PO­ETRY First Fruits of Bar­ron Field

Justin Cle­mens on a mi­nor poet and a ma­jor his­tor­i­cal er­ror

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2019 will see an­other Aus­tralian bi­cen­te­nary, the 200th an­niver­sary of the first book of po­etry pub­lished in this coun­try. You could be for­given for know­ing nei­ther the book nor its au­thor; you could prob­a­bly also be for­given for not find­ing the event all that wor­thy of memo­ri­al­i­sa­tion, let alone cel­e­bra­tion. Aside from a few spe­cial­ists in colo­nial lit­er­a­ture and a hand­ful of his­tor­i­cally in­clined lo­cal po­ets, who in con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralia could pos­si­bly be in­ter­ested in the (ex­ceed­ingly) mi­nor po­et­aster Bar­ron Field – yes, his real name – and his First Fruits of Aus­tralian Po­etry? Would Field’s work be of more in­ter­est if it were cru­cial ev­i­dence in the es­tab­lish­ment of terra nul­lius in this coun­try?

Field’s own con­tem­po­raries tended to ir­ri­ta­tion and dis­in­ter­est, when they weren’t down­right con­temp­tu­ous. The wits had a field day, so to speak, with his po­ems – the man’s name, un­sur­pris­ingly, pro­vid­ing rich soil for the pun­sters. As one anony­mous squib from the 1820s, now pre­served in the Mitchell Li­brary, de­clares:

Thy po­ems, Bar­ron Field, I’ve read And thus ad­judge their meed — So poor a crop pro­claims thy head A bar­ren field in­deed!

Yet it wasn’t only his en­e­mies who mocked. Many of Field’s friends weren’t so keen on his verses, ei­ther. In his 1847 obit­u­ary for Field in The New Monthly Mag­a­zine and Hu­morist, Ho­race Smith re­marked of Field’s po­ems that “as truth is my friend, even more than Plato, I must con­fess my re­gret that he did not sup­press them, for the gods had not made him po­et­i­cal, his ear ap­pear­ing to have been ab­so­lutely in­sen­si­ble to the req­ui­site rhythm of verse”. Such judge­ments have re­cur­rently been made of Field’s po­etry over the sub­se­quent cen­turies: even when his po­ems are (ir­reg­u­larly) an­thol­o­gised, it seems to be more for their quaint­ness and his­tor­i­cal im­port than for their in­her­ent power or in­ter­est. No won­der Field has never re­ally proven to be a key ref­er­ence for Aus­tralian po­ets or their crit­ics.

Then again, po­etry may well have been Field’s pas­sion but it wasn’t his day job. He was a lawyer, and, more to the point in this con­text, at the time of pro­duc­ing the book in ques­tion he was Judge of the Supreme Court of Civil Ju­di­ca­ture in New South Wales. Ap­pointed in May 1816, Field ar­rived in Syd­ney from Eng­land with his wife, Jane, in Fe­bru­ary 1817, and was im­me­di­ately cat­a­pulted into the high­est ech­e­lons of colo­nial so­ci­ety. His salary, sup­ple­mented by court fees, was very sub­stan­tial; he also re­ceived a large grant of land in Cabra­matta. Ac­cord­ing to C.H. Cur­rey’s en­try in the Aus­tralian Dic­tionary of Bi­og­ra­phy, Field dealt with 165 ac­tions at law and 13 eq­uity suits be­tween April 1817 and Jan­u­ary 1821; he also presided at the first sit­ting of a Supreme Court in Van Diemen’s Land in 1819. In other words, Field was an ex­ceed­ingly im­por­tant per­son­age at a mo­ment in the fledg­ling colony of New South Wales when the va­garies of in­di­vid­u­als could prove to have dis­pro­por­tion­ate con­se­quences.

