THE MYSTERY OF ALEXANDER HARRIS
Incognito, in Australia 1826-40
Compiled by Michael Organ
1 July 1997
1 The Mystery of Alexander Harris
2 What Mystery?
3 The Real Alexander Harris (1805-74)
4 Alexander Harris on Australia
- The Tabular Notes of 1858
5 H.A.B. Bennett and Alexander Harris
- A Possible Connection
- Alexander Harris in Illawarra
- H.A.B. Bennett in Australia
6 The Mystery Solved?
- Alexander Harris as H.A.B. Bennett
- Harris in the Colony
7 The Historical Basis of Harris's Publications
- Settlers & Convicts
- Religio Christi
- The Emigrant Family
- Testimony to the Truth
* Publications by Alexander Harris (Chronological)
* Articles on Alexander Harris and his Writings (Chronological)
* General Bibliography (A-Z)
For over 130 years mystery has surrounded the English author Alexander Harris, resident in New South Wales between 1826-40. Acknowledged as one of the first writers to describe the iniquities of the local convict system and the vagaries of a developing Australian character, Harris himself has long been shrouded in mystery and remains an elusive character. Following his return to England in the early 1840s, he published at length on his colonial adventures, in both fictional and autobiographical works. This body of material is discussed below, along with the problem of identifying Harris' alias whilst resident in New South Wales. As a result of ongoing research, it is suggested that Harris went by the name Henry Anthony Burlton Bennett during part of his Antipodean sojourn. Whilst the arguments presented for the use of this name are in no way definitive, they are nevertheless offered at this point in time to both promote discussion, and perhaps lead to new studies which may finally reveal the colonial identity of this truly 'Australian' author.
The Mystery of Alexander Harris
Picture this - it is the latter part of 1826, or perhaps early 1827; summer has come to the Australian colonies and the hot, southern sun is beating down upon the clear blue waters of Sydney Harbour. A young man arrives in port from England, having stopped off at Hobart en route to see his brother who is a free settler there. The young lad is alone, with perhaps £130 pounds in his pocket, a letter of introduction to the Governor requesting a grant of land, and a collection of agricultural implements to set himself up on a small farm. 'Nothing special', you may say. Yet this young lad's departure from England is shrouded in secrecy - rumor has it that he is a 'Remittance Man', a deserter from the Army who was unable to stomach the harsh discipline and floggings he received as punishment for various misdemeanors. As a result, he has taken on a new name, a new identity, and hopes to start afresh in this distant penal colony so far from Mother England. The future looks bright as he steps ashore on the Sydney dock, ready to take on the mantle of a gentleman farmer in the colony of New South Wales - work hard for perhaps ten years, then retire back to England a wealthy man. Such a scenario seems eminently achievable. Unfortunately it is not to prove so for the subject in question.
With time, our new settler proves singularly unsuccessful at either farming or labouring, and turns to clerical work for the colonial government in order to earn a living. A problem arises concerning abuse of alcohol, leading him to loose his savings, his farming implements, and any opportunity to take up the land grant earlier offered him. He subsequently suffers ill-health, and jeopardizes any career opportunities within the public service by his irregular behaviour and fraternising with the convicts. Contemplation during this period of sickness causes our young subject to eventually mend his ways and take up the call of evangelical Christianity. In such a frame of mind he prepares to return home.
For a period of some 14 years our subject has led a rather inconspicuous, though eventful life in the Colony. After his religious conversion, and having failed to secure a new land grant upon which he could settle for the long term, he decides to return to England. Arriving there in 1841, he subsequently marries, has a family, takes up missionary work in London, and six years later publishes a series of largely anonymous works detailing his experiences as a free settler in convict New South Wales during the 1820s and 1830s. In 1851 he emigrates to America - alone, without his family - and after a nondescript life there as a teacher, dies in 1874. His writings pass into obscurity.
We now travel forward eighty years to Australia, 1954. The young man's first book, with the catchy title Settlers and Convicts, has been republished locally and is causing some controversy. It is a very readable account of New South Wales during the convict era, however nothing is known of the author, 'Alexander Harris'. One critic calls the work 'historical fiction', another proclaims it the best book ever written on the convict era.
With an absence of biographical material on Mr. Harris, the controversy rages for a number of years over the origins of Settlers and Convicts: was it written by an English ghost writer, or a one-time resident? Is the book fact or fiction, or a combination of both? Did 'Alexander Harris' ever exist, and if so, did he visit the Colony?
Due to the vague, anti-historical manner in which the book was written, with few verifiable dates and the omission of personal names to protect the author from litigation for libel, those who cast Settlers and Convicts into the basket of 'historical fiction' generally win the debate. And so the book remains to this day - its value as an historic document diminished, though highly regarded as a work of fiction. All this despite the subsequent discovery of additional colonial writings by the real Alexander Harris, and the unearthing of a wealth of biographical material during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
As a work of historical fiction, Settlers and Convicts is recognised as one of the best from Australia's colonial era. As a genre, 'historical fiction' remains popular, with historical facts providing the basis for interesting story lines upon which the author then allows his/her imagination to run free. Historical fiction also protects the writer from defamatory litigation, as the original players are usually all dead. This mixing of historical fact with the workings of the writer's imagination has created many entertaining and educational works in literature over recent years - c.f. The Timeless Land (Australia), Roots (America), and Holocaust (Germany). However, history is a delicate, complicated thing, open to a myriad of interpretations and abuses. Its corruption by the incorporation of fictional elements may therefore lessen its value (though not necessarily its impact) and ultimately distort the truth - whatever the historical truth may be. Whilst the impact of a fictional account may be greater on a reader than the straight forward, often dry historical narrative, in the long term this distortion of events may raise doubts amongst those same readers who seek to know what life was like in the past. They may ask the question: 'Surely this didn't really happen?', and as a result individual perceptions of historical reality becomes confused.
A well written, factual work may be just as powerful as the contrived fictional version, though the latter is usually more popular and therefore has a greater impact. And there's the rub: where an author such as Alexander Harris presents a work as factual - especially so an autobiography - and we find it to be full of fictional elements, what are we to think? Are we to totally disregard its historic elements because the factual basis is corrupted, no longer pure? Should we instead just accept the work as entertaining fiction, 'a good read', roughly based on a certain time period, and realise that life wasn't exactly as portrayed in the book?
Unfortunately many of the colonial writings of Alexander Harris, and his contemporaries such as John Lang and Louisa Atkinson, fall into this latter category of historical fiction, or have been placed there by modern reviewers unfamiliar with the historic detail of the period. They are therefore little studied by historians, and cast aside as little more than Australianised versions of English pulp fiction. Our lack of biographical information on the author Alexander Harris for many years caused critics to view his work more as fiction than fact, thereby presenting distorted interpretations of his work and promoting some of the aforementioned questions because they knew little about the writer himself.
If we are truly to appreciate the writings of Alexander Harris and the picture he presents of life in New South Wales during the latter phases of the convict era, then we need to have an understanding of his individual circumstances, his personality, and the events through which he passed. Such backgrounding is not necessary with every author of colonial fiction, however as this story unfolds the reader will realise its specific relevance in regards to the mysterious Alexander Harris.
Alexander Harris - Man or Myth?
Who was Alexander Harris, this mysterious figure who authored Settlers and Convicts? For the uninitiated, Alexander Harris (1805-74) was an English author who during the 1840s and 1850s wrote a number of important works describing aspects of life in Australia during the late 1820s and 1830s. The most significant is Settlers and Convicts - Recollections of Sixteen Years Labour in the Australian Backwoods, originally published in London during 1847 and ascribed anonymously to 'An Emigrant Mechanic'. The book is an early Australian work of supposedly semi-factual narrative prose, represented by Harris as a true autobiography. It is his most famous publication, and widely recognised as a seminal work in the history of Australian literature, being one of the first to describe the character of the Australian pioneer (convict or free settler) and his/her relationship with this strange new environment. It has been called 'the best book on the convict period' of Australian history by noted Australian historian T.D. Mutch.
The initial publication of Settlers and Convicts in 1847 was followed a year later by A Converted Atheist's Testimony to the Truth of Christianity, a semi-autobiographical, largely religious work dealing with Harris' own conversion to evangelical Christianity in the late 1830s, whilst in New South Wales. This book appeared in four popular editions to 1852, and, like Settlers and Convicts, was initially published anonymously.
Harris' major work of supposedly pure fiction was The Emigrant Family: or the Story of an Australian Settler, also titled Martin Beck, published in three volumes during 1849. Unlike Settlers and Convicts, and Testimony to the Truth - both of which had strong autobiographical elements - The Emigrant Family was a straightforward novel about life in New South Wales. Though presented as a fictional account, many of the incidents related and opinions expressed therein are obviously based upon Harris' personal experiences in the Colony.
Also during 1849 Harris authored A Guide to Port Stephens in New South Wales, a typical emigrants manual, produced for people in Britain considering emigration to the Australian Agricultural Company's land in northern New South Wales. Harris was obviously commissioned to do this work as a result of his colonial experiences, and association with Samuel Sidney, editor of Sidney's Emigrant's Journal.
Harris' final published work in connection with Australia was an autobiographical series entitled 'Religio Christi' which appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper during 1858. It was subsequently reissued as The Secrets of Alexander Harris in Sydney during 1961. This was Harris's third autobiography, again with a strong religious element. Supposedly written in America, it details Harris' misspent youth, his experiences in Australia, religious conversion, and subsequent return to England. Secrets is perhaps the most historically accurate (truthful?) of Harris's three 'autobiographies'.
A fourth work remains unpublished. It comprises the 200 page manuscript 'The Sons of God and Daughters of Men', describing the events of Harris' life with his second wife Ursula in England during the 1840s. It is unclear whether this document has any colonial content.
