Wednesday, 20 December 2017

When was Jesus born?

The ninth episode of the third season of DC's Legends of Tomorrow aired on 5 December 2017.  The Legends go back in time to investigate an ‘Anachronism’ in a Viking settlement in the New World. The Norsemen are worshipping ‘Beebo the God of War’ on 25 December. The Legends believe they have fixed the Anachronism and returned history to its true path only to find that the Vikings now honour Odin on the day…

Something was persistent about the date! 

Well, we all know 25 December wasn’t Beebo’s birthday nor Odin’s. 

We also know it wasn’t Jesus’ birthday either.  Believing so is just another Anachronism…

So, when was Jesus born? Is it possible after all this time to work it out?

Before that, let’s recap why 25 December could not possibly be his birthday… 

There are two main reasons:

The shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:7-8).

Shepherds were not in the fields during December. The weather would not have been too cold to permit shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields at night. It was the custom then to withdraw the flocks from the open districts during October - November and house them for the winter.

Jesus’ parents came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4).

Such censuses were not taken in winter, when temperatures often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor condition.  The Roman authorities in imposing such a census for the gathering an unpopular ‘foreign’ tax would not have enforced the imperial decree (Luke 2:1) at the most inconvenient and inclement season of the year, by compelling the people to enrol themselves at their respective cities in December.

In such a case they would naturally choose a time of year that would cause the least friction with the lives of the Jewish people. This would most likely be in the autumn when the agricultural round of the year was complete, and the people generally free to take advantage of the opportunity of going to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, the crowning Feast of the Jewish year.

Given these facts, how did 25 December become thought of as the day of Jesus’ birth?

The usual answer is that it came from the Roman church’s desire to bring pagans into Christianity.  Existing festivals and customs were ‘re-branded’ as Christian as a way of encouraging people to feel comfortable that the Church was not asking them to give up popular festivities. There is some dispute about the historical accuracy of this idea, though it is true that the Roman god Mithras had an important festival on 25 December and there is logic to the idea that the shortest day of the year would be a good time to acknowledge the re-birth of the unconquered sun - Sol Invictus. This idea became popular especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Many popular customs associated with Christmas have origins in pre-Christian festivals that were celebrated around the winter solstice by pagan populations who were later converted to Christianity. These elements, including the Yule log and gift giving from Saturnalia, became syncretized into Christmas over the centuries.

So, there is a connection, though it may not be direct.

The prevailing atmosphere of Christmas has also often changed since the holiday's inception. At one extreme was a raucous, drunken, carnival-like state in the Middle Ages. The tamer family-oriented and children-centred theme was introduced in a 19th-century transformation championed by Charles Dickens - The Man Who Invented Christmas and made a good fortune from it!

The celebration of Christmas was banned on more than one occasion by Puritan inspired 'theocracies' such as Oliver Cromwell’s Government due to concerns that it was both pagan inspired, immoral and unbiblical. Several Christian groups continue to reject or minimise the celebration of Christmas today.

If Jesus Christ was not born on December 25, does the Bible indicate when He was born?

Jesus birthday was not celebrated as a festival by the earliest Christians and later Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. For example, Clement picked 18 November and an anonymous document, believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, suggested 28 March.

The biblical accounts point to the autumn of the year as the most likely time of Jesus’ birth, based on what we can work out about the conception and birth of Jesus famous cousin, John the Baptist.

Since Elizabeth (John’s mother) was in her sixth month of pregnancy when Jesus was conceived (Luke 1:24-36), we can determine the approximate time of year Jesus was born if we know when John was born. John’s father, Zacharias, was a priest serving in the Jerusalem Temple during the annual course of Abijah (Luke 1:5). Calculations indicate that his course of service corresponded to 13-19 June in the year 4 BC, considered to be the most likely year of Jesus birth.

Follow this story a bit further…

It was during this time of Temple service that Zacharias learned that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a child (Luke 1:8-13). After he completed his service and travelled home and Elizabeth conceived (Luke 1:23-24). Assuming John’s conception took place near the end of June, adding nine months brings us to the end of March as the most likely time for John’s birth. Adding another six months (the difference in ages between John and Jesus) brings us to the end of September as the likely time of Jesus’ birth.

