Admiral William Hobson, Dictator of New South Wales

The Military Government of New South Wales, commonly called the Hobson Regime, was an authoritarian military dictatorship that ruled the Republic of New South Wales for twenty-six years from 1845 until 1871. It began with the 1845 Naval coup d'etat which toppled the democratically elected government of President Fitzpatrick and replaced it with a junta of naval officers led by Admiral Hobson, who was proclaimed Dictator. The Hobson regime was characterised by violent repression of all internal opposition, a lack of civil liberties, and complete control over the press. It also presided over a period of important economic, territorial, and population growth in New South Wales. In 1869 a group of army officers, dissatisfied with his perceived bias towards the navy, staged a coup against Hobson. This new junta was even more repressive than Hobson's, and in 1871 a massive popular campaign of demonstrations, armed rebellion, industrial strikes, and international pressure forced the downfall of military rule, and brought back democratic civilian government.


In 1804, a convict rebellion led by exiled Irish republicans resulted in the collapse of British colonial rule in New South Wales. The rebels established a new republican government, electing their leader Phillip Cunningham as president. Although shaky at first, New South Wales' democracy had stabilised by the 1820s into a fully functioning presidential republic. French assistance meant that New South Wales also had a well-supplied and modern military.

The death of Norfolk Island's long-serving dictator Joseph Foveaux in 1845 plunged the island's factions into a bitter power struggle. When news of this reached Sydney, the government of President Fitzpatrick voted to send an expeditionary force to restore order to the island, and reunite it with New South Wales. Fitzpatrick was of the opinion that as the successor to the Colony of New South Wales, the Republic had inherited Norfolk Island as well. Admiral Hobson was selected to lead the expedition: three frigates and two sloops and a detachment of marines. The expedition arrived at Norfolk Island without incident, and very quickly restored order and New South Welsh sovereignty. Hobson took on the administration of the island, directing the rebuilding of destroyed buildings and overseeing the harvest. When news reached Sydney of the success of the mission, there was much public joy, and the government considered appointing Hobson permanent Administrator of the Island as reward.

The reception of the news in Hobart, however, was vastly different. The government of Van Diemen's land had always considered itself the legitimate successor to the Colony of New South Wales, and thus it was Van Diemen's Land, and not New South Wales, which had the legitimate claim to Norfolk Island. The Vandiemonian parliament authorised its own expeditionary force to remove the New South Welsh from Norfolk Island and instate Vandiemonian rule.

The Vandiemonian expedition outnumbered the forces available to Hobson -two ships having returned to Sydney since the restoration of order- and after a valiant attempt to repel the invaders, Hobson was forced to retreat to Sydney for reinforcements. Upon his arrival in Sydney, however, the Fitzpatrick government denied his request for re-inforcements, and instead sent an envoy to Hobart accepting Vandiemonian sovereignty over the island. Historians view Fitzpatrick's reasoning for this decision as fairly sound; his government was not universally popular and a war could lead to loss at the upcoming election, and the conciliatory policies of Napoleon II meant that he could not rely on France for assistance.

Hobson and the naval hierarchy did not accept Fitzgerald's reasoning, and publicly voiced their outrage. Hobson in particular was bitterly disappointed at the prospect of losing his appointment as Administrator of the Island. Using his connections, Hobson printed an open letter to the President in the Sydney Republican titled "Stabbed in the Back". The letter claimed that victory had been achievable, and that had the government not stabbed the navy in the back by appeasing Van Diemen's Land. The letter brought many Sydneysiders over to Hobson's side, and many public voices urged the government not to ratify the agreement with the Vandiemonian government.

Coup d'etat

On the 14th of November, the New South Welsh Assembly had gathered to vote on ratifying the agreement with Van Diemen's Land. It was generally accepted that this was a mere formality, as the document had the support of the vast majority.

As the deputies entered the chamber, Admiral Hobson and one hundred marines disembarked his flagship, the Medusa, and, after forming up, marched from Sydney Cove to Government House with Hobson at their head. The sentries posted at the Assembly gate saluted Hobson and allowed him to pass unopposed. It was only in the antechamber that Hobson encountered any resistance: Franny Fitzpatrick, the twenty-year-old daughter of the President, realising what was afoot, set upon Hobson with her parasol before being taken into custody by a marine sergeant. The parasol is currently held in the National Museum.

