The bump­tious Lord we have to thank for Syd­ney

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

BORN in London on Fe­bru­ary 24, 1733, ed­u­cated at Eton and Clare Hall, Cam­bridge, and elected un­op­posed for the fam­ily seat of Whitchurch, Tommy Town­shend en­tered the House of Com­mons when he was just 21.

At 49 he be­came sec­re­tary of state for home af­fairs with min­is­te­rial re­spon­si­bil­ity for the peace ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Amer­i­cans. Although he had expressed some sym­pa­thy for the re­bel­lious Amer­i­cans dur­ing their war of in­de­pen­dence, as a ne­go­tia­tor he held fast to what he per­ceived to be Bri­tish in­ter­ests, es­pe­cially in what is now Canada.

Phys­i­cally beefy and com­bat­ive and de­ter­mined, in many ways Town­shend was a fig­ure re­sem­bling the leg­endary John Bull: full of bump­tious self-con­fi­dence and an un­ceas­ing will to serve his coun­try. In­deed, when it came to pro­mot­ing his own and Eng­land’s in­ter­ests, he was ex­tremely pushy and hard­work­ing.

These days, Lord Syd­ney, as the ram­bunc­tious Town­shend be­came in March 1783, is best known by the two cities named af­ter him: the Syd­neys of Nova Sco­tia and NSW.

In­trigu­ingly, although he slightly changed the spell­ing, Town­shend chose for his barony the name Syd­ney. This was in mem­ory of his dis­tant rel­a­tive, the in­flu­en­tial po­lit­i­cal rebel Al­ger­non Sid­ney, who, as An­drew Tink writes, was be­headed in 1683 for ‘‘ pros­e­lytis­ing that the peo­ple of Eng­land . . . may change or take away kings’’.

In fact, the am­bi­tious Lord Syd­ney never set foot in Australia. But what he did do, as Tink use­fully ex­plains, was in 1786 se­lect Cap­tain Arthur Phillip to be the first gov­er­nor of the con­vict colony of New South Wales. In part, this was be­cause Syd­ney had been deeply im­pressed by Phillips’s pre­vi­ous work in the Royal Navy as a part-time spy col­lect­ing in­tel­li­gence, es­pe­cially about the French.

Although the first lord of the Ad­mi­ralty made it clear he would not have cho­sen Phillip, Syd­ney never doubted that he had made the cor­rect decision. In­deed by 1784, as Tink puts it, he al­ready knew ‘‘ that Phillip was one of the most tal­ented and ver­sa­tile of­fi­cers ever to wear a Royal Navy uni­form’’.

Hence Lord Syd­ney, as sec­re­tary of state

psy­cho­log­i­cally for home af­fairs, in­structed Bri­tish Trea­sury and other rel­e­vant of­fi­cials to pro­vide for the so-called First Fleet. He put it thus: ‘‘ I sig­nify to your Lord­ships His Majesty’s Plea­sure, that you do forth­with take such Mea­sures as may be nec­es­sary for pro­vid­ing a proper num­ber of ves­sels for the con­veyance of 750 Con­victs to Botany Bay.’’

In what proved to be sage ad­vice, Lord Syd­ney also in­structed Phillip that, should Botany Bay not mea­sure up to ex­pec­ta­tions, he could choose an­other site for the colony, which in­deed he did.

On Jan­uary 23, 1788, Phillip named Syd­ney Cove, around which the city of Syd­ney later grew, in hon­our of his great sup­porter. ‘‘ It has the best spring of water. And ships,’’ Phillip pre­sciently wrote, ‘‘ can an­chor so close to the shore that, at a very small ex­pense, quays may be made at which the largest ships may un­load.’’

As this fine bi­og­ra­phy makes clear, Lord Syd­ney’s faith in Phillip was am­ply vin­di­cated.

Ac­com­pa­nied by the Abo­rig­ine Ben­ne­long, whom he had orig­i­nally kid­napped in De­cem­ber 1789 so he could learn the na­tive lan­guage, Phillip ar­rived back in Eng­land in May 1793. Af­ter be­ing pre­sented to King Ge­orge III, Ben­ne­long spent con­sid­er­able time with Lord Syd­ney and his fam­ily be­fore re­turn­ing to Syd­ney Cove in 1795. As Tink ex­plains, ‘‘ Ben­ne­long was the first Aus­tralian­born adult to make this re­turn trip’’.

Although by no means ex­hil­a­rat­ing, Tink’s prose style is ser­vice­able and solid, and the re­search that un­der­pins this first full-length bi­og­ra­phy of Lord Syd­ney is ex­em­plary. What is par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nat­ing about this book is the way in which Tink doc­u­ments how, af­ter the war of in­de­pen­dence, the Bri­tish had no choice but to halt the trans­porta­tion of con­victs to Amer­ica. In­stead, the gov­ern­ment in Eng­land had de­cided to con­fine them in shi­phulks moored on the Thames.

By 1779 one-quar­ter of Bri­tish con­victs were dy­ing in cramped and filthy con­di­tions. It was up to Town­shend, as home sec­re­tary, to solve the press­ing prob­lem as to where to send the in­creas­ing num­ber of felons housed in the hulks and in the crowded county jails.

Soon re­al­is­ing that Africa was quite un­suit­able for trans­port­ing large num­bers of con­victs, he de­cided on New South Wales. Although, at the time, Lord Syd­ney’s decision to send con­victs to the An­tipodes, un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Phillip, was ridiculed by many, it is now hard to deny that he made the right choice. Ross Fitzger­ald is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of his­tory and pol­i­tics at Grif­fith Univer­sity and the au­thor of 35 books.

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