George Gipps

Sir George Gipps (1791 – 1847) soldier and governor
Sir George Gipps, NSW Governor – his passion was to extend equality to all men: Protestant and Roman Catholic, emancipist and squatter, immigrant and Aborigine. The governor urged the colonists to treat the Aborigines humanely as they were human beings with the same Creator. Gipps also believed the Aborigines deserved special respect and protection as they were the original settlers.

Sir George Gipps Governor of NSW from 1838 to 1846.

George Gipps, the son of Rev. George Gipps, was born at Ringwold, Kent, and was educated at the King’s School, Canterbury, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He joined the Royal Engineers in 1809, and served in the Peninsular War, France, and the West Indies. He became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1834. In 1838 he succeeded Sir Richard Bourke as Governor of New South Wales.

Gipps, though an able administrator, was unpopular because he represented the Colonial Office at a time when the demands for fully responsible Christian self-government were strong. So he found himself in conflict with the Legislative Council (whose chief spokesman was the influential land-owner Wentworth, who from the time Gipps refused to sell him the southern island of New Zealand, had targeted Gipps as “enemy number one”). Gipps’ conflict with the Legislative Council increased after representative government was introduced by the Imperial Act 1842, which required that two-thirds of the members of the Legislative Council be elected. Most of the twenty-four elected seats had been won by the graziers and their friends, who often joined with the twelve wealthy nominated members (the Devil’s Dozen) to oppose further reforms.

The Council opposed the Governor’s control of the land fund, which had been approved by the Colonial Office to pay for roads, bridges, police maintenance, assistance to immigrants, and the care of Aborigines. The New South Wales Act 1842 provided for the establishment of local government, which was to take over the administration of local roads, bridges and police maintenance. They were to be paid for by local taxes, but this proposal met with much opposition from the squatters and pastoralists, who were also unhappy about losing convict labour when transportation was discontinued in 1841. New immigrants tended to congregate in the cities and were not as willing to go inland and work for the low wages offered by squatters. The new immigrants were upset with Gipps because of the high price of land; they wanted to return to a system of free land grants. The settlers in the Port Phillip area demanded a separate government because of their distance from Sydney. The Anglicans (the largest religious group and led by Bishop Broughton) and the Roman Catholics violently opposed the Irish National School System, while the dissenting clergy, headed by Dr Lang, supported it.

Gipps’ passion was to extend equality to all men: Protestant and Roman Catholic, emancipist and squatter, immigrant and Aborigine. The governor urged the colonists to treat the Aborigines humanely as they were human beings with the same Creator as themselves. Gipps also believed the Aborigines deserved special respect and protection as they were the original settlers. However, his policy towards the Aborigines was no more successful than his educational policy. Gipps had great difficulty with coming up with any solution that would make all parties happy. Killings and abuse of the Aborigines were common. Many argued that the blacks were subhuman beings–mere monkeys. Thus, colonial practice differed from official colonial policy that considered the Aborigines to be British subjects, protected by the same British law and justice system as the colonists. The governmental policy was best expressed in a report of the Aboriginal committee to the House of Commons in 1837. The committee recommended “the reservation of lands so that the Aborigines could continue [their lives] as huntsmen” and encouraged “the education of their children, increased expenditure for missionaries and protectors, and, if necessary, the prosecution of whites”. Gipps’ attempts to create a “Protectorate” were completely thwarted because of inadequate finances and the general philosophy held by the settlers that “the only good Aborigine was a dead one”. Outrages culminated in the murder of 28 friendly Aborigines. This became known as the Myall Creek Massacre–“one of the blackest stains that ever disgraced the pages of British history”. When Chief Justice Dowling acquitted the seven white men involved, Governor Gipps demanded a retrial before Sir William Burton and all were found guilty of capital murder and condemned to be hanged. Judge Burton, in sentencing the men, reminded them that:

You have been found guilty of the murder of men, women and children, and the law of the land says, whoever is guilty of murder shall suffer death. . . . This is not a law of mere human convenience which may be adopted or rejected at pleasure according to the conventional usages of society, but it is founded on the law of God, given at the earliest period of Scripture history when there were only a few people on the face of the earth. . . . I cannot expect that any words of mine can reach those hardened hearts, but I hope that the love of God may reach them.

Despite many public protests, all seven were hanged. However, atrocities continued; and the press were relentless in their savage criticism of Gipps. The heart of the matter, according to James Stephen of the Colonial Office, was “the hatred with which the white man regards the black”.

Gipps was not a popular governor, but he was an able administrator. Though lacking in the political skills that would have assisted him in building popular support to counteract the vested interests of the squatters and pastoralists, he built around him a group of loyal subordinates. He was a man of “high principles, a strong sense of justice, unostentatious generosity . . . and unimpeachable moral character”. He was known as a Christian and a man of prayer. In 1838, when a severe drought threatened the livestock of the colony, Gipps declared Sunday 2 November 1838 to be a national day of fasting and prayer. On November 4, the drought broke and it rained so much that people came down with the flu. Gipps will be remembered for his stand in the Myall Creek Massacre case and for his Aboriginal protectorate policy–“the most comprehensive effort ever made in eastern Australia to civilize, Christianize, and protect the Aborigines”. It lasted from 1838 to 1849 and was supported by La Trobe, who later became the first Governor of Victoria. Though Gipps’ protectorate failed as did his schemes for local government, the structure of municipal government which he designed was later adopted. Gipps has been called the “architect” of municipal self-government. As an engineer, he had a sound understanding of the fundamentals of town planning; as an Englishman, he knew the principles of local self-government. In a communication to the legislature in 1839, Gipps wrote:

The representative form of government . . . is essentially adapted to people, who through their representatives, exercise control over the general government. In the management of their local establishments, they acquired a knowledge of local business, and a knowledge too of the difficulties of it, which they are otherwise apt to underrate. In the township, or the parish, at county meetings, or in the halls of corporate bodies, the rudiments are acquired of that knowledge which shines forth afterwards in Parliament or in the Senate–of that knowledge which enables them to exercise, with wisdom and moderation, a constitutional control over government.

Gipps also realised that local control was preferable to central control.

Let people of each county, parish, or township spend their own money, and they will spend no more of it than is necessary, and they will spend it much more satisfactorily than it is possible for the government to spend it for them.

Gipps was an able governor in a difficult time of transition. The beautiful district of Gippsland in Victoria was named after him.

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