Arnold, who was horrified by Britain's imperial actions during the Chinese opium wars, approved of neither the colonization of the West Indies or Australia. As he wrote to Sir J. Franklin, a friend who had received his appointment as Governor of Van Diemen's Land in the colony down under,

holding our West Indian colonies to be one of the worst stains in the moral history of mankind, a convict colony seems to me to be even more shocking and more monstrous in its very conception. I do not know to what extent Van Diemen's Land is so; but I am sure that no such evil can be done to mankind as by thus sowing with rotten seed, and raising up a nation morally tainted in its very origin. Compared with this, the bloodiest exterminations ever effected by conquest were useful and good actions. If they will colonize with convicts, I am satisfied that the stain should last, not only for one whole life, but for more than one generation; that no convict or convict's child should ever be a free citizen; and that, even in the third generation, the offspring should be excluded from all offices of honour or authority in the colony. This would be complained of as unjust or invidious, but I am sure that distinctions of moral breed are as natural and as just as those of skin or of arbitrary caste are wrong and mischievous; it is a law of God's Providence which we cannot alter, that the sins of the father are really visited upon the child in the corruption of his breed, and in the rendering impossible many of the feelings which are the greatest security to a child against evil. [II, 48]

As far as one can tell from the way his biographer and editor, Stanley, has presented the letter, Arnold ends it by telling his friend that "it really is a happiness to me to think of you in Van Diemen's Land, where you will be, I know, not in name nor in form, but in deed and in spirit, the best and chief missionary" (II, 48). Thus, after emphasizing to Franklin that a colony settled chiefly by convicts could only produce appalling results, since the settlers — and their descendants — would forever bear the stains of criminal guilt, Arnold reverses direction and tells his friend that he will be a missionary who might save some of those he governed.

When I read this letter I have to admit that it surprised — even astounded — me, reminding me, once again, how unreliable must be our assumptions about other people and other times. Arnold holds the most liberal opinions of any Victorian churchman I know: he has an extremely ecumenical view of Christianity, emphasizes that evolution and reform are central political principles, and opposed the Opium Wars, West Indian colonization, slavery, and the refusal of full civil liberties to Roman Catholics. Moreover, like early Carlyle, he loathed conservatism because he believed it inevitably led to the destruction of society by revolution, and he despised the aristocracy, particularly for their oppression of the poor. Not surprisingly, he sympathized with those who advocated the 1832 Reform Bill, though he clearly understood the limited benefits it would produce. In discussing the settlement of Australia by convicts, however, he appears to go against all his principles. He obviously believes, first, that those convicted of crimes are beyond redemption, second, that their actions will permanently "stain" their descendants, and, third, that all those sent to Australia were guilty of terrible crimes. One might understand the first point on the grounds that a society of convicts has such a mass of evil that it allows little chance for individual reform, though the second seems impossible to reconcile with his views of social improvement over time. The third point is even harder to understand, since anyone as interested as Arnold in contemporary politics and the state of the poor must have known that the most notorious of those sentenced to transportation were political prisoners — political activists whose advocacy of labor, the vote, or the People's Charter led to their conviction. Certainly, in Dickens's Great Expectations (1861) Abel Magwitch shows a far different attitude towards the possibility of a convict's improvement, and Peter Carey's Jack Maggs (1998) urges that some transported convicts are far better people than the monied classes in England.

If one wanted to be flippant, one could hazard a guess that Arnold, headmaster of a school that emphasized sports as a means of building character, dimly sensed that in future times Australia would completely dominate England in cricket and rugby. Or one could just admit that human beings are very inconsistent.

Related Material


Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn. The life and correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D., late head-master of Rugby school, and regius professor of modern history in the University of Oxford. 4th ed. 2 vols. London: B. Fellowes, 1845.

Victorian Overview political history Thomas Arnold of Rugby

Last modified 10 August 2006