Beyond the bunyip aristocracy
IPA REVIEW ARTICLE
Richard Allsop reviews William Charles Wentworth: Australia's greatest native son by Andrew Tink (Allen & Unwin, 2009, 332 pages)
When John Brogden was forced to quit as Leader of the NSW Liberal Party in 2005, John Howard apparently wanted Andrew Tink to run for the position. Tink chose not to and, the following year, announced that he would not recontest his seat at the 2007 State Election, thus ending a 19 year parliamentary career.
On quitting politics, Tink commented that ‘I've got a fascination for historical biography and (I) really want to devote a bit of time into getting stuck into that as something totally different, but something that is nevertheless intellectually challenging'.
While there is often public scepticism about politicians and their promises, Tink kept his. The passion he brought to his new craft is manifested, not only through the quality of his recently published biography of W.C. Wentworth, but also because his commitment to its completion meant he ignored symptoms of health problems and delayed visiting the doctor. He has now been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer.
Tink says that he ‘didn't want to try to write a book and go through chemo at the same time because I didn't think I could put everything into the book... so I ignored the symptoms, although I suspected I knew what they were.' At least Tink has the consolation that it was important work which delayed his visit to the doctor.
It is actually remarkable, given the sheer range and colour of Wentworth's life, that no one has undertaken the task of a full-length biography before now. Not that Wentworth has been left out of the historical narrative. He, of course, featured prominently in the early volumes of Manning Clark's six-volume History of Australia. Indeed, it was Clark who described Wentworth as ‘Australia's greatest native son', a subtitle appended to this work perhaps more for marketing aims, rather than historical accuracy. More recently, Wentworth was described and analysed in significant detail in Peter Cochrane's award-winning book, Colonial Ambition, so many readers of Tink's work may have slightly more knowledge of Wentworth than the clichéd memories that he was one of the first three men to cross the Blue Mountains and that he wanted to create a ‘bunyip aristocracy'.
Any study of Wentworth has to grapple with his ambiguous beginnings, as the progeny of a father who was a member of a prominent English family, but who had narrowly avoided conviction for armed robbery, and a mother sentenced to transportation for stealing sheets and clothes from her employer. D'Arcy Wentworth and Catherine Crowley met on board one of the vessels of the Second Fleet, and their very survival was fortuitous, given that their ship, the Neptune, lost 31 per cent of its passengers to illness, the worst record of any convict transport ever to sail to Sydney. Having made it to the starving colony at Sydney Cove, D'Arcy and Catherine were then sent onto Norfolk Island.
Wentworth, ‘the native son' was actually born at sea, in the first half of August, 1790, while his parents were in transit from Sydney to Norfolk Island. Given that the earliest date that the couple could have met was 12 December, 1789 there is some doubt that D'Arcy was the father, but Tink leans to the view that he was, ‘since the only known image of D'Arcy indicates a strong physical resemblance to William and they shared a number of buccaneering character traits'.
Wentworth (known by the surname Crowley until his mother's death in 1800) only spent half a dozen years in Sydney as a child, sandwiched between his infancy on Norfolk Island and a teenage education in the mother country. His next spell in Sydney was highlighted by his crossing of the Blue Mountains with Blaxland and Lawson, but also saw him embroiled in controversy related to the killing of natives on a South Sea Island and contractual problems in relation to obtaining sandalwood from it and being the suspected author of a scurrilous poem about a military commander seen as a threat to Governor Macquarie and his policy of championing ex-convicts.
Wentworth was out of the country from 1816 to 1824, but New South Wales was clearly still on his mind as he not only proposed to marry John Macarthur's daughter, but also made his political agenda clear in a book (‘the first by an Australian-born author ever to be published') he wrote while in London. The book argued in favour of Macquarie's attempts to integrate ex-convicts into the NSW community and railed against ‘exclusives' who wanted ‘to convert the ignominy of the great body of the people into a hereditary deformity'.
Returning to NSW he put his rhetoric into action, pursuing twin careers as a barrister and newspaper publisher, both of which saw Wentworth at the forefront of public life in the colony. He pushed for freedom of the press, trial by jury and at least semi-democratic institutions. The newspaper he and his colleague Robert Wardell produced was The Australian and to celebrate one year of publication it boasted that ‘the first authors of The Australian will be referred to as the founders of liberal politics in the colony'. Considering the word ‘liberal' had only been coined in Cadiz in 1812, its arrival in Sydney by 1825 was quite an achievement.
While Wentworth and Wardell were colleagues in the newspaper, they were often opposed to each other in cases in the law courts of the colony. One of these was to have a major impact on Wentworth's personal life when he took on a breach of promise case for Francis Cox, whose daughter, Sarah, had been misled by one John Payne. By the time Francis Cox was awarded £100 damages, his daughter and his barrister were lovers.
The relationship between Wentworth and Cox produced ten children, the first three out of wedlock, and for years she was precluded from entering polite Sydney society. Eventually, feelings softened, leaving her son-in-law one of the last of the prigs who refused to have dealings with her.
By the late 1830s Wentworth's career was seen to be at an end with a comment in the newspaper that ‘his day is gone by... his opinion is worth nothing'. It was not as if Wentworth was completely inactive; in this period he attempted to buy the South Island of New Zealand. However, when an elected Legislative Council was inaugurated in 1843 Wentworth was there, becoming effectively the Leader of the Opposition.
Despite representing Sydney he argued against greater representation for the city, not liking its propensity for radical democratic ideas and behaviour. He strongly supported the squattocracy, of which he himself was a member. He was also a protectionist, none of which made him a great successor to the liberals of the 1820s. The one area where he was consistent was in wanting rule by his class of the NSW born-currency lads made good should be able prosper economically and run the place politically.
Tink recognises both the strengths and weaknesses of his subject. He recognises both Wentworth's historical importance and his personal flaws:
Like so many other historical figures, the driven personality that impelled Wentworth to great things was matched by utterly obnoxious behaviour. So often his intelligence, energy and courage were offset by his intolerant, loud and self-serving ways.
Tink's severest criticism of Wentworth is of his attitudes to Aborigines, but balances that with praise for his tolerance of others who were often the victims of discrimination such as the Jewish community. When Wentworth died in 1873 he received the first state funeral in Australia. The day was declared a public holiday and 70,000 lined the route from the city to Vaucluse to see the funeral possession pass. There was some irony both in the fact that the service was held in a church when Wentworth despised organised religion and that so may Sydneysiders turned out when Wentworth had often supported the interests of squatters against the urban population.
Politicians often make good political biographers, even when writing about different eras, they tend to appreciate that politicians can be strange mixtures of principle and pragmatism, and that often those who make an impact have significant personal failings.
While Tink's Wentworth may not quite be in the class of William Hague's biography of Pitt the Younger, it does significantly add to our understanding of an important Australian.