A WORM-HOLE: RICHARD ATKIN’S DIARY & THE FIRST BLACK HOLE

‘You are also with the consent of the natives to take possession of convenient situations in the country in the name of the King of Great  Britain, or if you find the country uninhabited take possession for His Majesty by setting up proper marks and inscriptions as first discoverers and possessors’. British Admiralty Instructions to Lieutenant James Cook RN, 1768. 

1770 – April, Possession Island: In 1770 in the name of His Majesty King George III of England Lieutenant James Cook RN laid claim to New Holland, naming the country New Wales.

1788 – January 26/27/28, Sydney: Commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN a British army – 1455 – comprising five hundred and seventy (570) male criminals – ‘rationed as troops serving in the West Indies’ – two hundred (200) Royal Naval personnel, two hundred and forty-five (245) marines, four hundred and forty (440) merchant seamen and twenty (20) officials disembarked at Warrane (Sydney Cove). See: A Tale of Two Fleets

‘Military power was the most decisive fact about the early settlements; it was the frame within which everything else happened’. R. Connell and T.H. Irving, Class Structure in Australian History, Documents, Narrative and Argument, 1980.

1788 – 7 February, Port Jackson: Captain-General, now Governor Arthur Phillip RN, raised the Union Jack and; ‘using a form of words’ took ‘effective occupation’ of the island continent of New Holland, now Australia, for the British Empire.

‘You cannot overrate the solicitude of H.M. Government on the subject of the Aborigines of New Holland. It is impossible to contemplate the condition or the prospects of that unfortunate race without the deepest commiseration. Still it is impossible that the government should forget that the original aggression was ours’. Lord John Russell to Sir George Gipps, Despatch, 21 December 1838, Series 1, Vol. XX.

The winner-takes-all mindset of Britain’s ‘original aggression’ laid down in 1788 was set in stone during two (2) critical periods of absolute military rule between 1792-1795 and 1808-1810.

1790 – June, Sydney: One hundred and fifteen (115) officers and infantrymen, first contingent of the New South Wales Corps raised to replace the ‘troubled’ Sydney marine garrison, arrived with a second fleet ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ in June 1790 but without Major Francis Grose their commanding officer.

Grose remained in England and recruited to meet establishment requirements. The power vacuum was filled by Lieutenant John Macarthur, an ambitious, intelligent but unscrupulous junior officer. At Macarthur’s urging officers pooled their cash and morphed into powerful cartels who held the infant colony in an economic strangle-hold. See: Machiavellian Macarthur

1792 – February, Sydney: Major Grose arrived at the beginning of February 1792 aboard Pitt a convict transport. One of eleven (11) vessels contracted to a firm of slave-traders Camden, Calvert and King this third fleet brought one thousand eight hundred (1800) mostly male convicts and two hundred (200) additional troops.

The fleet also brought a handful of free settlers among them Richard Atkins. Atkins, the dissolute son of baronet Sir William Bower, kept a diary written; ‘in that uninhibited  fashion to which Georgian diarists were prone’. See: Boswell Goes Into Bat

In so novel and primitive a penal settlement Atkin’s polished upbringing and influential family connextions at once marked him as a privileged member of society, particularly as the colonists did not know the real reason for his coming. Governor Phillip accordingly appointed this virtual outlaw as a Justice of the Peace and sent him to Parramatta to augment the summary legal administration there’. Journal, Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 52. Part 4, 1966

Atkins ‘made much of the fame of his [high profile] brothers’. In a colony almost entirely devoid of educated men, those in authority including Governor Phillip, failed to see Richard Atkins for what he was, a plausible con-man and awarded positions far in excess of his abilities.

What of Richard Atkins the man? It seems, now as then, it is hard to find a good word.

Atkins; Addicted to liquor, immorality and insolvency he led a thoroughly dissolute life….The colony’s principal legal officer for years….when he was sober he was impressive enough to delude creditors and governor alike; but he was ignorant and merciless, an inveterate debauchee’. Australian Dictionary of Biography, ????

Yet Atkin’s journal is a tardis; a wormhole into Britain’s toxic military occupation of Australia.

