(OT) OZ Topic - The real father of Australia? Your lesson for today...

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As you belligerent Yankees tossed out those snotty Poms you influenced history in many ways. I now post another slant on how OZ got to be what it is.

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The real father of Australia?
Sunday 27 February 2000

A NEW York-born Corsican, once dismissed by Captain James Cook as a "good for nothing", was the real father of Australia, according to a new claim that is likely to renew the debate about the writing of Australian history.

James Mario Matra, a midshipman on Cook's voyage of discovery up the east coast of Australia in 1770, later advocated establishment of a British colony in the same region. Many historians accord Matra a supporting role in Britain's fateful decision to send convicts to Botany Bay, one certainly way behind such figures as the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, who also accompanied Cook.

However, Pino Bosi - author, documentary maker and journalist, and a key figure behind the creation of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) - says there is "much historical evidence" to support the claim that Matra, also known as Magra, was "the real father of Australia".

Five years before Captain Arthur Phillip led the first fleet to Botany Bay, Matra was peppering the British Government with elaborate plans for a colony in the land that Cook had named New South Wales.

Some of his proposals were visionary. Ahead of his time on the question of penal reform, he forecast that the colony would be commercially successful and serve a humane purpose in helping to emancipate convicts. He even anticipated Australia's thriving wool exports to Japan.

Bosi argues in his article in the foundation issue of Italy Down Under, a magazine aimed at Australians with an Italian background, that Matra was ``an expatriate, a refugee and a migrant, someone who, like us, helped to redirect the path of his adopted country, but, like many of us, had to do it surreptitiously and, at times, rebelliously because the conservative establishment and the narrow mind of the bureaucracy would try to prevent it from happening''.

Bosi is in effect accusing other historians of refracting their versions of Australia's early years as a European settlement too much through official British eyes.

However, Professor Alan Frost - who holds a personal chair in History at La Trobe University, and has written a book on Matra, The Precarious Life of James Mario Matra - Voyager with Cook, American Loyalist, Servant of Europe - says the most important figure in the decision to establish a British colony in Australia was Sir Joseph Banks.

``In any sensible appraisal he (Banks) was much more important than Matra,'' Frost says.

Paradoxically, Frost has made a name for himself as a contrarian historian, attacking many other accounts of the colony's early years. Now Bosi is contradicting him. Bosi, 66, has prepared a documentary on Matra, has conducted extensive research in official archives in the UK and Corsica, and is now writing a biography on his semi-compatriot. He dismisses the view that Cook, Banks, or Captain Arthur Phillip, first Governor of the colony of New South Wales, were the fathers of Australia.

Cook, Bosi says, ``was neither here nor there'' in the push for a penal colony in Botany Bay. He charted the east coast, called it New South Wales, hoisted the British flag ``wherever he stepped on land'', and wrote a report. ``But that was it. He did say the land was passable, but also said he preferred other places, such as New Zealand and Norfolk Island.''

``Second in lineage for the title was botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who, having described New South Wales as the most barren land on earth ... suggested it could certainly swerve the purpose of a penal colony.''

Finally, there was Phillip, who ``proved to be a very good and humane Governor''. However, continues Bosi, ``a careful study does not show that any of the trio has the right to the title''.

Italy Down Under takes the claims about Matra's role in Australian history much further. Its editor in chief, Mr Vincent Basile, says Matra's proposal for a settlement of New South Wales in 1783 was a ``truly enlightened document for its time and was, at least partially, implemented by successive colonial governments''.

Matra's life also presents a paradox, adding to the potential for sharp disagreement about how to interpret even uncontested biographical facts. It is difficult, through his own writings and what is known about him, to present a rounded picture, a problem accentuated by the absence of portraits or personal drawings.

However, Bosi asserts that he understands Matra. ``I know what was going on in his mind,'' he says. ``Professor Frost and I have different views: I view him from the inside, he views him from the outside.''

Matra was born into a prominent Corsican family, which had moved to New York, in part to escape one of the island's interminable family feuds or vendettas.

His family became fierce British loyalists in America, and Matra joined the British Navy. In 1768 he became a midshipman on the Endeavour. Captain James Cook's remit from the British Admiralty was to sail the Endeavour to Tahiti via Brazil and Cape Horn, to observe the transit of Venus and collect specimens, then travel further south and chart the coasts of New Zealand and eastern Australia.

