792, Dawes began the first of his three appointments as governor of Sierra Leone, the African settlement established by Wilberforce and Henry Thornton to relocate former American slaves. In 1799, Dawes gave evidence for the abolitionist movement to a House of Lords enquiry into the slave trade. In 1812, at Wilberforce’s request, he left for the West Indies to work for the anti-slavery cause as a correspondent for the Church Missionary Society and schoolmaster to the children of slaves.
On the second fleet, another Evangelical adherent was the commander of the guard, Captain William Hill. The second fleet was notorious for its harsh regimen, disease and shortage of provisions that led to the death of 278 convicts and crew. It was a report Hill wrote to Wilberforce that led to the master of the fleet and his first mate being tried at the Old Bailey for murder.
Colonial Australia’s greatest navigator, Matthew Flinders, was also in contact with Wilberforce and looked to him for patronage and support. In 1802, during his circumnavigation of Australia, Flinders discovered a striking promontory on the north-east coast of Arnhem Land, which he later named Cape Wilberforce in honour of his friend. In 1810, when he returned to England after seven-years as a French captive on Mauritius, he turned to Wilberforce for help to gain restitution of his naval rank.
In October 1810, Governor Lachlan Macquarie embarked on his first major exercise in town planning by establishing five market towns in the colony’s grain basket on the river flats of the Hawkesbury. Two of them he named Windsor and Richmond after the towns on the Thames; one he named Pitt-town after the Prime Minister who had decided to colonise New South Wales; one he named Castlereagh after the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies who had appointed him; and the fifth he named Wilberforce “in honour of and out of respect to the good and virtuous William Wilberforce Esq., M.P., a true patriot and the real friend of mankind”. (Wilberforce still exists today as a suburban village on the perimeter of Sydney.)
Macquarie was not himself an overt Evangelical. According to John Ritchie, his religious beliefs were a blend of Episcopalianism and Free Masonry. His wife, Elizabeth, however, was committed to the movement. Her attachment to salvation and redemption, Ritchie writes, showed the influence of High Church Evangelical reformism.
She imbibed the movement’s call to undertake “good works” and put its principles into practice in Sydney. She revived the neglected Female Orphan School, became its patroness and drew up plans for a new building at Parramatta, which opened in 1818. She became patroness of the Native Institution at Parramatta, which housed twenty Aboriginal children, and also supported the Methodist Mission to the Aborigines.
Until 1796, Lachlan Macquarie had unquestioningly accepted slavery. He was then a captain in the British Army in India. At the time, India had a population of some eight million slaves and the institution had existed since time immemorial. Indeed, in 1794, when he joined his regiment in Calicut, Macquarie purchased two slave boys from the market in Cochin.
His first wife, Jane, was the daughter of the chief justice of Antigua in the West Indies and when he died she inherited a small number of slaves there. Jane died of consumption in 1796 and in her will she set her slaves free. Her husband followed her example and emancipated his own Indian slaves, enrolling them in a parish school at Bombay to learn to read and write.
Later, as military secretary to the Governor of Bombay Jonathan Duncan, and as a friend of the wealthy merchant Charles Forbes, two Englishmen who endorsed the emerging humanitarian sentiment of the time, Macquarie became a critic of slavery. He returned to England in 1807, the year of the abolitionists’ victory, and caught the enthusiasm for their cause. That year he married his second wife, Elizabeth, and came under the influence of her religious outlook, especially her belief that all human creatures were equal in the eyes of God.
These views changed the course of Australian colonial history. Determined to avoid any comparison between convict transportation and slavery, Macquarie radically reformed the punitive regime for convicts, turning it into a program for their regeneration.
He moderated corporal punishment, reduced life sentences to 15 years, and reprieved a number of convicts sentenced to death. Where William Bligh had granted two pardons during his eighteen-month term as governor, between 1810 and 1820 Macquarie gave 366 absolute pardons, 1365 conditional pardons and 2319 tickets-of-leave (certificates of exemption from compulsory labour).
He granted land to emancipists and expirees and even invited some to dine with him. He appointed ex-convicts as magistrates, as assistant surgeon, acting surveyor, civil architect and poet laureate. To celebrate St Patrick’s Day in 1810, Mrs Macquarie invited to dinner fifty-eight convicts and their overseers.
Although Macquarie’s generosity and clemency sowed seeds of dissension amongst the free settlers that eventually brought him down, he demonstrated that a penal regime of this kind worked. Most successive governors kept his policies largely intact.
