CHAPTER VIII. OUR COLONIES.
If now we turn our eyes a while from the foreign and domestic concerns of Great Britain proper, and look to the Greater Britain beyond the seas, we shall find that its progress has nowise lagged behind that of the mother Isle. To Lord Durham, the remarkable man sent out in 1838 to deal with the rebellion in Lower Canada, we owe the inauguration of a totally new scheme of colonial policy, which has been crowned with success wherever it has been introduced. It has succeeded in the vast Canadian Dominion, now stretching from ocean to ocean, and embracing all British North America, with the single exception of the Isle of Newfoundland. In 1867 this Federation was first formed, uniting then only the two Canadas with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, under a constitution framed on Lord Durham's plan, and providing for the management of common affairs by a central Parliament, while each province should have its own local legislature, and the executive be vested in the Crown, ruling through its Governor General. It had been made competent for the other provinces of British North America to join this Federation, if they should so will; and one after another has joined it, with the one exception mentioned above, which may or may not be permanent. The population of the Dominion has trebled, and its revenues have increased twenty-fold, since its constitution was thus settled.
The same system, it may be hoped, will equally succeed in that wonderful Australasia where our colonists now have the shaping of their destinies in their own hands, amid the yet unexplored amplitude of a land where "in the softest and sweetest air, and in an unexhausted soil, the fable of Midas is reversed; food does not turn to gold, but the gold with which the land is teeming converts itself into farms and vineyards, into flocks and herds, into crops of wild luxuriance, into cities whose recent origin is concealed and compensated by trees and flowers."
In such terms does a recent eye-witness describe the splendid prosperity attained within the last two or three decades by that Australia which our fathers thought of chiefly as a kind of far-off rubbish-heap where they could fling out the human garbage of England, to rot or redeem itself as it might, well out of the way of society's fastidious nostril, and which to our childhood was chiefly associated with the wild gold-fever and the wreck and ruin which that fever too often wrought. The transportation system, so far as Australia was concerned, came virtually to an end with the discovery of gold in the region to which we had been shipping off our criminals. The colonists had long been complaining of this system, which at first sight had much to recommend it, as offering a fair chance of reformation to the convict, and providing cheap labour for the land that received him. But it was found, as a high official said, that convict labour was far less valuable than the uncompelled work of honest freemen; and the contagious vices which the criminal classes brought with them made them little welcome. When to these drawbacks were added the difficulties and dangers with which the presence of the convict element in the population encumbered the new gold-mining industry, the question reached the burning stage. The system was modified in 1853, and totally abolished in 1857. Transports whose sentence were unexpired lingered out their time in Tasmania, whence the aborigines have vanished under circumstances of cruelty assuredly not mitigated by the presence of convicts in the island; but Australia was henceforth free from the blight.
The political life of these colonies may be said to have begun in the same year - 1853 - when the importation of criminals received its first check. New South Wales, the eldest of the Australian provinces, received a genuine constitution of its own; Victoria followed in 1856 - Victoria, which is not without its dreams of being one day "the chief State in a federated Australia," an Australia that may then rank as "a second United States of the Southern Hemisphere." Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, and New Zealand, one after another, attained the same liberties; all have now representative governments, modelled on those of the mother country, but inevitably without the aristocratic element. Such an aristocracy as that of England is the natural growth of many centuries and of circumstances hardly likely to be duplicated - a fact which the Prince Consort once had occasion to lay very clearly before Louis Napoleon, anxious to surround himself with a similar nobility, if only he could manage it. But though the aristocratic element be lacking, the patriotic passion and the sentiment of loyalty are abundantly present; nor has the mother country any intellectual pre-eminence over her colonies, drawn immeasurably nearer to her in thought and feeling as communication has become rapid and easy.
There is something almost magical at first sight in the transformation which the Australian colonies have undergone in a very limited space of time; yet it is but the natural result of the untrammelled energy of a race sovereignly fitted to "subdue the earth." It is curious to read how in 1810 the convict settlement at Botany Bay - name of terror to ignorant home criminals, shuddering at the long, dreadful voyage and the imagined horrors of a savage country - was almost entirely nourished on imported food, now that the vast flocks and herds of Australia and New Zealand contribute no inconsiderable proportion of the food supply of Britain.