As can be seen from the above, between 1847-58 Alexander Harris was a prolific author, leaving as his legacy a large collection of works based on his experiences in New South Wales during the convict era of the 1820s and 1830s. Yet apart from Settlers & Convicts - which is still in print in Australia, and a prescribed text in many secondary school and university history courses - his writing is mostly forgotten and unavailable to the Australian reading public, despite its obvious historical and literary importance. One of the reasons for this neglect is the fact that the author himself has always been a mysterious figure, and until quite recently (i.e. the late 1950s) nothing much was known of his life. This had led to suggestions that the aforementioned works were written by an English ghostwriter who had never even visited the Colony! Yet, irregardless of the vagaries surrounding his biographical details, Harris is deserving of wider recognition and appreciation, for he was one of the first free settlers to write of Australia based upon lengthy personal experience (he was resident in the Colony for about 14 years), and, more importantly, from the perspective of the working class man as opposed to landed gentry or military who acted as overseers to the largely convict population. With a dirth of such works by convicts, the writings of Alexander Harris - with their everyday descriptions of the life of the working classes and the convict populations - are a refreshing change from the often dry political tomes by authors such as William Charles Wentworth, John Dunmore Lang, or the explorer T.L. Mitchell.
Within his books, Alexander Harris presents as an Australian, not simply a s a visitor passing through the colony and longing to return home to England. More importantly, he writes about ordinary settlers and convicts. Harris's books reveal his real affection for, and understanding of, the country and its people. For example, in the 1847 edition of Settlers and Convicts he was able to write: 'There are very few Australians that one can dislike. A general manly spirit and fairness of feeling characterize all except a few bullies of the very lowest class and a few pampered half-idiots of the very highest.'
Such comments are common throughout the book. One of the most descriptive and entertaining passages concerns his visit to the roughly hewn shack of two ex-convicts (the Geraghty brothers) at Illawarra, shortly after his arrival in the Colony in 1826. Harris' minute description of the scene and the language of the conversation which passed between them is both entertaining and linguistically significant. It is referred to by linguist W.S. Ransom and historian Russell Ward in their analyses of Australian language and character. Harris' book The Emigrant Family was also commonly cited (though erroneously) as the first Australian novel, when it initially appeared in 1849.
Alexander Harris is all the more worthy of a special place in the history of Australian literature in that he was probably the first English author to comment at length upon those unique aspects of the embryonic Australian national character - discussing traits such as mateship, the isolation of the stockman's life, and the widespread disregard for authority by the lower classes. He even noted proudly that as early as the 1830s Australians were a 'race with whom it is one of the worst reproaches to be a crawler.' He perceptively observed that amongst the common people, 'there was no offensive intrusiveness about their civility; every man seemed to consider himself just on a level with all the rest.'
It is for such perceptive passages that Settlers and Convicts is best remembered. However Harris the man was no saint, and such an idealistic view of Australian civilisation during the 1830s must be tempered by the realities of the harsh life then faced by the local population - whether white or black - and which is also discussed in his books. Recent work by historians such as Henry Reynolds have revealed the commonly barbaric treatment of the Aboriginal people meted out by white settlers during the period of Harris's residence; and the widespread drunkenness and immorality found at all levels of local society, to which our subject was a willing party. Harris's drinking, his links with cattle stealers, and run-ins with the law suggest that this young man had a free reign during much of his time in the Colony, though he was never far from trouble. He obviously frequently strayed from the path of righteousness of which he was able to speak so expertly and enthusiastically after his conversion to Christianity around 1838.
Harris's published works are rich in the common language used by convicts and settlers in New South Wales during the 1820s and thirties. Unfortunately, while his writing is entertaining and full of local colour, non-specific historical detail, and social comment, the man himself is a mystery. In our attempt to corroborate what we know of his life with what is contained in his books, we are left with many unanswered questions. These concern not only Harris' personal life, but also the origins of his books. For example, we must ponder whether his Australian publications were based on personal diaries compiled during his stay in the colony, from memory, or incorporating published and unpublished accounts by others. The author's own publications do not provide a clear answer to their questions.
Who, then, was Alexander Harris, and what were the true circumstances of his life both in Australia and England? How could such a gifted writer merely produce a few works on Australia and then disappear from the scene? Why did he seek anonymity, both whilst in the Colony and later, upon the initial publication of his Australian writings? Why did he come to Australia? Why did he leave? What is the precise factual basis for his large volume of published work describing New South Wales during the aforementioned period?
For someone to have written so freely on life in the Colony, with so much obvious insight, they must have had wide-ranging experiences and come into contact with numerous people. The trail of such a person should therefore be easy to follow, for New South Wales during this period was a small penal colony, comprising just 13 official counties to the north, south, and west of Sydney, plus the convict settlement at Van Diemans Land and Norfolk Island, and isolated stations at Port Phillip and Moreton Bay. Controls on individual movement were enforced by the local military, and fears of massacre at the hands of the Aborigines were widely held. It was in one's best interests to stay close to areas of settlement. However, the fact remains that we are unable to precisely locate the man Alexander Harris in New South Wales between 1826-40, and answer the many questions surrounding him. Why? Because Harris has shrouded both himself and his writing in a veil of mystery - a veil which remains drawn after more than 130 years and is the reason for much of the controversy surrounding our subject.
What mystery, you may ask? For the unknowing, I refer to the mystery regarding the true identity of Alexander Harris in Australia, and the related issue of authorship of his publications.
Initially the 'Alexander Harris' mystery stemmed from the fact that during the period of initial publication of his many English works (i.e. between the years 1846 and 1851), Harris disguised his identity by not signing his books (viz. Testimony to the Truth), or employing various nom-de-plume, such as 'Emigrant Mechanic', 'Working Hand', as when Settlers and Convicts was first issued. His name was first revealed with the publication of Guide to Port Stephens in 1849, which listed Harris on the title page as 'Author of Convicts and Settlers and The Emigrant Family.'
For some reason, up until that time he was unwilling to fully disclose his authorship of works such as Settlers and Convicts. As a result of this subterfuge, outside of his family circle and publisher, only an astute book-collector or bibliographer of the period - if anyone at all - would have been aware of Harris's substantial literary output during this period, for the path of discovery was strewn with many false leads. With time the true volume and variety of his writing was long forgotten, even amongst his immediate family. By 1950 Alexander Harris' direct descendants were only vaguely aware that he had written some books about Australian convicts. Also lost was any understanding of the unity of purpose within those works. Even now we may only be aware of a portion of his lifework, for we are yet to reveal the full extent of his writings for newspapers and journals in England and America.
Settlers and Convicts was not fully identified on the title page as having been written by Alexander Harris until 1852, though it initially appeared in 1847. Even the 1953 Australian editor of the reissue of that work had placed a question mark before Harris' name on the title page, such were the doubts surrounding the figure known as 'Alexander Harris'. The most recent Australian edition of Settlers and Convicts still bears the attribution to 'An Emigrant Mechanic' on the cover, with no mention of Harris.
This confusion over authorship in no way hindered re-issue of the book in 1953, or diminished its widespread appreciation at the time. It subsequently spurred on a flurry of research activity centred around Harris and what was soon revealed to be a substantial body of work. Almost immediately the search was begun in earnest by noted Australian historians and literary critics for records of Harris's presence in New South Wales during the period described in his books - this ranged from the mid' 1820s (c.1825-6) to the early 1840s.
Unfortunately, after much intensive research by historians such as Manning Clark and Alec Chisholm, editor of the Australian Encyclopedia, a major mystery arose: no records of an individual by the name of 'Alexander Harris' could be found in Australia during the approximate period 1925-41.
Questions were raised, the most substantial of which include:
Answers to the first four questions have been forthcoming and will be outlined over the following pages, however the fifth has remained unanswered until now. Researchers into the writings of Alexander Harris during the 1950s, not knowing details of his personal life or if he ever existed, were led to raise doubts as to the authenticity and therefore value of his Australian books. They suggested that if these works were merely ghostwritten from England, their worth to the literary history of this country was greatly diminished; if, however, they were truthful accounts based on actual events and first-hand diary entries, both their literary and historical significance would be enhanced.
This author hopes, via the current discussion, to enhance the value of Harris's writing by revealing the facts behind his antipodean sojourn - to show that he was a real person, and that he did indeed experience life in New South Wales as portrayed in his writings. This should be obvious, for when we read Harris's aforementioned books we must come to the unmistakable conclusion that he was a resident of New South Wales for a considerable period, so convincing are his accounts of frontier life. However we should also recognize that his work is a combination of both fact and fiction, and not is therefore as easy to interpret as the standard published journals of the time.
Finally, we have yet to identify Harris's local alias, and whilst his writings will stand on their intrinsic merit as valuable documents in chronicling historical and social aspects of Australian life even if nothing at all were known of the author's identity - as was the case for so long - their historical significance would be greatly enhanced if we were to discover more about the man. Just as D.H. Lawrence's Australian 'novel' Kangaroo has recently undergone a reinterpretation following revelations concerning the facts surrounding that author's visit to New South Wales in 1922, so also to uncover information about Alexander Harris's time in New South Wales would aid in our understanding, appreciation, and assessment of his work.
Why, you may ask, should it be so difficult to identify Alexander Harris when New South Wales at the time of his visit was a penal colony and semi-police state under military control, with an efficient, highly regimented bureaucracy controlling the movements of both convicts and free settlers? Afterall, were not all individuals easily identifiable and the population relatively small, with numerous census and musters aiding in identifying all those in the Colony prior to 1840, apart from the Aborigines?
Unfortunately it is a fact that, despite these draconian, police-state measures, prior to 1840 it was still relatively easy to disappear into the background of colonial society, or into the bush of south-eastern Australia, and indeed this was the attraction of the Colony for many of its earliest free settlers. Such people left England in order to escape past transgressions. Perhaps Harris was one of these voluntary exiles.