Early in the voyage, Cook recorded in his diary that he viewed Matra as a man who ``can very well be spared, or to speak planer (sic) ... (a) good for nothing''. However, Bosi says this was written soon after Matra was unjustly accused of attacking another sailor in his sleep. A ``decent'' and ``fair'' man, Cook later expunged this section from his ``authorised'' version, published after the end of the voyage, Bosi says.

Matra published his own account of Cook's voyage, and interestingly noted there was some fertile land in NSW: ``We observed several kinds of grass growing plentifully, and in some places luxuriantly.''

After the voyage he assiduously cultivated Sir Joseph Banks, who not only made an enormous collection of plants on Cook's voyage but, according to Frost, was a significant provider for the First Fleet and the ill-fated voyage of the Bounty (1787-89) under Captain William Bligh. The latter planned to pick up breadfruit, a staple in the Tahitian diet, and various other plants, and transport them to be grown in the British West Indies.

There, Banks and King George III, who later turned mad, believed the breadfruit would provide a healthy staple for black sugar plantation workers. However, Bligh's voyage ended abruptly with the mutiny of his crew, led by Fletcher Christian.

After the return of the Endeavour to England in 1771, Matra became a lieutenant in the British Navy, but did not take up his commission, and instead worked as the British Consul in the Canary Islands, and then as secretary to the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Court at Constantinople (Istanbul). He died, aged 60, in 1806, while still the British Consul in Tangiers.

In 1783 Matra wrote to Banks, saying he had heard rumors of plans for a settlement in NSW under Banks' direction. He advocated a major free settlement, one that could provide a home for thousands of displaced loyalists to the British crown in the United States who had lost their land and possessions. He envisaged a colony in New South Wales that would afford a strong strategic advantage to Britain, particularly in a war with the likes of Spain or Holland, using it as a base to make naval forays into Dutch-controlled Java, and plundering Spanish galleons, laden with gold, on their way back to Europe from the west coast of South America.

Matra said in a later submission to the British Government that the climate and soil in NSW ``are so happily adapted to produce'' European foods. Within 20 to 30 years, he claimed, the new Australian colony would usher in a revolution in European commerce, securing a large monopoly for Britain. It could produce sugar cane, tea, coffee, silk, cotton, indigo, tobacco and spices, he claimed. In addition, flax, to be used in shipbuilding, would be available from New Zealand.

He suggested that an establishment party set up houses and start farming before the arrival of a large group of free settlers and marines. He also advocated bringing in workers from China, and women from the South Pacific, from New Caledonia, Tahiti and neighboring islands, ``to procure a few families thence, and as many women as may serve for the men left behind: there is every reason to believe they may be obtained without difficulty''.

Matra forecast the entire undertaking would only cost 3000. Apparently, the scheme had some support in America among loyalists; Matra claimed ``the matter has been seriously considered by some of the most intelligent and candid Americans, who all agree that ... it offers the most favorable prospects''.

He saw the colony increasing trade with China, and competing with Russian fur traders to sell skins to China. He also forecast good prospects for Australian-produced wool in Japan - this was written more than 150 years before the explosion of wool exports - and said the colony could help open up British trade with the Korean peninsula.

Matra felt the new colony would be attractive for free English settlers, diverting them away from travelling to the rebellious United States. He later amended his proposal to include convicts, understanding that the British Government was leaning that way.

Matra was opposed to a long period of servitude for convicts in the new colony. ``Give them a few acres of ground, as soon as they arrive in New South Wales, with what assistance they want to till them. They cannot flee from the country, they have no temptations to theft, they must work or starve. It is highly probable they will be useful, it is very possible they will be moral subjects of society.''

Through his plan, Matra said, ``two objects, of most desirable and beautiful union, will be permanently blended: economy to the public and humanity to the individual''.

Appearing before the House of Commons Committee on Transportation, known as the Beauchamp Committee, in 1785, Matra was asked if women in New Caledonia and Tahiti could be ``induced'' to go to NSW ``for the use of the European men''. Matra replied: ``Yes, in any number.''

Matra also said he would be willing to be Governor of the new colony, an offer that went down like a Spanish Galleon. Bosi says, not without passion, that ``having conceived this nation, having located it in this country, having anticipated its development, having drafted a practical scheme to implement settlement and having lobbied two British Governments with three proposals until his scheme was adopted ... Matra was then denied the right to be the country's first immigrant''.

