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William Charles Wentworth: Australia’s Greatest Native Son – Review

1 August 2009 3,404 views No Comment

THE designation of William Charles Wentworth as “Australia’s greatest native son” is that of Manning Clark. Nevertheless, Andrew Tink’s use of the phrase as the subtitle for his book suggests this biography is somewhat breathless.

Certainly it is nothing like John Ritchie’s measured The Wentworths: Father and Son, published 10 years ago by Melbourne University Press.

Moreover Tink, who until 2006 was shadow attorney-general and shadow leader of the house in the NSW parliament, is given to overstatement. Thus in chapter 26, Wentworth Demands Self-government, he maintains that his subject “resembled the rough and roguish founders of the English and Irish aristocracies — William the Conqueror and Oliver Cromwell”. This, to put it mildly, is hyperbole on overdrive.

As it happens Wentworth’s father, D’Arcy Wentworth, who was born in 1762, hailed from Portadown in Ireland where his father was an innkeeper. Tink is at pains to point out that before D’Arcy Wentworth arrived in NSW, he had been acquitted of four highway robberies in England. It was on the transport ship Neptune, on what was then “the longest voyage in the world”, that D’Arcy impregnated a 17-year-old convict, Catherine Crowley, who had been sentenced to seven years’ transportation for stealing “some sheets and clothes … from the house of her employer”.

The red-headed Australian-born William Crowley, later known as William Charles Wentworth, was their offspring. Here is Tink’s depiction of how William’s parents met relatively early in the Neptune’s voyage: “As no picture or description of Catherine exists, just what the attraction was remains a mystery. But knowing D’Arcy, she was no doubt pretty or voluptuous or both.

“For her part, Catherine wanted to escape her violent convict companions, who were ‘abandoned creatures’, covered in filth and vermin. So D’Arcy (whom Tink later describes as “tall, dark and handsome”) plucked her from this putrescent pile into his quarters.” Enough said.

In NSW, D’Arcy soon established himself as a trader and surgeon who, according to Tink, treated governor Lachlan Macquarie for venereal disease.

This biography makes much of the fact that Charles Wentworth (1790-1872) — a noted explorer, orator, newspaper editor, squatter and politician with a squinting eye — boasted a number of firsts, including the first book published by an Australian-born author.

Typical of his grandiloquence, Wentworth titled his book, published in May 1819, A Statistical, Historical and Political Description of the Colony of New South Wales and its Dependent Settlements in Van Diemen’s Land: With a Particular Enumeration of the Advantages which these Colonies offer for Emigration, and their Superiority in many Respects over those Possessed by the United States of America.

He was also the joint editor and proprietor of the colony’s first independent newspaper. The Australian, and the primary founder of the University of Sydney, which of course was Australia’s first. Tink notes that Wentworth was often drunk and disorderly — he was “placed under restraint” at least three times — and that, especially after his father’s death in 1827, he “slipped badly” and engaged in numerous “drunken escapades”.

Indeed, the Sydney Gazette speculated that Wentworth was “either a little cracked in the upper story” or “downright mad”.

At the same time, though, Wentworth was an extremely able proponent of taxation by representation, of trial by jury and of a form of self-government for NSW.

Despite its weaknesses of style, Tink’s biography is particularly illuminating in dealing with Wentworth’s bitter conflicts in NSW with governor Ralph Darling and the irascible Scottish Presbyterian clergyman, parliamentarian and educationist John Dunmore Lang. He also deals well with Catherine’s death at 27, of Wentworth’s de facto wife Sarah Cox, whom he married in 1830, and of his caring relationship with his 10 children.

Tink usefully compares Wentworth’s contempt for Aborigines, whom he characterised as “ourang-outangs” and savages, with his liberal attitudes to Europeans of different beliefs. Thus when Wentworth introduced his bill to establish Sydney University, he said: “Clergy … ought to be excluded altogether from (its) management. Its gates must be open to all whether they were disciples of Moses, of Jesus, of Brahmin, of Mohammed, of Vishnu or of Buddha.” In fact, Wentworth was suspicious of formal Christianity.

The section of the book dealing with his thwarted attempt to purchase the south island of New Zealand is also telling.

One of the most accurate descriptions of the complicated, yet commanding, personality of Wentworth in his middle years comes from The People’s Advocate of August 25, 1849. Its leader writer wrote: “With (a) heavy, loose, drab coat and … mass of grizzled hair there is something of the commanding ruin in Wentworth.” It continued: “In his public speaking there is an inexcusable slovenliness and disrespectful bearing which would never be tolerated … if he did not possess superior intellect … There are times which witness him rise to the stature of a giant over his compeers. Few have equal power … to demolish an opponent’s arguments; and none can command more forcible and original language … The tones of his voice are discordant and grating, sometimes running into a loud, harsh, impatient and decided drawl … His action is inelegant and random. His personal appearance is tall and athletic (but) slightly stooped … His countenance is florid and marked by courage and determination.”

Wentworth died at 81 in England in March 1872. The following year the body of the man who had helped achieve trial by jury and freedom of the press in Australia was returned to Sydney. His state funeral on May 6, 1873, was declared a public holiday. At the beginning of the service the polished cedar coffin, covered in wreaths made from native plants at Wentworth’s home at Vaucluse, was “borne down the aisle (of St Andrew’s Cathedral) to Beethoven’s Funeral March, after which the bishop conducted a Church of England service”.

Tink summarises the situation thus: “While the pillars of church and state were paying homage to a man who detested organised religion, 70,000 spectators lined the route to Vaucluse in big crowds from the cathedral to the Woolloomooloo omnibus stand and smaller clusters along the rest of the way. The only exception was in front of the coffin, where a group of ‘native Australians’ — about 400 Australian-born Europeans — marched. To their annoyance they were soon joined by half a dozen ‘barefoot and bedraggled’ (Aborigines).”

As The Sydney Morning Herald put it at the time, their presence “publicly disputed” the Europeans’ claim to be “native Australians”.

William Charles Wentworth: Australia’s Greatest Native Son, By Andrew Tink, Allen & Unwin, 329pp, $50

Ross Fitzgerald’s new book, Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia, is published by ABC Books in September.