It sounds plausible.

The origin of this calculation is a slightly eccentric though very thorough Anglican theologian E.W. Bullinger and his detailed reasoning is set out in his Companion Bible, Appendix 179.

Ethelbert William Bullinger (1837– 913)
was an Anglican clergyman.
Picture via Wikipedia.

Bullinger, however, goes further. He gives us the date of 29 September 4 BC. He points out that it corresponds to the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles which he finds is of significance. 

And what is his view of 25 December?

Well, if you count back 280 days (the period of human gestation), it was the date of Jesus conception. So, there is a connection…

Bullinger saw this as fitting neatly with history and theology. For him, 25 December, was the day on which Jesus was ‘begotten of the Holy Ghost’. His birth took place on 29 September 29, in the year following. For him this made ‘beautifully clear’ the meaning of John 1:14, "The Word became flesh" (Matt. 1:18, 20) [i.e. was conceived] on 25 December 5 B.C. and after 280 days ‘dwelt [“tabernacled”] with us’ on 29 September 4 B.C.

25 December, says Bullinger, is ‘associated with our Lord and was set apart by the Apostolic Church to commemorate the… "Word becoming flesh" - and not, as we have for so long been led to suppose, the commemoration of a pagan festival.‘

He sees a strong argument in favour of the correctness of this view in the fact that the date of the Festival of Michael and All Angels has been from very early times 29 September. His reasoning is that it was the archangel Michael who announced the conception and later the birth of Jesus.

Do you think Bullinger is correct?

See also: Jesus: the most significant person in history?

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Americus Napoleon Poe: impressions of a recluse

I recently enjoyed reading Recollections of Leonard Lake: Interviews with Local Residents, 1979– 1983. The document was recorded and transcribed by Sandra Marshall. I found it at which also has wonderful photos of the area. Looks like a great place to live.

And that’s exactly what great uncle Americus Napoleon Poe Jr (1860-1941) decided to do.  

Americus was named after his uncle who lived 1827 to 1906. His other uncle was Alonzo Marion Poe who I’ve written about before.  ‘Americus Jr’, as he became known, was a son of the third and youngest of those brothers Alexander Hamilton Poe (1832- c 1904) who migrated from Missouri to California with his young family in about 1873.

The older Americus and his brothers Alonzo and Alexander were the children of William and Margaret Poe. The younger Americus had a brother named after is more famous uncle Alonzo. So, there was a bit of name recycling going on… And it made things a bit confusing when I first tried to work out who was who.

Sandra tells me that although Poe’s Cabin is mentioned in Recollections it no longer exists. However, he did plant lots of quince and figs, apples, walnuts and almonds among other things. The quinces have survived well despite major neglect and they make ‘good fruit leather’.

Recollections of Leonard Lake contains some fascinating accounts of residents’ memories of Americus. These bring some life the little we know of him and also show some interesting connections with what we know of other relatives including my father.

I’ve speculated about why William named the first Americus Napoleon and it’s interesting to read what the man himself said about his name. Even more interesting that his neighbours felt it was probably true.

So, here are extracts from Recollections.

Dr William A Boyle and Helen Boyle interviewed in San Francisco, 20 May 1979

Dr Boyle: “I was born in San Rafael in 1887... When I was a youngster we spent our summers up there at the lake. We usually went up in the latter part of June and stayed until the Fall, coming down usually pretty well before Thanksgiving. We would start off from San Rafael in the summer and take the train to Ukiah—at that time that was as far as it went. In Ukiah, we would rent a livery team to take us on to the lake which was about a three-hour trip. We did lots of walking on those trips. You know, when my mother and father first went up to the place the train only went as far as Cloverdale and they took a livery team on to Ukiah, then another in, to the lake.

“At the lake we kept one horse to do all the work and we used to rent a cow and take her in with us from Ukiah so that we’d always have plenty of milk. …

“In my day, the only near neighbours that we had were the Priors who were about three miles below and then Poe up on that hill above.”

Sandy: “Tell me about him.”

