History Wars

Rogue History

This essay was first published in Quadrant, September 2009

The theatrically dramatic Sudds Thompson case is an opportunity for taking soundings in our colonial history. A moment, preserved in inky impressions, of stirred passions and public conflict, it offers a vivid glimpse into another time, another society. Its disheartening mistreatment in a recent Screen Australia and ABC documentary is an opportunity to observe, yet again, how bad Australian academic history writing has become, and how little we know or care about our past.

Rogue Nation screened over two Sunday nights in March this year. The first part dealt with the Bligh rebellion and the second with the Sudds Thompson case and Jane New. It mixed live action, of the dressing up extras in old clothes and setting them roistering in the streets variety, with YouTube animations of early colonial artworks. Into the boisterous crowd scenes wandered University of Melbourne historian, and ABC announcer, Michael Cathcart, who identified the characters and directed the narrative with word choices which made him sound like an elitist feminist satirising males. “That bloke is Commissioner Bigge,” he confided; and both Jane New and Sudds and Thompson had “nicked” the property of others.

This essay deals with the Sudds Thompson case. Of the Jane New segment, historian Carol Baxter complained, in the Sydney Institute Quarterly, that it was based on her book An Irresistible Temptation though used with neither her permission nor acknowledgment:

When called to task for such a breach of intellectual property rights, the response from [the producers] Essential Media and Entertainment was that it would be aired on the ABC which does not allow “advertising” and that the information was in the public domain anyway!

Privates Joseph Sudds and Patrick Thompson stole a length of fabric, hoping that the resulting court sentence would magically transform them from unhappy soldiers into cheerful convicts. Their plot went awry when Governor Ralph Darling changed their Quarter Sessions sentence of seven years transportation to a distant penal colony to hard labour on the roads and had them degraded in a parade ground ceremony in which they were stripped naked, dressed in convict yellows and given chains and a metal collar to wear. Joseph Sudds died soon after and a splendid controversy erupted.

Some years ago Michael Cathcart published a one-volume abridgement of Manning Clark’s six-volume history. He should have learnt a lesson from that disastrous compilation of false facts, bad analysis and “nicked” vocabulary. He didn’t. For Rogue Nation he should have returned to the primary sources. He didn’t.

Rogue Nation set out to use Sudds and Thompson for a colourful lesson in civics. “It clarified my thinking,” said Cathcart, “about the nature of rights in Australia: citizens’ rights, civil rights, the rights to vote, trial by jury, free speech and decent conditions of work.” But the errors and inventions on display in Rogue Nation were a poor foundation for its supposedly edifying and educational structure.

Playwright Katherine Thomson wrote the script and offered this guarantee of fidelity to her sources: “Part of the frustration of this work is the enormous amount of research you do for just a couple of lines. You can’t just write it was a sunny day—you have to go and read 10 books and make sure that it was a sunny day!” Actually you don’t do that; you look at the printed temperatures in a contemporary newspaper. It takes ten minutes. And if you looked in the newspaper, your primary source, and then looked at ten history books, the secondary sources, you might see how often historians get things wrong. Despite Thomson’s purist statement, Rogue Nation invented scenes.

Thomson, who wrote an agitprop play about the 1998 waterside dispute, draws her main protagonists William Charles Wentworth and Ralph Darling simplistically—good Wentworth versus bad Darling. The two men were far more complex and far more interesting than her script allows. She would have been fairer to Darling if she had taken notice of Brian Fletcher’s fair-minded biography called, for obvious reasons, Ralph Darling: A Governor Maligned. She might also have bothered to ensure that the name “Ralph” was correctly pronounced.

In the 1820s there was political ferment in New South Wales on the question of the extension of traditional British rights into the penal colony. Most people wanted trial by jury, instead of military juries, introduced. Where they divided, and quite reasonably so, was over whether ex-convicts should be allowed to sit on juries. For very good reason some colonists were concerned that ex-criminals might show solidarity with the accused rather than the more elusive joys of pure justice.

