‘Swanston: Merchant Statesman’ by Eleanor Robin

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Swanston Street is the main thoroughfare of Melbourne, extending from Melbourne University in the north down to the Yarra, whereupon it becomes St Kilda Rd. It’s a rather unloved road, for many years blighted with dodgy discount basements and even dodgier long narrow cafes with desiccated dim-sims. The street is now blocked with huge sheds and scaffolding hiding the tunnelling works for the new metro line that will run under the city.

Swantston Street was one of the original streets on the Hoddle Grid, but the only one of the north-south streets to be named after anyone associated with the ‘over-straiter’ settlement of Melbourne from Tasmania.* It was NSW Governor Bourke himself who suggested naming the street after Charles Swanston, banker, entrepreneur, member of Legislative Council, and ‘merchant statesman’, but Swanston seems never to have actually crossed Bass Strait to see Melbourne for himself.

As Eleanor Robin explains rather late in the text in this biography of Charles Swanston (Ch.15) , Swanston has not been treated kindly by Tasmanian historians. In 1948 W.H. Hudspeth regaled an after-dinner audience with an entertaining sketch of Swanston’s rise and fall that became the accepted view for the next seventy years.  Other historians, like Kathleen Fitzpatrick relied on the evidence of contemporary detractors and the discomfort of colonial settlers over Swanston’s ignominious end to depict him in a negative light. This book, which conceptualizes Charles Swanston as a ‘merchant statesman’, places him within a wider imperial mindset, and assesses his intellectual and social capital against the financial business mores of the time.  Drawing on the archives of the Derwent Bank papers, which were only fully catalogued in 2017,  Robin concludes that Charles Swanston was

a vital cog in the rapidly turning wheel of change. He was a man of the world who played out his life boldly in exotic and far-flung regions of the 19th century British Empire (p.198)

Charles Swanston was born in England in 1789 and at the age of 16 was commissioned in the East India Company army. The wide-reaching networks of soldiers involved in Wellington’s armies have been described by historians, most particularly Zoe Laidlaw and Christine Wright . Importantly, Robin alerts us to a different, parallel set of networks that connected India and Australia, first through military men in the East India Company, and then through them to the trade market between the two countries. This connection with India played out in the lives of two of Swanston’s sons too, when they also joined the Indian army before eventually retiring to England.  There was a strong presence of Scots in the East India Company as well, and if the Indian networks were the warp, then the Scots influence -which also ran through Swanston’s family- was the weft running through his financial and mercantile activities.

Swanston first visited Van Diemen’s Land in 1829 for a temporary visit on leave from the East India Company.  He was quickly embraced by the Hobart ‘genteel’ society, several of whom shared Indian ties with him. He quickly found favour with Governor Arthur who declared that he wished that the colony were stacked with “a hundred settlers such as Captain Swanston from India” (p.24) Even before permanently settling in Van Diemen’s Land, which he was to do in 1831, he purchased several estates, including New Town Park at New Town, and under the patronage of Governor Arthur, purchased shares in the newly established Derwent Bank, which he was to eventually control.

Colonial port cities during the nineteenth century were marked by their cliquishness, gossip, social claustrophobia and instability of ‘respectability’, and this was certainly true of Hobart during Swanston’s time.  As an appointed, non-public-service member of the Legislative Council in a colony with no popular representation, he was embroiled in the partisan politics of governor-against-Council, especially after his patron Governor Arthur departed the colony and Sir John Franklin was appointed in his place. Apart from political maneuverings  Swanston was involved in the gentlemanly pursuits of many other elite public men in a small colony: the orphan school, infrastructure schemes in water, coal and smelting, insurance companies, church warden, board member for the Mechanics Institute and vice-President and Treasurer for the Royal Society. Like many gentlemen of his time and milieu he had a particular interest in horticulture and viticulture.

In her title, Robin identifies Swanston as a ‘merchant statesman’, one of those class of men with the British education and contacts to take up the commercial opportunities that opened up in the colonies.

Those around him recognised his global outlook. He had the eye of an army strategist and, as financier and legislator until his last tumultuous days, he operated in the national interest, as well as for his own good. (p.101)

His control of the Derwent bank gave him contacts with merchants and entrepreneurs, and he leveraged his Indian and Scots networks in the importation of manufactured goods from both India, the Far East and ‘home’. Most particularly he acted as agent for  Edinburgh-based George Mercer, encouraging Mercer to invest in Van Diemen’s Land and to  purchase land and properties for his children who emigrated to Australia, and most importantly, like Swanston, to become involved in Melbourne as a new investment opportunity.

As Robin demonstrates, Swanston provided much of the financial and intellectual muscle behind the Port Phillip Association’s attempt to ‘purchase’ huge swathes of land through a ‘treaty’ with the Kulin nation.  He was “the chief strategist and spearheaded the Association’s campaign for legal title to the ‘new country'” (p. 114) It was probably Swanston, along with Gellibrand or Wedge, or all three, back in Van Diemen’s Land who took Batman’s diary and wrote it up into a more polished report. It was Swanston who acted as a conduit between Governor Arthur and the members of the Association, as a lobbyist with the New South Wales government, and who briefed George Mercer to lobby the British government. The treaty was always legally dubious, but there was a concerted and well-co-ordinated lobbying campaign at local, colonial, and metropole level to have it, and the claims of the Port Phillip Association, recognized.

