University of Tasmania
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Constructing a colonial chief justice: John Lewes Pedder in Van Diemen's Land, 1824-1854

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posted on 2023-05-26, 03:05 authored by Jacqueline FoxJacqueline Fox
Foundation Chief Justice of Van Diemen's Land, Sir John Lewes Pedder (1793-1859) was appointed by the Colonial Office to administer English law in the colony from 1824. As an official member of the Executive and Legislative Councils, he also provided policy advice and certified local legislation. Until his retirement in 1854, Pedder was a central figure in the colonial administration and settler community. Contributing to the emerging fields of settler colonial studies and comparative colonial legal history, this thesis situates Pedder within the Anglophone colonial world at a significant period of transition from empire to nation-state. Engaging constructively with Philip Girard's 'window on an age' model for writing the lives of colonial judges, it also broadens the focus from the presentist, professional concerns of conventional judicial biography to a more historically sensitive reading of the archive. Reconstructing Pedder's life-world in the metropolis and the colony reveals how his formative experiences and personal connections shaped his values and professional practices. His repatriation to England in retirement also clearly identifies Pedder as an expatriate professional, rather than a settler-colonist. From this biographically informed base, the thesis contextualises and tests three enduring popular and scholarly constructions of the chief justice: as a 'hanging judge', a puppet of government, and a champion of the Aboriginal people of Van Diemen's Land. Building on a long literary tradition in which frontier judges were recast as judicial murderers, the tabloid press posthumously constructed Pedder as a Tasmanian Judge Jeffreys. Colonial case law and press commentary are used to demonstrate that mandatory sentencing and community expectations of retributive justice gave Pedder little scope for judicial discretion during the dying decade of the 'bloody code'. Inflected by the aspirational rule-of-law rhetoric of settler activists, Pedder's construction as a puppet of government obscures the complex relationships between his judicial, executive and legislative roles. Comparative judicial biography reveals that colonial judges were routinely appointed 'at pleasure' by the imperial executive, and were expected to perform a range of extra-judicial functions. Linking Pedder's experience in Van Diemen's Land to current scholarship in other Anglophone settler polities, this thesis demonstrates that Pedder saw no essential conflict between his duties. Moreover, professional and political conservatism ensured that his primary loyalty was not to settler interests, but to the law and the Crown. Pedder's benevolent construction as a champion of the island's Indigenous inhabitants centres on his 1831 objection to the policy of banishing all survivors of the Black War to the islands of Bass Strait. His concern that the exiles would 'pine away when they found their situation one of hopeless imprisonment' has been read as a rare challenge to the genocidal impulses of settler colonialism. Yet Pedder's faith in the potential for a negotiated settlement to hostilities was underpinned by the assertion of settler sovereignty and the imperative to displace Indigenous people from prescribed zones of the island. Moreover, having facilitated the capital conviction of four Indigenes in the Supreme Court between 1824 and 1826, Pedder's decisive role in the judicial denial of Aboriginal sovereignty is not compatible with his reputation as an Indigenous champion.


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