The errors of Rogue Nation were not minor but major flaws, which undermined both the story being told and the pedagogic account of our constitutional history that had been placed on it. For instance, William Wentworth’s father D’Arcy was not a convict. Rogue Nation claimed he was, and used this error of a paternal convict connection to account for both William’s supposed sympathy for ex-convicts and their families and his supposed opposition to the wealthy free-born. Interestingly, it is possible that the child born William Crowley was not really the biological son of D’Arcy Wentworth.

The “history consultant” for Rogue Nation was Peter Cochrane, author of the award-winning book in which W.C. Wentworth figures prominently, Colonial Ambition.

In a scene set in his London lodgings, Wentworth was shown picking up a pamphlet and finding that it described his father as a convict. For Rogue Nation this is a turning point in his life. The pamphlet was published in February 1819 but what the script does not tell its audience is that William challenged its author, H.G. Bennet, on the facts and that Bennet retracted the claim, made a public apology in the House of Commons on February 18, and reissued his tract with the offending passage deleted.

Two singular inventions of Rogue Nation stand out. One takes place inside Darling’s Legislative Council. Cathcart introduces John Macarthur junior as a member of the Council who, in Cathcart-Thomson-speak, “takes up where his old man left off … so the battle lines are clear”. John junior then makes some suitably reactionary remarks to drive the narrative point home. But John Macarthur junior was never a member of Darling’s Legislative Council, and he would have found it hard to attend its meetings because he lived in England.

Cathcart is disdainful about the Legislative Council, which he describes as “a small group of rich men and public servants who make laws for the colony”. Exactly. When Darling arrived in Sydney his first actions were to establish an Executive Council and enlarge the Legislative Council and swear in its members. This was an important step towards an elected legislature and self-government. The days of the autocratic governors, like Macquarie, were over. Darling was very much a man and administrator of a new era.

Another invented scene takes place in the Sydney Supreme Court. It is a trial into the Sudds Thompson case. There is a bewigged judge, a military jury, and barrister William Wentworth is given the opportunity to make a passionate oration before a rowdy and appreciative audience. Viewers aren’t shown the accused or the dock. Didn’t anyone involved in the production think it odd that there was no accused? But this “trial” never happened. There was an inquiry into the death of Sudds but that took place in private before the Executive Council and, obviously, did not include William Charles Wentworth, or a judge, or jury, or audience.

Without the pedagogic straitjacket, and doctored story, there is evidence for a far more interesting story. Unravelling a few Rogue Nation errors suggests the underlying narrative that lies hidden under the doctrinaire bonds.

Rogue Nation states that “Wentworth and the convict faction loathe him [Darling] before he’s even got off the boat.” Before Darling arrived, Wentworth was enthusiastic about the beginning of a new administration. Darling stepped off the boat and a few weeks later Wentworth was far less enthusiastic. The reason the spoiled son of a colonial almost-aristocrat turned against a governor who had worked his way up from a private in the British Army, was because Wentworth was wildly disappointed at not being appointed to Darling’s Legislative Council while his enemy John Macarthur had been made a member. In a wonderful irony, the suggested names for new members of the expanded Council had been sent to London by the previous governor, and hero of Wentworth, Sir Thomas Brisbane. The selection of men had not been made by Darling but it stirred Wentworth’s animosity against him.

Colonial society of the period was a fascinating collection of people and Rogue Nation makes the fatal error of using the simplistic and wildly inaccurate idea of a conflict between “exclusives” and “emancipists” to describe it. In this society, ex-convict Tambourine Sal was married to ex-army officer, explorer and gentleman landowner William Lawson and we are supposed to believe that Sydney was shocked because Wentworth was living with his mistress Sarah Cox. D’Arcy Wentworth was living with two women, in separate establishments, and to neither of them was he married.

William Wentworth and the Macarthur family were very close until there was a falling out. His approaches to marry Elizabeth Macarthur were rebuffed. In Rogue Nation John Macarthur explains the matter to J.T. Bigge (even as it overturns the chronology because it had all taken place well before Bigge arrived in Sydney), “rejected—unsuitable—convict strain”. No one asks what Miss Macarthur thought of the offer.

If brother John suspected that his then friend’s extended sojourn in Paris for medical treatment was related to the patching up of a venereal disease then this may have influenced the family’s reaction to the suitor’s demand.