1792 – 12 December: Governor Arthur Phillip RN returned to England after five (5) years of extremely stressful service as Britain’s first Governor of Australia (1788-1792). See: Phillip’s Algorithm

‘For the length of the interregnum [December 1792 – September 1795] the British government was greatly at fault. John Hunter, Australian Dictionary of Biography, J.J. Auchmuty

The Home Office failed to appoint an immediate successor so governance of the colony devolved to the military – the corrupt New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps.     

‘No sooner had Governor Phillip left ye colony than I was convinced that the plan or measures of government were about to undergo an intire [sic] change.

The civil magistrates, within two days, received an order that their duty would in future be dispensed with, and from that time until your Excellency’s [Hunter’s] arrival again, in the colony everything was conducted in a military manner’. Captain George Johnston to Governor John Hunter, cited in William Foster, Journal Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 51, Part 3, 1965.

Major Grose, the Corps’ Commander, described as ‘unassertive, affable and easy-going’, was content to allow his greedy officers have their heads particularly; ‘the energetic Macarthur [who] became the real ruler of New South Wales’.

Richard Atkin’s diary gives an insightful account of the British invaders and their guns, greed and grog- the tipping points of military rule – that changed forever ‘prospects [for] the Aborigines of New Holland’. 

‘Major Grose…has done more harm to this colony than it would be in the power of any govt. to do for many years…The more I consider the govt. of —  — the more it appears hostile not only to the British constitution but to ends for which all good government was instituted’. [Atkins – December 1794]

Major Grose governed Australia from December 1792 until December 1794 when he departed for London. Captain William Paterson, Grose’s second-in-command, governed from December 1794 to September 1795.

‘We now have a commanding officer (Captain Wm. Patterson) for our Chief. I think it will not be approved of’. [Atkins – December 1794]

1795 – 21 March 1795: Captain Paterson having assumed command wrote to Home Secretary Dundas in London.

‘Having reason to expect the arrival of governor Hunter daily…I have made no alteration in the mode of carrying on the service which I found adopted at the Lieut.Governor’s [Grose} departure’. Captain Paterson, Administrator to Right Hon. Henry Dundas, 21 March 1795.

1795 – March, Sydney Cove: Brittania, a vessel chartered by officers of the New South Wales Corps on the say-so of canny teetotaler Macarthur, arrived at Sydney in March 1795 with 25,000 gallons of ‘firey Indian rum’.

‘We may expect Hunter in about 6 weeks….It is much lamented that the govr. [Hunter] does not arrive for every day adds to the debauchery and every other vice….The new settlement on the Hawkesbury is one continual scene of drunkeness.

It would be impossible to describe the scenes of villainy and infamy that passes at the Hawkesbury…a bottle of liquor for a bushell of corn and no questions asked is the common price’… since then drunkeness and robberys to a very allarming degree have taken place’. [Atkins – March 1795]

By 1795 over four hundred (400) ex-convicts, supported by the labour of serving prisoners, were farming ‘thirty miles along the banks on both sides of the Deerubin [Hawkesbury] river’. 

‘For the first twenty years, settlement in New South Wales was confined largely to the Cumberland Plain about Sydney….The Europeans explained  such [Aboriginal] resistance by referring to the Aborigines’ ‘Spirit of Animosity and Hostility’.

As if the invasion of their land would call for any other response but armed resistance’. Dr Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, The British Army in Australia 1788-1870, Kangaroo Press, 1986

Local Dharug Aborigines, denied access to watering places, hunting grounds and winter yam fields were placed under extreme pressure. They mounted hit and run raids; ‘plundering the corn’ to feed their hungry families.

‘It appears the determined resolution of the military [Paterson] to support the Despotism of the Lt. Governor [Grose] it is now carried on in a higher degree than in his time. They seem to adopt the Idea that the Natives can be made slaves of…nothing can be more false….they are as free as the air and Governor Phillip’s conduct was highly approved of for reprobating that idea’. [Atkins – February 1795]

1795 –  7 June: Captain Paterson in early June 1795 took a decision that compounded difficulties on the Hawkesbury; he sent a detachment of troops to the river. The increased fire-power saw sporadic raids escalate into ‘open war’

‘I therefore sent a detachment of two subalterns and sixty privates of New South Wales to the river, as well to drive the natives to a distance, as for the protection of the settlers.