Australia was seen as a big country with plenty of open space populated only by wandering Aboriginal tribes who were easily disposed of. Those Europeans who had arrived since 1788 were also rather secretive - there was an obvious stigma attached to being a convict, so they did not ask too many questions when individuals were encountered in the bush. It also meant that healthy young men such as Alexander Harris could easily loose themselves amongst the mountains and valleys surrounding the settlement of Sydney if they wished, or attach themselves to a struggling pioneering family who would protect their identity in return for labour, no questions asked. Some of these exiles even took up with Aboriginal communities, and though the environment was harsh and alien, they had as much chance of survival as in the small town settlements, or on convict chain gangs. They would also have to deal with Aboriginal society and culture. Just like Europeans, individual Aborigines could be unfriendly and dangerous if mistreated or misunderstood, as was frequently the case during the 1830s.
New South Wales was therefore commonly used by British citizens of ill-repute to start a new life, away from the poverty and vice of their homeland. They often immigrated to Australia just before the police caught up with them and sent them out as convicts. Once in the Colony they would take on new identities and perhaps go on to become respectable and wealthy citizens.
Having said that it was easy to hide in the Colony, it should also be pointed out that it was more common to be easily identifiable, due to the bureaucracy of the military convict system and the various checks and balances used to administer it. Convicts were monitored, described, listed, ticked off, and issued with passes, etc., at all stages of their time in New South Wales. As such, it is now relatively easy to identify the thousands of convicts who entered the colony prior to the 1840s, and also their basic movements. It is not, unfortunately, so easy with free settlers - especially those who did not necessarily want to be identified and who therefore failed to register on the census and muster returns.
Despite this, the majority of colonial settlers and convicts can be identified from this period. Combined with the fact that Alexander Harris's writing is relatively voluminous and contains a wealth of information on the small settlement which was New South Wales as he knew it, makes the difficulty in solving the mystery surrounding his colonial identity all the more surprising. We should be able to pin him down with ease from both official and private records.
Yet it seems obvious that Harris worked hard to mask his Australian identity, both while in the Colony and following his return to England. This would be understandable if he were a convict, but he was not. He must nevertheless have had something to hide. As already noted, he used various nom-de-plume within his publications, and freely employed a device common amongst nineteenth century authors whereby he discriminantly omitted personal and place names, and dates, from his text in order to mask real identities and actual localities. For example, at the beginning of Settlers and Convicts he tells us that he arrived at Port Jackson, New South Wales, 'in the early summer of the year 182_, in the good ship ____'
Harris here omits two vital pieces of information, namely the date and the name of the ship of his arrival in New South Wales. Furthermore, the information he has supplied is suspect because subsequent information would suggest that he arrived during late autumn (May) and not early summer (October). Date and ship information is usually the most important in identifying any individual in New South Wales during the convict era, whether they be convict or free. As most genealogists would know, shipping indents are vital records in tracing the movements of immigrants to Australia last century, and they were quite comprehensive. Harris even speaks of the importance of proving one's identity in a colony of convicts. Being so necessary, the omission of this information is all the more critical in hampering our search for Alexander Harris. By deleting these details at the outset he is letting us know that all will not be revealed in the remainder of the work, and that he will go to pains throughout Settlers and Convicts to mask both is own identity and that of anybody he refers to.
What were Harris's reasons for these omissions? If he was a fugitive exile from England he would have wanted to cover any trace of his entry into the Colony. Another explanation is provided by Harris's publisher - or possibly Harris himself - who stated in the forward to the first edition (1847) of Settlers and Convicts:
It is almost unnecessary to state that, though published anonymously, the truth of the accounts given in this little work may be fully depended upon; and the Author can substantiate all the great facts by an exact reference to the names, dates, and places. Of course this would be unwillingly done, on account of the ill-feeling that it would inevitably engender. He has carefully endeavoured to avoid the possibility of the identification of the parties whose actions are the subjects of his remarks. His object has been rather to draw attention to a system than to interest by the detail of his mere private adventures.
Unfortunately it is 'the detail of his mere private adventures' which is of most interest to the present discussion. The 'ill-feeling', or convict stain referred to in the quotation and associated with events in the penal colony, existed right up until the 1960s, with families denying their convict ancestry, and feeling such revelations to be scandalous. The above notice is therefore both tantalizing and frustrating. It suggests that Harris kept detailed records of his visit to New South Wales - possibly diaries and journals with which he could 'substantiate all the great facts' mentioned in the book. Such first-hand records have not since come to light, nor do they apparently exist in family collections. The reason for Harris' reticence may have been fear of litigation, or he may have been involved in some conflict whilst in the Colony - a conflict which could have had dire consequences upon his life in England if made public, therefore the need for his colonial experiences to be disguised in some manner.
The suggestion that Harris did not want to create ill-feeling on the part of his Australian contacts may be only part of the reason for his removal of vital detail information from throughout Settlers and Convicts. He could have developed this ruse as an excuse for embellishing what may have been dry and uninteresting diaries, though I think not. Harris, in employing the methods described above to conceal his Australian identity must have had something more to hide than is suggested in the previous notice. Perhaps he wished to make it difficult for his English family to discover the truth of his experiences in the penal colony - that he may have been arrested and imprisoned on a number of times; his involvement with convicts in cattle stealing; his drinking problems and fraternization with prostitutes in the Rocks area of Sydney; his destitution and illness - all would have been viewed with some scorn back home in England.
Whatever the reason for the subterfuge, this technique of disguise is so successful that we are now unable to easily and precisely pin down Harris's movements in the Colony between 1826-40, despite the hundreds of pages he has written on the subject. It is a fact that if we simply relied on information contained in his publications we would still not know - and would be unable to find out - who Alexander Harris was. What we can glean from these works is that he left England and family as a recalcitrant son in 1826 (refer Chapter 3 below for biographical details), and upon his return around 1841 he was obviously keen to start afresh and show his family that he had grown out of his youthful waywardness. He had experienced hard times whilst in the Colony and perhaps looked forward to new opportunities back home.
Australia during Harris's period of residence was widely perceived in England as a convict colony and dumping ground for the scum of British society. Yet to many it was also a land of opportunity for investors and the lower classes of English society. It was colloquially referred to as 'Botany Bay' by them, in reference to its penal origins dating back to 1788, and it remained a penal colony during Harris's period of residence. Association with such an iniquitous place and its less than acceptable lower classes citizenry was widely looked down upon by polite society in England. Yet Harris had too much affection for New South Wales and its people to completely sterilize his published accounts. Whilst he freely embellished details of his own experiences in a book such as Settlers and Convicts, and spoke glowingly of the local residents, he was also full of criticisms of the British management of Australia and gave examples of abuses by everyone from the Governor down to the magistracy, police, and even convicts.
Once back on British soil thoughts of mateship with convicts and emancipists, as he had experienced in the Colony, were hidden or buried within his writings, to be replaced by adherence to the more acceptable social norms of the time. A book such as Settlers and Convicts - which was most likely written during the late 1830s and early 1840s - therefore presented the author in an almost heroic light, personally acceptable to the British public yet still containing biting criticisms of some aspects of Colonial life, such as the treatment of convicts and the promotion of the idea of the savagery of the local Aborigines. As a trained journalist, Harris could capably present both sides of an argument, and did so often within Settlers and Convicts.
For example, with regards to the local Aborigines, Harris held typically racist attitudes and devoted many pages in Settlers and Convicts to a defense of the perpetrators of the Myall Creek massacre of 1838, wherein a group of 27 Aboriginal men, women and children were mercilessly slaughtered by some stockmen. Harris objected strongly to the death penalty being imposed upon the guilty men by Governor Gipps, perhaps because he completely understood their circumstances, or even condoned their actions. Having been a stockman himself along the frontiers of settlement, he was undoubtedly aware of the barbarous treatment which the Aborigines suffered at the hands of white settlers. It was the law of the gun, as European law offered the Aborigines no real protection.
Alexander Harris' writings at times portray a great fear of the local Aborigines. However the complexity of the situation on the ground - and Harris' own hypocrisy - is revealed by an earlier account in Settlers and Convicts of his spending a night with a group of drunken Aborigines by a fire in the streets of Sydney, when he himself was drunk and destitute! He had even been saved from starvation and death by a group of Aborigines near Jervis Bay. Yet he was still able to describe them as less than human in comparison with white civilization. On the other hand, Harris's presentation of the Aboriginal point of view within sections of that same work are some of the most perceptive ever written. For example:
All the thanks we get from the black native for attempting to introduce our religion into his tribes is the laugh of derision, or the silence of a yet deeper scorn. "You!" he says, "you who tie one another up, and flog one another within an inch of life, for some little hasty word; you who begrudge one another enough to eat; you who deprive me of my hunting grounds, only to increase possessions for mere possessions' sake; you, a people divided into two classes, the one hateful and the other contemptible, the tyrant and the slave; you who keep, and clothe, and train men to human slaughter as a trade - you teach me to be better! Me who walk the forest free, who appropriate no more than I need, who never fight but as a deeply injured man, who would not lay your bloody lash upon my dog, much less my brother; who 'in wrath remember mercy', and give even the public culprit, against whom I am to direct my spear at the command of the tribe, his shield to defend himself with; YOU CONVERT ME! preposterous!"
Such words indicate that Harris had a deep understanding of the plight of the local Aboriginal people, even if he was not entirely supportive of their cause. He does, in fact, present his own views on the matter. For example, after speaking at length in Settlers and Convicts of the futility of missionary efforts to the Aborigines and the inhumanity of wiping them out by hunting them down, he surmises that,
If we want a league of peace on equal ground, really there is no road to it but that we give up their land and forsake their country; for this and only this is the true source of aggravation. It is the whiteman at large, not the individual, upon whom their enmity is pointed. The miserable rebuff which our philanthropy has met with is only a new enforcement of the old axiom - that men should be just before they are generous. The blacks cannot be conciliated unless by giving up their country. If they are to be intimidated, it must be by something that is more prompt and effective than their own spear, and less dilatory than our law.
