John Thomas Bigge

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John Thomas Bigge

John Thomas Bigge (1780-1843) was an English colonial judge and royal commissioner whose reports on the status of New South Wales and Tasmania stimulated reforms that led to the erosion of the penal nature of the colonies.

John Bigge was born on March 8, 1780, at Benton House, Long Benton, Northumberland, the second son of Thomas Charles Bigge, the sheriff of Northumberland, and his wife Jemima, both from wealthy though untitled gentry stock. Bigge was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1801 and his master's degree in 1804. In 1806 he was called to the bar at the Inner Temple and soon became a successful London barrister.

In 1810 Bigge took his sister to convalesce in Madeira, where he studied Spanish law and became an intimate of Sir Ralph Woodford. Woodford became governor of Trinidad in 1813 and the following year had Bigge appointed his chief justice. Woodford enlarged Bigge's powers by making him a judge of the Vice Admiralty Court, judge of intestate, prior of the Court of Consulado, and a member of the Court of Audencia.

In 1814 Bigge became senior member of the Trinidad Council and in 1815 was recommended for the title of alcalde mayor. Bigge overcame complex sociolegal problems and occasionally undertook important civil work for the governor, but he resented having to administer Spanish law and in 1818 he resigned.

Inspections and Inquiries

Bigge's success in Trinidad and Woodford's influence with Lord Bathurst, secretary of state for the colonies, facilitated Bigge's appointment on Jan. 5, 1819, to inquire into the "laws, regulations, and usages" of the colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), with special reference to the administration, convicts, legal system, the Church, trade, revenue, and natural resources. By 1819 the Australian colonies were beginning to outgrow their penal foundations, and limited capitalistic growth had conditioned conflict between individual colonists and Governor Lachlan Macquarie. The British government had received many complaints about Macquarie's alleged despotism and especially about his favorable policy toward exconvicts. But above all, the government wanted colonial expenses reduced.

Bigge arrived in Sydney on Sept. 26, 1819, on a salary of £ 3,000; Macquarie, 20 years Bigge's senior, was on £ 2,000. Bigge spent 17 months in the colonies and then presented three reports: in 1822 the "State of the Colony" and in 1823 the "Judicial Establishments" and the "State of Agriculture and Trade." The reports were based on extensive travel and observation and the examination of nearly all of the male free settlers, about 60 ex-convicts, and hundreds of convicts, and they had far-reaching effects on the constitutional, legal, political, and economic development of eastern Australia, including Van Diemen's Land.

Bigge's cool detachment helped him to make an intensive, tireless, and skillful investigation that was, however, marked by clashes with Macquarie. Bigge's first report was critical of Macquarie's convict and public works policy; his second, supplemented by private reports to Bathurst, disapproved of Macquarie's use of legislative and executive powers and supported proposals to reform the colonies' legal systems; and his third was a valuable summary of colonial economic growth.

From 1823 to 1830 Bigge investigated and submitted reports on the colonies of Cape Colony, Mauritius, and Ceylon, which resulted in reforms of government and legal machinery. He then retired because of ill health; he died, unmarried, on Dec. 22, 1843, in London.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Bigge. J. D. Ritchie, Punishment and Profit: The Reports of Commissioner John Bigge on the Colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land; Their Origins, Nature and Significance (1970), is a brilliant account of the early career of Bigge and of his Australian experiences. He is discussed in all histories of Australia, notably in Charles M. H. Clark, A History of Australia (2 vols., 1962-1968). Clark also edited a useful collection, Select Documents in Australian History (2 vols., 1950-1955). Bigge's work in South Africa is discussed in Isobel E. Edwards, The 1820 Settlers in South Africa: A Study in British Colonial Policy (1934). For information on the colonial office background see J. J. Eddy, Britain and the Australian Colonies, 1818-1831 (1969). □