In the early 1820s Joseph Foveaux enjoyed a reputation as a respected colonial administrator and was consulted by the English Government on requirements for the proposed Second Settlement (1825-1855) on Norfolk Island. After arriving in New South Wales in 1792, Foveaux served over 14 years in the Colony; he had been the paymaster to the New South Wales Corps for seven years before his three-year term (1796-1799) as the Commanding Officer of the Corps and the Acting Lieutenant Governor to Governor Hunter. Major Foveaux's four years as Commandant and Lieutenant Governor of Norfolk Island in 1800-1804 brought commendations from the Home and Colonial Governments. He was praised by Lord Hobart, Governor King and the appreciative free settlers on the island for the manner in which he prevented the planned December 1800 Irish revolt on Norfolk Island. In 1821 Governor Macquarie retained his view, expressed a decade earlier, that "no officer is more eminently qualified [than Foveaux] for forming and conducting to maturity and perfection any Infant Colony committed to his charge." J.T.Bigge's 1823 report into transportation did nothing to disturb such opinions, which were supported in 1826 by the Sydney Gazette when it reviewed the performance of the administrators of New South Wales over the previous 25 years. The newspaper was prepared to offer its approval only to Joseph Foveaux.
It is therefore paradoxical that during the last hundred years Joseph Foveaux has received so much abuse over his administration of Norfolk Island. He has been branded a tyrant; a monster that had women flogged and ordered inhuman punishments for male convicts. For the last half of the twentiethth century, historians and popular writers have universally condemned him. They have "found" the evidence of Foveaux's infamy in Recollections of 13 Years Residence in Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land, and Norfolk Island 1804 till 1809 or the Mitchell Letter, documents that are attributed to Robert Jones and James Mitchell respectively. It can be shown that both documents are imaginative works of fiction, which could not have been written by their supposed authors, or any person who was familiar with life on Norfolk Island during its First Settlement (1788-1814). After stripping the two manuscripts of their more obvious defects, it is apparent that they adopt, but also distort, information originally provided in Memoirs of Joseph Holt. The latter work was published in 1838; the fictions in the Letter and Recollections were apparently compiled about 1850 or later, many decades after their supposed creation dates, and after the deaths of the nominated "authors."
The Irish political transportee Joseph Holt completed his manuscript in Ireland about 1818, where it was fortuitously preserved for almost two decades before being substantially edited by a well-established author. Thomas Crofton Croker did not render a true record of Holt's script, but rewrote sections, producing a new and more fluent document than the original. He also took the opportunity of educating the reader in the geography and history of New South Wales by inserting his own extensive footnotes that relied on information extracted from the works of others. In this 1838 publication, Holt's jaundiced views of Lieutenant Governor Foveaux finally appeared in such a well presented book that future writers were prepared to accept them as authentic comment on life in the Colony.
The proud Joseph Holt had been humiliated by the treatment he received during his short time on Norfolk Island. Major Foveaux reported that Holt had been placed in the Gaol Gang on his arrival; for the first time he was required to labour like a common convict. Whereas Holt had supervised convicts at Port Jackson, the position was now reversed with Robert Jones his overseer on the pig farm. With Holt's tendency to exaggerate in his Memoirs, it is surprising that Foveaux and "Bucky" Jones the gaoler were treated so lightly in the manuscript.
Foveaux becomes a tyrant because of his actions when quelling the planned December 1800 revolt long before Holt arrived at Norfolk Island, but though he is charged with a sadistic attitude towards the convicts, no other specific misdemeanours are catalogued. When Joseph Holt wrote the original draft of Memoirs, it was not planned as an unbiased archival record for future researchers and writers of Australian history. He provided a story that had a shipwreck saga, the "convict made good" theme with its display of the horrors of transportation, descriptions of far off places and all the features of popular tales of the day. The author took the opportunity of telling his family, and perhaps the world, that he was a man of principle, a hero, untainted by rumours that he had acted as an informer. Here was a man who had triumphed, a person of intelligence who advised Governors and consulted with diplomats. He had arrived at New South Wales with scarcely a penny but left the Colony with assets of two thousand pounds. This was truly a case of one with the power of the pen being able to vindicate himself and establish knowledge.