Even though the treaty was disallowed,  along with other members of the syndicate Swanston lost no time in sending his own flocks over the strait, and arranging for Mercer to deploy his finance in the same way.  He organized the shipping, taking shares in ‘The Adelaide’ to convey the sheep, and organizing all up twenty sailing vessels. The Colonial Government, in rejecting the ‘treaty’ allowed remissions up to the value of £7000 (a sizeable amount!) for any expenditure that had been forfeited. Swanston took up any of the shares in the now-discredited Port Phillip Association and established the Derwent Company, a new entity.

Robin is non-committal about the intent of the treaty for the men in the Port Phillip Association, beyond commenting on the entrepreneurial spirit from which it emerged and pointing out the flaws in their reasoning. It struck me that we tend to think of frontier conflict in terms of spears and guns and the physicality of violence, and not so much the mindset of the capitalists who were financing the expansion. Swanston himself stayed in Tasmania, arguing that his business and legislative commitments precluded crossing the Strait. I have read much about the frontier conflict later in Port Phillip, but I was particularly struck by the violence and resistance to this first wave of men and sheep, including amongst Swanston’s own overseers (p.134) In this recounting of those very early years, focusing closely on the experience of those first syndicate members, there was no period of benign wariness.  The deaths and outrages on Swanston’s own properties made it harder to argue that the ‘treaty’ was an alternative approach that could avoid bloodshed.

As Robin shows, Swanston was a man of his time, and those times were both exhilarating and challenging for entrepreneurs and merchants.  Profits and investments expanded dramatically in the 1830s,  and they contracted the same way in the 1840s.  It is likely that his own actions as a banker contributed to the collapse of the Van Diemen’s Land economy, when he changed the Derwent Bank from a bank of issue to a mortgage bank. He, and bankers in NSW alike, assumed that because land was finite, an investment in land was “safe as houses”- an assumption that was rendered untrue with the opening up of Port Phillip.  Those networks and connections that had bolstered his reputation in Hobart were now a burden as friends and acquaintances who had once approached him for advice now approached him for relief. As Robin says, “With hindsight, the collapse of the Derwent Bank, taking Swanston with it, was inevitable.” (p. 184)

Kirsten McKenzie has pointed out in Scandal in the Colonies, the question of personal integrity in business was vital to economic success (p.79). As economic historian Syd Butlin wrote, while not doubting Swanston’s good faith, “[Swanston] had simply ceased to distinguish the policy and affairs of the bank from his own interests and business”(p.184). Robin admits that his business operations occasionally shaded into ‘sharp practice’, but that this was not unusual. His business model was based on growth,  which could not be sustained in a changed economic environment. (p.196)  Disgraced and depressed after the failure of both the Derwent Company and the Derwent Bank, Swanston left Van Diemen’s Land to join his son on the Californian goldfields. Their paths crossed, and Swanston died at sea, aged sixty. He was not to know it, but the ‘new’ colony which had dominated his lobbying and financial acumen was about to undergo its own transformation through gold.

Robin closes her book noting the lack of acknowledgment of Swanston in the town with a main street named in his honour. She’s right, and her book goes a long way towards filling this vacuum. In a narrative sense, she has walked around Charles Swanston, profiling him from different perspectives: military man, legislator, merchant statesman, Port Phillip Association member, financier and family man.

In recent years there has been increasing discomfort about the role and behaviour of the ‘over-straiters’, most particularly John Batman, as seen by the renaming of the ‘Batman’ electorate to ‘Cooper’ to honour William Cooper, the Yorta Yorta activist and community leader. There is now a question over whether the statues to Fawkner and Batman that previously stood in the now-demolished National Mutual forecourt will see the light of day again.

Additionally, the opprobrium directed towards ethically questionable economic ventures now  tends to extend to the financiers as well, as seen by the pressure on financial organizations not to invest in the Adani coal mine. In Charles Swanston we see colonization in its white-collar guise, and an abstract concept like ‘settler capitalism’ exemplified in an individual. After Robin’s book, Swanston will not be so invisible. Time and politics will tell whether that’s a good thing or not.

Sourced from: review copy Australian Scholarly Publishing

Eleanor Robin will be speaking about her book at the RHSV on Tuesday 16 October.

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I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2081.

 

 

*[An aside: Spencer St was named after 3rdEarl Spencer, the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Melbourne 1830-1834; King St after Philip Gidley King, 3rd governor of NSW; William after King William 4th who reigned between 1830 and 1837- the years of Melbourne’s white settlement; Queen after Queen Adelaide, William’s wife; Elizabeth after the wife of Governor Richard Bourke (contested); Swanston, Russell after Lord John Russell, then Home Secretary, Stephen after Sir James Stephen Permanent Under-secretary for the Colonies (later renamed Exhibition Street) and Spring for Thomas Spring-Rice, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1835-1839]

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