The Bigge picture: Colonial manners, mission, and the imperial context of Australia's first libel case

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The Philo Free case—a clash between Macquarie and an Anglican clergyman, in this case Samuel Marsden—needs to be understood against the backdrop of developments in the larger colonial and imperial contexts.
A crucial development in this regard was the Bigge parliamentary enquiry (or ‘Bigge Commission’ as it has come to be popularly known). Although Bigge’s royal commission was not established until 5 January 1819 (Bigge arrived in Sydney later that year), Bathurst had decided as early as 1817—the year in which the Philo Free controversy erupted—that there was need for an examination into both the mounting costs associated with NSW and the effectiveness of transportation as a deterrent to felons. Bigge was charged with investigating the legal system and courts, civil administration, convict management, the Church, trade, revenue and natural resources. Bathurst had been concerned about Macquarie’s ‘ill considered compassion for convicts’ and, in three letters of additional instructions to Bigge, the imperial master disclosed the policy outcome he sought for the Australian colonies: that transportation should be made ‘an object of real terror’. The equivalent term today would probably be ‘deterrent’. The outcome of the commission was, therefore, a fait accompli, prompting the observation of one of Bigge’s biographers that he was going out to Australia ‘in the dual guise of public commissioner of the Crown and of private inquisitor for the government’.
As we shall see below, the Bigge Commission provides important context for the Philo Free case: first, for showing how imperial policy favoured Marsden’s vision for the Australian colonies, contra Macquarie’s, during the years following the Philo Free case; and second, for the valuable light it sheds on the Philo Free case via Bigge’s voluminous evidence, collected in bower-bird fashion over several years. Marsden wrote incessantly to Bigge—by 1821 almost daily—to vindicate both his character and his actions in relation to the affair. Significant portions of this correspondence were attempts by the chaplain to justify—to Bigge, his imperial masters and his neighbouring colonists—his decision to pursue the Philo Free matter in the courts.
This chapter also considers the broader metropolitan and empire-wide contexts of the Protestant missionary movement, as well as the broader cultural and social context of the ‘reformation of manners’ and the cult of middle-class respectability. Neglect among historians of both of these contexts has, I shall argue, led to inadequate caricatures of Marsden’s position and, in some cases, assessments of his motivations that read more like pop psychology than careful historical analysis.
That Bigge picture, its colonial, imperial and social contexts, and the various ways in which it illuminates Australia’s first libel case and Marsden’s role in it, are the focus of this chapter.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFreedom to libel? Samuel Marsden v Philo Free
Subtitle of host publicationAustralia's first libel case
EditorsPeter G. Bolt, Malcolm Falloon
Place of PublicationSydney, NSW Australia
PublisherBolt Publishing
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9780994634931
ISBN (Print)9780994634924
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017

Publication series

NameStudies in Colonial Australian History
PublisherBolt Publishing


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