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“Called from the plough” : the radical journalism of Gilbert Robertson, 1832-1844

posted on 2023-10-13, 01:55 authored by Atkinson-MacEwen, L

Gilbert Robertson, the son of a Scottish sugar planter and a free woman of colour, edited and published two newspapers in Van Diemen’s Land between 1832 and 1844, reporting on the colonial administrations of Lt-Governors Arthur, Franklin, and Eardley-Wilmot. Arthur and the Colonial Office dismissed him as a Radical and the puppet of disaffected settlers, and later historians dismissed him as untruthful and vindictive. The later characterisations of Robertson rest, for the most part, on the false narrative established by Arthur that he was beset by a “Radical” press that was the tool of men who opposed him from personal animosity rather than from any honourable political principle. These accusations reflect the claims made about Radical journalists in Britain in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, a period during which Radicalism was a force in British journalism and in British political and social life.

While Radical discourses and Radical journalism in Britain have been well-documented, no equivalent attempt has been made to analyse the influence of Radical discourses and British Radical journalism on an Australian colonial journalist. This thesis examines Robertson’s journalism using the same methodology used to document Radical discourses in the journalism of British Radicals such as William Cobbett, James Harrington, Thomas Spence, William Hone and Thomas Wooler. The thesis analyses the predominant political, economic, and social issues in Robertson’s journalism between 1832 and 1844, identifying the (primarily) Radical discourses within which the content, frames and tropes of his reporting had its roots.

The thesis demonstrates that Robertson drew on a variety of Radical discourses and techniques to critique the administrations of Arthur and Franklin in particular. Strongly influenced by the Radical discourse of “Old Corruption”, and often using the satirical tropes pioneered by Radicals such as Hone and Wooler, Robertson repeatedly attacked Arthur and his closest advisers for enriching themselves at the expense of the colonists before and after Arthur’s departure from the colony in 1836. Despite repeated prosecutions for criminal libel, Robertson persisted in “speaking truth to power”.

Apart from reporting on corruption and maladministration, Robertson also employed Radical discourses in his campaigns for political representation on the principle of universal male suffrage, and for the abolition of military and special juries. He also drew on the Scottish Radical Covenanter discourse to frame his opposition to attempts by the Anglican clergy to position the Church of England as the only “established” and state-supported church in the colony. His journalism was not, however, wholly negative, as he also used Radical discourses as a means of articulating a positive vision for the colony. Reflecting the ideas and language of Scottish Agrarian Radicalism, Robertson argued for the creation of a self-governing colony with a thriving agrarian economy, occupied by an educated and politically active population of landowners and agricultural workers, free to use their democratic rights to shape the priorities of government for their benefit.

The thesis also examines the way the historiography of the period has dealt with Vandemonian newspapers as sources, and the degree to which that historiography has been influenced by the gubernatorial narratives that characterised Robertson as an unreliable pawn of Arthur’s and Franklin’s opponents. By testing the Robertsonian narrative against the official narrative (and the historiography derived from it), the thesis argues that where the two intersect, Robertson is often the more reliable source. The thesis also demonstrates the degree to which the historiography has been captured by the narratives established by Arthur and Franklin (and Franklin’s opponents). As a result of this narrative capture, Robertson’s criticisms of the integrity of the administrations of Arthur and Franklin have generally been ignored or dismissed.

At the same time there has been an over-reliance in the historiography on a small number of pro-administration colonial newspapers that published articles closely aligned with the gubernatorial narratives. The thesis demonstrates the degree to which the journalism of Robertson’s contemporaries was influenced by powerful men within the colony who provided the financial backing that sustained their newspapers. The thesis concludes that the credible counter-narratives within Robertson’s Radical journalism indicate that much of the history of the administrations of Arthur and Franklin requires significant reassessment.



  • PhD Thesis


ix, 377 pages.


School of Creative Arts and Media


University of Tasmania.

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