The long-term result was that probably more than half of the 160,000 convicts transported over eighty years were transformed from the criminal sub-cultures of their youth into useful citizens — farmers, tradesmen, soldiers and, in a small but notable number of cases, successful professional and businessmen and women. Transportation to Australia became history’s most successful large-scale experiment in penal reform.
The impetus for the moral beliefs and social policy that motivated Macquarie’s reforms came straight from William Wilberforce.
When he took up political activism in 1787, Wilberforce wrote in his diary that “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” The second of these projects is often overlooked but it was central both to Wilberforce’s actions in England and to Macquarie’s intentions in New South Wales.
Wilberforce was convinced that the British nation in the late 1700s was in serious moral decline. His 1793 tract, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System, called for a religious revival to reform community morals, especially sexual licence, crime, drunkenness and family neglect. He used the evangelical movement to promote church-going, marriage, education and social mobility among the lower orders. In the long run, his biographers have credited him with defining the moral earnestness that later shaped the Victorian age.
In Australia, Macquarie followed his example closely. Macquarie ordered all government-employed convicts to be mustered on Sundays and marched to church. He condemned cohabitation and withdrew government patronage from couples in such unions. He ordered publicans to close their doors during hours of worship and employed constables to apprehend loiterers. He banned bawdy houses and nude bathing in Sydney Harbour.
His encouragement of marriage was so successful that in 1810 the number of weddings increased tenfold. Missionaries applauded his support for Evangelical projects like the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Sunday School movement. He built hospitals, schools and orphanages.
Macquarie translated Wilberforce’s agenda into policy towards the Aborigines. He established a Native Institution for Aboriginal children; he settled Aboriginal adults on land at George’s Head in Sydney Harbour and gave them seed, tools and a boat; he built huts for others at another harbour location, Elizabeth Bay, and gave them a boat, fishing tackle, salt and casks; in 1814 he inaugurated an annual gathering and feast for all the Aborigines of the Sydney region.
Left-wing historians today record with some satisfaction that all his Aboriginal policies eventually failed. This is only partly true since the land at George’s Head remained in Aboriginal hands and provided several generations with a living (mainly from fishing) for almost a century. Even though the others were not successful, they still demonstrated Macquarie’s intention towards the Aborigines, which was to give them the gift of British civilization. He regarded them as his equals and thought that with only a little assistance they could make the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.
In the 1820s, two other Australian colonial governors, Ralph Darling and George Arthur, owed their positions partly to the reputations they gained for actions against the slave trade. Both were appointed by Earl Bathurst, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, a Tory who was broadly sympathetic to Wilberforce and the evangelicals.
Darling (left), who served as Governor of New South Wales from 1824 to 1831, became military commandant and acting governor of Mauritius in 1819. The island had been seized from the French during the Napoleonic Wars. Its agriculture was based largely on sugar and its planters employed 55,000 negro slaves. The British permitted the ownership of existing slaves but prohibited the importation of any more. Darling’s brief was to end the slave traffic in the region, especially from Madagascar.
When he arrived, he found the French colonists were flouting the existing laws. With Bathurst’s support, Darling announced a tougher policy to uncover illegal traffic by monitoring slave holdings and increasing military patrols on the coast. On one occasion he sent five offending colonists for trial in England.
Deciding in 1820 that “the pitch of affrontery to which the slave trade has attained in the Colony, at once shocking to humanity and disgraceful to the Community in which it prevails” had gone too far, he summoned the colonists’ representative body, the Conseils des Communes, to gain its support to suppress the traffic. When it admonished him and refused to co-operate, he closed it down and governed for the rest of his administration without an advisory council. Darling’s biographer, Brian Fletcher, records: “Bathurst wholeheartedly approved his actions.”
Arthur, who was Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1824 to 1836, won this appointment after serving eight years as commandant and superintendent of the British settlement of Belize or British Honduras on the Yucatan Peninsula. When he first arrived in the Caribbean he declared himself “a perfect Wilberforce as to slavery”.
He confirmed this in the decisions he took in Belize. In 1820 he entered a prolonged dispute with local settlers over their excessive punishment of slaves. The following year he issued a proclamation freeing those slaves descended from American Indians and brought to Belize from the Mosquito Coast. He threatened to send some of their owners to England for trial. His action provoked an eight-year legal contest, which jeopardized his career for the entire period. English judges eventually endorsed his decision.
Arthur (right) wrote in 1822 to Bathurst: “If I have exceeded my authority, I rest my excuse on the great necessity of doing justice to the Indian.” His efforts on behalf of the slaves attracted the attention of Wilberforce as well as James Stephen and Earl Bathurst of the Colonial Office and in 1823 were important in his appointment to Van Diemen’s Land.
