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Book Review

Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (December 2001)


Anne-Maree Whitaker, Joseph Foveaux. Power and Patronage in Early New South Wales, Kensington, 2000, UNSW Press, viii + 257 pp, ISBN 0 86840 555 8; RRP AUS$32.95

In that other country called the past there are no reliable maps. Clio's troops need to move slowly and carefully; they need to be aware of similarities and differences; they must avoid false and misleading trails; and, above all, they must remember that the people they study are different to the inhabitants of the present. Words are dangerous in the past&emdash;Peter Porter calls them 'epitomes of chanciness'&emdash;but only by unlocking their secrets can historians approach their ideal of 'what really happened'.

Dr Whitaker knows about words and their meanings. She also understands myth and legend. Her biography of Joseph Foveaux is a frontal attack on the demonology and conspiracy theory which provides much of the evidential base for the dominant paradigm of early Australian history. There are no facile conclusions here. This is hard, tough research. Dr Whitaker haunts the libraries and the archives, she has immersed herself in the worlds about which she writes, she knows the people and, above all, she knows what the words mean. Finally she knows that serendipity is one of the historian's greatest assets.

This is a densely packed book. It rescues Foveaux and his contemporaries from E. P. Thompson's 'enormous condescension of posterity' and it continues the re-writing of early Australian history begun by, for example, A. G. L. Shaw, Michael Roe, Brian Fletcher, Roger Hainsworth, Noel Butlin and George Parsons. Moreover it builds upon the pioneering research of Reg Wright in his 1997 Macquarie University MA (Hons) thesis, 'The Fabrication of Evidence in Early Australian History: the case of Joseph Foveaux on Norfolk Island 1800- 1804', which reveals the shaky foundations of much of the received truth about the foundation years. Similarly the myth of the rum trade has been demolished by S. J. and N. G. Butlin; Brian Fletcher, as early as 1962, destroyed the legend which portrayed the small settlers as victims of a jack-booted mafia which seized their land and enslaved them in drink sodden debt; George Parsons has made a major reassessment of the NSW Corps; and Professor Alan Atkinson has revealed a colony, and an Australian past, much richer, more subtle and more complex than most historians have allowed.

One of Dr Whitaker's strengths is her encyclopaedic knowledge of eighteenth century patronage links. Wide reading and attention to genealogical detail have enabled her to position Foveaux and his contemporaries within that great web of interest which determined place and preferment in the century. Studies of the governors of NSW and Van Diemen's Land and of the colonial regiments, especially the NSW Corps, indicate the riches waiting to be mined by those who follow Dr Whitaker's example.

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Public officials and officers (civil and military) in the Australian convict colonies had powerful patrons whose influence extended to the highest seats of power in London. Grose, for example, was the client of Henry Phipps, Earl Mulgrave, Viscount Normanby; Sir Joseph Banks protected the interest of Paterson, Hunter and Bligh and Joseph Foveaux was well served by the powerful Whig politician and army general, Richard Fitzpatrick. The court martial of George Johnston in 1811, following the military mutiny against Bligh, was a patronage brawl in which Banks, the governor's friend, was bested by the combined weight of Northumberland, Mulgrave, Fitzpatrick and their clients. Events in the distant convict colonies were often cause for contest in Westminster and Whitehall. Indeed the biographer of Normanby may well be able to rewrite much of the early history of NSW. The myth that is Grose in Australian history may then be finally laid to rest.

The real question raised by this book is about revisionism in early Australian history. What we take to be the 'received truth' about those founding (European) years is more and more in doubt. Like those convicts who quickly developed an amnesia about their pre-antipodean origins, historians have invented a past which helps them to feel comfortable in the present. First, a conspiracy against the people, organised by the NSW Corps, a sort of jack-booted SS unit, rampaging across the golden lands of Australia, a bottle of rum in one hand, a whip in the other. Second, brave convicts, more sinned against than sinning. (And now revealed [sic] as highly skilled, efficient human capital!) Third, great men and women in history like the Macarthurs and the Macquaries. Fourth, governors who somehow become men of the left&emdash;Evatt's falsification of Bligh&emdash;and the faithful, if defeated, servants of the people. Finally there is the Whig view of unfaltering progress to liberty, democracy, prosperity and cohesion (Mr Howard's favourite word of the moment).

The strength of this mythical past is immense. People do not give it up easily. Simple arithmetic shows that rum was scarce and not plentiful; Professor S. J. Butlin demonstrated in 1953 it could not be a currency. This does not matter. Again and again the story is repeated, especially in school texts. Similarly, Macarthur's fine woolled sheep emerge magically out of nothing, despite the important and detailed work which has been done on the early European economy. And Foveaux is a tyrant and a brutal, sadistic lieutenant governor of Norfolk Island. At least Dr Whitaker's work will make this last legend more difficult to maintain, but whether it will change the nation's historiography is open to doubt. I wish her luck.

It is good to see a university press prepared to publish Australian history. Hurrah for the University of New South Wales! Let us hope the others take note.

George Parsons
Department of Modern History
Macquarie University

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