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South Australia’s first Governor

November 10, 2021


                            New revelations and intrigue

  In a cryptic twist of fate there is a statue in Trafalgar Square of the first Governor appointed to South Australia. It is not of Governor Hindmarsh as might be expected, but instead it is a Large Bronze Statue of General Charles James Napier who stands astride a large marble plinth, just West of Nelson’s column and within roaring distance of the two guardian lions. Millions of London visitors pass it by almost every day without so much as a second glance and a Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (Mayor of London 2000 – 2008) has more than once suggested it be removed and sent to the far-flung extremities of what was once the British Empire.

Ironically, this is the same Charles James Napier, who declined the Governorship of South Australia after his appointment had been confirmed by the Colonial Office. He was also coincidentally, a friend and confidant of both, Colonel William Light and the mysterious Mr George Jones, about whom we have heard so much in recent years. Readers will recall that there was great rejoicing and a sense of vindication by the pro Light lobby in Adelaide, when in May 2005, the State Library of South Australia successfully purchased the Colonel Light Letter to Jones which had been written whilst the Surveyor General was on board the Rapid in the Port River on the 22nd of November 1836.

In it Colonel Light reminds us of his determination to survey and fix the city somewhere on the Adelaide Plains between his then anchorage in the Port River and the hill’s Face Zone which could be seen from the masthead. The extent of the Adelaide Hills could be seen stretching away from Flagstaff Hill in the South to Modbury in the northeast.

The high cost of this letter to the South Australian State Government and other contributing benefactors caused much consternation in the community. But for the first time since the South Australian sesqui-centenary celebrations in 1986, Colonel Light’s detractors were strangely silent. Many in the community thought the aura around William Light’s statue on Montefiore Hill had been restored and we would all go back to sleep for another 50 years. However, another letter recently cited 2007 In the special collections of the University College London reveals the story is not yet complete and that we need to further examine our history.

 Here enters Charles James Napier, who with William Light and George Jones, formed a small coterie of long-established friends, and who each had an interest in what Colonel Light was doing in South Australia in 1836-7. Indeed, at one point both Light and Napier saw themselves both holding senior collaborating appointments in the new colony. This new letter dated the 28th of April, 1837, just months after the first ships had, anchored at Holdfast Bay (Glenelg) is from Napier to Jones, and in it he discusses Light’s euphoria about the site for Adelaide on the eastern flank of Golf Saint Vincent suggesting that to set the city there would be a mistake. He says, and I quote

 28th of April 1837.

My Dear Jones., do not plague you with many letters, but when a man wants to ask a favour, he is all activity etc………… I hear you have heard from Light, and he is delighted. Oh! how I wish I were with him! But the hour for the fulfilment of my prophecy has not yet arrived. I give them ‘a year in which to be Merry!  Then will come struggles and with all my heart I wish them through them, for I have conquered a vile wish to prove right, that for a moment entered my heart, in spite of the Commissioners, but which I’m not such a vagabond as to allow footing to, for it is not the Commissioners that will suffer, but those who have not deserved to suffer and to whose misery I was resolved (not) to be witness. As far as moneylenders in London and Commissioners are concerned. I heartily wish a failure would it happen with safety to the colonists? I think if Light will view the colony in the same way I do, he would reconnoitre the Western, not the Eastern coast of Spencer’s gulf. I was resolved to put the gulf between my people and the penal colonies in the East and hold out my hand to Swan River and King Georges Sound colonies on the West. The East will prove trouble troublesome now and injurious hereafter to the South Australian. The East which will soon flourish beyond the penal colonies will help the Australians now and hereafter. The West is moral. The east is immoral. And he may be assured that grand fact is no more important than a thousand minor details.  A legislator must look first to the great outline. But Port Lincoln is the spot if water can be had. But they cannot get money from the English treasury. And I’m convinced that money must be expended without a direct return. And this does not suit speculators? Exclamation. And then again, Hind Marsh will be an extinguisher. Exclamation. Give my love and my wife’s to Miss Jones an believe always most truly yours.

 Charles C Napier

This letter is not only revealing but it is also strangely prophetic. Charles James Napier had become acquainted with both Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his brother Daniel, when they were travelling on the continent in the early 1830s. They were so impressed with his stewardship as Governor of Cephalonia that they invited him to consider the Governorship in South Australia. Napier was flattered and immediately returned to London where the South Australian Association and the South Australian Commissioners endorsed the Wakefield opinion and put Napier’s name forward. The Colonial Office had been considering Sir John Franklin, but demurred to the South Australian Commissioners decision and the appointment fell to Napier. However, it was to be some months before the position could be ratified as there were insufficient subscriptions forthcoming for the South Australian project to immediately proceed as planned.

Because of the delay fissures in the scheme began to emerge. Meanwhile Napier immersed himself in the scheme by reading and studying anything that had been written about or from Australia. Simultaneously, he was elected to the Chairmanship of the South Australian Literary Association, a subset of the South Australian Association, and an organization of intending colonists who met weekly on matters of philosophy and practice as it was to apply in their new home in the Antipodes. Presumably Napier’s close friendship with Lord Byron and his practical experience in Cephalonia made him an obvious choice for this role.

Napier busied himself by writing a book entitled Colonization: Particularly in Southern Australia which was published in 1835, only months before the first ships were to finally sail from London. Colonel Robert Torrens, the Chairman of the South Australian Commission and a ground-breaking political economist was at the same time, writing his book, entitled, Colonization Of South Australia. His theories we’re strongly based on the newly touted principles of the science of political economy on which colonisation was seen as a release of population pressure and a means of establishing a global economy. Based on free trade both books are now considered as economic classics and have been widely reprinted for students of contemporary economic history. The two men, however, fill out on matters of theory. Napier was highly critical of Torrens friend Malthus. and ridiculed the notion that the colony would in any way relieve population pressure in Britain especially as there was so much undeveloped land in Ireland. Torrens, who had secretly coveted the Governorship himself kept his powder dry and reserved any comment.

Whether Napier sensed that he had found himself in an untenable position or not is not clear, but shortly thereafter and in a spectacular back flip he declined the Governorship  on two counts. Perhaps with some justification, he argued that the theory of self-sustainment, so central to Wakefield’s theory and so devoutly followed by the South Australian Commissioners could not possibly work without the injection of extraneous monies from Treasury to support basic infrastructure costs. He was right.! Secondly, he was aware that the moment settlers arrived in the colony, wherever or whenever it was, there would be an influx of convicts and other unsavoury characters from the east who would make it difficult for everybody unless there were some supporting troops, also funded by the Colonial Office.

 Again, he was right! He demanded 200 men for this operation. Both requests were declined, The South Australian Commissioners and the Colonial office, arguing that the scheme was only supported by the Parliament on the condition that it be totally self-supporting and without cost to the Government. Napier walked away from the scheme and suggested to Colonel Light that he apply for the Governorship. As we know Hindmarsh got wind of the vacancy and hurried to England from Egypt to secure the appointment. The rest is history. But in a prescient stroke of vision Napier foreshadowed that there would be trouble with Hindmarsh. The colony would fall on hard economic circumstances and that the eastern settlements in Australia would eventually swamp the southern and western parts of the country. As to whether South Australia would retain its moral integrity we can only ponder why it is that for nearly two centuries, Adelaide is still known as the city of churches.

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Dr Jeff Nicholas

This site is about both History & Biography

The Victorian Commons

Researching the House of Commons, 1832-1868

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