State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 71 Autumn 2003

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A.G.L. Shaw
Victoria's First Governor

On 30 August 1835 the first settlement was made on the river Yarra on the site of contemporary Melbourne in the Port Phillip district of New South Wales. In 1851 the District became the Colony of Victoria with a population of about 75,000. The name was adopted despite the plea of Sir James Stephen, the former permanent undersecretary at the Colonial Office, that it ‘be reserved for an important colony'. But soon the colony was important, for gold discoveries boosted its population to about 540,000 in 1861 and economic development brought it to over a million in 1891, when its Government House was the largest in the British Empire (twice the size of Dublin's Vice-Regal Lodge), and its Governor received the highest salary anywhere in the Empire outside India — £10,000 or about $1,000,000 in modern money.
The first governor — Charles Joseph La Trobe, technically Lieutenant-Governor, being subordinate to the Governor of New South Wales if the latter visited the colony officially — did not enjoy these perquisites. His salary after 1852 was only £5,000 and he still lived in the prefabricated cottage that he had brought from England in 1839 — now restored as a tourist attraction, ‘La Trobe's cottage’, in Melbourne's Domain. It was called Jolimont, after the place near Neuchâtel in Switzerland where he had spent his honeymoon with his bride Sophie de Montmollin, daughter of a Swiss State Councillor, whom he had met there in the 1820s. Before holding office as Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria from July 1851 until March 1854 he had been Superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, since October 1839, at a salary of £800 (raised to £1,500 in 1842); during the whole period his position may be compared roughly with that of the modern premier who is head of the state government, though his power is limited by his party and public opinion, which he may be able to influence, by Parliament which he may be able to dictate to, and by the law and the State and Commonwealth constitutions, which may well be outside his control. Making this comparison, La Trobe's ‘term of office’ and political power far exceeded those of the normal premier, and though while Superintendent he was responsible to the Governor of New South Wales — Sir George Gipps until 1846 and Sir Charles FitzRoy thereafter — those officers were on the whole less inhibiting than today's constraints, though Gipps made it clear that in important matters he was in charge.
But the reputations of public men do not depend only on either the length of their terms of office or their legal powers. Superintendents, Governors and Premiers may be good or bad, honest or corrupt, wise or foolish, decisive or vague, industrious or lazy, efficient or incompetent, adroit or stupid, liberal or conservative. Which was La Trobe? Do we honour him as a great man? dismiss him with contempt as indecisive and incompetent? or give him a doubtful ‘pass’ or ‘fail'?
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Sir Francis Grant (1803-1878) artist. Charles Joseph La Trobe, 1855. Oil on canvas. 217 × 103 cm; donated to the State Library of Victoria by Mrs La Trobe Bateman of Sark.

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Of Huguenot ancestry, he was the son and grandson of leading members of the Moravian Church in England, and he too was bred for the ministry. But he turned to education, tutoring and travel, though as he wrote in The Pedestrian: or a Summer Ramble in the Tyrol in 1830, he was always
a great and ardent admirer of the works of God, in all of which, from the stars of heaven to the midge sporting in the sun-beam, I find abundant food for thought…I have seldom held a flower in my hand, which I did not think curious and beautiful enough to have bloomed in paradise, and never returned the insect or reptile to its bed of leaves, without a feeling that the link that binds me to every living thing had become strengthened…
But after he had ‘rambled’ for 10 years in the Alps, the Tyrol, the United States and Mexico, marriage demanded an income, and family influence helped to obtain for him the task of reporting on the education of the recently emancipated slaves in three of Britain's West Indian colonies — and the excellence of his reports on this subject in 1837 and 1838 helped to persuade the Colonial Secretary, Lord Glenelg, to appoint him to the newly established position of Superintendent of Port Phillip, and it was here that, after a brief visit to Sydney to receive instructions from Governor Gipps, he took up office on 3 October 1839.
What did he contribute to the development of the District? This is not easy to say, though one can relate his activities readily enough. Some, like laying foundation stones or opening buildings, were formal. Almost any Superintendent could have done these things as well as he did, even if with possibly a less elegant speech. Other duties were also almost routine and could have been carried out by anybody, but others called for initiative, foresight and perseverance. Of these, the biographer and historian must ask whether La Trobe carried them out well and whether better or worse than others might have done. To answer such questions is not easy, involving as it does considering some standard of perfection or how some other unknown person might have acted in a given situation — but it is what these unknown individuals might have done, not some ideal policy, that should determine our judgment on the man, as well as his own motives, skills and particular circumstances.