That said, Field doesn’t seem to have been a ter­ri­bly suc­cess­ful law man ei­ther. As John Byrnes rather un­der­stat­edly re­marks in Southerly, “Field was not per­son­ally pop­u­lar.” It would prob­a­bly be more ac­cu­rate to state that he was out­right loathed both by many of his colo­nial brethren and by the im­pe­rial gov­ern­men­tal types with whom he had pro­fes­sional deal­ings. He fought bit­terly with Gover­nor Lach­lan Mac­quarie, as well as with John Macarthur, whose ap­point­ment to the mag­is­tracy Field had at­tempted to scotch. Macarthur’s en­mity was such that he sent a threat­en­ing let­ter to Field be­fore the lat­ter’s de­par­ture to Eng­land in 1824. “You will there­fore, Sir,” Macarthur wrote, “be pleased to un­der­stand that I ac­cuse you of hav­ing know­ingly and de­lib­er­ately com­mit­ted an act which the man­ners of a gen­tle­man for­bid me to name even un­der the sanc­tion of your ex­am­ple.” This is, as Byrnes notes, an in­vi­ta­tion to a duel. Given Macarthur’s no­to­ri­ous ir­ri­tabil­ity, it was clearly lucky for Field that he was on his way out at the time.

There were also those at home who en­ter­tained doubts about Field’s re­li­a­bil­ity. John Thomas Bigge, who had been dis­patched to New South Wales to in­ves­ti­gate the func­tion­ing of the pe­nal colony, and who ended up tabling three crit­i­cal re­ports in the House of Com­mons, wrote of Field:

The con­vict part of the pop­u­la­tion of New South Wales view Mr Jus­tice Field’s ad­min­is­tra­tion of the law with sen­ti­ments of dis­sat­is­fac­tion. The free classes of the pop­u­la­tion … equally ap­pre­hend the ef­fects of his vi­o­lent and un­for­giv­ing tem­per, as well as of his per­sonal prej­u­dices, upon his fu­ture de­ci­sions … In my opin­ion, Mr Jus­tice Field does not pos­sess that de­gree of tem­per and de­lib­er­a­tion nec­es­sary to con­duct the ju­di­cial busi­ness of such a Colony.

The neg­a­tive re­views don’t stop there.

Per­haps the most em­i­nent hater was none other than Ben­jamin Dis­raeli, who in 1830 pro­nounced Field to be “a bore and vul­gar … a noisy, ob­tru­sive, jar­gonic judge … ever il­lus­trat­ing the ob­vi­ous, ex­plain­ing the ev­i­dent, and ex­pa­ti­at­ing on the com­mon­place”. A re­bar­ba­tive and in­vet­er­ate mansplainer, then, avant la let­tre. It was no doubt in part due to his less-than-win­ning per­son­al­ity that Field spent the re­main­der of his ca­reer

as an in­ef­fec­tual judge in Gi­bral­tar, re­tir­ing to Eng­land only a few years be­fore his death. In a sum­ma­tion of Field’s con­tri­bu­tions in Dewigged, Both­ered, & Be­wil­dered: Bri­tish Colo­nial Judges on Trial, 1800–1990, John McLaren con­cludes that

Field’s record as a judge could best be de­scribed as mer­cu­rial, a re­flec­tion of his con­ser­va­tive be­lief sys­tem, a com­mit­ment to the cul­ture of English law, and an op­por­tunis­tic streak in his char­ac­ter … Field’s coun­sel was not in­vari­ably sound or in keep­ing with the Colo­nial Of­fice’s un­der­stand­ing of the le­gal pro­pri­eties.