Other prominent Australian colonists who either had dealings with Wilberforce in London or who gained positions here on his recommendation included: Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe; judge Barron Field; merchant and philanthropist Robert Campbell; banker and newspaper editor Edward Hall Smith; author Nicholas Liddiard; pastoralist John Leake; and Anglican clergyman Thomas Hassall.
Overall, then, the Evangelical movement and its campaign for the abolition of slavery was well represented in colonial Australia and played a major role in the founding this country, in determining the colony’s moral and political values and in establishing its social and religious traditions. It complemented the other abolitionist sentiments discussed here: the notion of the “free-born Englishman”, the British Enlightenment’s insistence on the unity and equality of humanity, and the naval tradition that sought to distinguish Britain’s reputation from that of the other European imperial powers. The idea that slavery was an affront to humanity that had no place in a free land was part of the original definition of what it meant to be an Australian.
Unfortunately, in today’s academic climate when the Left dominates history and when the prevailing mindset is to disparage our origins, very few academic historians ever discuss these issues. Anyone looking to the Oxford Companion to Australian History for insight will find its editors, Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre, did not think the abolitionists worthy of an entry or even a mention in the subject index.
Moreover, although Phillip’s original anti-slavery declaration was once well known to earlier generations of students, historians today rarely mention it. Even when they do, their intention is usually to qualify it heavily. For instance, in The Europeans in Australia (1997), Alan Atkinson calls Phillip’s 1786 statement “almost gratuitous”, and then tries to make him look the odd-man-out in the colony by saying that once he returned to England, the officers of the marines hoped the Aborigines “might be harnessed to a form of slavery on the current American model”.
This claim is hardly credible. The sole evidence for it is half a sentence written in 1795 in the diary of the alcoholic, dissolute magistrate Richard Atkins, a long-time adversary of the officers who did not name those concerned. Moreover, Atkinson neglects to inform his readers that the other half of Atkins’s sentence mocks the very notion. The full sentence Atkins wrote was: “They seem to adopt the Idea that the Natives can be made Slaves of, than which nothing can be more false, they are free as air and Govr. Phillip’s conduct was highly approved of for reprobating that idea.”
Worse still, students of Australian history taught by the current generation of university lecturers are swamped by allegations that colonial officials were guilty of genocide against the Aborigines. According to Ann Curthoys and John Docker of Australian National University, joint editors of the 2001 edition of the academic journal, Aboriginal History, Britain was the most “overtly genocidal” of the European colonial powers and its colonization of Australia produced a genocide comparable to that of Nazi Germany. Most other authors in that journal agreed with them.
Since genocide is both a crime of government and a crime of intent, this accusation is disturbing. If true, it means that all those Australian colonial officials who supported the abolition movement, who were protégés of Wilberforce, and who publicly declared that all human beings were equal before the law, must have been liars and hypocrites. Moreover, their words must have been the opposite of their deeds not just once but consistently across several decades and throughout many different colonial administrations.
In other words, the accusation is implausible on these grounds alone and is evidence not of the intentions of our founders but of how something has gone seriously wrong with the historical interpretation that now prevails in this field.
Today, on the rare occasions it is discussed in Australian history books, the abolitionist movement that triumphed in 1807 usually figures only as an introduction to the campaign in the late 1830s to end convict transportation. Those colonists and their English supporters who were opposed to transportation often compared it to slavery.
It is true that Britain’s Molesworth Committee of 1838, whose report effectively ended transportation to New South Wales two years later, did use the comparison with slavery to capitalise on abolitionist sentiment in the wake of the 1833 act outlawing the ownership of slaves in the British Empire.
This makes recent historians think they are licensed to repeat the charge as if it were true. In her volume of the Oxford History of Australia (1992), Jan Kociumbas calls the convict regime variously “slavery” (her scare quotes), semi-slavery and a system of slave labour. This analogy is false since convicts could not be bought or sold in Australia and most were sentenced to fixed terms, after which they were free to remain here or return home. And unlike slaves, their children were always born free. Hence, it is historically inaccurate to use the term today to describe what the convict system was really like.
However, in an era when readers of Australian history are so readily seduced by the pseudo-scholarship of books like Robert Hughes’s best-seller The Fatal Shore, which portrays the convict era as Britain’s equivalent of Stalin’s gulag archipelago, bad news is obviously what sells. The fact that Australia’s founders were so closely connected to, and so strongly motivated by, one of history’s great movements for human liberation is, for some perverse reason, something we now prefer not to know.
Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant. This article was first published in Quadrant, April 2007