CHAPTER VI. GOVERNMENT AND GOVERNORS
System of government - An autocracy - Hunter's governorship - His difficulties - Recalled - King's governorship - The rum traffic - Bligh's governorship - John Macarthur - His arrest and trial - Deposition of Bligh.
Until the year 1823 the government of New South Wales was vested entirely in the Governor, who worked under the control of the Secretary of State for the Home Department, or, later, the Secretary for War and the Colonies; for there was no separate Colonial Minister till 1854. The Governor during this period had no local council to advise him or check him. He might consult the Judge Advocate on judicial questions, or the Surveyor-General as to what roads and buildings should be constructed, or the Commissary about supplies; but whether he did or not was for himself to determine. They were his subordinates; he was an autocrat, wielding the widest powers, amenable to no criticism but that of the Minister in England.
According to the Governor's will a condemned man might be put to death or reprieved. There was no court of appeal beyond him. He granted pardons according to his own judgement or caprice. One day two prisoners presented petitions for pardons to Governor King. One petition was signed by nearly all the best-known men in Sydney, whilst the other had only one name upon it.' The Governor asked the man who presented the latter why he had but one signature whilst the other had so many. The man answered that he had lived as the assigned servant of only one master, and knew nobody else. King gave him a pardon, but dismissed the other applicant with the comment, 'As you know so many rich friends, you do not need a pardon.'
The whole of the financial administration was in the Governor's hands. He made grants of land and controlled the assignment of servants. He restricted, like a modern Diocletian, the profits which merchants might make, issued ordinances like a Solon, rewarded and punished like a Tzar. When Governor Bligh was reproached with acting against the law, he exclaimed, 'The law, sir? I am the law!' And he was not far wrong.
The Governor was appointed by the Secretary of State. The first three Governors received a salary of 1,000 pounds a year; the fourth and his successors received 2,000 pounds. When settlement extended to Norfolk Island, Hobart, and Port Dalrymple, Lieutenant-Governors were appointed at each of those places, and they were paid 450 pounds per annum.
The Governor appointed the civil officers, some of whom - but never the judicial officers - were emancipists. At one time grave perplexities were occasioned because a clerk in the Governor's office took bribes from convicts to alter the papers recording their sentences, so that some who were sent out for life had the sentence cut down to seven years. The fraud was not discovered till much confusion had arisen, and doubtless some whom their friends in England had never expected - probably never wished - to see again, returned home.
The first four Governors were naval captains, and three of them, Phillip, Hunter, and King, were with the First Fleet. John Hunter entered upon his duties in 1795 in the vexatious circumstances which have already been described, with an Augean stable to cleanse and a besom which was not adapted for clean sweeping. He was an honest, sincere, conscientious man, whose acts and words often suggest a sensitiveness of feeling which was out of harmony with his rough environment. He was described by one who was subject to him as 'a perfect gentleman in his manners, gracious and condescending to all, without compromising his dignity, personal or official.' But the officers who during the interim when Grose ruled had learnt how to make profits from rum and general trading were determined not to lose this lucrative but discreditable business, and they worked secretly and openly to frustrate the Governor's efforts at reform. Behind his back they weakened his authority, and they found the, Secretary of State willing to lean his ear to anonymous charges against his administration. A man of more ruthless determination might have crushed the evils which Hunter had to fight, but he could not have done it without making enemies, and the enemies that Hunter made were too numerous and too cunning for him. He was ill supported by the authorities in England, who recalled him in 1800 with a grudging recognition of the value of his services and no appreciation of the magnitude of his difficulties.
Philip Gidley King was altogether a stronger ruler than his predecessor. He was capable of meeting a situation by an audacious assumption of royal authority, and when he did not think that an English Act of Parliament which applied to the colony was stiff enough in its terms, he would alter it by a stroke of his own pen. There are in existence orders issued by King as 'His Majesty's commands,' which in fact were simply his own commands. He, Governor King, was THE King, when he thought it necessary to take strong measures. He attacked the rum traffic and the private trading of officers with energy; but he had to acknowledge that 'every step I took clashed so much with the interest of trading individuals, both commissioned as well as non-commissioned, that all set their wits to work not only to thwart my exertions but also to use every measure that art, cunning, and fraud could suggest, to impede my efforts.'