And yet, and yet … de­spite such con­tin­ued bad press, Field was clearly not with­out cer­tain im­pres­sive en­dow­ments. He was a di­rect de­scen­dant of Oliver Cromwell, a fact of which he was ex­ceed­ingly proud. He had pub­lished the self-con­fessed first anal­y­sis of Black­stone’s Com­men­taries, aimed at law stu­dents, and it went into many edi­tions through the 19th cen­tury. He was the­atre critic for The Times. He was friends with the great English Ro­man­tic crit­ics Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt, as well as an afi­cionado of the Ro­man­tic po­ets, es­pe­cially Wil­liam Wordsworth, of whom Field at­tempted a bi­og­ra­phy. The pub­li­ca­tion of the lat­ter was, sadly for Field, ve­toed by Wordsworth him­self in 1840. De­spite this set­back, Field, who was a life­long en­thu­si­ast for El­iz­a­bethan and Ja­cobean lit­er­a­ture, pre­pared edi­tions of Thomas Hey­wood and Thomas Legge for the Shake­speare So­ci­ety. Lamb in par­tic­u­lar seems to have had a real ad­mi­ra­tion for and friend­ship with Field. He re­viewed First Fruits for the rad­i­cal in­tel­lec­tual jour­nal The Ex­am­iner in 1820, be­fore ded­i­cat­ing one of his most cel­e­brated es­says, “Dis­tant Cor­re­spon­dents”, to the lawyer-poet in The Lon­don Mag­a­zine in 1822. He also in­formed Field of the es­teem that Wordsworth and Co­leridge had ap­par­ently shown for Field’s poem “The Kan­ga­roo”.

Field clearly felt his verses were wor­thy of at­ten­tion. The first edi­tion of First Fruits in 1819, printed by Ge­orge Howe in Syd­ney, and with the leg­end “Printed for Pri­vate Dis­tri­bu­tion” on the ti­tle page, con­tained two po­ems, “Botany-Bay Flow­ers” and “The Kan­ga­roo”. In 1823, Field pub­lished a sec­ond, re­vised and ex­panded, edi­tion, which added fur­ther ap­pa­ra­tus, as well as four fur­ther po­ems. Fi­nally, in 1825, Field reprinted the po­ems as an “Ap­pendix” to Geo­graph­i­cal Mem­oirs on New South Wales; By Var­i­ous Hands, a col­lec­tion he edited, where they sit rather oddly with the jour­nal en­tries and me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal charts, the botan­i­cal de­scrip­tions and the im­pe­ri­al­ist opin­ion­at­ing.

It has to be ad­mit­ted that the po­ems are pretty weird. Wreathed about with an ever-ac­cret­ing and of­ten­mys­ti­fy­ing ap­pa­ra­tus of epigraphs and eru­di­tion, their sub­jects are strange, their rhythms er­ratic, and much of their mat­ter is fla­grantly pla­gia­rised. “Botany-Bay Flow­ers”, for ex­am­ple, is an ex­tra­or­di­nary pas­tiche of Shake­speare, Mil­ton and Wordsworth (and many more) in which Field tells a tale of an­tipodean botan­i­cal adul­tery: he mar­ries one flower, only to be se­duced by an­other. As for “The Kan­ga­roo”, let me quote the first stanza:

KAN­GA­ROO! Kan­ga­roo!

Thou spirit of Aus­tralia,

That re­deems from ut­ter fail­ure,

From per­fect deso­la­tion,

And war­rants the cre­ation

Of this fifth part of the Earth,

Which should seem an after-birth,

Not con­ceiv’d in the Be­gin­ning

(For God bless’d His work at first,

And saw that it was good),

But emerg’d at the first sin­ning,

When the ground was there­fore curst; — And hence this bar­ren wood!

What­ever your feel­ings about their value, it’s dif­fi­cult to miss the strong satir­i­cal streak of these jaunty lines, along with Field’s ev­i­dent pre­pared­ness to pun on his own name and per­son. But it’s also sig­nif­i­cant that Field is us­ing words that, how­ever straight­for­ward they seem to­day, weren’t so at the time. In 1819, there was as yet – per­haps most no­tably – no coun­try called “Aus­tralia”. There was the colony of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, yes, and the name of Terra Aus­tralis was an an­cient one in Europe. Gover­nor Mac­quarie had started to use the name in of­fi­cial cor­re­spon­dence in 1817, fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of Matthew Flin­ders’ jour­nals a few years pre­vi­ously, but most peo­ple were still re­fer­ring to the land­mass as “New Hol­land”. As David Brooks re­marks in The Kenyon Re­view, “Field’s use of the term ‘Aus­tralia’ … is ar­guably the first in po­etry any­where.” In fact, Field uses the name through­out First Fruits, strew­ing his text with nom­i­nal and ad­jec­ti­val vari­a­tions, even pre­pos­ter­ously rhyming it with “fail­ure” and “re­galia”.