Jones' Recollections and the Mitchell Letter only achieve some credibility where they draw upon Holt's Memoirs for their plot. In particular Recollections, which purports to have been written in 1823, contains so many statements that conflict with other records that it is surprising that the content of the manuscript has remained unchallenged. Rather than attempt to verify the supposed facts provided by the document, writers have seized upon and have adopted the text that ascribed Foveaux with anti-social attributes. A few of the many anomalies that show Bucky Jones' story as fiction are mentioned below.
The impressive population statistics given in Recollections for the six months to June 1804 and the reported convict deaths are false; they do not approach the reality of the official records
Of the ten nominated ships said in Recollections to have paid a visit to the Island, only two actually did so, although the records identify 120 separate vessels that called during Jones' period of residence
Recollectionsadopts 19 of the 24 people referred to in Holt's Memoirs, but only two of a further ten individuals named in Recollections actually existed on Norfolk Island. In particular the convicts Joe Mansbury, who was said to have been flogged unmercifully, and Thomas Carpenter who died of heart failure, were not on Norfolk Island during the First Settlement.
The very detailed description of the large gaol with its 80 cells is fictitious. It cannot be compared with the much smaller structures that were constructed in 1801/2 and would have provided no more than 18 cells. The penitentiary procedures described could not have been enforced with the available buildings.
Recollections describes a scene on Norfolk Island involving Sergeant Sherwin and an unknown overseer called Peter Walsh, a pseudonym for Peter McGuire which is only disclosed in Holt's Memoirs. McGuire can be found in the Norfolk Island records but he did not arrive until two years after Sherwin had left the island.
Holt noted that when he left Sydney in 1812, Sergeant Sherwin had five children. The Recollections repeats the statement that the sergeant had five children, although an author writing at Sydney in 1823 should have observed that Sherwin then had ten children.
The Recollections describes the fears of the Van Diemen's Land settlers during the "Black War" which took place between 1824-1831. Such information would only have been disseminated towards the end of that period, well after the supposed creation date for Recollections.
The manuscript includes several paintings that are plainly dated 1823. They show the Second Settlement gaol wall and gate, which was not built until 1846, and three-storey buildings were not erected on the island before 1830.
Recollections states that Potter the bellman, or town crier, arranged the distribution and auctioning of female convicts on Norfolk Island. Holt had noted that Potter did advertise the placement of incoming female convicts at Sydney. However, Jones transposed Potter and his supposed duties to Norfolk Island, where both were unknown.
A number of practices intended to illustrate the horrors of transportation are described in The Recollections. Incidents related to murders and mutilations, that might allow a return to Sydney for treatment or trial, have been associated with the Second Settlement of Norfolk Island (1825-1855), but were definitely not a feature of the First Settlement (1788-1814) when the island then had its own Deputy Judge Advocate to conduct local trials.
The Mitchell Letter, a short document reputed to have been written about 1815, contains similar errors of fact that demonstrate how the author borrowed his ideas from both Holt's and Jones' stories. Recollections and the Mitchell Letter are works of fiction, and no credence can be given to any apparently original information offered by their texts. It can be shown that Robert Jones the Superintendent and James Mitchell did not provide the texts, nor did any person who had resided on Norfolk Island during the Foveaux period of government. They are not reliable archival sources of information about life on Norfolk Island under Major Foveaux, nor do they demonstrate that he was a cruel man.
Unfortunately a number of renowned writers of the historical narrative have relied upon these manuscripts to provide the evidence of dreadful floggings for male convicts, and the trading and punishment of female convicts on Norfolk Island. The fact that such doubtful evidence was accepted without question, and is still used to promote new theories, suggests that In Australia the concepts of postmodernism have been present for over a century. The relative truths of the subculture have flourished and flowered to eventually provide the compost needed to support the growth of new discourses on the status of women in nineteenth-century Australia.
24 June 1998