I’ve often found, when I shut the covers after reading yet another colonial judicial biography, that however much I may have enlarged my understanding of a particular colonial official, there is still an opaque screen of inscrutibility about him. There’s the judicial mindset that sees nuances and distinctions across all aspects of human interaction, and then it’s overlaid with the expectations and restrictions of the worldview of the early Victorian colonial gentleman. Whatever humanity or common feeling the biography may have evoked, I’m left with the knowledge that the past is, indeed, as L.P. Hartley famously announced, a different country, and the people who lived there were of a different kind too.
However, this biography by Brigid Brereton, is different. It came to me well recommended as an excellent example of judicial biography, and it is. Perhaps it’s the choice of subject. John Gorrie, the son of a dissenting United Presbyterian Church minister, took from his Scottish education and bar training an emphasis on philosophy, and working from first principles rather than the English reliance on case law- and indeed, though he worked for the Colonial Office all his professional life, was was not ever admitted to the English Bar. This meant that he was well-placed for those colonies of the Empire where England took over from another European colonial power, where a pre-existing Continental system of justice was already in place. Hence his initial placement at Mauritius, the former Ile-de-France, which passed to Britain by conquest in 1810. Here he worked under Governor Arthur Gordon, who became confidante, friend and patron, and who was largely responsible for his second posting to the newly-acquired British colony of Fiji. His experience with multi-racial colonies led to his final posting to Trinidad, which was enlarged to include Tobago.
Gorrie was not particularly interested in a judicial career, even though that is what he ended up with. He had a deep commitment to political action as a way of bringing about change, and was heavily involved with the Aborigines Protection Society. This led him to involvement with the Governor Eyre case on the part of the mutineers, and a lifelong interest in protecting the imported and native labourers in plantation colonies. In his youth he had contact with the English radicals, especially Cobden and Bright, stood for parliament himself, and worked as a journalist on their Morning Star newspaper.
It is in his correspondence with Governor Gordon that we see a man who is more recognizably modern than many of the other 19th century judges I’ve read about. There’s a intimacy and affection in his relationship with Governor Gordon, and his writing, informed perhaps by his journalistic experience, has more colour and flow than similar correspondence I’ve read. He lived life fully: he enjoyed balls and social occasions, supported different philanthropic bodies, and enjoyed sports with his family. And, when the political causes he espouses resonate with twentieth century liberal democratic thinking, then he comes over as one of the “good guys”.
But, of course, he was not a democrat as such, and much of his temperament and courtroom interaction is strongly reminiscent of that of Judge Willis. He rubbed up badly against the entrenched elites in the colonial societies he moved between. And, as is often the way, they got him in the end, although he died before he had a chance to contest his dismissal properly back in Britain.
This is a wonderfully contextualized biography. The details of the social, political and historical mileui of each of his postings make each one seem quite distinct, even though there were many commonalities between them. Gorrie himself comes over as a complete, coherent man who acted consistently within a moral and political framework. I wonder if this lies in the teller, or the tale?