Prophetic words indeed, and still relevant to this day, apart from the need for intimidation. With the recent reassessment of white Australia's treatment of the Aborigines last century, Harris's comments deserve a second look. They give a guarded, though less than comprehensive view of both the black and white attitudes during his time. Harris also comments upon events which were too shameful for mention among 'polite society' of the day, and therefore were not recorded for posterity. Here we have on one hand Harris expressing the common racist views of white Australia, yet on the other revealing a knowledge of the Aboriginal point of view. Perhaps this is the journalist in him coming out, trying to be impartial.
The stigma attached to being a former resident of 'Botany Bay' perhaps explains the omission of Harris' name from the title page of Settlers and Convicts upon its initial release in book form during 1847. The work is merely attributed to 'an Emigrant Mechanic', whilst an earlier abbreviated version had been assigned to 'a Working Hand'. With this anonymity Harris felt safe in using the latter parts of the book to strongly criticize certain aspects of the British administration of the Colony, especially the flogging of prisoners, the pass and ticket-of-leave system, and the issue of land grants. He could also espouse the virtues of its convicts and native-born inhabitants, whilst hurling abuse at the Aborigines as we have seen above. When he prepared Settlers and Convicts for publication in 1846 perhaps he was not afraid to state what he felt, but without the protection of anonymity he was still wary of openly standing against British society and preaching the noble qualities of that antipodean penal colony. He was obviously afraid to reveal the real Alexander Harris, and especially wary of exposing the identity of parties involved in the incidents he described. He was perhaps a timid man, with no real power, speaking out against the system.
From his many writings we can see that Alexander Harris got himself into a deal of trouble during his time in the Colony, and obviously had a lot to hide from his family. He frequently outlines his personal, unpleasant scrapes with the law in New South Wales - incidents which invariably reveal him as the innocent party - and on a number of occasions he was arrested or harassed by the local police and military when being unable to prove that he was a free settler. At one point he describes how he 'unknowingly' became involved with cattle thieves; another time he was viewed as a runaway convict, and forced to lament how it was 'penal not to be in a penal condition.' He went on to lambaste the authorities for making 'the free emigrant (especially) liable to arrest, because he cannot produce, as freed men can, a document to prove that he was once a prisoner.' In true heroic style Harris invariably emerges victorious against these unjust accusers. Whether he was so heroic and innocent in real life is debatable. All of this begs the question: why did Harris write a book such as Settlers and Convicts? - was it to make the English aware of the maladministration of the Colonies; to correct misconceptions about its young society; to reveal the true qualities of the people and the land; or just to spin a good yarn? Perhaps all of these, and more, spurred Harris to put pen to paper.
We can see that Alexander Harris went to extraordinary lengths to cover his trail in the Colony, both in real life and within his writings. Possible reasons for this deception have already been mentioned. They are further discussed at length in the Preface & Introduction to the 1961 publication The Secrets of Alexander Harris, and will be discussed in detail over the following pages.
Alexander Harris Rediscovered
When Manning Clark wrote the Introduction to the 1953 Australian re-issue of Settlers and Convicts - the first time since 1852 that that book had been made widely available to the Australian public - he raised a number of questions, the most significant being whether an individual by the name of Alexander Harris had ever actually resided in the Colony.
Subsequent research during the 1950s & early 1960s by Clark and others has shown Alexander Harris to be a real person (refer chapter 3), and answered many of the questions initially raised by that historian in 1953, especially in regards to his life away from Australia. However a degree of mystery still surrounds Alexander Harris, for we do not know his assumed identity whilst in New South Wales, and therefore we cannot say with certainty whether the experiences outlined in his published works are his own, or simply a retelling of the tales of others.
Such are the complexities of the Alexander Harris mystery that despite the involvement of some of Australia's foremost historians, only fragments of the puzzle have been solved. Over the years individuals such as Manning Clark (in the 'Forwards' to the various editions of Settlers and Convicts published between 1953-64), Alex Chisholm (in the 1960 article 'The Odd Case of Alexander Harris' and the 1961 'Preface' to the book The Secrets of Alexander Harris), and Grant Carr-Harris (in the 'Introduction' to The Secrets of Alexander Harris) have all played major roles in solving aspects of the mystery. However a fundamental question posed by Clark in 1953 still remains unanswered to this day, namely: What name did Alexander Harris use whilst he was resident in New South Wales?
Many people besides Manning Clark, Alec Chisholm and Grant Carr-Harris have tried to answer this question since it was first raised in 1953, variously suggesting that Harris was an unnamed convict; an English ghost-writer; John Lang (Australia's first native born novelist); Samuel Sidney; or even an English author who never visited New South Wales! Some of these ideas were discussed in articles such as Douglas Stewart's 'Another Great History Mystery' (Bulletin, 17 June 1953) and 'Was Harris a Convict?' (Bulletin, 23 December 1953); Colin Roderick's 'Who was Alexander Harris?' (Bulletin, 20 January 1954) and 'Review of Settlers and Convicts' (Biblionews, March 1954); and John Earnshaw's 'John Lang and Alexander Harris' (Bulletin, 17 February 1954).
In hindsight, some of the arguments put forward in these articles are fantastic and reveal the problems of relying on Settlers and Convicts alone for biographical information on Alexander Harris. Many of the questions raised and arguments presented within those articles were answered or negated in 1961 with the publication of The Secrets of Alexander Harris (hereinafter referred to as Secrets), which contained an introduction by Alexander Harris's grandson Grant Carr-Harris, a preface by Alec Chisholm, and the text of Harris's 1858 serialized autobiography 'Religio Christi.'
This compilation revealed for the first time to an Australian audience the story of Alexander Harris the man, along with snippets of his family history. It also identified him as the true author of many previously anonymous works, exposing a large bibliography of publications with Australian and religious themes. His early life and education in England was discussed, along with details of his two marriages, later work in England during the 1840s, and his eventual emigration to America.
Much of the new information was based upon the Canadian Jessie Lewin's 1952 Harris family history - We Harris's and where we come from (Montreal, 1 January 1952, 57p). This document was unknown to Australian researchers during the 1950s, and largely remains so to this day. Grant Carr-Harris makes no reference to it within his Preface to Secrets.
The story of the Australian publication of Secrets and substantial revelations on the actual identity of Alexander Harris, via his Canadian descendents, goes back to 1951. During that year Grant Carr-Harris wrote to the Librarian at Melbourne Public Library seeking information on Alexander Harris. Not much was then known locally, and he received no substantial reply, apart from some bibliographic information on the Australian works. In 1958, after reading Manning Clark's entry for Harris in the Australian Encyclopedia (edited by Alec Chisholm) he contacted Chisholm and eventually made known all the biographical information on his grandfather. This led on to the publication of Secrets during 1961.
Yet despite all this frantic discussion and new information, we still knew virtually nothing of the circumstances surrounding Harris's time in New South Wales - nothing, that is, that could be verified by surviving official or personal records; and nothing apart from what he had written in his few books. Jessie Lewin and Grant Carr-Harris had not located any substantial records detailing Harris' life in New South Wales, or correspondence of the time. Such records were strangely missing from the family archives.
As is well known, it is very difficult to construe the facts of an author's life from a so-called work of fiction, even though that work may be highly autobiographical, as in Settlers and Convicts. The numerous problems met with will be discussed over the following pages, yet most researchers had no option but to follow this course, i.e. to look to Harris's publications for information on the man, as his original manuscripts and diaries no longer exist or are unavailable. Published and manuscript accounts of many of the incidents noted by Harris within his writings could be found in the official records and histories of New South Wales. For example, the robbery of a Sydney bank on 15 September 1828, and the Myall Creek massacre of 1838 are both mentioned in Settlers and Convicts and Secrets; yet Harris's presence either within or about those events could not be substantiated. Harris appears to have 'gone bush' for a large part of his stay in the Colony, thereby minimizing contact with local authorities.
In his search for evidence of the existence of Harris in New South Wales Manning Clark had been unsuccessful. More fortunate was Alec Chisholm, who discovered the name 'A. Harris' affixed to a copy of an 1838 Sydney petition relating to the Myall Creek massacre. Furthermore Harris, in Secrets (pp210-11), had specifically referred to his involvement with that petition. Unfortunately as only a copy of the petition remains - without original signatures - no handwriting comparisons could be made with known material by Harris. It seems strange, to say the least, that this is the ONLY known record of our Alexander Harris in New South Wales during the period 1826-40. It remains a small piece of evidence upon which to write a true history of his Australian experiences and infer that he used his real name throughout his stay in the Colony. It seems incredible that this should be the only surviving record of a man who was to proclaim in 1849:
I have no doubt I speak under the influence of a considerable and deeply infixed attachment to Australia. An emigrant thither, when little more than a boy; passing the prime of youth and manhood in its exhilarating atmosphere and amidst its surprising landscapes; used to its hospitality and cheerfulness, and ample fields and rewards of industry; recollecting the bounding heart and sense of joyous independence one derives from a bush life, I should be ignorant of my own mental processes, not to perceive my attachment to the colony. I frankly acknowledge that it ever seems to me (nor can I divest myself of the feeling) as my native land.
Having spent his formative years there - he arrived in New South Wales at the age of 22 and left for England around 1840 at the age of 35 - this attachment to the Colony seems understandable. As already noted, Harris was one of the first authors to write of Australia with deep affection, as though he was a native son. Earlier he had proudly proclaimed in Settlers and Convicts:
My object in this publication is to convey an idea of facts as they occur in Australian every-day life; in short, to correct the erroneous statements that are abroad, not to add to them. I spent nearly twenty years of a bush-life in New South Wales.
Therefore, for someone such as Harris to have spent so many years in the Colony and not to have left any identifiable records is curious, especially when we remember that it would have been very difficult (though not impossible) to travel freely and widely throughout the Colony - something a convict could not easily do - without coming into contact with officialdom, as in the form of proving identity to local police or military personnel; making applications for land grants; completing employment details; and submitting Muster or Census information. Therefore official records of Harris's stay there must exist - if not in his name, then in some other.