After that brief altercation, Hobson and his force burst into the chamber. Marines guarded all the exits, and Hobson read out a proclamation dissolving the Assembly, replacing it with a Military Council, and appointing himself Dictator (it should be noted that at the time, the term "dictator" was still used with its classical Roman connotations of a person taking control in times of emergency, and was not necessarily pejorative). Hobson then departed with a smaller detatchment of marines to the Presidential residence, one block away. On entering the house they found it seemingly deserted, however upon further searching President Fitzpatrick was discovered to have been hiding under his bed. This fact was capitalised upon by the new regime, who printed a smear campaign labeling Fitzpatrick a coward.

Quarter-Century of Power

One of the first actions of the new regime was to repudiate the agreement with Van Diemen's Land and to reaffirm New South Wales' sovereignty over Norfolk Island. The move was met with no response from Hobart, where the government refused to accept the legitimacy of Hobson's regime. Whilst preparations began in Sydney for an attempt at re-taking the Island, news arrived that the council and local garrison of Coal River had refused to accept the legitimacy of Hobson's regime, and had expelled its official messengers. The invasion fleet destined for Norfolk Island was redirected to Coal River, where it bombarded the town into submission. This was the first of many instances of the regime's violent repression of opposition. Coal River's uprising gave Hobson the excuse he needed to indefinitely postpone the planned invasion of Norfolk Island. Analysis of his personal diaries reveals that Hobson came to the same conclusion as Fitzpatrick very soon after gaining power, and was extremely glad to have been given the "distraction" of the Coal River incident.

After some newspapers published articles critical of Hobson's response to the Coal River uprising, the junta decreed that all newspapers were to pass censorship to "purge them of malicious and treasonous falsehoods". The authors of the seditious articles were quietly imprisoned. Over the course of the period of military rule, censorship became increasingly tight, with little to no printed observations permitted on government policies except for official government notices or announcements. An interesting and unintended consequence of this was the growth in local literary scene. Newspapers, no longer permitted to publish political stories, required fill for their pages, and locally-written poetry and short stories was a perfect answer. Poets and authors, also obliged to keep away from political topics, focused instead on the country's unique natural environment, the immigrant experience, and "bush life". Previously obscure writers such as John McDouall Stuart and Hamilton Hume gained public exposure in the papers, and even garnered acclaim as far afield as Van Diemen's Land and India.

In a further attempt to control the population, public gatherings of ten or more unrelated people had to be given express written permission. Gatherings without permission were broken up and their attendees arrested. The only exceptions to the rule were church services, military parades, scheduled theatre performances, and licensed dining establishments.

In order to bring the regime's control measures into force, Hobson formed the first professional police force in New South Wales. The uniformed section, nicknamed "Hobbos" after Hobson, were responsible for a rapid decline in violent crime in Sydney and the other major towns. The plain-clothes section, "Plainies", operated as the regime's secret political police, arresting, intimidating, torturing and killing opponents to the regime.

Immigration policy and effects

At the time of Hobson's coup, the population of New South Wales stood at approximately 170,000. Hobson and his junta were very quick to grasp the strategic impossibility of such a tiny population defending a country larger than Great Britain. It was therefore the regime's stated top priority to entice immigrants, particularly from Ireland, but also from Britain and other European countries. In 1846 the regime implemented a system of assisted migration, and sent a delegation to Ireland to advertise the opportunities offered to immigrants in New South Wales. A new system of land grants was established, giving immigrants the opportunity to purchase crown land, including that leased by squatters, at very low prices. The regime's immigration campaign was serendipitous in its timing, as 1846 was the start of almost a decade of poor potato crops resulting in frequent famines and outbreaks of disease. In this climate, the offer of an assisted passage to the "Ireland of the South" and of land for next-to-free, was irresistible. Hundreds of thousands of poor, predominantly Catholic Irishmen and women took advantage of the regime's offer and made the passage to Sydney. Of those, thousands chose life in the bush, establishing wheat farms or sheep stations. Not insignificant numbers of Scots and Germans also made the journey. Further population increases came with the Terre Napoleon gold rushes of the 1850s. Thousands of prospectors sailed to Sydney before trekking overland to the goldfields. Whilst the major beneficiary of this immigration explosion was Terre Napoleon, significant numbers settled in the Southern districts. This brought the first Chinese immigrants to New South Wales, adding to the hitherto homogeneously Western European population. Their presence was at times violently resented by the whites, but Hobson, seeing the advantages the hardworking Chinese could bring, stringently opposed any violence against them.

