EJANZH: Neville on Whitaker

Anne-Maree Whitaker, Distracted Settlement: New South Wales after Bligh: from the Journal of Lieutenant James Finucane, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Press, 1998. hb $45.00

Anyone who has researched the early period of colonisation will know how few personal journals and series of letter survive. While the First Fleet encouraged a number of diarists (of varying degrees of perceptiveness), those who followed seem not to have been concerned with consistently recording the history of their times, or even keeping a simplenarrative of their personal experiences. The bulk of surviving correspondence from the period is comprised of official communications, or private letters written for public consumption. Indeed, the rarity of private writings is indicated by the price the State Library of NSW recently paid for the George Bass and Henry Waterhouse correspondence.

The publication of James Finucane’s journal is therefore an important addition to colonial historiography, and in particular to the period between the overthrow of Governor Bligh on 26 January 1808 and Governor Macquarie’s assumption of power 1 January 1810. In the journal Finucane records his voyage to NSW from England, his time in the colony, and then his return trip via New Zealand. The journal -the original of which is in the National Library of Ireland – has been available for years as a microfilm copy on the much neglected Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) series. Part of the problem with the AJCP, and the subsequent reluctance of people to use it, is that is cumbersome to use. This is something Anne-Maree Whitaker’s and Miegunyah Press’s handsome edition cannot be accused of.

Irish-born, James Finucane was a professional soldier who purchased a lieutenancy in the New South Wales Corp in December 1807, and effectively became private secretary to Lieutenant Governor Foveaux. Foveaux arrived in Sydney on 28 July 1808 to find that Governor Bligh had been deposed. Bligh asked Foveaux to restore him to government, but Foveaux sensibly declined and assumed command himself.

Finucane, whose memorable description of the colony as a ‘distracted settlement’ has been chosen as the title of this edition, fully supported his commander’s decision. He summarised the rebels’ position thus: “In short, that the rapid accumulation of wealth by the plunder, oppression and ruin of the unfortunate colonists was the object of his [Bligh’s] unceasing exertions.” (p.55) His verdict could also double as a neat encapsulation of the accusations Bligh levelled at his opponents. Finucane preferred not to take sides on the question of Bligh’s alleged tyranny and extravagance, through he did note that Blighton (Bligh’s own Hawkesbury River estate) did not appear to have benefited from the largesse of public monies which Lt. Colonel Johnston accused the Governor of lavishing on it (p.81).

Finucane was, however, highly critical of Bligh’s behaviour and temper, in this perhaps reflecting his commander’s attitudes. One significant component of Foveaux’s decision not to reinstate Bligh was “the notoriety of Mr Bligh’s violent temper …” (p.55). Indeed for both men it was, in Greg Dening’s apt expression “Mr Bligh’s bad language”, which made his command so dangerous. Foveaux felt that he simply could not have re-instated Bligh. The Governor’s personality had generated circumstances which made it impossible.

Most damning in Finucane’s eyes was that Bligh did not act like a gentleman of his rank and profession. Finucane personally arranged the scheme whereby Bligh was allowed to return to England on the Porpoise on the condition that he did not visit or land at any part of the territories of the colony. “Nothing”, wrote Finucane, “can be more binding than the engagement he has entered into. If he breaks it he must be devoid of every sentiment of honor, and destitute of every principle that should actuate the mind of an officer and a gentleman.” (p.77). Contrary to his solemn promises, Bligh set sail for Tasmania where he hoped to wait out his eventual re-instatement.

Bligh justified his action on the grounds that the promises were made with an illegal administration. Yet Bligh’s pride could at times be obtusely and stupidly invoked. His refusal to dine with Mrs Paterson (the newly widowed wife of the ineffective Lt. Governor of NSW) in Rio de Janeiro “has tended”, Finucane recorded, “not a little to confirm the low estimation in which he was already held” (p.123). Whatever his seamanship, Bligh’s political and personal skills were negligible.

Yet as much as the rebellion could be attributed to Bligh’s bad language, it could be equally laid at the feet of John Macarthur. Macarthur’s similarly explosive pride and irrational interpretation of circumstances diminished his ability to exercise his considerable talents. Foveaux felt Macarthur’s madness when challenged by him to a duel when “piqued”, says Finucane, “at not being director of the affairs of the Colony as he was under the nominal government of Col. Johnston” (p.73). Finucane was Foveaux’s second and witness to the duel which ended harmlessly when Macarthur missed his apparently corpulent target, and Foveaux declined to offer a shot.