As no substantial records of an 'Alexander Harris' in the Colony at the time have been found, it therefore seems most likely that he used an alias, or aliases, whilst resident. This paper proposes that he went by the name Henry Anthony Burlton Bennett during a period of residence at Illawarra, though whether he used it for the entire length of his stay in the Colony is open to question.
The reasons for suggesting this connection between Alexander Harris and H.A.B. Bennett are many and varied, and while the link between them is not, at this stage, totally proven - mainly due to Harris's expert job in masking his identity and covering his tracks, and also the lack of access by this author to Harris's personal papers still held by his descendants in Canada and England - the parallels in many of their experiences and personal traits are too numerous for mere coincidence. Reasons for the Harris:Bennett connection cannot be easily explained in a couple of lines, and for this reason will be discussed more fully over the following pages and summarized in Chapter 6.
In order to appreciate this connection we need first of all to look further in detail at the mystery surrounding Harris and collate all the personal information we have on him from his various writings and other sources. Much is revealed of the man within his writings, despite Harris's devious attempts to disguise himself and his movements. We also need to specifically identify some of his local experiences - such as his visits to Illawarra and Wellington Valley - and determine if there are corroborative records of his presence in those localities. Next we need to look at the experiences of H.A.B. Bennett whilst in Australia. Bennett, like Harris, has proven to be a mysterious figure in Australian history and difficult to pin down. Finally we need to make a comparison between the Australian experiences and personal traits of both Bennett and Harris.
We are forced to use this rather convoluted method because despite the numerous similarities between their colonial experiences (especially those at Illawarra), no direct, irrefutable link has been found between Harris and Bennett, despite this author's best attempts. We have no letters or diaries where Harris states he used an alias; and no material by Bennett describing his English family or origins. Other researchers had recognized the problems of this chase, and perhaps the deadliest blow was delivered when Grant Carr-Harris noted in 1960 that within his grandfather's surviving personal papers there were no references to his time in Australia apart from a brief set of tabular notes compiled prior to the writing of Religio Christi in 1858. As there are no surviving Australian letters between Harris and his family, or diaries of the time, it is possible that ultimate identification of his movements and proof of his use of an alias may never be found, and the mystery may remain unsolved! Perhaps Harris himself had destroyed all such material to foil any attempts to discover the truth of his colonial adventures.
The Mystery of Alexander Harris
Manning Clark began his Forward to the 1954 edition of Settlers and Convicts with the following notice: 'I am going to begin by warning the reader bluntly of two important things about Settlers and Convicts. The first is that it appears to contain as much fiction as fact. The second is that its author was a very queer man - far more so than he appears in his work.' Clark's perceptions were indeed prophetic, for this summation of the character of Alexander Harris and the contents of his most famous work - based purely on readings of Harris's then few known publications - has proven with hindsight to be a remarkably accurate and perceptive one. Alec Chisholm would also reach a similar conclusion following his work on Harris in the period 1959-61, when the revelations of Grant Carr-Harris were brought to light.
Alexander Harris is not an easy nut to crack. In trying to solve the mystery of his Australian identity we are forced to look to the published works for answers, just as Clark, Chisholm, Carr-Harris and others had done in the past, for despite the recently revealed biographical information on Harris which describe many of his English and American experiences, the mystery remains.
Unfortunately Harris's most popular work - the Australian adventure Settlers and Convicts - has proven to be quite misleading as an autobiography (even though he initially presented it as one), for within it not only does Harris omit names, places, and dates, but he also: Changes the date and locality of known local events, contracting and distorting real time; tells differing versions of the same story; sanctifies himself throughout, invariably appearing as the hero of any adventure, when we known the real man to be less than a saint; lies; and generally take about 15 years worth of experiences in the Colony, mixes up their original chronological sequence, and throws them together to construct a readable, supposedly factual account of his travels - an account which, however, appears to be more fiction than fact.
Harris has proven a very frustrating character to study, with his manipulations and devious ways causing anguish for researchers who, over 100 years after his death in 1874, are still trying to unravel the truth from his tales and solve this great Australian history mystery, once and for all.
It would be too easy to say 'why bother, it's all fiction!' with regards to works like Settlers and Convicts, and indeed this is what some reviewers have done. Yet there is no point casting Harris's work aside as purely fiction and leaving it at that, for it contains a wealth of information significant to the historian as well as the student of Australian literature. As Manning Clark stated of the 1964 edition of Settlers and Convicts, 'This is one of the best descriptions of the way of life and the values of those men who helped to build the colony of New South Wales by the labour of their hands .... he was a wonderfully sharp observer of the world he knew.'
If Settlers and Convicts is merely a work of fiction, then Clark's praise is practically valueless. Alexander Harris is unlike any other early Australian literary figure, far removed from those writers of the First Fleet chronicles - such as Collins, Phillip, Tench and White - whose published journals are factual accounts of day to day events and largely devoid of substantial individual embellishments, though not without immense interest to the student of history and literature.
Those men were writing at the birth of the Colony, when it was simply a microcosm of a British jail - the dreaded 'Botany Bay' - before a distinctive Australian character had had time to develop among the white invaders, though the Aborigines had known its qualities for thousands of years. Later publications describing or commenting upon the Colony up until the late 1830s were usually of a scientific or economic nature, identifying new elements of the natural environment and encouraging investment, with only minor incites into the development of an identifiable national character. They were usually written by the elite of the Colony or explorers and scientists - not by convicts or the poorer free settlers. There was no real indigenous literature before 1840.
Alexander Harris was the first to write of Australia with the perspective of the common man. His previous editorial and newspaper experiences in England (refer below), plus his overwhelming compassion towards his fellow man, led him to reject the dry, journal-type approach as commonly used by the explorers and scientists of his day, and instead indulge himself by the incorporation of fact - as he perceived it - and fiction, to present populist, entertaining works aimed at the reading public. His books addressed common issues such as day-to-day survival, drinking, the Aborigines, obtaining land, and dealing with the authorities.
Harris's audience during the late 1840s was the English reading public and those members considering emigration to New South Wales in the hectic years just prior to, and during, the goldrushes of the 1850s. Settlers and Convicts was initially issued in 1847 in a cheap magazine format, and was reprinted in 1852 after the discovery of gold in Australia improved its attraction for emigration. Testimony to the Truth, though not specifically dealing with Australia and mainly of a religious nature, appeared in 4 editions between 1848-52 and revealed Harris's popularity as a writer. Guide to Port Stephens (1849) and The Emigrant Family, or Martin Beck (1849) were both specifically meant to address the emigrant market.
The publication of these works coincided with a major intake of emigrants following a dropping-off during the local depression of the early to mid 1840s. In attempting to encourage settlers Harris not only spoke of the opportunities New South Wales had to offer - as in Guide to Port Stephens - but also on the friendliness of the people, the hostility of the natives, the problems associated with the local administration and the obtaining of land grants.
On the whole, Settlers and Convicts was optimistic and presented New South Wales as a land of opportunity and adventure. With such an unsophisticated audience his collection of writing was not meant to form an intellectual treatise. As Ross Gibson had noted in 1984, Harris's literary work 'can stand as the epitome of the change in the writer's status generally in Australia during the colony's first sixty years, as authors allowed their imaginations, and not solely the objective facts about the land, to shape any literature concerned with Australia.'
When he returned to England around 1841, Harris the writer was caught at the crossroads - should he publish a purely factual account of his Australian experiences, as was common (c.f. the publications of Colonel Mundy, John Henderson, Reverend James Backhouse), or entertaining fiction for the masses?
He held off any immediate decision, and as far as we know Harris did no major writing for a couple of years, preferring to work instead as a London missionary and take care of his young family. However around 1846 he returned to writing and was employed as editor of a Manchester newspaper, plus published two articles in The Peoples Journal. When he came to write Settlers and Convicts around the same time (if he had not been working on it since his return to England), his training as a journalist made it possible for him to present his innermost thoughts and wide-ranging experiences within a framework of both factual and fictional prose. He was able to tell a tale and make a profit, though as we do not now possess the original diaries he obviously compiled whilst in the Colony, and upon which he based Settlers and Convicts. We are left with his many published works as the equivalent journals of the man. Harris supposedly used these original manuscripts and memories to write both Settlers and Convicts (1847) and The Emigrant Family (1849), while his ongoing personal turmoil was manifested in the publication of Testimony to the Truth in 1848. In our search for hard facts relating to Harris's time in New South Wales, both Settlers and Convicts and The Emigrant Family have proven to be quite misleading, even though they are extremely informative and entertaining in their descriptions of life in the Colony.
It is his 1858 autobiographical work Religio Christi which has proven to be the most factual and easily verifiable of his works, especially in the wake of genealogical information revealed by Grant Carr-Harris in 1961 when Religio Christi was reissued under the title The Secrets of Alexander Harris. Unfortunately Settlers and Convicts has been widely read in Australia, and many opinions held by learned historians, literary critics, and the general public with regards to Alexander Harris are based upon this work. The issue of Secrets in 1961 had gone largely un-noticed in comparison with the publication of Settlers and Convicts in 1953, and has for some reason remained neglected by historians and students of Australian literature. Despite its significant introduction and preface, it had no index and minimal footnotes, therefore limiting its use as an historical source. When The Emigrant Family was republished in 1967 no real consideration was given to its factual basis, and the modern day editor (W.S. Ransom) was mainly interested in it from a prose and linguistic point of view. It had only a minor introductory essay, was sparsely annotated, and had no comprehensive index.
