The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

George Arthur

George Arthur was a son of Plymouth who made his name as a harsh administrator of the Van Diemen penal colony in Australia. He was the youngest son of John Arthur of Plymouth, maltster, brewer, landowner, councillor, mayor, and 'gentleman', and of Catherine, daughter of Thomas Cornish, 'gentleman' of East Portlemouth, near Salcombe, was born in Plymouth on 21 June 1784. He was commissioned ensign in the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders on 26 August 1804, when slightly older than was normal, and next June was promoted lieutenant (without purchase) in the 35th foot. After serving with his regiment in Sir James Craig's expedition to Sicily and Italy, in 1807 he was sent to Egypt with General Fraser's force. He fought with distinction in the attack on Rosetta and was wounded in the arm. After further service in Sicily he returned to London on leave, where in May 1808 he bought his captaincy. In July 1809 he joined the Walcheren expedition and was appointed deputy assistant adjutant-general on Sir Eyre Coote's staff. Arthur led his light company's attack on Flushing, where his conduct earned high praise in general orders and later in testimonials from his superiors, but like so many others he was soon struck down by fever. After recovering he returned to the staff, serving under Coote's successor, Sir George Don. When Don returned to Jersey as governor in May 1810, he took Arthur with him as military secretary, but in 1812 Arthur went to London on leave in the hope of purchasing a majority. He did so--in the 7th West India regiment--and in December sailed for Jamaica, where he was appointed assistant quartermaster-general. On 13 June 1814 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Colonel Sir John Frederick Sigismund Smith, commander of the island's artillery, a month after he had accepted the position of superintendent and commandant of British Honduras. Twelve months later, 'promotion being my idol', he was delighted to be appointed brevet lieutenant-colonel.

Arthur quickly showed his vigour and passion for reform, improving his capital and the administration of justice, struggling against the region's endemic piracy, fighting the Board of Trade in London to win concessions for the settlement's timber, but backing it in stopping the smuggling of foreign imports into British Honduras. He also displayed a wholehearted conversion to a Calvinist-evangelical Anglicanism, which led him to encourage church building and missionary work, and to attack local slave owners for illegally importing new slaves, for their cruelty, which he discovered when suppressing a 'very alarming' slave rising up-country in 1820, and for their allegedly illegal enslavement of the descendants of Mosquito Shore inhabitants brought to the settlement in 1784. This aroused opposition which was intensified by his objections to the powers of the elected magistrates and of the 'public meeting', by his attempts to stop illegal land occupancy, and by his private conflict with Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Bradley over the military command in the settlement. Though the imperial government upheld Arthur in all these disputes except that concerning the Mosquito people, when he went home on leave because of ill health in 1822 he agreed it would be 'prudent' not to go back, and though for political reasons his brother, when mayor in 1818, had made him a freeman of Plymouth, he sought another posting overseas.

Arthur's general efficiency and his anti-slavery policies had attracted the attention of William Wilberforce as well as his superiors at the Colonial Office, and with additional help from his army patrons in July 1823 he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land, then an important penal settlement. On arriving in Hobart next May, he immediately set about improving the convict system by establishing graduated punishments ranging from penal settlements and hard labour to assigned service and tickets of leave--thus combining severe punishment as a deterrent for bad offenders with what he hoped would be reformatory treatment for the better behaved; by also weeding out favouritism and corruption among the overseers and superintendents, he hoped he was creating 'the best system of secondary punishment ever yet devised'. Successful while he was in charge, his policy was drastically changed after he left, and his experience and his evidence were ignored by the Molesworth committee on transportation which reported in 1837.

In other respects during his twelve years in office Arthur improved the administration, organized an efficient magistracy and police, suppressed bushranging, completed many public works with convict labour, and encouraged religion and education. Though he wanted to protect the Aborigines from the settlers, he was unable to do so, but with the help of the 'friendly missions' of George Augustus Robinson he succeeded in transferring a remnant to a refuge on Flinders Island.