A shy but cultivated man, six feet tall, and physically fit, he showed his values when telling his welcoming ‘subjects’ on his arrival in October 1839, that
It is not by individual aggrandisement, by the possession of numerous herds or by costly acres that the people shall secure for the country enduring prosperity and happiness, but by the acquisition and maintenance of sound religious and moral institutions, without which no country can be truly great.
Strange words for the rough, self-seeking community of adventurers he was meeting. To these he added, according to the Port Phillip Patriot,
my individual position among you, gentlemen, must be, both of necessity and from personal habits, humble and unostentatious.
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And he was soon writing to his friend John Murray in London that he was missing ‘the thousand daily means of improvement and enjoyment which they possess who breathe the air of Europe'.
La Trobe was handicapped by a lack of administrative experience such as that gained by the naval or military officers who at this time were the usual colonial governors; but he was helped by the excellent relations he had with Gipps, his superior in Sydney, and also by the fact that Gipps himself was a most efficient officer, who gave his instructions clearly, when laying down the policy he wanted carried out. Though respecting La Trobe's independence on minor matters, Gipps kept a firm hand on major ones — which was a help to the Superintendent, for it is easier to obey orders than to improvise policy. On financial matters Gipps was constantly turning down La Trobe's requests for money. The latter wanted public works in Melbourne — public buildings, wharves, roads and so forth, works which in Sydney had been carried out in the past by convict labour; but the Governor, always mindful of instructions from London to economise, was inclined to say ‘no'. Though he would usually give the Superintendent a free hand after he had approved any request, he was ready to refuse approval. The town of Melbourne should pay for its own cleansing, lighting, watching and police, he wrote in January 1840, and it was ‘no business of the government’ to provide a general hospital. In February next year, he admitted that ‘I am afraid you will not like the official answers which I have given in the matters of the Health Officer, and Emigration Agent’ when he also refused La Trobe's request for some salary increases, and on 14 July, he told his subordinate that ‘I have struck something off the amount [you ask] for buildings, as I am quite sure it cannot be for the advantage of a young settlement in which labour is very dear to engage largely in building'. It was the same next April; the proposed Court House for Melbourne was ‘most unnecessarily large and expensive’ (13 April 1842). He refused to grant land for the Mechanics’ Institute (18 July 1844), and he was slow to authorize spending money to improve the public wharves; it took a long time for La Trobe to gain approval for buoys to mark a shipping channel to the Port Phillip Heads and for a fixed light there — and when that was built, he was told to reduce the light; it was then visible for only six miles out to sea. For too long La Trobe had to rely on his small convict labour force for public works, as free labour was expensive and often unavailable, and though he was able to relieve the unemployed by giving them work on improving the roads during the depression in 1843, he was widely criticised for not standing up to the Sydney authorities.
As time went on, he became more active and more successful. In 1844 he obtained a grant for the Melbourne Hospital and one for an asylum for the mentally ill the next year. Both opened in 1845, when he was seeking aid for a Benevolent Asylum, and this he obtained in 1846. Meanwhile, in 1845 he had been able to reserve a site on the Yarra river for Botanic Gardens (there had been no purchasers for the site when it had been up for sale), where he authorised work on it to begin next year. In 1849 he had formally proclaimed the Treasury and FitzRoy
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Gardens before their sites should be swallowed up by buildings in East Melbourne and so earned a deserved reputation for land conservation. Apart from these achievements, in 1846 he strongly supported separation from central New South Wales, though few Port Phillipians knew it, and he even urged the Imperial Government to include the Riverina District up to the Murrumbidgee river in the new colony of Victoria — in vain, thanks to the opposition of Gipps and the squatters’ spokesman in Sydney — though as a converse to this in 1848 he opposed a wide franchise for the Legislative Council, and when this was known, he was widely criticised.
Perhaps other men might have carried out more public works than La Trobe — though in the end his achievements were not inconsiderable — but when we look at his convict policy, we see something which was more definitely his own achievement. In 1842, in response to a query from London, La Trobe had told Gipps that he would be happy to receive at Port Phillip a number of juveniles who had served terms of imprisonment in Parkhurst prison in England. They would help to relieve the then existing local labour shortage, he thought, and in employment they would be unlikely to repeat the crimes — usually thefts — that had landed them in gaol. However, at that time the Imperial Government did not follow up the proposal, but in 1844 it did. This time it proposed to send out adults, though promising that it would send only ‘reformed’ prisoners from the new model Pentonville prison. They would come as ‘exiles’ with conditional pardons, not as convicts, and they would begin a new life in a new country where they would readily find work. Again La Trobe thought this a workable plan and the squatters, still facing a labour shortage, were keen on it. However, there was popular opposition, particularly in Melbourne. This increased after three or four hundred men had arrived, of whom many did not appear to be good citizens, and by 1847 opposition had spread not only to many squatters but also to La Trobe himself.