Dr Boyle: “Well, his name was Americus Napoleon Poe, A. N. Poe. He was quite dark. I wondered in later years if he had some Italian in him. But, he never had any friends. He had a wife and she lived there all alone. He didn’t believe in the education of women and he wouldn’t take any newspapers or anything. He did have a horse who was pretty near starved most of the time, and he also had a dog. But he was a very good hunter, and incidentally, he used to act as [a] guide to people who wanted to hunt around there. He made some money that way. Then, he used to come around to our place when Una was there alone. They got to be pretty good friends and she used to give him food, I think."

The description of Americus is interesting. His dark complexion was a feature of the Poe boys for a few generations; my father and some of his brothers had these features and were ‘mistaken’ for being Italian, Spanish or Jewish depending on how the conversation went. We also have ‘independent verification’ of Americus’ appearance. The Great Register of California listed voters with a brief physical description.

So, while we don’t have a photo of him we have the ‘official’ description of him from the 1892 Register.

Americus was 30 years of age at the time and the Register shows his height, complexion, eye colour and hair colour.

His wife’s name was Mary and she was some 10 years younger than him. They apparently never had any children. We hear more about her below. I can’t find anything more of her after she ‘disappeared’ though it sounds like she married again.

Dr Boyle continues…

“One-time Poe didn’t show up for three or four days and Una [his sister] went out, walked up to his place, and she found him lying dead out in the field and the little dog standing guard. Oh, was he ever. For a long time, she had trouble coaxing the dog to let her approach. Then she called the Sheriff and they took the body down. Although Poe was rather cruel to dogs, that dog really stood by him in the end, guarding his body.”

Sandy: “Was that after his wife had died?”

Dr Boyle: “Oh no, she left him, finally. Seems to me she married somebody at Staleys, but I couldn’t be sure. I was rather surprised, because she was not a very good-looking or attractive woman but, she did get married again after she left Poe.

“Poe was a very good shot. He used to shoot deer and sometimes bring them around and sell them to us."

Sandy: “Can you describe where he lived?”

Dr Boyle: “There’s a little hill there that we used to call ‘Snake Hill.’ “There were always a lot of snakes, gopher and water snakes. You went on from there, on up through the woods and finally came up to a bare area, on the top, where Poe lived. His place was always very bare looking."

Sandy: “The place that they call ‘Poe’s Cabin’ is—you know where the big house is, then the barn. If you keep going up from there, way up on the top of the ridge from there is a little cabin built in the shape of a cross. It’s very old and beginning to fall down now, but that’s known as Poe’s Cabin…”

Hazel Putnam, interviewed in Reeves Canyon, 29 June 1979

Hazel: “I used to visit Americus Poe in his house. His front room was so loaded with books, periodicals… he was a very learned man. His kitchen, well, one of the last times I was in it the wooden floor had completely worn out and he was walking on hard dirt. He had never replaced the floor in the kitchen area.

“He avoided ever riding in any sort of vehicle, a buggy or an automobile because he had crushed ribs and it would be too painful. But, he could walk and cover ground in an amazing way. He travelled on foot every place he went. He could just tear out and cover the ground like a deer.”

Interestingly, Poe was granted a patent in 1899 for his invention of a 'felly shield' for bicycles. It looks like others quickly improved on his patent and there is no record that he ever made any money from it.

Sandy: “His house was where Rick’s is now?”

Hazel: “Just about—it was a little closer. It was under the walnut trees. Well, not under them really, no, because at that time the walnut trees were very tiny. Not too long before he died they had grown up far enough so that he could put a rope up on a limb and hang up the things that he would kill so that they would be cooling and sort of refrigerated by the cool wind that blows up the canyon.

“I don’t know if anyone has told you what a fabulous garden he had. You know where those figs are, just below the house? He had the spring down amongst them developed to irrigate the trees. He had terraces, like they have in Europe, on that whole hillside. He had the stream irrigating back and forth. Those figs are Smyrnas. The only place they grow is in Italy and the only reason that they grow there and not anywhere else is that it takes a very special insect to get into the little low end of the fig. Of course, the fig, the whole meaty fig is the blossom. He sent to Europe and imported some of those insects. He used to can those figs and he gave some of them to me. The figs were so large that four was all that he could get into a quart jar. They were fabulous.”

Sandy: “What other things did he grow?”

Hazel: “He had plums, and then he crossed apricots and plums and called them plumcots. He would cross everything that had similar pits, seeds. He had everything under the sun crossed there.”