It gives me concern to have been forced to destroy any of these people, particularly as I have no doubt of their having been cruelly treated by some of the settlers who went out there’. Captain William Paterson to Right Hon. Henry Dundas, 15th June 1795.

1795 – 7 September, Sydney: Governor John Hunter RN, Britain’s second commissioned naval Governor of Australia arrived in September three (3) months after Captain Paterson ordered the Hawkesbury raid.

‘On this day Govr. Hunter arrives. ‘How happy is it for this Colony that we have at last a Governor who will make the good of the community at large his particular care, abstracted from all party and dirty pecuniary views’. [Atkins, 7 September 1795]

Governor Hunter travelled to Parramatta soon after he arrived and stayed a few days with John and Elizabeth Macarthur. For this Atkins had but one word ‘Ominous’. 

Atkins fears were allayed when it became clear Governor Hunter was not deceived by John Macarthur the slick, get-rich-quick merchant of Parramatta.

‘Arrived from Bengal the Brig Arthur laden with spirits, tobacco, sugar etc. A ship from Britain [Ceres] laden with salt and slops’. [Atkins – January 1796]

‘ recd. information from Govr. [Hunter] that the Judge Advocate [David Collins] was going home and that I am to succeed him’. [Atkins – 12 February 1796]

It seems after Atkins took up his appointment as Judge-Advocate he was too busy to continue with his diary.

1810 – May: Richard Atkins returned to London on HMS Hindostan in company with ex-Governor William Bligh who had previously described Atkins ‘a disgrace to human jurisprudence’.

1820 – November, England: Richard Atkins died ‘insolvent’ nevertheless he left Australia an invaluable asset.

His diary exposes the ‘what’s -yours -is-mine’ attitude implicit in Britain’s ‘original aggression’. A mind-set entrenched by two (2) lengthy periods of absolute military rule. Firstly 1792-1795 and 1808-1810 post the ‘Rum Rebellion’ instigated by John Macarthur then a civilian agitator. See: Australia Day ‘Rum’ Rebellion

‘In 1837 the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Aborigines (British Settlements) recommended that as the whole land had been taken from the Aborigines in New South Wales…[and ] yielded on sale upwards of hundred thousand pounds a year’. Barry Bridges, Journal Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 56, Part 2, 1965

EPILOGUE

‘At the end of the period of British control over native affairs the Aborigines had no stake in the soil of their native land beyond a few small reserves, and perhaps, the right to limited trespass on leasehold land’. Bridges. op.cit.

1992: Australia’s High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision found ‘terra nullius’‘uninhabited’ the founding doctrine of ‘original aggression’ to be ‘legal fiction’.

However a sting-in-Mabo’s tail ruled; ‘Native Title will be extinguished where the traditional holders lose their connection to land’. The ruling took no account of dispersal. The First Nations’ Peoples were removed willy-nilly from country whose boundaries were millennia old.

‘Native Title will be extinguished where the traditional holders lose their connection to land’ permits decisions such as that of Judge Olney: ‘the right to the occupancy of this [Yorta Yorta] land….have been washed away by the tides of history’.

Continuing connection an ‘institutional [remainder] of Empire’ has resulted in competing claims and what some First Australians describe as ‘Native Title warfare’.

‘To believe that Britain can forget its history, is to believe that Russians should not discuss the crimes of Stalin or Germans the crimes of Nazism. There is a need for a re-writing of history, for the purging of some guilt by its contemplation.

There is not yet in Britain any institutional reminder of the guilts of Empire; the builders of Empire are still the great men of the history texts, and monuments still stand to them in London’. Donald Horne, God is an Englishman, Pelican, 1969.

It is time take a forensic knife to: ‘the original aggression’ – ‘the builders of Empire’ – ‘the guilts of Empire’ – ‘forced removal’ and ‘the tides of history’.

‘An effective resolution will require what the British required as long ago ago as 1768 ‘the consent of the natives’. G. Nettheim, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Monograph No. 7, May 1994, ed. W. Sanders, Australian National University, Goanna Press, 1994

 

 

 

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