In 1846-7 he had been Acting Governor of Van Diemen's Land for six months after the sudden recall of Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, and experience in what was still a convict colony made him, as he told Sir Charles FitzRoy, the new Governor in Sydney, ‘too well aware of the evils, moral and social’ that would arise from taking in ex-convicts. In 1847, 1848 and 1849 he sent ships carrying ‘exiles’ to Geelong where the men could find work more easily with Western District squatters than in Melbourne, but when the Hashemy, the tenth ship with ‘exiles’, arrived in May 1849, La Trobe sent her on to Sydney with her passengers still aboard. Fortunately FitzRoy was more easy-going than Gipps and was less inclined to interfere in Port Phillip's concerns. He made no protest then, nor when La Trobe repeated this action when two more ships arrived later in the year. ‘The moral plague had been averted’, wrote the Argus, on 22 August. FitzRoy accepted them, or at least sent them on to Moreton Bay, but in refusing to take them La Trobe had disobeyed his instructions. Though in due course London agreed with what the Superintendent had done, and in fact soon abandoned its ‘exile’ policy, La Trobe's actions had
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indicated a courageous independence in defence of local opinion and interests which almost certainly he would not have shown three or four years before.
We can also look at what was a less important matter — La Trobe's reputation and achievements as an explorer. As we know he had been a great traveller before coming out and he continued to be so in Port Phillip. He made 94 journeys through the district (an average of seven per year) while in office, covering a larger area on foot or on horseback than many of his successors have done by coach, railway or motor-car. Nearly all these were through settled country and since they let him see at first hand both the problems of the squatters and later on those of land-hungry settlers and gold-diggers, they undoubtedly helped his work — as may be seen in his land policy after separation. But when he discovered, at the third attempt, in April 1846, a land route to Cape Otway coming from the west, it turned out to be too difficult for the teams building the Cape Otway light house — surveyor George Smythe found the way when he discovered a small bay to the east which the builders could use as a base. However, the previous year he had achieved a great success — a land route from Western Port to Alberton and Port Albert in Gippsland. This greatly helped the opening-up of that district and something we can be fairly certain that other superintendents would not have done.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of La Trobe's rule concerned the indigenous population, which as Glenelg had told Gipps on 29 January 1839, at the time of La Trobe's appointment, was ‘one of the most important subjects to which his attention should be directed'. A conflict between the Aborigines who were then occupying the land and the British squatters who wanted to settle on it was inevitable. It could be settled only by the victory of one or the other, or by a compromise imposed by authority. La Trobe had no force at his disposal to impose such a compromise, which would have involved setting aside large land reserves for the indigenes to live on, even if he had wanted to — and like nearly all his contemporaries, he thought the squatters’ pastoral development the inevitable future of the Port Phillip District and he did not wish to hinder this. Unfortunately, when the British Government established its Aboriginal Protectorate scheme, the Protectors, appointed in London, though conscientious enough, were badly chosen, and were unaccustomed to both life in the bush and administrative work. The Protectorate was under-funded and the Chief Protector, George Augustus Robinson, was a man difficult to work with. La Trobe admitted he had lost confidence in him within four months of his arrival; as he told Gipps in April 1840,
You will regret to hear that there has been more than one serious affray between the settlers in the more distant parts of the District and the blacks. All I can do is try to get at the truth and the result is ordinarily anything but satisfactory… I do not see that we possess at present either morally or physically the power of prevention.
La Trobe often criticised whites who committed atrocities, and after the murder of a party of women and children near Caramut in the Western District in an 1842 massacre he exploded.
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Above: Charles Joseph La Trobe. ‘From Lonsdale's Fence’, 1853. Pencil and sepia wash.

Below: Edward La Trobe Bateman. Jolimont, from the hill beyond the Yarra Yarra. Pencil and Chinese white on brown paper. 1854. H98.135/17.

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Will not the commission of such crimes call down the wrath of God and do more to check the prosperity of your district and ruin your prospects than all the difficulties and losses under which you labour'?