Sandy: “Did he have vegetables as well?”

Hazel: “A few, not as many. It was mostly fruits and berries. He would grow enough fruits and vegetables for himself and he had a lot of potatoes so he could boil them up.'

“He was a very slight man, small and sharp. He disliked and distrusted almost everyone who came into the canyon, though he liked Una particularly and he liked me. He didn’t trust my father too much but he did like me and then he got to liking my husband and he liked Harry Jr. as a little kid growing up. He really was a very interesting person and the claim is that he was a descendant of Edgar Allen Poe, which he probably was."

The story of the family being connected to Poe is persistent but as yet unproven. Perhaps if more Poe men did a Y-DNA test we could resolve that one for sure and solve several other mysteries about family connections! If you're interested in learning more please see this link.

“At one time he had a wife who lived up there with him. I do not ever remember her but then when I was very young there were stories, hush-hush type as if they suspected . . . well, she disappeared. They suspected murder but it was a supposition. Possibly she just ran away. I don’t know."

Herb Singley, interviewed in Ukiah, California 20 July 1979

This continues the conversation regarding Americus Napoleon Poe and his death.

Herb: “Poe had a little pet dog and he had a lot of hogs there and, a body, they’ll eat it if they can, if they can get to it. This little dog was darn near starved to death but he stayed there with that body and kept those hogs from bothering it.

“Una found a home for that dog down in San Rafael somewhere. Although she didn’t think too much of that old guy she did spend quite a good bit of time just seeing that he was all right.”

Sandy: “Tell me, do you know anything about the little cabin that is built in a cross shape, seems to face North, South, East and West.”

Herb: “I’ll tell you that didn’t belong to the Leonard Lake property in those days. It belonged to a fellow by the name of Doc Dollin. He built it up there as a kind of hunting cabin, although it was never used for anything."

Sandy: “Do you happen to know who designed it?”

Herb: “Oh, I think it was old man Poe himself. He was an interesting character, old Poe. Of French descent and first cousin to Napoleon Bonaparte [1769-1821].”

Sandy: “So that’s how he got his name.”

Herb: “Americus Napoleon Poe, yup, that’s the way it was. He was a particular guy but also a mining engineer and was pretty good at land surveying.”

Americus’ uncle Alonzo was, amongst other things, a land surveyor platting the town of Whatcom in Washington state. It may well have been a long-standing occupation of the family. Though family stories claim the original form of the surname was ‘De La Poe’, or something similar, I’ve never heard a suggestion that there is a connection to Bonaparte. 

I think this is a little bit of self-amusement which Americus perhaps learned from Americus senior. 

Or perhaps he adapted an from his reading of Edgar Allan Poe. The Spectacles is a short comedy tale published in 1844. The narrator, 22-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte Froissart, changes his last name to the plebian ‘Simpson’ as a requirement to inherit a large sum from a distant cousin…  

Dorothea Hardy and Esther Clifton, interviewed in Palo Alto, California, 14 July 1979

Dorothea: “I keep thinking about Poe’s place because when he died, that spring when Una found him in the field, well, the children and I hiked north up to his cabin and that cabin was just as he left it, not a hair moved. His hat was on the rack, his clothes, the dirty dishes in the sink. He put up canned jellies, fruits and such and those were all around and his gun in the corner.

“Nobody went up to do anything about his belongings. They were not important and nobody’d been in to see after anything.”  

Sandy: “You remember Poe alive? You knew him?”

Dorothea: “Oh yes, he came down a couple of times to visit, all dressed up. A spry little man, and really quite elegant…”

Doralinda ‘Doris’ Little, interviewed in Ukiah, California, 7 March 1983

Doris: “I also knew the woman whose father had the Cross Cabin built.”

Sandy: “Who was that?”

Doris: “Her name was Dollin, Irene Dollin. She loved Poe’s place. Her father was a dentist. They didn’t go up to the lake but to Poe’s, you know, up to the Upper Ranch and Doc Dollin would rent from Mr Poe the privilege of hunting around his place and he would take Irene with him. Irene has since passed away, she would probably be in her nineties now. She came up to Orr Springs Inn one time, and she tried to walk into the lake but she lost her way.”

