Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Andrew Tink, William Charles Wentworth: Australian’s greatest native son, Allen & Unwin, 2009


One of the great legends of Australian history is that we had no revolution. No Cromwell, no Robespierre, no Washington led us to liberty, equality and fraternity. Instead, democracy was handed to us on a silver platter.

Like many legends, there is some truth to it. There was no popular uprising against a bloated aristocracy, no guillotines and no war. But our little convict colony was not transformed into a liberal democracy without conflict. Occasionally, blood did run down the streets of Sydney.

William Charles Wentworth (1790-1872) was a key figure in this not-quite-a-revolution. Yet there has been no full-length biography of him for some time. Andrew Tink has leapt into the breach with his William Charles Wentworth: Australian’s greatest native son.

I worry when historians use titles like this. We’re supposed to be an objective lot and dubbing your subject the nation’s ‘greatest son’ is not a promising start. But while Tink lacks a depth of research and analysis, he provides a clear, concise account of Wentworth’s role.

Wentworth, and his father D’Arcy, were leading lights in the campaign to give the colony’s ex-convicts equal rights to free settlers and press for an elected parliament.

By the mid-1840s, democratically-elected legislatures were on the cards from many British colonies. But what sort of democracy would we get ? Would it be based on a universal franchise with fair electoral boundaries ? Or would the vote be restricted to land-owners, with gerrymandered electorates to give them a permanent majority in parliament ? Riots in Sydney over this are the closest we’ve come to Bastille Day. While a champion of democracy, Wentworth ultimately became a wealthy landowner. His interests lay in limiting the vote to the rich. Tink provides a fair account of the ironies of his position.

Occasionally, Tink descends into snide mockery. It is well-known that Governor Lachlan Macquarie, an ally of the Wentworths, had venereal disease. Do we really need to hear, once again, that Macquarie had the clap ?

Most historic figures were bundle of conflicting ideas and interests. It is important to show they were often neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but varying shades of grey. Wentworth, stuck like a man with one leg on each side of barbed wire fence, is a good example. Tink’s account of how he unstuck himself is well worth reading.

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