As in Honduras, Arthur's authoritarianism aroused opposition, especially from the press, from a number of officials whom he had to dismiss for corruption or misconduct, and from settlers whose claims for land or assigned servants he rejected. Accused by his opponents of both tyranny and corruption, he triumphantly vindicated himself, and when his term expired in 1836 the secretary of state stressed his claims 'to the approbation of the King and the gratitude of his Majesty's subjects'. This was shown next year by his being promoted full colonel and made a knight-commander of the Royal Guelphic Order. He had also profited by buying 15,000 acres of land for #10,000, about 1830, for this was worth nearly #50,000 when he left, a matter of some satisfaction to a father of eleven surviving children (six born in Hobart) who wanted to pay for the education and careers of his six sons, and #5000 for each of his five daughters as either a dowry or annuity.

In December 1837, Arthur was appointed lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada with the rank of major-general on the staff. When he went out that winter he was separated from Lady Arthur for the only time in their lives, just as when he bought Lord Durham's wine cellar next year he borrowed money for the only time in his career. As in Lower Canada, a rebellion had just been suppressed, but renewed outbreaks were threatening. During 1838 sympathizers from the USA three times raided the province, but Arthur was successful in putting down these incursions and further local risings. He strongly opposed the demand for responsible government in the province, but he was able to restore the provincial finances, improve its administration, weed out its incompetents, reduce corruption, make recommendations for the better treatment of native Canadians, and, 'cordially co-operating with Her Majesty's government', help the new governor-general, Lord Sydenham, to achieve the union of Upper and Lower Canada. On his return, he was again praised by the secretary of state and created baronet on 1 May 1841.

In London, Arthur refused offers from two constituencies to return him to parliament without expense, but as usual was extremely active in seeking another imperial post. Early in May 1842, pushed by the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, the East India Company appointed him governor of the Bombay Presidency. There he helped to keep up supplies and troops for the last stage of the Anglo-Afghan War and for Sir Charles Napier's campaign in Sind; he supported its annexation, but soon fell out with Napier over his high-handed administration of the new province. However he retained the confidence of the governor-general Lord Ellenborough and the directors of the East India Company, and important in this regard were his usual administrative reforms, as he found his subordinates often idle and his subjects inhibited by a 'spirit of fatalism'. Unfortunately he was hampered by a lack of funds, but he pushed ahead with the planned Deccan survey intended to relieve the burdens of the peasant-cultivators; with improvements in irrigation, communications, and methods of salt manufacture; and with the existing plans for native education. He obtained a municipal act for Bombay, improved its sanitation, and reclaimed part of its foreshore. In personal affairs, in October 1844 he witnessed the marriage of his daughter Catherine to his secretary Bartle Frere, and soon afterwards he found that wise investment had enabled him to recoup the financial losses incurred in the Australian depression in 1841-3. In 1845 he suppressed a dangerous rebellion in the south of the presidency and next year, when Lord Hardinge was engaged in another Anglo-Sikh war, Arthur received a dormant commission to succeed him as governor-general if necessary. But prolonged overwork led to a breakdown in May, and in July he resigned his post.

Back in England, Arthur was sworn of the privy council and promoted major-general in 1846, received an honorary DCL from Oxford University in 1848, was appointed colonel of the 50th Queen's Own regiment in 1853, and promoted lieutenant-general next year. Though much preoccupied with Lady Arthur's severe arthritis and with his sons' careers in these years, he kept up his interest in the colonial empire and convict transportation, but his three requests for overseas posts were refused. Predeceasing his wife by four months, he died at 32 Gloucester Square, London, on 19 September 1854 after a stroke, leaving an estate of more than #50,000. He was one of the first men to undertake a career of colonial service, during which he had shown great ambition, a devotion to duty (coupled with constant requests for promotion), imperial fervour, indefatigable energy, great administrative ability, reforming zeal, and a justified pride in his work, though marred a little by an inability to delegate and a marked intolerance of opposition or criticism.

A. G. L. Shaw

Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article | Significant Individuals

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by Stephen Luscombe