The fictional framework of The Emigrant Family tendered to further enhance the opinion that Settlers and Convicts was more fiction than fact. The reissue of the former did not rekindle the flame of the Harris debate, and it could easily be said that the mystery has been forgotten, for even though Secrets was published for the first time in Australia in 1961, its contents are yet to be fully studied and interpreted. Such is the popularity of Settlers and Convicts that many see Manning Clark's 1964 Forward to the third Australian edition as the final word on the subject of Alexander Harris. Settlers and Convicts, being the more cohesive, better written, most entertaining, and therefore most popular of Harris's works, it will continue to hold the spotlight and bear the major investigation and discussion as his definitive work, much to the detriment of Secrets. Unfortunately the picture of Alexander Harris revealed in Secrets is in sharp contrast to that developed in Settlers and Convicts, thereby adding to the general confusion surrounding the man.
In order to fully understand Alexander Harris, ALL his works should be considered, though this is difficult for most, including Testimony to the Truth and Guide to Port Stephens, are long out of print and in the rare book category, with only Settlers and Convicts readily available.
Fact or Fiction?
In many eyes the issues and questions raised by Manning Clark with the publication of the first Australian edition of Settlers and Convicts in 1953 were considered fully answered by the work of Alec Chisholm and Grant Carr-Harris in 1961; others did not even bother to appraise this new information, preferring to follow the Clark line expounded in his Introduction. To do so left many questions still unanswered, for as Clark stated in his 1964 update, ' we still do not know why that Alexander Harris came to the colony, what he did, what he thought, and what happened to him between his days in New South Wales and his arrival in North America. All we can say is that for unknown reasons he was not able to tell the truth about himself.'
A number of the questions raised by Clarke in 1964 - such as details of Harris's movements between the time he left New South Wales around 1840 and his emigration to America in 1851 - had been partially revealed in Secrets in 1961. We now know 'what he did, what he thought' from his books and family histories. However questions remain regarding New South Wales.
Since this particular study of the Alexander Harris mystery was initiated by a reading of Secrets in 1984, and shortly thereafter followed by a reading of Settlers and Convicts and The Emigrant Family, this author has developed a bias (supported by Alec Chisholm and others) towards Secrets as the truest account of Harris's colonial adventures, though by no means the most comprehensive. It appears that Secrets contains more fact than fiction, whereas Settlers and Convicts is the reverse - with supposedly more fiction than fact!
Colin Roderick in 1954 had rather high-handedly referred to Settlers and Convicts as a 'fable' and suggested that, 'We should not demand biographical details of Harris from Settlers and Convicts any more than we should expect to learn details of Defoe's life from A Journal of the Plague Year.' Whilst this view may be rather extreme, to say the least, if we are to solve the mystery of Alexander Harris it is to Secrets that we must go for the truest truth, using Settlers and Convicts for corroboration or filling in gaps. Together these two books provide a detailed account of Harris's Australian experiences and travels between the years 1826-40. Perhaps a more complete understanding of the factual basis to those two works will also assist us in placing the events described in The Emigrant Family and Testimony to the Truth.
What then have previous workers concluded in regards to the personality of Alexander Harris? Manning Clark's comments on Harris's state of mind ('a queer man') were noted at the beginning of this chapter. Alex Chisholm is rather more scathing in his remarks concerning the truthfulness of Harris's account of his travels in New South Wales as revealed in Settlers and Convicts. The complexities of the Alexander Harris mystery point to the complexities of the man himself. Chisholm finally comes to the conclusion that:
....the alleged mechanic [i.e. Alexander Harris, the 'Emigrant Mechanic' of Settlers and Convicts] was not a mechanic; he was simply an unstable young fellow of good education who had wandered from home and worked in a few white-collar jobs for short periods, but who lived mainly in free and easy fashion because his father, a clergyman, was able and willing to supply him with money. And, contrary to the claim about being alone in the world, although his mother had died some three years earlier [than his date of arrival in New South Wales] he still had close relatives in England. Nor did he leave that country, in decorous fashion, to better his condition in Australia: the story now is that he deserted from the Army, and after getting 'on the loose' with a girl, vacated the English scene quite hurriedly with military gentry hot on his heels. As for the house-building job [at Illawarra], he had in fact much more knowledge of Greek and Latin than of Carpentry, and in any event he did not go to Illawarra until about five years later, and then not as a carpenter but as a clerk to a magistrate.
Should we call Harris a liar, or merely a bender of the truth? What degree of credibility are we to give to any of his writings when Chisholm and others have raised so many questions in regards to his truthfulness. Are Settlers and Convicts and Secrets novels, autobiographies, or a combination of the two? To what extent did Harris distort the facts of his colonial experiences within those publication?
Harris's degree of biographical distortion / exaggeration is evidenced by the fact that he had gone so far as to invent an Australian wife and family for himself in Settlers and Convicts; likewise, the same man who presented himself as a skilled laborer - an Emigrant Mechanic - in 1847, bragging that whilst working as a carpenter in the Colony, 'I always cut a first-rate weeks work, (in hardwood never less than 1000 feet). I did not consider myself at all in need to be under a compliment to anybody for working with me,' also wrote in 1858 of his dismissal from a job as a sawyer in New South Wales after 1 week because he was a slow worker and suffered with blistered hands!
The Emigrant Mechanic who arrived in New South Wales with 'a very good knowledge of house carpentering' was the very same person who, after being dismissed from four clerical positions held shortly after his arrival, states 'I beg to enquire of myself whether it would not be a good thing to learn to work.'
Which 'truth' do we therefore believe - that of Settlers and Convicts (1847) and Testimony to the Truth (1848); or Secrets (1858)? The evidence presented by Grant Carr-Harris would point to the latter work as the most accurate of Harris's three autobiographies.
The aforementioned quotes concerning Harris's physical abilities (or lack of them) reveal the degree to which he had disguised the real facts of his experiences in New South Wales to his family and fellow countrymen in England at the time of writing Settlers and Convicts. It was not until about 12 years later (1858), after he had emigrated to America and was isolated from his family, that he could bring himself to present a more truthful autobiography, this being in the form of Religio Christi. It revealed that in reality the hard worker of Settlers and Convicts was actually, as Chisholm concluded, 'a well educated, well read, clerkly son of a parsonage who deserted from the Army.'
John Earnshaw had reached a similar conclusion six years earlier, based solely on a study of the language employed by Harris in The Emigrant Family, and surmised 'No! This is not the writing of either emigrant mechanic or convict, but of one with the jargon of law-school still fresh in his mind.'
We subsequently learn that Harris was also of weak disposition, having suffered a serious illness at the age of 17 (c.1822) whilst in England, and was later taken seriously ill whilst in New South Wales (c.1838), forcing him to be hospitalized at Sydney for almost 6 months. Perhaps this close encounter with death was one of the reasons for his religious conversion around this time and return to England shortly thereafter.
Harris, in Secrets, makes reference to an aspect of his character which reveled in lying and spinning yarns - said aspect supposedly to have disappeared when he became an evangelical Christian around 1838. It seems, however, that this 'lying' or distortion of fact was to continue after his conversion - if not in speech then at least in writing, in the form of the sham autobiography Settlers and Convicts and the novel The Emigrant Family.
In trying to solve the mystery of Alexander Harris we must therefore approach with caution his literary works, viewing them in some instances as mere indicators of the man and his deeds, remembering that the experiences and 'facts' presented have been distorted to varying degrees. It is easy to view The Emigrant Family in this light, even though Harris proclaimed of it that 'everything exhibited is a simple copy from actual daily life', however Settlers and Convicts was always represented by the author as a true telling of his travels. Perhaps if we knew concrete facts about Alexander Harris we could look again at all his publications and reassess their 'truthfulness'.
The reason mystery still surrounds Alexander Harris - despite the excellent work of Manning Clark, Alec Chisholm, Grant Carr-Harris, and others - is largely due to the author's own deviousness. Perhaps a closer investigation of the personality of Harris and the events surrounding his life may lead us closer to a solution of the mystery.
The Real Alexander Harris
1805 - 1874
In 1954 the controversy was raging in Australia as to whether Alexander Harris was a real person or a fictional character created by an English ghost-writer. In that same year a Canadian, Grant Carr-Harris, read a copy of the 1953 Manning Clark edition of Settlers and Convicts and, being aware of a detailed Harris family history which had been published by Jessie Lewin in Montreal at the beginning of 1952, realized that Alexander Harris the 'Australian' author was his grandfather. Carr-Harris later contacted local historian Alex Chisholm and revealed to him a wealth of personal information about the REAL Alexander Harris. Much of this was published by Carr-Harris in 1961 as the introduction to The Secrets of Alexander Harris, and analysed by Chisholm in a preface to that work. The following is a summary only of those revelations, and readers are referred to those works for a better understanding of Harris's circumstances.
Alexander Harris was born on 7 February 1805 at 72 Fleet Street, London, the son of William Harris and Mary Redford. William Harris had practiced as a lawyer for a number of years before becoming a Congregational Minister and teacher. Mary Redford was from a distinguished family of Huguenot extraction. Alexander was the first son born of 11 children, 9 of whom survived the birth and 7 childhood (Edith, Rebecca, Furlong, Sarah, Arthur, William and Alexander). His grandfather, William Harris Senior, was a wealthy jeweler and goldsmith, and as a result the family's financial security was always assured.
Alexander was educated at his father's religious establishment and school near Windsor, Berkshire, wherein he received a comprehensive education, with special emphasis on law and religious studies. The family also lived close to Oxford University, which institution Alexander later visited regularly, both to engage in study and learn the fine art of drinking, an art he was to pursue and refine over the next 10 years. According to references in Secrets and the 1952 family history, Alexander's studies at Oxford were in law and he dearly wanted to make a career in this field. However his father would not allow of such an option - knowing from his own experience that lawyers were often compelled to make irreligious decisions - and he hoped his son would follow in his ministry.
