I wonder how many New Englanders know that for more than a decade Port Macquarie was the centre of British civilization on Northern NSW?
Maitland (1829) together with its adjoining river port at Morpeth (1831) would develop into the largest urban conglomeration in the north, but this still lay ahead.
The penal colony at Newcastle had been established in 1804 as a place of secondary punishment for re-offending convicts, but problems soon emerged.
Newcastle was just too close to the Sydney fleshspots, to accessible by land, providing the incentive and means for absconding. There was also pressure to open up the Hunter for European settlement.
There were initial land grants under Governor Macquarie, but these were limited to small grants to ex-convicts. However, further south the settlers on the Hawkesbury and in the Sydney Basin were seeking new pastures for their growing flocks and herds. As a consequence, the Hunter was opened up for European settlement in 1822.
Explorer John Oxley had discovered and named Port Macquarie in 1818. This seemed a suitable site for a new penal colony to replace Newcastle, although Macquarie was initially uncertain. Finally, in 1821 the decision was made to proceed.
In seeking to discover that far country called the past, we are all bound by current mind-sets in ways that we do not always understand. Port Macquarie is a case in point.
I had always thought of Port Macquarie as a minor penal settlement founded from and close to Sydney, something equivalent to the establishment, ay of the jail at Grafton many years later. The reality is different.
To begin with, the number or convicts sent to Port Macquarie was roughly similar in scale to those sent to Port Jackson in the early days. This was not a small settlement.
Like Port Jackson, convicts were expected to build the necessary infrastructure including barracks required to support the colony. Like Port Jackson, they were expected to grow their own food. And like Port Jackson, the Government was interested in exports from the new colony that might yield economic gain.
The new colony was expected to be a punishment colony, a feared place of secondary punishment. But to accommodate the needs of the new colony, convicts volunteering to build Port Macquarie were offered special treatment.
Later, convicts sent to Port Macquarie were also granted special privileges in the treatment of things such as their own gardens. This, too, had happened at Port Jackson, but it created a fundamental problem. This can be put simply.
Port Macquarie was a place of secondary punishment, a place to be feared. How, then, do your reconcile the special treatment required to establish and then maintain the colony?
There were no easy answers to this question. It led to fluctuating treatment of the convicts as official balance switched between punishment and remediation. Meantime, a new town had emerged.
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