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 

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