In certain respects Finucane’s journal is frustratingly oblique. While its principle theme whilst in NSW in the administration of Foveaux, one wishes for more personal responses to his situation in the colony. While his shipboard experiences are often daily recorded, and brief stopovers in Rio de Janeiro are full of detail, his eighteen months in NSW were only broadly sketched. The landscape, the flora and fauna, Aboriginal people, Sydney society, Sydney town all appear to pass largely unnoticed.

At the end of his voyage Finuncane vowed to never again stray out of the northern hemisphere. However, he says little about why living in New South Wales provoked such an emphatic judgment. It is clear that he missed his family and friends and he found little in the “sterile” colony which impressed him. Parramatta is dismissed as one street lined with miserable wooden huts and derelict public buildings. Toongabbie consisted of a dozen wood hovels. He notes Simeon Lord’s Sydney residence was reputed to have cost 10,000 pounds and “would be an ornament to the most fashionable square in London” (p.89). However, the public roads were in dreadful shape, and floods on the Hawkesbury River – which he witnessed twice – threatened to destroy the public food supply and plunge the colony into famine.

Of the landscape he writes “… there is no variety whatever in its appearance. There are few extensive views, as the thickness of the forrest [sic] precludes every prospect, and the trees and shrubs, majestic and fragrant as they may be, soon cease from their endless continuance, to be at all interesting” (p.62). He only makes one passing reference to Aboriginal people whilst he is in NSW. It is a great pity, too, that not more of his art has survived. His only extant drawing is a portrait of the New Zealand chief Te Pahi (Mitchell Library) which he made when Te Pahi was in Sydney in 1808. Its competence suggests that other examples of his work could be very interesting.

To draw wider conclusions about the subtexts of this apparently uninquisitive diarist is hardly prudent without a good deal more work on the genre as a whole, and the author as an individual, but it is worth speculating on why so many early colonial chroniclers could be such poor observers. Finucane’s own inquisitiveness is in part determined by his experiences, and the intensity of his journal picks up once he leaves his post as a NSW bureaucrat and sails for New Zealand. Indeed, Whitaker notes that twenty four pages of his journal are given to his five days in the Bay of Islands, as opposed to fifty six for his eighteen months in NSW.

Whereas his record of his time in NSW principally describes the administration of the colony, in New Zealand he can write about the retaliatory raid he laid against his former portrait subject Te Pahi and his tribe for their alleged (but disputed) involvement in the massacre of the crew and passengers of the ship the Boyd. Finucane led the attack on Te Pahi’s island home, and laid waste to it, blandly writing, “We soon cleared the island of its inhabitants” (p.99). In Finucane’s mind, Te Pahi’s guilt was evident and the summary attack and execution of Maori was not even questioned. The Boyd incident became a symbol of native treachery in Europe, and the subject of considerable popular attention. The savagery of both Maori and Europeans – neither were without blame in this vicious tragedy – epitomizes the violence and lack of understanding of colonial encounters.

Part of Finucane’s fear of Maori was derived from their physically confronting presence: “The New Zealanders are a most treacherous and ferocious race. They are of Herculean dimensions and strength … They have all the filthy habits and propensities of the New Hollanders without the harmless and inoffensive disposition, or any other of the good qualities which characterize the latter” (p.103). Yet – like many of his contemporaries – he saw New Zealand as a much more fertile, and potentially more profitable, than that “sterile colony” of NSW provided the Maori could be subdued.

Finucane’s journal is a typical account of colonial experience. It is not the work of a great observer, but it does offer an unparalleled account of a crucial period of NSW history little recorded elsewhere apart from the partisan accounts of its principal protagonists. Anne-Maree Whitaker’s provides a perceptive and useful introduction to the nuances of the text, helping to tease out the undercurrents of Finucane’s journal. She also provides biographical – much previously unpublished – detail about Finucane and Foveaux. The journal footnotes, however, could have benefited from being a little more expansive and contextual.

Distracted Settlement offers a rare account of colonial society. It is both a narrative of Finucane’s experiences – as random and as frustratingly incomplete as they sometimes are – and an insight into the processes of colonisation. Like all Miegunyah Press publications Distracted settlement is a beautifully presented volume, with sympathetic, unobtrusive editing by Whitaker. One can only hope that Miegunyah will continue to publish colonial texts, if only so that we can move away from the repetitious and one dimensional accounts which often pass for early colonial history.