Sandy: “You mean to see it again?”

Doris: “Yes, she wanted to see it again you know and she tried to hike in and all. Well, when she couldn’t make it someone told her to get in touch with Naman and me and she did. She told us that she had been a young girl when she used to go up there to the Poe Place, as it was called then, and she wanted to know if she could come in and just see it again. Of course, we welcomed her.

“She came and we went by jeep up top-side, to the Cross Cabin, because that used to belong to her father. Mr Poe built that for her dad. It was a hunting stand, that is why they have the arms on it so that he could see each way across, watch for game. It’s built in a cruciform so that the hunter could see each direction, from which any deer might be coming.

“Now Mr Poe brought all of the timber for that cabin up along the back, up the Jack Smith Trail, because there was no road up there then. Mr Dakin is the one who had that road put in.”

Monday, 6 November 2017

Jottings of interest November 2017: What are my top six posts?

John Barnes

John is the author of  La Trobe: Traveller, Writer, Governor featured in the previous post - La Trobe: Rambler, Writer and Royalist. I’ve created a mini-bio and authors page for him at goodreads, where you can also see his picture and a list of his other publications.

Alonzo Marion Poe – an Oregon pioneer

The territorial seal of Oregon (1848-1859).

I recently saw a very interesting website - THE OREGON TERRITORY AND ITS PIONEERSIf you’re interested in the ‘Oregon Country’ it’s well worth a look.

The site is maintained by Stephanie Flora who confesses that ‘The Settling of Oregon and Its Pioneers is my number one hobby and addiction.’ If you visit her site you’ll learn about early Oregon and the natives, explorers, fur traders, missionaries and the pioneers who settled it. The site Includes pioneer lists up to 1855, pioneer diaries, Oregon trail information and a photo gallery of early pioneers.

The site mentions Alonzo Marion Poe and Stephanie was happy to update her entry on him and add the information from two of my previous blogs, the latest being The when and where of Alonzo Marion Poe. You can see my items there too.

I Keep Six Honest Serving Men ...’

I've discovered that the process of writing up what I think I know forces me to think more precisely than otherwise. As a result, I end up learning more.

One of the reasons for this is the help I get through the process from Rudyard Kipling’s servants…


They are faithful servants whose assistance has been extolled by journalists and corporate thinkers across more than a century. Here is Kipling’s introduction of them to you, just as I heard it I read it as a child.

‘I Keep Six Honest Serving Men ...’
I KEEP six honest serving-men
 (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
 And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
 I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
 I give them all a rest.

These servants were once known as the ‘five Ws ‘of journalists (or I guess ‘Five Ws and one poorly written H’)…

But Kipling was not all work and no play. He gives his servants time off and is much less a hard taskmaster than a young girl he knows. The unbounded energy of an inquisitive child leaves no time for servants to rest. He continues…

I let them rest from nine till five,
 For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
 For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends 'em abroad on her own affairs,
 From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

following the story, The Elephant's Child in Just So Stories (1902)

Kipling’s daughter Elsie Bambridge recognised herself in the second half of the poem. She was apparently known in the family as ‘Elsie Why’.

The poem remains an enjoyable read today and Just So Stories remains a great book to read to children.

by Rudyard Kipling

Readings of Interest…

Many of my posts link to further reading usually websites and relevant books.

I’m aiming to make links to particular books which are available via Angus and Robertson or in some cases organisations doing work which is worth supporting. Angus and Robertson's prices are often the best for online purchase. 

While these will be specific links, you may also want to do your own search of their catalogue. If so I’d like to encourage you to do that through this link.

There are also a number of out-of-print books which I mention and I will try to find easy-to-access sources for these too.

What are my top six posts so far?

I have one more post in the works for this month which I hope will be up about Thursday. After that my typing fingers will take a break for a month.

In the meantime, you may be interested to know which of my posts have been the read most to date.

Here’s the countdown…

Number 6:

A tale of two tea planters: Claud Bald and F G Marsh. An introduction to my two tea-planting ancestors and a view of some long-lost photos.

Number 5:

A ‘new’ photo of an Australian Beersheba hero? The story of a war hero who also built a church.

Number 4:

Alonzo Marion Poe: a recurring family name. The peripatetic Poes are a source of continuing intrigue.

