BIGGE, John Thomas (1780-1843)

BIGGE, John Thomas (1780-1843)
judge and king's commissioner
was the second son of Thomas Charles Bigge. He was born in Northumberland, England, in 1780 and educated at Newcastle Grammar School, Westminster School, London, and Christ Church Oxford. He graduated B.A. in 1801: M.A. in 1804, and was called to the bar in 1806. After practising as a barrister for some years he was made chief justice of Trinidad in the West Indies, and after his return to England in 1818 was appointed a commissioner to inquire into the state of New South Wales. He left England on 30 April 1819 and arrived at Sydney on 26 September.
The powers given to Bigge were very wide, and it was inevitable that he should come into conflict with Governor Macquarie (q.v.). Macquarie had received instructions that he must adopt any alterations or improvements Bigge might suggest, the only alternative being that should he take upon himself the "heavy responsibility of declining to accept his suggestions, you will communicate to me without delay the reasons for your refusal for the special consideration and decision of His Royal Highness". An early clash took place when Macquarie insisted on appointing Dr Redfern as a magistrate in spite of Bigge's strongly expressed disapproval. In due course a dispatch from Lord Bathurst, while giving full credit to Macquarie's motives, directed that Redfern should be removed from the magistracy. A second source of trouble arose when Macquarie sent a questionnaire to the magistrates and chaplains in New South Wales desiring them to express their opinions on the improvements that had taken place during the governor's administration. Bigge naturally felt that this was an interference with his duties as a commissioner. In February 1820 Bigge went to Hobart and soon established harmonious relations with Lieutenant-governor Sorell (q.v.). He spent six weeks in the south of the island and then, accompanied by Sorell, went north to Port Dalrymple, going most thoroughly into the problems he had to deal with. He returned from Tasmania, arrived at Sydney on 4 June, and resumed his inquiries in New South Wales. He left Sydney for England on 14 February 1821 and the first part of his "Report of the Commissioner of Inquiry into the State of the Colony of New South Wales", dated 6 May 1822, was ordered by the house of commons to be printed on 19 June. The second report "On the judicial Establishments of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land", and the third "On the State of Agriculture and Trade in the Colony of New South Wales" were both ordered to be printed on 4 July 1823. Macquarie's term as governor came to an end in November 1821 and the carrying out of the recommendations was left to his successor Sir Thomas Brisbane (q.v.).
In July 1822 Bigge was appointed a joint commissioner with Major W. M. G. Colebrooke to inquire into the state of the colonies of the Cape of Good Hope, Mauritius and Ceylon. The reports of these gentlemen were of an exhaustive and conscientious nature and were not completed until 1831. Bigge was afterwards in ill-health from the effects of a fall from his horse, and he died in the year 1843.
Bigge's reports were extremely valuable. He came into conflict with Macquarie largely because the views of the English authorities and those of Macquarie were completely opposed. In England the theory that crime could be cured by severity of punishment still held sway, but Macquarie had come into close contact with convicts and found that kindness and the giving of better opportunities were often more effective. Macquarie too had vision and could foresee that Australia might emerge into something much more important than a mere convict settlement. But he had the defects of his qualities, and it is interesting to find in Bigge's first report that he found much less to criticize in Sorell's work than in Macquarie's. However blighting the effects of Bigge's report may have appeared it must be remembered that he was bound by the terms of his commission, and he should be given full credit for the admirable work he did within its limitations.
Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. X, XI; R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol. II; G. M. Theal, History of South Africa, vol. I, 4th ed., p. 397; Marion Phillips, A Colonial Autocracy; J. Dennis, Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. XXIII, pp. 411-72; M. H. Ellis, ibid, vol. XXVII, pp. 93-126. The last two writers both speak strongly in defence of Macquarie.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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