The relatively sudden influx of large numbers of poor Irish, many of whom were from the Gaeltacht and spoke only minimal English, led to a substantial increase in Gaelic-speakers in New South Wales. Whilst Hobson -an Anglican whose parents had been part of the Protestant Ascendancy- supported integration of Gaelic-speakers and the language's speedy replacement with English, influential members of his junta were Catholics with string Gaelic heritage. Due to their influence, the regime instituted a system supporting the Gaelic language and offering Gaelic speakers assistance and translators. Gaelic was encouraged in schools, and indeed some schools in immigrant areas taught almost exclusively in Gaelic. The survival and relative flourishing of Gaelic in New South Wales is largely thanks to the efforts of the Hobson regime.

Hobson's land-for-immigrants policy was extremely unpopular with the Squatter class. The Squatters were a class of grazers who occupied extensive tracts of government land either through virtue of being the first white settler in the area, or through leasing the land from the government. By the time of the coup, the squatters as a class had become very wealthy, and enjoyed immense prestige and privilege, causing some commentators to coin the term "squatocracy" to describe their almost aristocratic standing. Despite all of this, the squatters' legal rights to the lands they grazed their immense sheep flocks on were still nil. Hobson's policy of selling government land to immigrants was therefore strongly resented by the squatocracy, as it was slowly eating away at their long-established domains. Squatters who complained too loudly or too publicly would on occasion be made to "disappear", usually to be found a week later having been drowned in a river. Historians agree that the twenty-six years of military rule in New South Wales caused the complete destruction of the squatocracy. By depriving the squatters of any means of influencing government decisions -there was no parliament to influence, and no free newspapers through which to attempt to influence the public- the regime severely limited their power, and by parceling out their lands to new immigrants it took away their very livelihoods. By the time the regime fell in 1871, the vast majority of squatters had been ruined by increasing encroachment on their lands, whilst the remainder had been forced into purchasing their lands from the government, invariably leading to near-bankruptcy. The breaking of the squatocracy had the unintended consequence of creating a class of formerly-rich, educated young men in the cities with a deep hatred of the regime for effectively disinheriting them from their family's formerly great fortunes. This subset played a large role in inciting and co-ordinating the events which led to the regime's ultimate demise in 1871.

As a result of the increasing number of whites settling in rural areas, conflict with the native Aborigines became more intense. In 1857, the regime, always eager for military action to distract the population, deployed the army to the frontier, establishing a series of forts and outposts. Whilst Aborigines who assimilated into white society had always been welcomed in New South Welsh society, those who continues to live traditional or semi-traditional lives and who poached livestock were always looked upon by disdain. Using often extremely minor offences as a pretext, the army undertook an extremely violent campaign against the aborigines over the course of about a decade. Massacres against unarmed camps, and the poisoning of water-holes and food supplies were common tactics used by the army, leading the majority of modern historians to label their campaign a genocide. At the time, however, the army's campaign was looked upon favourably by the rural white population, and newspapers of the period frequently carried pieces congratulating the army on its successful "dispersals" of natives. Often the true extent and methods were kept secret, or at least unpublished. An unplanned consequence of the so-called "Frontier War" was the growth in power, size, and popularity of the army. This increase was not reflected in Hobson's junta, however, which had just one army officer during his entire reign, nor in funding, which remained the same despite the army's growth and new operation. Brigadier Patrick Jennings, leader of the successful counter-coup in 1869, was a prominent commander in the Frontier War, and his resentment of Hobson's alleged ill-treatment of the army during his time there was a primary cause of the putsch.