Number 3:

Who was here first? A short list of my ‘first arrival’ ancestors.

Number 2:

Grandfather Poe and the King of Chinese Cinema. Solving more family mysteries and widening horizons.

Number 1:

La Trobe: Rambler, Writer and Royalist. Responses to John Barnes impressive award-winning biography of the man whose name followed me around for many years.

Please look over the posts and forward your favourites….

Thursday, 2 November 2017

La Trobe: Rambler, Writer and Royalist

Having worked in a place named after him, I’ve always had an interest in Charles Joseph La Trobe.

Now, at last, I have a more rounded view of him.

This is thanks to John Barnes whose recently published biography, La Trobe: Traveller, Writer, Governor is an eye-opener. The book will reward the discerning reader with the fullest understanding yet of Victoria’s much-misunderstood first Governor.

The book commends itself in a number of ways.

  • It’s already won this year’s Victorian History Publication AwardThe award recognises the most outstanding non-fiction publication on Victorian history.
  • Second, Barnes is an expert on his subject having written about him during his editorship of The La Trobe Journal and was responsible for the 2003 edition which focused on La Trobe’s life.
  • To complete the trifecta, Dr Andrew Lemon, former President of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, in praising John’s fair-minded credibility says; ‘Charles Joseph La Trobe, from wherever he now watches, should be eternally grateful that John Barnes chose to be his biographer.’ 

And anticipating John’s sympathy for his subject Lemon adds: ‘Or perhaps La Trobe chose Barnes.’

One more quote from Lemon is a must; ‘The great strength of this book, in addition to its clear and elegant prose, is its fair-mindedness. Its great originality is its lucid literary analysis which helps us understand the man. ‘

I also learned much from the book about Victorian history, so what follows is part book review and part book reactions.

The book is richly illustrated – in many places by La Trobe himself. You may think this is a miraculous accomplishment since La Trobe passed away 142 years ago. But you may not have known that La Trobe was an enthusiastic and able painter/sketcher. The images though aged (and firmly copyrighted) remain evocative and fresh and demonstrate La Trobe’s perceptive eye and love of the outdoors.

La Trobe’s creations are gathered in Charles Joseph La Trobe Landscapes and Sketches with notes by Dr Dianne Reilly AM, who also authored a previous biography on a Trobe, and art historian Victoria Hammond.

The ‘grave, careworn potentate’ at the end of his Victorian tenure.
La Trobe, about 1854. Image H29543. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

The front cover of Traveller, Writer, Governor immediately introduces us to the real La Trobe through an unfamiliar portrait. 

This is not the ‘portrait of a uniform’ we are used to. It’s an image drawn from a now lost photograph taken towards the end of his tenure in Melbourne and shows him as the ‘grave, careworn potentate’ he saw himself to be at the time.

Charles Joseph La Trobe (1801 -1875) arrived as Superintendent of the Colony of Port Phillip in 1839 and later became Governor (technically ‘Lieutenant Governor’) when Victoria separated from New South Wales in 1851. He witnessed monumental changes in the colony, from the depression of the 1840s to the start of the goldrushes of the 1850s.

He didn’t stay long enough to see the benefits of the Goldrush for the development of Melbourne town or the wider Colony but he did place a lasting stamp on the nature of the city as we shall see.  

One thing he did see, while visiting the McIvor mine in 1853 near Bendigo, was the discovery of one of the largest and finest groupings of cubic gold crystals in the world. The 717 gram ‘Latrobe nugget’ is named (or slightly misnamed) in honour of La Trobe.  

But who was La Trobe before and after Melbourne? 

Barnes takes on a journey with La Trobe exploring his life in the 38 years before he saw Melbourne and his ‘recovery’ and life after his last career highlight.

Barnes’ intention is ‘to tell the story of his life as a whole, making him known in a way that I do not think has been attempted previously, and to represent his beliefs and motivations more fully’. The book aims ‘to place his colonial experience in the context of his life, and show what that experience meant to him’. 

In all this, the book is a success.

Much can be learned about La Trobe’s actual ancestry and family, the influence of the Moravian faith in which he was raised and the role of England, Switzerland and America in his life. And, with this understanding, much is learned about the unwarranted hostility levelled against him in Victoria, notably by Edward Wilson of the Argus, and which skewed subsequent historical valuations.

