University of Tasmania
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Captain Charles Swanston : 'man of the world' and Van Diemen's Land merchant statesman

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posted on 2023-05-27, 10:07 authored by Robin, ED
For two decades in the development of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), Captain Charles Swanston (1789‚Äöv†v¿1850) was one of the most influential men in Hobart Town. In the time-honoured tradition of the nineteenth century British Empire, he was the very model of a Merchant Statesman, strengthening the link between commercial enterprise and colonial good. Between 1829 and 1850 Swanston was managing director of the renowned Derwent Bank, Member of the Van Diemen's Land Legislative Council, an internationally-recognised entrepreneur and merchant, an instigator of the settlement of Melbourne and the Geelong region and a civic leader. His strategic skills, business acumen, far-sightedness and bold ambition contributed significantly to Van Diemen's Land's transition from an island prison to a free economy. Yet after the Derwent Bank's failure in September 1849 and his mysterious death at sea a year later, Swanston's name faded into the shadows of history. By shining a penetrating light on the colourful life and times of Swanston, this study advances understanding of the role of mercantile ambition in the foundation and growth of the nineteenth century colonies of Tasmania and Victoria. It paints a vivid picture of mercantile networks, endeavours, political aspirations and disappointments. Based on an examination of the voluminous records of the Derwent Bank, family records and other primary sources, it examines Swanston's trajectory from his childhood in the Scottish Borders and service with the 12th and 24th Regiments of the Madras Native Infantry of the Honourable East India Company to his high status in Van Diemen's Land. It illustrates the driving urge of early capitalists to acquire property and how their belief in the unassailable value of land led many, like Swanston, to financial ruin when the severe depression of the 1840s reduced land values to below the level of their mortgages and bank loans. Swanston operated under the administrative regimes of successive Lieutenant-Governors Colonel George Arthur, Sir John Franklin, Sir John Eardley Eardley-Wilmot and Sir William Denison. These were tumultuous times, exacerbated by diminishing internal revenue, increasing numbers of transported convicts, a lack of responsiveness from the Colonial Office in London, the growing desires of settlers and a strident demand for political representation. The despondency that characterised Swanston's last years in Van Diemen's Land occurred during the period that Hobart Town lost its commercial advantage as a port for whaling and trading vessels from around the world and when the broad horizons across Bass Strait beckoned away many ambitious people. While the opportunities of the new lands in Victoria did not save Swanston, he had played a critical role in their settlement, especially in establishing some founding flocks of Victoria's great wool industry. His 1837 prescience that: 'Port Phillip is established and flourishing and cannot fail to be a great Colony' is manifest in the bustling metropolis of Melbourne today. Its central thoroughfare, Swanston Street, perpetuates his name. Swanston was a player in the expanding and volatile world of international capitalism. His biography adds an important chapter to the economic and political history of Australia.


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