'Really respectable settlers' : Peninsular War veterans in the Australian colonies, 1820s and 1830s




Wright, Christine A.

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Canberra, ACT : The Australian National University


As the Napoleonic Wars convulsed Europe during the early nineteenth century, many more British young men than ever before became army officers, particularly during the latter part of the conflict, fought in Spain and Portugal between 1808 and 1814. The Peninsular War provided not only employment, but also the opportunity to climb the social ladder. As this thesis will demonstrate, the majority of British army commissions in this period were not purchased, and it was these men who later came to settle in the Australian colonies. After the demobilization of the British army following the battle of Waterloo in 1815, many officers found themselves on half-pay, doing the rounds of government offices seeking colonial positions; some were successful and were appointed to New South Wales. As well, many of those who came to New South Wales in garrison regiments, from 1817 onwards, found the place appealing and decided to settle. These British army officers, and those others who came in the next couple of decades, were a unique group of emigrants because of the skills they brought with them acquired in the army: self-discipline, self-reliance, the knowledge of how to discipline men, reconnaissance and exploring techniques, mapping, survey, engineering, town planning, medical skills and the building of roads and bridges. They were also Protestant, educated, literate and artistic men, and the carriers of British colonizing notions. They arrived at an opportune time to fill key positions in the newly created civil services in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. They also took advantage of British government regulations and obtained land grants under favourable conditions, something hitherto unattainable for them in Britain. In any case, it was mutually beneficial for the British Government and the Australian colonies to plant ex-army officers in what was the colony farthest away from Britain. Also revealed are the social networks created by Peninsular War veterans on the other side of the world, and their influence in the Australian colonies. These networks made an impact on the exercise of the law, marriage and settlement patterns, and the social and public life of the colonies. Many of the men who in earlier histories have been called 'the founding fathers' of Australia had a Peninsular War background and developed related social networks. John Macarthur proposed to Commissioner Bigge in1821 that the colony of New South Wales needed 'really respectable settlers'. Peninsular War veterans proved to be ideal in this respect, and in many others besides. The role of these veterans demonstrates key aspects of the emergence of the 'second' British Empire in the early nineteenth century, and also the change in the nature of the colony of New South Wales, from a penal and military society to a free one.






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