La Trobe arrived as a European with well-educated sensibilities. He was well travelled and with sometimes progressive views, an artist’s eye for observation and a Moravian separation from the world.

Mt Wellington, Hobart, Tasmania, 1847 by La Trobe.

As a young man, he had published a number of successful travel books (some currently available as reprints) describing his ‘rambling’ and reflections in Europe, America and Mexico. Amongst his observations in The Rambler in North America was despair at ‘the spirit of the times, for we see signs of it, alas, in Old England; but there must be something in the political atmosphere of America, which is more than ordinarily congenial to that decline of just and necessary subordination’. 

Edgar Allan Poe took him to task for this remark against democracy but concluded that ‘It is the best work on America yet published. Mr Latrobe is a scholar, a man of intellect and a gentleman’.

The influence of his ‘Moravian-ness’ combined with the nature of the role of Governor may be the key to resolving why there seemed to be a mismatch between him and some of the colonists. 

His religion was deeply held. When combined with his role as Governor, more worldly colonists assumed he did not have their interests at heart. His lack of ‘activism’ was assumed to make him conservative, but in fact, he hoped for a better world.

The citation of Barnes’ book by the Victorian History Publication Award, concludes with the view that although largely forgotten after his death, La Trobe has in accord with the motto (borrowed from the poet Horace) of the University his Government founded - Postera crescam laude– steadily increased in the esteem of future generations.

The ceremonies of laying the foundation stones for the University and the State Library were performed on the same day, Monday 3 July 1854, by La Trobe’s successor, Governor Hotham. These were undertaken with ‘observances customary on such occasions’. The Geelong Advertiser reported that the ceremonial trowel was dedicated 'in the inscription engraved on it to the late Governor, Mr La Trobe, who it may be remembered was at one time about to perform the ceremony which now devolved on his successor.’  

The lengthy account of the event by the Argus mentions the trowel ‘of excellent workmanship’ but does not record the La Trobe inscription.

Also forgotten for the rescheduled event were the Freemasons whose presence often dominated such ceremonies. 

A representative ‘Hiram’ complained in a letter to the Argus about this omission and indicated that the original date for the ceremony was 1 May but it had to be postponed due to La Trobe’s ‘domestic affliction’ (which Barnes discusses). The suggestion was that this slight to the more dignified of Melbourne’s inhabitants would not have happened under La Trobe.

The Argus dismissed the protest suggesting that the foundation stones seem to have been put firmly in place without the aid of Masonic ceremony and thought such ceremonies (presumably along with La Trobe) may best be forgotten.

But in time the Argus was forgotten and so apparently the actual location of the University’s Foundation Stone and its commemorative plate.

But not La Trobe…

The decision by the Victorian Government, made 120 years later, to name the State’s third university after La Trobe was done in part to rectify his undeserved poor public perception. In 1964, the La Trobe University Act was given Royal Assent by La Trobe’s 20th and last British-born successor Sir Rohan Delacombe.

Whether the University itself has made a difference to the public perception of the man after whom it is named is a moot point. What is beyond dispute is that La Trobe: Traveller, Writer, Governor has improved our understanding of La Trobe and his times and enhanced his reputation. In particular, it shows that there is no basis for the poor perception peddled by the acerbic editor of the then fledgeling, and now defunct, Argus newspaper. The Argus, of course, rehabilitated its reputation after a change of editors - and Barnes has restored La Trobe’s reputation.

Although The Argus adopted the Royal motto
'Dieu et mon Droit' it was not a supporter of the Crown's representative.

La Trobe was formally farewelled at a grand ball on the 28th December 1853. The speaker of the Legislative Council presented him with a gold cup saying ‘you have been a principal instrument... [in]augurating the destinies of this great colony’. On one side was the following inscription:

Presented to His Excellency Charles Joseph La Trobe, Esq., the first Lieutenant Governor of Victoria, in consideration of the high esteem in which he is held by his fellow-colonists, and of the signal success which, under Divine Providence, has attended his administration of the government of the colony during fourteen years.

The speaker also ventured that ‘the public judgment possesses an instructive tendency to rectify [over] time, and … although the reward of virtue may be deferred, it is not on that account the less certain’.

