NT Finniss history revisited 150 years on


Historian Dr Lloyd Browne.

Historian Dr Lloyd Browne. 

The sullied reputation of the man who tried but failed to establish the Northern Territory’s first capital city 150 years ago has been cast in a more empathetic light by a PhD history graduate at Charles Darwin University.

Dr Lloyd Browne undertook an exhaustive examination of the body of literature relating to Boyle Travers Finniss, the leader of the first Northern Territory Survey Expedition, and his unpopular choice of Escape Cliffs (50 km east of Darwin) as the site to build a northern capital.

“The thesis is a revisionist history of events and circumstances that overturns some of the conventional ideas about the Finniss controversy,” Dr Browne said. “It’s an attempt to assess the totality of Finniss’s Northern Territory endeavours, to understand the motives behind his decisions and to set the record straight in a number of ways.”

Dr Browne said that a campaign of personal vilification in the Adelaide press orchestrated by two of Finniss’s opponents was a key factor contributing to Finniss’s reputation as the impetuous blunderer who chose a mangrove swamp as the site to build a settlement.

“The campaign led to Finniss’s recall and a 10-week Commission of Enquiry, of which the terms of reference were adversarial, the proceedings contained a hotchpotch of irrelevancies, and the adverse findings had not been critically evaluated in the context of modern scholarship until now,” he said.

“My analysis shows that while Finniss had a case to answer, the extent of his culpability was not conclusively established by the Commission. Indeed ... all three Commissioners were forced to concede the possibility that Escape Cliffs and the Adelaide River may well have been the best and healthiest settlement site available on the northern coast.”

Dr Browne justifies the title of his thesis (Then My Memory Will Get Justice – The Finniss Controversy Revisited) with a poignant extract from a letter Finniss wrote to his son, in which he laments: “I only wish that some impartial educated man would read the report of the Commission … and I am sure he would be astonished by the unfairness and prejudice exhibited by the Court … then my memory will get justice.”

Dr Browne will receive his PhD testamur in Darwin on Thursday 24 May. 

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