William’s famous 1819 book, the one which he probably did write, borrows many of Macarthur’s ideas for the colony. It is interesting because it charts the falling out of the two men. Half the book praises Macarthur, and half damns him.

William Wentworth was an “editor” of the Australian newspaper but may not have written a single article for it. His association may have never been more than a financial investment and joint ownership with Robert Wardell which ended after twelve months. At the time of Sudds Thompson, Wentworth was not an owner of the newspaper and Darling even sought, through an intermediary, his assistance in getting Robert Wardell to moderate his attacks.

The Sudds Thompson case was set off, not by Wentworth, but by a marvellous rogue called Laurence Hynes Halloran who was incarcerated in the Sydney jail at the time. He was witness to some of the events and published an anonymous letter in the Australian. This letter ignited Robert Wardell’s attacks in his paper. Within a short time Halloran would be writing to Darling asking for money to set up a pro-government newspaper. Darling (who never knew Halloran’s role in the case) refused.

Sudds’s death may have been due not to Darling’s ill-treatment but because of the arrival of a huge warship from Ceylon which coincided with a devastating and deadly infection which swept through the colony.

In changing the sentences of Sudds and Thompson from transportation to a penal colony to hard labour on the roads, Darling was not acting autocratically. The Governor had the legal authority, by a locally passed Act which Chief Justice Francis Forbes had approved, to amend the sentence. Forbes is shown in Rogue Nation objecting to Darling’s action. Forbes’s objection was a legalistic argument over whether the Governor could alter the sentence before the men reached the penal colony or only after they arrived. The Act gave Darling authority to “withdraw” prisoners, locally sentenced to transportation, and work them “in irons on the public roads”. Forbes argued that Darling could only “withdraw” such prisoners after they had reached their place of transportation. When the British Solicitor General examined Forbes’s argument he described it as “absurd”.

Chief Justice Francis Forbes, a favourite of modern legal historians and presented favourably in Rogue Nation, was a garrulous oath breaker who gossiped about the confidential discussions of Darling’s Councils with a London correspondent.

Wentworth wrote to the Secretary of State on December 15, 1826, urging Darling’s impeachment. He apologised for the hasty preparation of his document and promised to forward a more complete account “by the next conveyance”. He did not do so until March 1829.

In dealing with Wentworth it would not be unfair to consider whether his overwrought attacks on Darling and his threats of impeachment were motivated by idealism or whether he was dreaming of an eventual trial in London which would have given him a starring role in the House of Lords where it would have been conducted. Wentworth’s calls for impeachment may have been influenced by accounts of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, and personal dreams of becoming a colonial Edmund Burke.

Australia lacks a trustworthy history. Efforts to point to the problems have resulted in history wars, accusations of prime ministerial interfering, and slurs of history warriors, crusaders and ideological warriors being flung about. Rogue Nation listed its secondary sources, and there lies much of the problem, for many of the history books relied on for the writing of new histories contain uncorrected errors.
Older works that explore this period by A.C.V. Melbourne and C.H. Currey, for example, are unreliable. A more recent work like John Ritchie’s biographical study The Wentworths is prone to error and doubtful conclusions. Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition drew on both Melbourne and Ritchie for its opening section on Wentworth, with predictable results of error and confusion. Though blunders flourish in our colonial history writing there seems little concern to get things right. A book credited as a source by Rogue Nation was Melbourne University academic Stuart Macintyre’s A Concise History of Australia published by Cambridge University Press. The first edition came out in 1999. It has been widely translated and adopted as a standard text wherever Australian history is taught. The third edition has just been issued and once again this paragraph appears:

Other restrictions [imposed by Darling] included the exclusion of former convicts from jury service, a slight that provoked the emancipist poet, Michael Robinson, to propose a toast at the anniversary day dinner on 26 January 1825: “The land, boys, we live in.”

The part about the exclusion of convicts is wrong but you only need a casual knowledge of our history to realise that Governor Darling was not even in the colony in January 1825. When we depend for our knowledge of the past on rogue history we should not be surprised when we get a Rogue Nation.

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