With all this pla­giary and play­ful­ness about, cou­pled with the ex­plicit colo­nial at­ti­tu­din­is­ing, it’s no won­der that the last few decades have seen a strong re­viv­i­fi­ca­tion of in­ter­est in Field’s work, par­tic­u­larly among post­mod­ern and post­colo­nial crit­ics. Many em­i­nent Aus­tralian writ­ers and aca­demics – in­clud­ing A.D. Cousins, Michael Far­rell and David Hig­gins – have con­trib­uted im­por­tant pieces on Field. As Jaya Sav­ige notes in his in­tro­duc­tion to a spe­cial Aus­tralian edi­tion of the pres­ti­gious jour­nal Po­etry, “To twenty-first-cen­tury eyes, Field’s ‘thefts’ be­tray a po­et­ics of ap­pro­pri­a­tion and ci­ta­tion that wouldn’t look en­tirely out of place in a Ken­neth Gold­smith class.” Yet none of the crit­ics so far has asked the ques­tion: why is First Fruits called First Fruits? This might seem so ob­vi­ous it’s not worth ask­ing: Field knew that he was pub­lish­ing the first book of po­etry on Aus­tralian soil, and was pompously be­labour­ing this fact in the ti­tle, a fact sup­ported by a num­ber of fea­tures in the book.

Fur­ther­more, the in­vo­ca­tion of fruits is alert­ing us to the satir­i­cal na­ture of the po­ems: one of the (dis­puted) et­y­molo­gies for the word “satire” is linked pre­cisely

to fruit. As the Ox­ford English Dic­tionary in­forms us: “Ac­cord­ing to the [Latin] gram­mar­i­ans satura is short for lanx satura … which is al­leged to have been used for a dish con­tain­ing var­i­ous kinds of fruit.” More­over, if “first fruits” is an id­iomatic ex­pres­sion de­nom­i­nat­ing the ear­li­est re­turns on labour, it is also, more point­edly, a tech­ni­cal term from ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal and feu­dal law. “First fruits”, as Jus­tice Field knew very well from his pro­fes­sional role, is a form of in­come tax to the gover­nor of a ter­ri­tory.

Al­though his Aus­tralian so­journ was brief, residues of Field sub­sist all over the place. Mount Field in Tas­ma­nia is named after him, while Cairn­cross Is­land in the Great Bar­rier Reef takes the maiden name of Field’s wife. Soon after ar­riv­ing in New South Wales, Field had edited Mem­oirs of James Hardy Vaux, fa­mous, among other things, for its in­flu­en­tial dic­tionary of thieves’ cant: “A Vo­cab­u­lary of the Flash Lan­guage”. As a keen ama­teur sci­en­tist, Field ob­served, de­scribed and col­lected a wide range of im­por­tant sci­en­tific and ex­ploratory ma­te­ri­als, much of which was pub­lished in Geo­graph­i­cal Mem­oirs on New South Wales; By Var­i­ous Hands. Due to such labours, Field has, ac­cord­ing to He­len Hew­son in the sci­en­tific plant jour­nal Telo­pea, “two gen­era and one species … named in his hon­our” (Fiel­dia aus­tralis, Fiel­dia lis­sochiloides, and Cas­sia bar­ronfieldii). As if that wasn’t enough, Field was in­te­gral to the es­tab­lish­ment of the colony’s first bank, when, ac­cord­ing to C.H. Cur­rey, he mis­tak­enly ad­vised Gover­nor Mac­quarie that “the gover­nor had power, un­der his com­mis­sion, to grant a char­ter to the Bank of New South Wales”. Es­tab­lished in 1817, this bank is still with us: it was re­named West­pac in 1982. At least one other le­gal judge­ment Field prof­fered in the course of his an­tipodean du­ties would have quite ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­fects upon the sub­se­quent his­tory of Aus­tralia.

