Who’s Edward Smith Hall, you say?
He was the editor of the Sydney Monitor between 1826 and early 1840, which makes him exceptional among the highly fluid editorial scene in colonial New South Wales. Many editors lasted only two or three years before their papers either faltered or merged and transformed themselves into yet another entity. So as Erin Ihde points out in this book, the Sydney Monitor under the editorship of just one man provides us with
…not just a newspaper but a most important manifesto, one which outlines a complex social vision as it evolved, on deeply laid principles, over a period of fourteen years. In it we see revealed more clearly than in any other accounts, including the works of Wentworth and Macarthur, the intellectual problems faced by one person in their quest to clarify their hopes for New South Wales. (p. 244)
Edward Smith Hall was born in London in 1786, one of six sons of a bank manager. He arrived in Sydney on 10th October 1811 bearing a letter of recommendation from Peel, the under-secretary for War and the Colonies, citing contacts with two other M.P.s On the basis of this recommendation, he received several land grants but the life of a pastoralist was not for him. He became involved in merchant shipping and banking, then in 1826 established the Sydney Monitor.
Ihde’s book is an intellectual history, and it draws mainly on Hall’s editorials and articles over a 14 year period. Hall seems to be a hard man to pin down intellectually, given often to puzzling logic and outright contradiction. In a time without official political parties as such, over such an extended period of time, and under the pressure to generate two, and by 1836 three issues a week, it’s perhaps not surprising that his stance shifted on the hot topics of the day. Moreover, many of these topics were just as thorny and contested and “wicked” as, for example, climate change and asylum seekers are today. They were, as our ex-Prime Minister might have said, the great moral challenges of their time. Nonetheless, Ihde has set out to try to trace Hall’s underlying philosophy and having attempted a similar endeavour with Judge Willis, I have some appreciation of how difficult this can be.
Hall operated from a practical Evangelical, yet surprisingly liberal Christianity- a contradiction right from the start. He placed more emphasis on moral character than status; he believed strongly in the “moral economy” and the rights of free-born Englishmen and did not accept that convictism cancelled out these rights. He strongly supported the continuation of transportation, and yet was seen as being an advocate for emancipists. He acknowledged the Aborigines as the original possessors of the land, and yet accepted as part of the natural order of things that the Aborigines would be usurped- or rather, than the superiority of Englishmen would lead to their ‘adoption’ of the land.
He has been characterized as “changeable” by later historians, but Ihde argues instead that
…Hall’s stances on various issues prevent his easy classification as a supporter of any single ideological or political grouping for any length of time. The complexity of his views and his struggles to find solutions to fundamental moral problems meant that while on the surface he appeared to be subject to abrupt changes of mind, in reality he was driven by a clash of circumstances and principles. His contradictions were the result of his search for all-encompassing solutions…Hall has been portrayed by historians as having a very changeable attitude. Such a view is unfounded. (p 245)
Ihde largely restricts his analysis to the columns of the Sydney Monitor. His book commences and closes with biographical details about Hall himself, but Hall as a living, breathing Sydney man does not come through clearly through the body of the work. I suspect that Ihde would say that this was not his intention: the book emerges from his doctoral thesis, and the blurb on the back of the book tells us that he is working on a full-scale biography of Edward Smith Hall- an admission that this book has not told all there is to tell about Hall. Ihde consciously decides not to enter into Hall’s imprisonment for libel because, as he points out, other historians including C.H. Currey and Brian Fletcher have already ploughed this field. I found myself disappointed by this. Along with interest in how Ihde dealt with the intellectual beliefs of a “changeable” public figure, I was curious to see how Hall, bearing the religious, philosophical and intellectual beliefs that Ihde has analysed, reacted as a man and public figure when they had real-life, physical consequences. While Currey and Fletcher may have already described the situation, they did so from the perspective of Forbes and Darling, not from Hall himself.
So is it fair to judge a work by what the author has made a conscious decision NOT to deal with? There’s always a tussle between what a reader wants from a book, and what the author him/herself has marked out as the territory in which they want to excavate. Part of the argument lies in convincing the reader stay with the author in that part of the field instead of gazing over the fence and wondering what’s over there instead. I’m not sure that Ihde managed to do this with me completely , but in terms of technique, I gained much from watching a historian dealing with inconsistency and contradiction in the search for a philosophical bedrock in a public figure.