‘Charles Hotham: A Biography’ by Shirley Roberts

roberts_charles_hotham

1985, 201 p.

Even though I’m a historian of Victoria, I confess to drawing rather a blank when it comes to all but the most recent Governors of the state. La Trobe springs to mind immediately, but many of the others I ‘know’ only by things that have been named after them, especially hotels and public buildings.  I was aware that Hotham had taken over from La Trobe, and that he has been characterized as the villain in the Eureka Stockade story.  There’s a street named after him, a pub in Geelong and a mountain… but that’s about all I could have come up with before I read Shirley Roberts’ biography of Charles Hotham.

In her opening pages, Shirley Roberts announces that “Hotham appears as a man who has been most unfairly denigrated”. Clearly her intention in writing this book is to rescue him from this fate.  Of course, historians mount arguments about individuals all the time, making judgements “from the enormous condescension of posterity” as E. P. Thompson put it.  In this case, however, Roberts’ intention to scrub the mud from Charles Hotham detracts from her book as history. She accepts uncritically certain sources and cherry picks from others, and when actions contradict her argument she brushes them off as inexplicable or strange.

However, despite these flaws, Roberts has written what seems to be the only biography of a man whose short 15 month governorship coincided with a political flashpoint in a colony on the verge of receiving self-government.  It starts in a workman-like fashion, with a family tree – the kiss of death for a biography.  Probably the book would be written very differently today, with more emphasis on the networks of empire and the significance of patronage links, and a widening of the focus from white politicians to include protestors’ and women’s forms of influence. But given that we are reading the book we are holding, and not a book as we would wish it written 35 years later, she has captured well the far-flung nature of the British Empire, and the circuits along which colonial authorities and civil servants travelled.

Charles Hotham never aspired to be a colonial governor. He far preferred his naval role, and the command of ships and navy personnel without the complications of representative democracy and colonial elite structures. His work took him to Argentina, where the British Navy at first played a type of peace-keeping role between Argentina and what is now Uruguay, before intervening to protect their trade routes along the rivers that bordered the two countries. After the putative abolition of slavery, he was sent to West Africa (generally seen as a grave-yard posting) to harass slave shipping along the trade routes, especially en route to Brazil. He demanded, and received, loyalty from his crews in an established hierarchy of authority and obedience.

But these very qualities made his posting to Victoria, already seen as a problematic colony, even less appropriate and bound to end in tears. The discovery of gold had led to a deluge of new arrivals, the complete disruption of the bureaucracy, and a crying need for infrastructure. The economy was wobbly, and running at a deficit. In true economic technocrat style, he pronounced and held to hard-line economic prescriptions, announced and implemented without consultation. The colony, like those in the other Australian states, was holding its breath waiting for the legislation for self-government (see Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition) and this return to authoritarian, centralized rule was not likely to please anyone – even those who had craved a more ‘governor’-like presence than La Trobe had cast.

Roberts explains the origin of Hotham’s world-view in terms of his naval background, but uses it to excuse his too-quick turn to repression, and recourse to delay through ordering a Royal Commission (that old standby to gain time). She portrays him as a man surrounded by flawed men, who let him down.

In filling out Hotham’s early career, which she does very well, she draws on a biographical sketch written by Hotham’s sister as a gift to his sister-in-law on their marriage. Although no doubt drawing Hotham in a good light, it has been gift to his  biographer, too. In her analysis of Hotham’s time in Melbourne, she draws strongly on the conservative, pro-Hotham Argus with little reference to opposing newspapers. As an author, she is mounting a pro-Hotham argument, although she does not make it clear exactly what or who she is arguing against.

I was very impressed with her ability to summarize a scenario or event clearly and succinctly, without overwhelming the reader with detail.  This was especially true of Hotham’s time in South America and Africa, which I knew absolutely nothing about.  She is not an academic historian – and the paucity of her reference list attests to this – and her book is more a matter of setting things out, rather than complicating by nuance.

Hotham only governed the colony between June 1854 and November 1855. This short period of time is largely dominated by the Eureka uprising, and Hotham’s role in it. This short, pragmatic book fleshes out his career more fully, and portrays him as more than just the villain of the Eureka rebellion. But Roberts’ determination to rescue Hotham from blame has led her to mount a polemic, rather than write a biography.  The reader should approach this book with admiration at the job she has done, and appreciation for filling in otherwise little known information. At the same time, however, this book needs to read with care and a raised, sceptical eyebrow.

And look at this – I was half-way through the book when I found this plaque at Flinders Street Railway Station!  So he did leave a mark on Melbourne after all!

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From this place the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway Company’s service to Sandridge (Port Melbourne) was inaugurated by His Excellency Sir Charles Hotham K.C.B., R.N. Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria on September 12 1854, when Australia’s first steam train departed for Sandridge at 12.20 P.M.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups. You’ll have trouble tracking it down, I suspect.

AWW2019

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

 

 

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