In an im­por­tant 2005 com­par­a­tive study of the re­la­tion be­tween colo­nial­ism and law, Stu­art Ban­ner has demon­strated that Field was de­ci­sive in the devel­op­ment of the specif­i­cally Aus­tralian ap­pli­ca­tion of terra nul­lius. One of the abid­ing puz­zles re­gard­ing the cen­tral­ity of this ex­treme doc­trine in Aus­tralia is how it came to be es­tab­lished in the first place. After all, Euro­peans ac­knowl­edged that Indige­nous peo­ples in­hab­ited the land. If the doc­trine had in­deed been pre­vi­ously ap­plied in cer­tain colo­nial cir­cum­stances, by the 18th cen­tury the gen­eral pol­icy was ac­qui­si­tion by forms of treaty and con­tract. Even if the lat­ter were ev­i­dently in­iq­ui­tous, they did not ex­tin­guish the facts of in­hab­i­ta­tion. For Ban­ner, then, at least four fac­tors con­trib­uted to the doc­trine in Aus­tralia: the land was sparsely in­hab­ited, of an­other or­der than other places; the Bri­tish saw no ev­i­dence of Indige­nous cul­ti­va­tion of land; the Indige­nous peo­ples were not a mil­i­tary risk of the same or­der as Amer­i­can or New Zealand peo­ples; and the Indige­nous peo­ples showed no in­ter­est in Euro­pean goods or trade. (Need­less to say, each state­ment now ap­pears highly con­tentious.) Hence, al­though Cap­tain James Cook had ex­pressly been or­dered not to seize land from any in­hab­i­tants, by the 1780s Arthur Phillip was. In such fash­ion, terra nul­lius was al­ready en­acted be­fore it was for­mally de­clared as doc­trine.

How then did terra nul­lius ever come to be de­clared as doc­trine at all? “The first such state­ment,” Ban­ner writes, “ap­pears to have been made in 1819, when a dis­pute arose be­tween Lach­lan Mac­quarie, the gover­nor of New South Wales, and Bar­ron Field, judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court, over whether the Crown, act­ing through Mac­quarie, had the power to im­pose taxes on the res­i­dents of New South Wales, or whether that power was re­served to Par­lia­ment, as was the case with taxes im­posed on res­i­dents of Bri­tain.” Field, in a self-con­scious re­play of Sir Ed­ward Coke’s ob­jec­tions to the use of the Kingly Pre­rog­a­tive by James I – that is, to the very dis­putes that ul­ti­mately led to Cromwell’s vic­tory in the English Revo­lu­tion – came down on the side of Par­lia­ment. If Aus­tralia had in­deed been in­vaded, then Mac­quarie, as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the sov­er­eign, would have had that power, but, for Field, Aus­tralia was freely set­tled, and this was there­fore a par­lia­men­tary mat­ter. Earl Bathurst, sec­re­tary to the colonies, re­ferred the mat­ter to the at­tor­ney and so­lic­i­tor gen­er­als of Great Bri­tain, who ac­corded with Field.

So as far as we know the first for­mal state­ment of terra nul­lius in this coun­try de­rives from a tax dis­pute be­tween the colo­nial gover­nor of the pe­nal colony and the bump­tious supreme jus­tice of that colony.

In com­mon Euro­pean colo­nial think­ing, it was agri­cul­ture that es­tab­lished “a more per­ma­nent prop­erty in the soil” (to quote Black­stone). Field in Geo­graph­i­cal Mem­oirs notes the on­go­ing dis­place­ment of Aus­tralian flora and fauna through the ex­ten­sion of Euro­pean-style agri­cul­ture in the colony, not to men­tion the dis­tress of the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants. Yet it was the agri­cul­tural civil­i­sa­tion and its fruits – taxes – that had pri­macy in Euro­pean law, and Field could hardly have been more at­ten­tive to this fact. Ban­ner’s own com­par­a­tive stud­ies have in­duced him to sug­gest that “where indige­nous peo­ple lacked agri­cul­ture be­fore Euro­pean con­tact … the colo­nial ac­knowl­edge­ment of indige­nous prop­erty rights was weaker or nonex­is­tent”. Let us add, fol­low­ing the work of Bill Gam­mage and Bruce Pas­coe, among oth­ers: agri­cul­ture recog­nis­able to Euro­peans, that is.

