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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

On This Day, 21 June; William Paterson Died



Lieutenant-Colonel William Paterson is not much remembered these days in Australia, compared with some of his apparently less admirable contemporaries in the early days of the colony. I think that's unfortunate; while he was undeniably the wrong man for the job he was actually doing - he seems to have been most amiable and averse to conflict - his passion for natural history, and botany in particular, will always endear him to me. I'm happy to play my small part in refreshing our memories of him, to mark the 204th anniversary of his death.
Colonel William Paterson, 1799; artist William Owen.
Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales.
He was a Scot, born in 1755, who was always interested in botany from his boyhood, a passion apparently imbued in him by his father, a professional gardener. In 1777 Lady Strathmore from a neighbouring estate, who shared his love of botany, was instrumental in sending him to South Africa for three years to collect plants for her. Sadly for all concerned, during this period Lady Strathmore's husband died and she entered into an unfortunate remarriage to a man who not only disapproved of his new wife's botanical interests but took over her money and cut off Paterson's cash supply, leaving him grievously in debt. 

He enlisted into the army in 1781, probably to help alleviate his financial woes, but also to take him to new places and new plants. Based on his South African experiences he wrote the snappily titled Narrative of four journeys into the country of the Hottentots of Caffraria, which he shrewdly dedicated to Sir Joseph Banks, for whom he later collected plants in Madras. It seems in fact as though a major purpose in his life was to find favour with the great botanical patron. 

In 1789 he was made a Captain in the New South Wales Corps and given the task of both recruiting and commanding a company which he was to take to the New South Wales colony, where he arrived in 1791 and was immediately made commander of troops on that most brutal of convict outposts, Norfolk Island. His determination at this time was to collect a specimen of every Norfolk Island plant, as well as rock specimens and insects, during his 16 months of service there. Back in Sydney in 1793 he made one of the first attempts to enter the Blue Mountains by boat along the Grose River; with the knowledge of the time it wasn’t a silly idea at all, but he found that the waterfalls somewhat restricted navigation to the boat. He did of course make plant collections here including some hitherto unknown species.
Twining Fringe-lily Thysanotus patersonii Family Anthericaceae, Canberra.
This is one of my favourite spring flowers around here, named for Paterson in 1810,
the year of his death, by fellow Scot, the great botanist Robert Brown.
By now he was second in command of the Corps and for much of 1795 acted as colony administrator during the interregnum  before Governor Hunter arrived. While always apparently scrupulous and ethical himself - he later died in poverty - he notably failed to rein in the corrupt practices of those under his command, who were widely and publicly trading in spirits. 

In 1796 he went home on sick leave with an eye infection, taking plants for Banks and advising him on trees to be planted in the colony. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, made Lieutenant-Colonel and sent back here as Lieutenant-Governor to Governor King in 1799. Of these honours I suspect that he most prized the fellowship as he had previously sought it but been advised by Banks to wait until he had proved himself further. 

When the arrogant and ambitious disgraced soldier John McArthur tried to embroil Paterson into his personal dispute with the governor over his rights to make money however he chose, Paterson was offended and fought a duel with him, in which Paterson was wounded in the neck. McArthur was arrested and sent back to England. Paterson recovered and collected new palms, hibiscus and ferns on the north coast. He took a personal interest in the collections of Matthew Flinders’ botanist Robert Brown when they visited Sydney in 1803 and accompanied the French zoologist Peron in the field when the mighty Baudin expedition dropped in.
 
Patersonia glabrata, Ulladulla, New South Wales.
In 1807 Robert Brown (see previous caption too), named this lovely and
widespread iris genus for Paterson.
Although ill-health forced him to relinquish most of his duties, when London wanted to set up a colony in northern Tasmania to thwart any intentions that the French may have had, they selected Paterson to command the colony. With him were his wife, 66 soldiers (including two drummers) and 74 convicts. He changed sites a couple of times until he finally settled on the current Launceston site – Australian historical doyen Manning Clark refers to him as an ‘amiable procrastinator’. This was probably not the best personal characteristic for a man in his senior position, especially with the catastrophic events occurring in Sydney in early 1807, where Governor Bligh seemed to have lost the plot entirely. It wasn’t that his priorities – of banning rum as a trading medium and concentrating on self-sufficiency in agriculture in preference to relying on wool and other trade – were bad in themselves. Rather it was the powerful enemies this made, and his arrogance, obscene tirades against all who opposed him and brutality to those in his power. 

Bligh was arrested and deposed, and it was a reluctant Paterson who as Lieutenant-Governor finally had to return from Launceston to take over. This was after all, going to interfere rather severely with his plant collecting! Himself a target of Bligh’s abuse, he took the mutineers’ side, and ordered Bligh to leave the colony. His year of command while waiting for Governor Macquarie was frankly disastrous. Ill and drinking to cope with the unwanted pressures, he gave away land to anyone who requested it, and left effective control to the officers who'd deposed Bligh. When the time came for him to go back to England to participate in the trial of the mutineers, he was cheered aboard by a huge crowd of citizens as a ‘benevolent and likeable man’ in Manning Clark’s words. Sadly he died soon after while rounding Cape Horn.
 
Patersonia occidentalis, Bee-keepers Nature Reserve, Western Australia.
This is the only western member of the genus.
I suspect that if Paterson had not joined the military he could have had a happy life as a plant collector, with Banks' patronage, but life sent him on a much less happy path. Nonetheless he made the most of his opportunities to contribute to our knowledge of Australian botany and natural history in general, though well out of his depth in his day job. I wish things had worked out better for him, but life's not like that - and at least he lived to see his name perpetuated in a flower genus that he would have known well.

BACK ON WEDNESDAY

4 comments:

Flabmeister said...

A sad story.

Is he in anyway related to Jane Paterson of Albury, the infamous transport vector for Salvation Jane?

Martin

Ian Fraser said...

Most unlikely Martin, or at least not closely. He had no children and no relatives in Australia that I can find record of.

Susan said...

Is Salvation Jane the same as Paterson's Curse (ie Echium vulgare)? In which case I was wondering the same thing.

Ian Fraser said...

Yes, same beast - tends to be P Curse over here, but SJ in South Australia. It used to be sold in the Sydney markets as Riverina Bluebell, and in WA it's also called Lady Campbell's Weed.