His prophecy seems now fulfilled.

Robert Doyle, Melbourne’s Lord Mayor from November 2008 to February 2018, described La Trobe this way:

Consider a couple of early Melbourne visionaries. That humane and far sighted first governor Charles Joseph La Trobe gave us the parklands that still define Melbourne’s temperament and grant its livability. He is to Melbourne what the founder of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, is to New York. The man who fixed nature in the city gave it a defining ambience and lungs with which to breathe.

The remark highlights how La Trobe’s strong sense of the public interest was manifest. The amount of land he reserved for public parks and gardens was ‘remarkable’ according to Barnes and Melbourne has certainly benefited from his ‘enthusiasm for botany’ and the outdoors.

One fascinating aspect of the book is its exploration of how La Trobe’s Moravian background as a detached observer of the world influenced his approach. His instinct was not to interfere – though in fact there was probably little real opportunity to be too ‘pro-active.’ 

As a ‘traveller’ La Trobe used his observational skills, which later made him a natural for preparing unbiased reports for the Crown. His upbringing taught him not to be ‘of the world’ and to not interfere with the status quo.

During his ‘rambling’ in America, he did not follow the path of many English visitors to meet with politicians and leading ‘citizens’ in Washington. This illustrates his detached indifference to them. His upbringing underlined that God had put governments in their place to keep social order and it was not the role of the Christian to interfere with their policies.

Melbourne probably struck him as an uncultured place with a desire for what he may have regarded as an American-style democracy. He was not a democrat or a politician but the faithful servant of His Majesty – and later Her Majesty Queen Victoria after whom the Colony would be named when statehood came about.

Melbourne as it was when La Trobe left.
‘Canvas Town' Yarra River, Melbourne en-route to the diggings,
taken from 'The Victorian Gold Fields 1852-3' by S. T. Gill via Wikimedia

This issue had been something of a theological dilemma for some schools of Christianity; does one wait for God to bring in the Kingdom or does one create it on earth now.

This theological conundrum has since been thought ‘resolved’ by Reinhold Niebuhr in the last century who made it acceptable for ethical Christians to actively try to improve a sinful world by seeing redemption as an imperfect and continuing process. Niebuhr’s philosophy – or perhaps better theology – apparently now adopted by most recent US Presidents - is encapsulated in his short Serenity Prayer:

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.

Of course, there are limits to this ‘accommodation’; witness Niebuhr’s most recent advocate James Comey.

Fundamental to Superintendent La Trobe’s thoughts, words and actions were his spirituality and his evangelicalism. He shocked the colonists with his arrival speech:

It will not be by individual aggrandisement, by the possession of numerous flocks and herds, or of costly acres, that we shall secure for the country enduring prosperity and happiness, but by the acquisition and maintenance of sound religious and moral institutions, without which no country can become truly great. Let us remember that religion is the only great preventive of crime, and contributes more, in a far more endurable manner, to the peace and good order of society than the Judge and the Sheriff – the gaol and the gibbet united.

He may have clashed with the current President of the United States over what makes a country great. His approach did clash with some early Melbournians, though certainly not all (churches leaders were amongst his sympathetic supporters). 

La Trobe was focussed on his civilising mission in this outpost of Empire, while many colonists had just one major preoccupation – to improve their material lot in life.

La Trobe’s sketch on the back cover of Barnes’ book shows a carriage receding from view. Previously, this image would have been illustrative of how distant our view of him was. Now it is as if we are farewelling a friend with fond memories of a dedicated civiliser and lover of nature who left having made Victoria better than when he found it.

La Trobe will probably continue to be most remembered for the ‘fresh air’ he brought to the city of Melbourne.  

Given his love of the outdoors, it’s a most fitting legacy.

Melbourne skyline as La Trobe allowed it to be, from the Royal Botanic Gardens. 
Image by Cookaa (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons.

Readings of Interest...

If you’re inspired to read some related books, here are a few options.

La Trobe : traveller, writer, governor
by John Barnes

Books by Charles Joseph La Trobe himself

by Charles Joseph La Trobe  
Recommended by Edgar Allan Poe!

by Charles Joseph La Trobe

by Charles Joseph La Trobe