At pre­cisely the same mo­ment that Field is strug­gling over the le­git­i­mate grounds of tax­a­tion with Gover­nor Mac­quarie, he pro­duces these po­ems and this

The first for­mal state­ment of terra nul­lius in this coun­try de­rives from a tax dis­pute be­tween the colo­nial gover­nor of the pe­nal colony and the bump­tious supreme jus­tice

book. They barely re­sem­ble the po­etry that he had pre­vi­ously pub­lished in the early 1810s, for ex­am­ple in The Ex­am­iner, nor his only other col­lec­tion, Span­ish Sketches, pub­lished in 1841. I pro­pose that they can be un­der­stood in the con­text of this dis­pute, as if Field wrote them to say, “Fuck you, Mac­quarie, this satire is all the taxes you’re get­ting from me.” After all, the name “Aus­tralia” in Field’s po­etry doesn’t des­ig­nate a sta­ble fi­nan­cial or tax en­tity, but func­tions as an ex­pressly fan­tas­tic name drawn from an old Euro­pean tra­di­tion of satir­i­cal takes on the Great Un­known South­ern Land. In mak­ing his point, Field had to of­fer what has proven to be a most in­iq­ui­tous le­gal fic­tion.

So why re­turn to Field to­day? In an epoch of de­coloni­sa­tion strug­gles glob­ally, where memo­ri­als to such fig­ures as Ce­cil Rhodes, Amer­i­can Civil War sol­diers and, in Aus­tralia, Cap­tain Cook have quite rightly be­come the ob­jects of stren­u­ous con­tes­ta­tion, Field is at best a highly am­biva­lent fig­ure. How­ever, the pol­i­tics of mem­ory and memo­ri­al­i­sa­tion are para­mount even in the most re­con­dite aca­demic re­search. Ev­ery memo­ri­al­i­sa­tion is also in­vari­ably a form of mo­ti­vated for­get­ting; ev­ery memo­ri­al­i­sa­tion re­opens the ques­tion of whether there can be some resti­tu­tion or repa­ra­tion with­out the rep­e­ti­tion of mis­deed.

Field him­self took the ques­tion of memo­ri­als very se­ri­ously. In the sec­ond edi­tion of First Fruits, the newly added po­ems di­rectly pick up a Euro­pean his­tory of memo­ri­al­i­sa­tion dat­ing back to the an­cient Greeks, in or­der to project a po­ten­tial fu­ture of glory for the colony. As a mem­ber of the Philo­soph­i­cal So­ci­ety of Aus­trala­sia, Field was in­stru­men­tal in spon­sor­ing the first memo­rial erected in Botany Bay to Cook and Joseph Banks. Yet at least one of his son­nets, as Chris Healy points out in From the Ru­ins of Colo­nial­ism, “is rare in mak­ing ex­plicit the vi­o­lence of the ini­tial Bri­tish en­coun­ters with Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple and in re­mem­ber­ing that the most ma­te­rial Euro­pean rem­nant of the En­deav­our’s brief stay in Botany Bay was a grave”. What the Euro­peans brought to a lo­cale that they had named pre­cisely for its wild pro­fu­sion of flora was the mark of hu­man death.

In his De­fence of Po­etry, the great Ro­man­tic poet Percy Bysshe Shel­ley re­sound­ingly de­clared that “po­ets are the un­ac­knowl­edged leg­is­la­tors of the world”. This propo­si­tion has per­haps never been so di­rectly true as in Aus­tralia. “Bar­ren field” is a pos­si­ble, if lat­eral, trans­la­tion of one sense of terra nul­lius. It is as such that – un­ac­knowl­edged yet om­nipresent – the lawyer-poet Bar­ron Field lit­er­ally im­posed his name on this land. M

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