ARTHUR, Sir George (1784-1854)

ARTHUR, Sir George (1784-1854)
fourth governor of Tasmania
was born on 21 June 1784, the youngest son of John Arthur and his wife, Catherine, daughter of Thomas Cornish. He joined the army as an ensign in August 1804 and was promoted lieutenant in June 1805. He was on active service in 1806 and 1809 and showed himself a gallant officer. He reached the rank of major on 5 November 1812 and in July 1814 was appointed superintendent of Honduras, which he administered for eight years. He had little power and there were problems in connexion with land tenure and slavery which required careful handling. He ruled with firmness, but signs were not wanting that he could be autocratic, and he developed a habit of writing long dispatches not always notable for understatement. He came into conflict with other officers in the army and one of them, Major Bradley, on being given command of the 2nd West India regiment, considering that he automatically superseded Arthur as commandant, refused to obey his orders, was placed under arrest, and confined from May 1820 to March 1821. He later on brought an action against Arthur which was tried on 30 July 1824 and resulted in his being awarded £100 damages. In the meantime Arthur had left Honduras and had been appointed lieutenant-governor of Tasmania on 2 August 1823.
Arthur arrived at Hobart on 12 May 1824. His predecessor Sorell (q.v.) was able to report to the colonial office "that the Colony of V.D.L. has passed into the charge of my successor in perfect order and tranquility; loyal and grateful to His Majesty's Government; free from faction, and unanimously well affected to the Local Government". Sorell also left a long "Memorandum on the condition of Van Diemen's Land" which must have been of great use to Arthur, and for which he was sincerely grateful. It was realized that the colony was ripe for further development, and a chief justice John Lewes Pedder (q.v.) had been appointed, and had actually arrived at Hobart a few weeks before Arthur. The separation of Tasmania from New South Wales was also contemplated, though it was not formally brought about until the end of 1825. Arthur was anxious to do his best for the colony, but it was unfortunate that he was a man of little vision. To him the island was a huge jail which must be kept in proper order. He does not appear to have been interested in the political rights of the free settlers, nor to have realized how important would be the expansion of colonization in the next few years. Much power was vested in him. He could issue land grants, had full power over the finances of the colony, and could communicate direct with the colonial office. He gave serious study to the problems of his government and on 27 October 1824 in a dispatch to Earl Bathurst stated that he proposed appointing Jocelyn Thomas to be colonial treasurer. Serious deficiencies were found at the treasury and Arthur must be given full credit for his reform of the finances. He, however, early came into conflict with some of the merchants in connexion with this and was indefensibly autocratic in dealing with Andrew Bent (q.v.), the proprietor of the Hobart Town Gazette, which had adversely criticized his administration. This struggle with the press was carried on at intervals during the whole of Arthur's administration. Another stout fighter for the freedom of the press was W. L. Murray who on one occasion at least gave Arthur advice which might well have been taken when he urged the governor to mix more with the people, to know for himself, and to understand their wants and their interests. On 24 November 1825 Lieutenant-general Darling (q.v.) arrived at Hobart on his way to assume the governorship of New South Wales. He brought with him the order in council creating Tasmania a separate colony which he proclaimed on 3 December, legislative and executive councils being also appointed. These acts marked a distinct step in the development of Tasmania, but there had been a recurrence of bushranging which Arthur suggested was largely due to the evil effects of a "licentious press". The colony was divided into military districts, the settlers co-operated with the military, and the worst offenders were captured and executed. In 1827 five stipendiary magistrates were appointed, with a large number of unpaid, and gradually a civil service was built up to carry out the business of the country. "Coercive measures," wrote Arthur, "must be bounded by humanity; if they are not, the criminals are driven into a state of mind bordering upon desperation." He issued other instructions with regard to convicts that were equally admirable, but unfortunately were largely disregarded and many convicts were treated with great brutality. Tickets of leave and pardons were the rewards of consistent good behaviour, and ticket-of-leave men were permitted to acquire property; but the tickets could be withdrawn on the committal of further misconduct. Gradually crime decreased, and Arthur shares the credit for bringing this about. He was, however, out of sympathy with the anti-transportation movement, and helped to preserve the system for some time. He believed that transportation "was more desirable than any other mode of punishment—it will at once relieve England of the depraved individual, and, in a great majority of cases, effect a reformation of his character".
Another problem of the period was the conflict between the aborigines and the settlers. Arthur's method of dealing with it, known as the Black War, was costly and ineffective, but even the milder methods of later days could not preserve the native race. Towards the end of the governor's period a movement of great importance took place when bodies of settlers headed by Fawkner (q.v.) and Batman (q.v.) migrated to the mainland and founded Melbourne. This movement was, however, in no way encouraged by Arthur, whose governorship terminated on 30 October 1836, after a period of rule longer than that of any other Australian governor.
In December 1837 Arthur was appointed lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada where he dealt sternly with the rebellion that had broken out. He opposed administrative reforms and became as unpopular as he had been in Tasmania. He administered the government with ability until his return to England in 1841 where he was created a baronet on 5 June. On 8 June 1842 he assumed office as governor of Bombay and found himself in a difficult position. The greater part of the army in Afghanistan had been lost but Arthur handled the campaign with firmness, Kabul was reoccupied, Jalalabad relieved, and Afghanistan was evacuated without complete loss of prestige. He again showed administrative ability in dealing with agricultural problems, and was nominated to succeed Lord Hardinge as governor-general of India. He, however, resigned in 1846 on account of ill health and returned to England where he was made a member of the privy council. He was advanced to the rank of lieutenant-general in 1854, and died at London on 19 September of that year. He married in May 1814 Eliza Orde Usher, daughter of Sir John Frederick Sigismund Smith, who survived him. There were seven sons and five daughters of the marriage. Arthur published two volumes, Observations upon Secondary Punishments (1833), and Defence of Transportation (1835).
Arthur was a man of medium height, autocratic, humourless and narrow-minded. He was, however, a hard worker with a talent for administration, and though his system of dealing with the convicts in Tasmania was not a success, he did maintain order and discipline. No doubt he intended that the prisoners should be treated with both firmness and kindness, but in a brutal age it was difficult to find subordinates with both these qualities. He was unpopular with the settlers because he was little interested in their point of view, and was too much inclined to think that anyone who disagreed with him was a subversive person dangerous to the state. He made a large fortune by transactions in real estate in the colony, but his character has never been attacked on that account. His personal life was above reproach and it has been said that wherever he went ribaldry and drunkenness vanished. His dispatches did not always do justice to people with whom he had come in conflict, but that was because he saw so clearly the merits of his own case, that he could not understand how there could be any in that of his opponents. A hard well-intentioned man in a hard time he did his duty as he saw it, and in spite of complaints never lost the confidence of the British government, which steadily advanced him from one important post to another throughout his life.
The Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 125; J. Fenton, A History of Tasmania; R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol. 11; The Historical Records of Australia, ser. III, vol. IV; W. D. Forsyth, Governor Arthur's Convict System. See also Historical Records of Australia, ser. I and III for the period 1824-36, and J. W. Beattie, Glimpses of the Lives and Times of the Early Tasmanian Governors.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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