But occasionally his severity towards the blacks drew ‘disapprobation’ from London, and in practice he could neither protect the natives nor control the squatters. Aborigines could not give evidence in court because they did not recognise a Supreme Being and therefore could not take a legal oath and this made legal proceedings useless — apart from the racial bias of juries. There were no adequate police to prevent crime and atrocities. ‘An increase of force seems absolutely necessary’, he had told Gipps in April 1840, but to little avail. In 1842 he revived the Native Police, which had had a short-lived existence between 1837 and 1839, and this body had some success, though its members were also widely criticised for committing murder, but by 1843 disease and death had helped to solve the problem. Though not without violence, the indigenous people had largely died or vacated their lands.
La Trobe's proposed remedy had been assimilation — to ‘civilise’ the natives, educate them, convert them to Christianity and prepare them for paid employment. He would do these things by teaching the children, whom he thought to be more easily malleable, to abandon their former way of life and ignore the traditions of their elders. This policy was well-intentioned but it was impractical. His West Indian experience might have encouraged him to hope for success, but there the problem was different; the natives’ society had already been destroyed by the removal of slaves from their homes in Africa, and as slaves they had been ready to accept Christianity as providing some relief from their miseries in servitude.
The legal bar to Aborigines giving evidence in court prevented his doing more. He supported Gipps's unsuccessful efforts to remedy this in the early ‘forties; but after separation he made little effort to persuade the Victorian Legislative Council to pass the necessary legislation, and Aboriginal evidence remained invalid until after his departure. But apart from this particular matter, there is no evidence to suggest that any other Governor could have done any better.
After July 1851 La Trobe was fully taken up with the effects of the gold discoveries. These, with the massive immigration that followed, created an unprecedented situation which would have troubled the most experienced administrator. As he wrote in a famous despatch in October 1851.
Within the last three weeks [sic] the towns of Melbourne and Geelong … have been in appearance almost emptied of their male inhabitants … Cottages are deserted, houses to let, business is at a standstill, and even schools are closed… The ships in the harbour are in a great measure, deserted … all buildings and contract works … are at a standstill.
And apart from this dislocation, La Trobe feared disorder. His military force was negligible, his police hopelessly inadequate. So perhaps it was inevitable that he should simply follow the policy adopted in New South Wales a few months earlier and impose a license fee on the diggers — all the more since his instructions told him
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that minerals belonged to the Crown, so he could not ask his Legislative Council to pass legislation for the goldfields until he received permission from London.
So discontent continued on the goldfields, critics voiced their opinions in the Legislative Council, journalists attacked him in the press and the Argus again demanded his recall. In July 1852 the Herald declaimed there were
Nothing … but make-shifts in all departments… Our streets are unlighted — undrained — unwanted. The road from Melbourne to the diggings … is in a state that would be disgraceful to Hottentots. Our harbour is left as nature made it… Not one of the wants bred out of our new conditions is being supplied.
The future British statesman, Hugh Childers, then recently arrived in Melbourne, and appointed Agent and Commissioner for National Schools, wrote of ‘poor Mr. La Trobe’:
I pity him sincerely, as he is a good and industrious man, but so wedded to old habits and old friends that I fear he will get into trouble ere long.
But as time went on he recovered confidence as he was able to get things done. His troops and police were reinforced. He established ‘refuges’ for immigrants. He built a road to the Bendigo-Mount Alexander goldfield He organised the carriage of gold to Melbourne. He negotiated successfully with the discontented diggers from Bendigo (in contrast with Hotham's attitude to those at Ballarat which led to the revolt at Eureka the next year), and in 1853 he reduced the license fee for digging for gold. In 1852 and again in 1853 he refused to veto or reserve for consideration in London the Convicts’ Prevention Act which prohibited all holders of conditional pardons from entering Victoria — an action which risked his office and his prospects in Downing Street.
In February 1853 he established a central roads board, and later that year, following up what he had done in the later ‘forties, after the engineer, Andrew Clark, arrived as Surveyor-General in May, La Trobe was able to undertake a more elaborate programme of public works to deal with the sudden expansion of his capital. His government promoted the provision of a central gas supply, a telegraph to Williamstown and soon to Geelong, and a public wharf, constructed from the gravel of Batman's Hill. He turned the first sod of the Yan Yean reservoir to supply piped water to Melbourne. He supported the opening of a University and a Public Library, and the bills for constructing railways to Hobson's Bay and Geelong. Privately he contributed to the Hospital and the Asylum, St. James’ Cathedral, St. Peter's Church, the Mechanics’ Institute and many other charities. Though he seems to have taken little part in drafting the new constitution for the colony in 1853-54, by the time of his departure he had organised his Executive Council and selected successful people as public servants, such as the botanist, Ferdinand von Mueller, the statistician, W.H. Archer, and the geological surveyor, Alfred Selwyn.