Alexander's mother had been the dominant influence upon his early life, largely as a consequence of the neglect of his father who was a typical 'hell-fire and brimstone' nineteenth century preacher and a rather distant figure to his children. Young Alexander idolized his mother, however by the time he was 17 (around 1822) he had also formed a close attachment with a young female neighbour by the name of Elizabeth Atkinson. At this point in time his future looked bright. When his education was completed about 2 years later he was ready to start an apprenticeship in law or, if his father's will be done, pursue a religious vocation. Unfortunately fate was to intervene at this crucial point in Alexander's life, and early in 1823 his mother died suddenly. Eighteen months later, on 11 October 1824, his father remarried one Elizabeth Atkinson - the mother of his beloved. Through some misunderstanding his association with young Elizabeth Atkinson was severed around this time. Alexander was shattered by these events. Feeling alone and depressed, he rebelled and left home for London, hoping to leave his sadness behind and immerse himself in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of that city. With the assistance of his father's money and influence he was variously employed in that city as a compositor (for 3 months), proof reader, and journalist. His early interest in writing was therefore evident.
Alexander spent about three years (1824-26) in London. During this period he led a bohemian existence. Being young, financially well-off, and with plenty of free time between jobs as a journalist, he took to the heavy drinking often associated with that profession and began an association with the lowest classes of London society. He later wrote with reference to his drinking, and as an excuse for his behaviour during those years, ' Hard drinking has always been one of the standing vices of Northern Europe. And Britain is no exception. The middle class are the most free from it. The higher and lower the examination is carried, the worse the case becomes.'
Harris saw himself as one of the upper classes, therefore not at fault. It is also hinted-at in Secrets that whilst in London he lived with a young prostitute named Margaret G for two years. After drifting through a number of jobs, young Alexander's career prospects were fast diminishing. In an attempt to steady the career course of his wayward son, Alexander's father sent him a large sum of money to purchase his indenture as an apprentice to a London publishing firm. Upon receiving the money Alexander decided to celebrate the occasion. With his pockets full of notes he toasted London Town, and in the process got blind drunk. When he awoke from the drunken stupor he found his pockets empty and the money gone.
Having, therefore, no future prospects and unable to turn to his father for any more help, Harris states that he joined the army - the Horse Guards - as a last resort (possibly late in 1825 or early in 1826). As no records of an 'Alexander Harris' enlisting in the Horse Guards at this time have been located, it is possible (if this story is to be believed) that he used an assumed name upon enlistment in order to protect the family name - this would be in character with his later attempts to hide his true identity whilst in Australia and subsequently within his literary works. According to Grant Carr-Harris, Alexander enlisted under the name Thomas Williamson, though the source of this information is unknown.
Alexander was only in the Horse Guards for a few months, performing the duties of an army clerk. As he states in Secrets, he quickly tired of the military discipline and lack of freedom, and decided to desert. There are suggestions that he may have suffered the indignities of a flogging whilst in the Army, thereby forming a lifelong hatred for that abomination, which had been further enhanced by his experiences in New South Wales where flogging was the preferred punishment. His thoughts on this issue are revealed in an 1846 article entitled 'Reasons for the Entire Abolition of Flogging'.
Following his desertion from the Horse Guards Alexander once again turned to his father for help. The family offered to pay the Army for his discharge, but this was not acceptable as desertion was a criminal offence - he was told he had no option but to return to the Army to face the consequences, meaning possible imprisonment. Not wanting to do this Alexander was secreted into the countryside, and lay low until 'it was settled between my father and myself that .... arrangements should be made for my leaving England for a time [until the army discharge was secured] .... Sydney, the capital of Australia, had been concluded to be the most advisable spot for me to proceed to.'
Alexander was to become a Remittance Man, i.e. a temporary exile from Britain, sent to one of the colonies to bide his time until circumstances were more congenial for his return, or until the authorities dropped all charges against him. Australia, a British colony on the other side of the globe to Mother England, was seen as an ideal place of exile.
If this whole episode with the Horse Guards is to be believed, it goes a long way in explaining Harris's subsequent secretiveness and disdain of the military and police in New South Wales. If, however, it is just another one of his tales, then it is possible that he emigrated to Australia for a more mundane reason. Harris had vaguely stated in 1847, 'of course my reason for emigrating to New South Wales was the hope of bettering my condition.' He may have been an emigrant settler and nothing more.
Grant Carr-Harris had noted that one of Alexander's brothers died in Hobart in 1836; therefore it is possible that Alexander traveled to New South Wales on the recommendation of a family member, though this incident is not referred to in any of his publications. For whatever reason, Australia was to be his new home, therefore, 'in the genial month of June', year unknown but possibly 1826 or 1827, Alexander Harris left England as a troublesome young man of 21 years, for a new life in exile in New South Wales - supposedly to return after a couple of years when his family had sorted out his problems with the Army. It is possible he arrived in Sydney via a stopover at Hobart to meet his brother.
As at no point in his many published works does Harris state the precise period of his exile, we can only surmise the approximate time of his arrival in, and departure from, New South Wales. It would appear from his various accounts that he was in New South Wales between 1826-41. His activities there will be discussed in detail below.
When he returned to England Harris was a reformed man of 35 years, no longer a wayward adolescent - he had stopped his drinking and received a religious calling. He married his sick and dying childhood sweetheart Elizabeth Atkinson shortly thereafter (on 27 November 1841) and began work which would occupy him for the next few years as a London City Missionary. Unfortunately Elizabeth died 5 weeks after they were married, and less than a year later Alexander eloped with Ursula Carr, without her parents support. They were married on 17 September 1842.
Ursula was the sister of Robert Carr, whom Alex had traveled with from Sydney aboard the ship which carried him back to England in 1841. The union with Ursula Carr was eventually to provide Alexander with 3 sons - Robert Carr Harris, born at Camden Town, London on 6 July 1843; Ernest Alexander Harris, 17 September 1844; and William Dale Harris, born at Lee, Kent, on 1 November 1846. The marriage appears to have been a stormy one, with a basic religious conflict (Ursula came from a Catholic background, and Alexander by this time was rather fanatical and extreme in his views on religion) and many periods of separation.
With a wife and family to support, Alexander eventually returned to his earlier profession of journalism after his time as a London missionary, and at one stage worked as editor of the Manchester Examiner newspaper. He also began writing of his New South Wales experiences and religious conversion, and in 1846 his first article on his Australian travels appeared. It was titled 'Life in New South Wales, by a Working Hand' and was shortly thereafter followed by the anti-flogging article, which also had colonial overtones. When Settlers and Convicts was published the following year its second chapter, titled 'Convict Discipline', restated his hatred of flogging and abuses by the local magistracy and police.
Harris's major works were published in London between 1847-52. In 1849 he was employed by the Australian Agricultural Company's London office as the 'Commissioners' Agent for the Selection of Emigrants in Great Britain', and it was during this period that The Emigrant Family and the Guide to Port Stephens were issued. However in 1851 he somewhat mysteriously decided to migrated to America, alone, without his family. Perhaps he still feared the Army authorities would imprison him for his earlier desertion from the Horse Guards (though he states in one of his books that his sister had cleared this matter up). More likely, he was just restless.
The family joined him at Wisconsin in June 1858 and they lived together for a number of years. However in 1863 Ursula and the children moved to Nova Scotia, Canada, and they were to remain apart for the remainder of their lives, with infrequent meetings. In 1858, whilst still at Wisconsin, Alexander wrote his third autobiographical work, giving it the title Religio Christi. It was initially published in serial form within The Saturday Evening Post, a Philadelphia newspaper, and remained largely unknown until republished in a slightly abridged form in Australia in 1961 under the title The Secrets of Alexander Harris. Harris remained in America for the remainder of his life, until his death at Ontario on 1 February 1874.
This brief biographical outline points to the stormy, often troubled, personal life of Alexander Harris. The fact that his family had remembered him through the years by terms such as 'Old Rip' and 'Rolling Stone' points to his lifelong waywardness. He is revealed as a restless soul who loved to wander - perhaps a forerunner of later travel writers such as Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, and D.H. Lawrence who all traveled the world in search of inspiration and ideas.
Despite this restless spirit, Harris possessed, and displayed, undeniable talents as a writer. Settlers and Convicts is a seminal work in its use of the relatively new Australian language and descriptions of colonial life as experienced by the lower classes and isolated settlers of New South Wales pre 1840. Though gifted, Alexander did not live easily with his talent. His personal and mental problems were reflected in his writing (as noted by Manning Clark and Alec Chisholm), though the degree is not always obvious to the modern reader. Apart from the frequent moralizing they display, and the inconsistencies in dates between works, his output would appear to the unobservant reader to be the writings of a clear, rational mind. However a clue to his precarious physical and mental state is given in a letter Harris's sister Furlie (Furlong) was to write his wife Ursula in 1847, around the time of publication of Settlers and Convicts:
Thank you for your letter .... though it brought me so sad an account of our dear Alex. It is a comfort to me to think you had seen him and soothed his loneliness a little .... If he is wayward and willful, so are we all, and if he is not always what I have found him, his own dear self, good and gentle, how could we think he would be after wearing of body and mind?
Did Harris suffer bouts of depression? Had he once again turned to drink, making life with him unbearable for Ursula and the children? Was Alexander not 'good and gentle' to his wife and family? Had this 'wearing of body and mind' been a result of his Australian experiences, or his work on the streets of London as a missionary? Did he find it too difficult to adjust to Victorian England after the years of freedom and wandering in New South Wales? Why did he later settle in America, instead of returning to his beloved New South Wales where he had experienced some of the happiest times of his life? There are no answers to these questions at this stage, and the mystery remains.
The complexities of Alexander Harris's personality are relevant to this discussion in so far as we are attempting to unravel the tangled web he has left behind in his writing. This web had led to students of the Harris mystery proclaiming books such as Settlers and Convicts to be fables, and questioning whether he had any real experience of the Australian frontier. Perhaps the last word on this issue should be left to Alec Chisholm who came to the following conclusions in 1960, 'It becomes evident from all this that Harris was a man of distinctive character: talented, observant, and humanitarian, yet rather deficient in humour and sadly hampered by introspection and melancholia.'
With the aforementioned biographical information in mind, we shall now turn to his experiences in New South Wales.
