University of Tasmania
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Self-serving or acting for the common good? : The independence of George Meredith (1778-1856) in Van Diemen's Land

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posted on 2023-05-28, 13:02 authored by Ward, MA
The period between 1820 and 1850 was one of the most febrile, controversial and dynamic periods in Tasmanian history. It was a time of increased occupation by Europeans, with the consequent escalating clash with the Tasmanian Aboriginal people, bringing about the 'Black War' and the work of George Augustus Robinson. Transportation of convicts to the colony grew and their management evolved from assignment to the probation system until ultimately, the 'Anti-Transportation' movement arose. Institutions such as administrative independence for the colony and a Supreme Court were achieved, and calls for others, such as a free press, trial by jury and a house of assembly, were made periodically by disaffected settlers. In 1821, former Lieutenant of Marines George Meredith arrived into this environment to carve out a new life for himself and his family. He brought with him a desire to be unconfined in his endeavours and to resist any limitation on his advancement, particularly from government. He used the term 'independent' to describe himself in a number of contexts, such as the editorial in his Colonist newspaper that stated '[Meredith's] principles are those of freedom and independence'; another time, he declared himself politically independent. This independence was a manifestation of a broader, self-serving attitude that drove him to publicly campaign on all the issues named above. According to his rhetoric, these campaigns were for the colonists' benefit, the 'common good', but on closer examination are found to have been waged by Meredith primarily for his own, self-serving advancement. Meredith had a positive relationship with his first Lieutenant-Governor, William Sorell, who accommodated the settler's free-wheeling ways, especially in his accumulation of land, prized by Meredith above all. On the other hand, the punctilious and authoritarian George Arthur, leading the newly independent colony (which came about after the Meredith-led independence campaign), restricted Meredith's ability to do as he pleased. The settler soon began a war of attrition against him, fought out both in letters and in public campaigns, designed to weaken the Lieutenant-Governor's rule. Each inflicted wounds on the other, but Arthur maintained the upper hand. This thesis, by close examination of abundant primary sources, including many hundreds of George Meredith's letters to his family, government, business associates and friends, presents a first biography of Meredith from his birth in Birmingham in 1788 to his death in Swansea in 1856, the year Tasmania became a self-governing colony. It examines his involvement in the press, socio-political campaigns, whaling, agriculture, his relationships with his family and interactions with Aboriginal people and bushrangers, all put into context by discussion and analysis of historical and thematic literature published from the 1830s to the present. The popular construction of Meredith as only an 'extirpationist' of the indigenous people is punctured by this thesis and it will demonstrate that he was more central to many of the campaigns for socio-political change than he has been given credit for. In other campaigns, where he had lesser impact, it is argued that he held back because he was unable to drive his personal agenda. The thesis adds to the knowledge and understanding of Tasmanian history during a crucial period and challenges some interpretations that have found their way into the literature. Meredith's personal letters comprise an extraordinary record of his love and passion for his wife and the analysis of these letters here will add to the literature on colonial family relationships and epistolary studies in general. Meredith's legacy survives in Tasmania's social, political, cultural and built environment to an extent and breadth that few other settlers of the period can lay claim to.


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