He was also able to achieve at least a temporary solution to the land question. The rights given to squatters under the Orders-in-Council issued in London in 1847 had been badly defined, but it seemed that they had a pre-emptive right to buy the
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Charles Joseph La Trobe. ‘Yarra Range from Yering, 1853'. Sepia wash on paper. National Trust of Australia (Victoria) Collection on loan to the La Trobe Picture Collection.

land they held under the leases to be granted under the Orders. However, La Trobe insisted that though he was given power to issue leases, he was not compelled to do so, and appreciating the problem of the pre-emptive rights, he refused to issue them. Given power to make reserves of Crown land (that is, not to dispose of certain areas) for ‘public purposes’ — that is for townships or roads for example — he insisted that he should use ‘timely foresight’ and make reserves for ‘facilitating the improvement and development of the colony’ as well — that is, for future agricultural settlement. The Governor's law officers objected to his anticipating ‘the prospective wants of the community’ but La Trobe ignored their opinions and decided to continue to make reserves; apart from special surveys allowed to those who had already purchased land, those holding squatting licenses could buy only their homestead blocks — up to 640 acres (one square mile) — and in April 1853 the Governor proclaimed large new reserves of Crown land, making them unavailable to pastoral leases or license-holders but available for sale in small lots to farmers. After a year's delay the Colonial Office agreed. ‘The lands are unlocked at last,’ wrote the Argus in March 1854, when the news that the Colonial Office had upheld the Governor reached Melbourne shortly before he left. Though he had not solved the land problem — for the British Government still maintained its high selling price — he had prevented the squatters completely locking it up, and his willingness to make reserves in defiance of his legal advisors shows initiative and courage.
Domestically he lived rather quietly at Jolimont, where his daughter Agnes was joined by two more daughters and a son. He did not aspire to lead society, but
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preferred, as Dr McCaughey has put it, to retire ‘into his private world’ — either at Jolimont or his holiday retreat at Queenscliff or on his country journeys. Here were refuges where he could enjoy his family life, his garden, his botany and his sketching (whose results were recently presented to the State Library by his great-grand-daughter) — even if this gave an ‘impression of aloofness'. All the same he entertained his ‘subjects’ regularly, telling FitzRoy in 1851 that
I have from first to last been under a moral if not a positive obligation to incur many expenses on account of my official position… Without house or house-allowance I have had to etertain privately if not publicly.
And to quote Dr McCaughey again, ‘it is to his fulfilment of the third function of his office, that of social obligation, that La Trobe is most kindly remembered'.
If he was not one of the ‘great’ pro-consuls in the history of the British Empire, and, of his near contemporaries in Australasia, if he does not equal such men as Lachlan Macquarie in New South Wales, George Arthur in Van Diemen's Land or George Grey in South Australia and New Zealand, he compares very favourably with Davey and Eardley-Wilmot in Van Diemen's Land, and Bligh in New South Wales, and was almost certainly better than Franklin, Brisbane or FitzRoy and at least on a par with others. Certainly honest, affable, dignified and enlightened, he can be looked on with respect. La Trobe admitted it would not be ‘pleasant to think you go down to posterity with a speckled and streaked character like one of Jacob's rams’, but he has not done that. Rather one may say that during the whole of his long administration in a society at first primitive and later overwhelmed by change, he kept the government functioning, and if at times he was slow in acting and reluctant to take the initiative in attacking his problems, this was at least in part due to inexperience and in part to modesty and self-doubts. If one is to place side-by-side his achievements and mistakes the former will certainly weigh down the balance. Well did he deserve the C.B., so belatedly granted to him in 1858.
An edited version of an address to the Royal Historical Society of Victoria on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Joseph La Trobe on 30 March 1801.

Further reading

Jill Eastwood, ‘La Trobe’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. II, 1967, pp. 89-93.
A.G.L. Shaw, A History of the Port Phillip District, Melbourne, 1996.
A.G.L. Shaw, The Gipps-La Trobe Correspondence 1839-1846, Melbourne, 1989.
A. Geoffrey Serle, ‘Noble Vision and Harsh Realities’, Victorian Historical Journal, vol. XLVII, 1976.
Davis McCaughey, Naomi Perkins and Angus Trumble, Victoria's Colonial Governors, 1839-1900, Melbourne, 1993.