Alexander Harris in Australia
Despite the detailed accounts of Harris's Australian experiences contained in his many publications, and the revelations of his descendent Grant Carr-Harris, mystery still surrounds all aspects of Alexander Harris's time in the Colony, especially his arrival and departure dates and the specific chronology of the intervening years. We should first ask - during what period was he in the Colony?
According to Settlers and Convicts, Alexander Harris spent 'Sixteen years labour in the Australian backwoods', and 'nearly twenty years of a bush-life in New South Wales', whereas in Secrets (p213) he states about twelve years passed between his bidding farewell to his family in England and his eventual return from New South Wales. As he at no point specifies the ships upon which he traveled to and from Australia, or even their dates of arrival and departure, we are greatly hampered in our research, since shipping records are an important source for identifying any individual in the Colony during that period.
According to Secrets (pp.67, 72), he had left England in the month of June and, after a voyage which 'had been an unusually tedious one, in fact nearly double the length it ought to have been' [perhaps 5-6 months instead of the usual 3?] he arrived in Sydney 'it was by this time the month of November .... the Australian summer was just fully set in.' In Settlers and Convicts (p2), he had previously stated 'It was just as twilight darkened into the night of an evening in early summer of the year 182_, that the good ship ____ .... dropped anchor .... a few fathoms off shore abreast of the Kings Wharf [Sydney].' Both quotes suggest that he arrived in Sydney around November during the 1820s, though elsewhere he says June. With regards to Harris's years in the Colony, the following have been variously proposed:
* Manning Clark had surmised from the evidence of Settlers and Convicts that Harris was in New South Wales for 16 years, between 1825-41.
* Alec Chisholm proposed 1825-40.
* Colin Roderick, in article 'Who Was Alexander Harris?' points out that according to Settlers and Convicts, shortly after Harris's arrival in the Colony, 'a very serious drought was at its height.' Since New South Wales had experienced floods in 1826 and a severe drought during 1827-28, Roderick suggests that Harris arrived late in 1826, or early 1827, and departed 16 years later - after 'sixteen years in the Australian backwoods' - namely in 1842. However, as Harris married Elizabeth Atkinson in England on 27 November 1841, this later date is obviously incorrect.
* The chronology outlined in Secrets suggests that he arrived around November 1826, stayed for about twelve years, and had returned to England by late 1840 or early 1841.
* In notes compiled around 1858, he states he arrived in Sydney during 1825, and was carried back to England in 1840.
* In Settlers and Convicts he was still in the colony for 'Christmas 184 ', which must have been 1840.
In summary, the most likely period during which Harris was resident in New South Wales is between 1826 and 1840. Whilst the latter date is more definite as he was home by November 1841, his exact time of arrival is open to question - possibly late 1826 or early 1827.
The Tabular Notes of 1858
One of the tantalizing revelations of Grant Carr-Harris in 1961 was the existence of a set of chronological, biographical, tabular notes compiled by Harris to aid in the writing of 'Religio Christi' around 1858. These notes, of which a fragment only are reproduced in Secrets, briefly outline Harris's life from birth to 1857. They are arranged into four sections, namely 'Age, Year, Places, and Adjuncts', and are an important resource in our study of Harris's movements, recording among other things that in 1840 he was 'carried back to England.' He also notes the following regarding his arrival in the Colony:
Age - Year - Places - Adjuncts
21 - 1825 - Sydney coast and Town - Emigrate to New S. Wales
Page from Alexander Harris' Tabular Notes of 1858, prepared as an aid in the writing of 'Religio Christi'. This section, covering the period 1816-1826 (part) was reproduced in The Secrets of Alexander Harris (Sydney, 1961).
However, if he was 21 years old when he emigrated to New South Wales - as he states in the notes - the date would have to have been sometime after February 1826, since he was born in February 1805! The notes are therefore at least one year out for this period, and we must wonder if this discrepancy exists throughout. Remember that Alexander was 53 years old when he compiled the notes in America, alone and a long way from family papers and documents in England, and it would therefore have been easy to confuse the dates for a period 30 years previous. We must also be wary of accepting the tabular notes as completely accurate and truthful, judging by Harris's past performances, where he has loosely taken dates and reconstructed events to suit his own literary purposes. By confusing his own date of birth and subsequent age:year calculations, the accuracy of the tabular notes are thrown into doubt. Were they meant to be a truthful synopsis of his career, or merely a rough chronological outline to guide his thoughts whilst writing Religio Christi? I would suggest the latter as most likely.
It is unfortunate that doubt is raised over the dates in the tabular notes as they could have guided us to official records of his time in New South Wales. As only a small section of these notes are printed in Secrets, we are further hampered in using this valuable document (present whereabouts unknown). They do however confirm 1826 as the approximate arrival date.
Fortunately the extract from the tabular notes and other biographical information start to reveal why Harris was so mysterious, and why he would conceal details of his entry into, and exit from, New South Wales. Since he was supposedly an Army deserter on the run - and therefore a wanted criminal - at the time of his departure from England, he would have had to remain incognito and assume a new identity in order to escape its shores. Having money and influence, his family may have been able to arrange the necessary papers to give him a new identity and supply money and provisions for the journey.
It is strange that in all his writings he makes scant reference to the voyages to and from Australia. Whilst they were usually tedious times, and could be interrupted by long bouts of seasickness, many journals were kept during this period. Perhaps he thought if he revealed any such details certain parties in England and Australia would recognize his former identity - an identity which he preferred remained hidden. Perhaps he also suffered seasickness during the voyages; or spent the return voyage writing up his Australian journals - we can only guess. The only real lead we have to his arrival in the Colony is a notice in the Sydney Gazette of 10 March 1827 recording a Mr Harris arriving at Hobart Town from England, aboard the vessel Calista. Was this our Alexander?
We do not know if Harris arrived in New South Wales as a steerage passenger or as a member of a ship's crew, on a passenger or cargo vessel. In Settlers and Convicts he speaks of visiting The Rocks shortly after his arrival in Sydney with one of the midshipmen from the boat which had brought him to this port. As a crew member it would have been easy for him to lay low and escape any interrogation by the port authorities, before slipping off the ship and taking up residence in the Rocks area of Sydney - a very hospitable environment for a young lad such as Alexander used to the bars and brothels of London, and under the sway of the demon drink. The Rocks area was a veritable haven of sly grog houses and brothels during the late 1820s and 1830s.
The scenario that he arrived as a steerage passenger with an assumed identity, letters of introduction, and ample supplies seems the most acceptable one, considering the financial status and influence of his family and their ability to buy Alexander's way out of trouble. The variety of adventures outlined in his autobiographies also suggest that he possessed the necessary papers and money to legitimize his presence in the Colony and allow him to travel about freely, though he does mention in Settlers and Convicts his arrest upon suspicion of being a runaway convict, and his continual difficulties in proving that he was 'free'. In Settlers and Convicts (p24) he notes the ribbing he received from the Geraghty brothers, two ex-convicts, when he visited them in Illawarra shortly after his arrival, possibly in 1827 or 1828, 'the jokes they not very sparingly, but I must say with very good humour, cut on me for having come to the colony "to make a fortune", or for being "a free object" (subject), or for having "lagged myself for fear the king should do it for me".'
All suggest he arrived as a free settler, not as a soldier or convict. After his arrival at Sydney, Harris obviously underwent many adventures during the following 14 years, some of which are described in his writings. He went bush and traveled extensively throughout New South Wales - to Illawarra and Jervis Bay on the south coast; to the Goulburn Plains in the south-west; west over the Blue Mountains as far as Wellington Valley; and north to the Hunter region and Port Stephens. He possibly also visited Norfolk Island.
Sydney and the Rocks area would always be a base for this young wanderer, a place where he would feel at home amongst the rum drinkers, sailors, vagabonds and prostitutes. Settlers and Convicts is full of references to his adventures at that locality. Of the circumstances which caused him to leave the Colony in 1840, a number of stories are given. In Secrets he states:
Above twelve years had elapsed since I last saw my relatives, and throughout all that time I had never written to them. It happened that a friend of mine, a clergyman in Sydney [? from the Catholic school], had to visit England on some business connected with his profession, and there, in a large assemblage of clergymen, happened to meet my father. A packet of letters from my surviving friends found me a few months subsequently, still at the sheep station. At the foot of one from my brother, there was a short note: "E. [Elizabeth Atkinson] is not married." Instantly - Sydney, Cape Horn, European seas, and, once more, the reek and roar of London!
In Settlers and Convicts Harris had suggested that ill health had forced him to return to England. The above quote suggests lost love as the reason. Other evidence suggests monetary and health problems. What is the truth?
Harris's tales of adventure in the Colony make very entertaining reading, yet when we try to find official confirmation of his presence we continually meet dead ends. Without more specific dates and references to individuals - the very things Harris specifically deleted and changed within his books - it is very difficult to isolate his exact movements during those many years. Whatever the methods he employed to enter Australia, survive for 15 years, and leave for England, we are once again forced to ask: What identity did Alexander Harris assume during his time in New South Wales? If we do not answer this question our study of the mystery can go no further.
As far as this author is aware, no answer has yet been found to this question. Following the revelations of Grant Carr-Harris in 1959-61 there was no widespread investigations into the Alexander Harris mystery as there had been following the work of Manning Clark in 1953. The feeling must have been that Carr-Harris and Chisholm had answered all the questions posed by Clark and others, however this was not the case! Secrets proved that Alexander Harris did exist, but the details of his presence in New South Wales were still shrouded in mystery. As previously noted, limited research has raised the possibility that whilst in New South Wales Alexander Harris used the name Henry Anthony Burlton Bennett. The reasons for this association will be outlined over the following pages.
Go to Part 2
Any comments, corrections, or additions to the content of this document are most welcome. Please e-mail the author at: Michael Organ. Australia. Site last updated: 8 May 2006. Return to Home Page.