However, Frost rejects Bosi's elevation of Matra, although he acknowledges he was influential. He says Bosi's comments about Banks' observations about NSW also ``quite misrepresent'' the situation.

In another book, Botany Bay Mirages, Professor Frost quotes Banks, in answer to a question from a British parliamentary committee in 1779, saying that Botany Bay, on the coast of New Holland, was the place that was ``best adapted'' for a self-sustaining penal colony. The British Government finally decided, in August 1786, to send the convicts to Botany Bay.

As for Matra, Professor Frost says he ``moved in the great circles of Banks and others but he wasn't able to match them: he didn't have the personal qualities''. However, he does concede that ``some'' of Matra's descriptions of Australia are ``really quite good''.

In fact, while Banks mentioned using New Holland as a penal colony in his evidence before a parliamentary committee four years before Matra's proposals were aired, the idea of colonising the Great South Land goes back much further, even predating the first British sighting of the Australian continent.

In 1625 a London merchant petitioned the King for the privilege of establishing colonies in Terra Australis, and in the early 18th century Captain John Webbe formed a company to carry on trade with Terra Australis. Around the same time a proposal was made to the Dutch East India Company to begin a colony in Australia.

But all these schemes came to nothing. The real impetus for the colony came when the rebelling British colonies in North America refused to receive any further convicts.

Bosi, who came to Australia with his parents in 1950, says Matra owed Banks a great deal but it was he, and not Banks, who provided the real momentum for the new colony. In all of Sir Joseph's reports, Bosi says, ``there is not a single line where Banks mentions Australia as a colony''. Asked about Professor Frost's assessment of Matra as a man lacking in personal qualities, Bosi says: ``Then Mr Frost is not a good reader. He (Matra) had the courage to do the things he did.''

Bosi feels Matra was a complex man, ingratiating himself with the upper echelons of British society but not really at home in their company. ``Under different circumstances he would not have needed Banks' patronage.''

Matra even felt, at times, that ``he was a bloody fugitive''. Bosi identifies with his battles over the Australian colony and for recognition - the Sydney suburb of Matraville is named after him - comparing his struggles with Bosi's own epic battle to establish SBS. ``Like Matra, I had to fight.''

``When I am in Italy people might ask me what I think of Rousseau, or Montaigne or Shakespeare. Here they will ask how I am qualified to comment about them. They might let me talk about multiculturalism instead.''

And for the final word on why he is so confident in his assessment of Matra: ``If you put the correct perspective on a person, suddenly you know what he is like,'' says Bosi. ``It's like an X-ray.''

-------------end of that history lesson-----------

Before you Americans glow with indignation at this posting here is another little gem. When the Yankee whalers stopped over at Hobart Town for refreshments and such like, a bloke by the name of Clark listened to their tales of Gettysburgh etc. This bloke wrote the Constitution of Australia, strongly influenced by them rough & ready Yanks! It's a good yarn that hardly anyone knows about. I post this today to take your mind off leap years, presidential slugging matches, and Hillary...

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), March 01, 2000


The Australians know a lot of American history, along with the obvious British slant. The above isn't well known though and I think that in an Olympic year a little bit of knowledge sort off helps to break a barrier or two. The American culture is all pervasive to this day and the Kentucky Fried Colonel is bungee jumping into another advertising barrage...it's drrrreadfulllll.

-- Pieter (zaadz@cisp.net.au), March 01, 2000.


I found this post of yours fascinating. As we've seen here, history seems almost continually subject to (hopefully non-PC) revision and elaboration. I'm guessing that this article prompted some knashing of molars in your neighborhood.

yet, from the article, it also seems that this revision has been thoroughly-enough researched and documented to likely hold up. Right?

From another perspective, this article offers a whole series of points where one can ask 'what if so-and-so had decided differently -- hat would th world look like now'?

Again, fascinating!

Thank you!

-- redeye in ohio (not@work.com), March 01, 2000.

What captures my imagination is the idea-n-fact that a bunch of American whalers-n-sealers with lofty ideals influenced a Tasmanian who wrote the Federation of Australia's constitution. It is said that among these Yankee sailors were ex-soldiers who were with Lincoln at Gettysburgh. As some of you American visit Sydney with the Olympics, remember that some of the names you see came through the American connections...


-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), March 01, 2000.

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