New Munster

In early 1850, a group of about two hundred Irish and Scottish pioneers and their families established a settlement on the South Island of New Zealand. They proclaimed an independent "Republic of New Munster" over the entire island, and entered into negotiations with the local Maori chiefs. Relations quickly broke down between the Maori and the newcomers, and violence became more frequent between the two groups. By late 1851, New Munster's situation had become so bad that a message was sent to Sydney asking for urgent assistance against the "native hordes". Hobson, aware of the good publicity which could be created by another successful expedition, agreed to the request. A squadron of warships and troop transports arrived at the settlement in January 1852, and relieved them from the Maori siege. Over the course of the three-year "New Munster War", the New South Welsh military slowly but surely destroyed the Maori resistance. In 1853, Hobson himself arrived in New Munster and took control of operations. His successful use of combined forces attacks on Maori strongholds is often credited with the success of the war. In August 1854, the Rangatira of the South Island iwi signed a treaty accepting the sovereignty of New Munster. One year later, the New Munster Assembly voted to join New South Wales as an autonomous republic. Hobson's regime accepted the proposal, and New Munster officially became an autonomous republic of New South Wales on the 5th of June, 1855. Due to the distance between it and Sydney, the new autonomous republic was necessarily less under the grip of the military regime than the mainland, and enjoyed significantly higher rates of press and political freedom. The elected New Munster Assembly had effective control over the island, and visitors and immigrants there often remarked their disbelief at the level of freedom enjoyed there.

Army coup

By October 1869, the army's continued lack of appropriate representation in the junta, lack of adequate funding, and Hobson's refusal to mint a campaign medal for the Frontier War put army resentment of the Hobson regime at an all-time high. Brigadier Patrick Jennings and a group of similarly disaffected officers began organising a coup of their own to topple Hobson and replace him and his junta with a leadership more supportive of the army's interests. On the 14th of November 1869, exactly twenty-four years to the day since Hobson's coup, Brigadier Jennings and his fellow plotters stormed into the dictatorial chambers and placed Hobson under arrest. The group swore themselves in as the new junta that same day. The army was heavily deployed throughout Sydney, Coal River, and Cunningham to ensure that no repeat of the Coal River uprising would take place. In the weeks following the coup, the army unleashed the "Green Terror" -a reference to the green coats of the army- on its opponents. Officers and bureaucrats deemed to have been too close to the Hobson regime were executed by firing squad in public squares. Hobson himself was stripped of his naval titles and hanged alongside common criminals. newspaper editors who had published stories too supportive of the old regime were also killed. Contemporary accounts describe an atmosphere of fear hanging over the entire population of Sydney. The new army regime was more repressive than Hobson had been. All newspapers but one were shut down, and the sole remaining one was used to print government notices. Those accused of speaking out agains the regime were summarily executed, and military parades and church services became the only form of sanctioned public gathering. Public discontent with the new regime ran extremely high, and secret societies plotting its overthrow and a return to democratic government very quickly established themselves. The educated, formerly rich sons of squatters took leading roles in organising the underground movement, using their family networks to pass information and gain weapons.

Fall of the regime

In October 1871, a group of fifty university students marched in a peaceful demonstration at The Rocks, Sydney, against the regime. Refusing to leave, the army opened fire on them with grape shot, killing all but one, who was later hanged. This act of sheer violence caused a level of public outrage not seen since the Coal River uprising. The secret societies, seeing their chance, declared a revolution, and set up barricades on the streets. At the same time, factory workers and sheep shearers organised crippling strikes. After three days of this, several naval crews defected to the protestors. Overwhelmed by the immensity of the public reaction, and crippled by the mutiny of large parts of the navy, Brigadier Jennings and the army junta fled Sydney on horseback, never to be seen again. An interim government was quickly formed by the leaders of the revolution, and free elections were held in December for the first time in twenty-six years. As a result of the election, Richard Bingle -son of a squatter- was elected President.

Legacy and historical assessment

The twenty-six years of military rule in New South Wales resulted in profound changes to the country. In just a quarter of a century, the population had doubled, and would continue to grow. The power of the land-owning squatter class was shattered forever, arguably making New South Wales a more democratic nation. Gaelic became an intrenched second language, local literature flourished, and crime continued to drop thanks to the new police force.

Historians who had lived through the regime gave very critical assessments of its achievements, focusing mainly on its violent, repressive side. Since the 1960s however, historians have taken a more balanced view of the Hobson years. Modern historians such as Malcom Turnbull and Gill Crocker argue that, whilst undeniably violent and ruthless, and genocidal towards the indigenous population, the years of military rule were pivotal for the development of modern New South Wales thanks to immigration and land use policies, the nurturing of local literature and Gaelic, and the establishment of the first modern police force.

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