I put it to you that the story of Henry Kable and Susannah Holmes is reason enough to celebrate Australia Day on 26 January.

Henry and Susannah arrived in Australia, an unmarried couple of convicts with an infant son, on 26 January 1788. They sailed on board of the Friendship as part of the First Fleet. Both had been sentenced to death for burglary some years before in Norfolk, England. They met and started their relationship in jail where Susannah gave birth to their first son. Their sentences were commuted to transportation to the Americas but the destination was later changed to the newly proposed colony of New South Wales.

After the long voyage, as the ships unpacked onto the shore, Henry and Susannah received but a few of their scarce personal belongings. Somewhere along the way, their luggage had gone missing.

By July 1788, the first case of civil law in Australian history was being heard in a court. Even more remarkably, the Kables, now married, were awarded £15 in compensation. In England, and just about everywhere else in the world, convicted felons didn’t enjoy such rights and all their possessions were simply ceded to the state.

The Kable court case was not a fluke. It was a direct consequence of the thoughtful planning of Lord Sydney, Thomas Townsend who, as Home Secretary just months before the First Fleet set sail, rejected the idea of using martial law in the penal colony as it was originally intended.

Lord Sydney, Thomas Townsend, after whom Australian city Sydney is named

Lord Sydney was not about to send hundreds of prisoners to a remote gulag but instead had a vision for a free society based on
separation of powers, property rights and the rule of law.

He entrusted Governor Captain Arthur Phillip with the task of implementing his vision on the ground. It was Governor Phillip who responded to the complaint by our convicted couple Henry and Susannah Kable about their missing luggage.

The broader challenge for Phillip was enormous. Putting Lord Sydney’s seemingly fanciful ideals into practice was no easy feat. After all, it took thousands of years for these ideas to develop and mature. It was only during The Enlightenment period that they were framed in a way that could be adopted as the basis of government.

Captain and later Admiral Arthur Phillip, 1st Governor of New South Wales

It is a childish characterisation of human history to pretend that we could have arrived at our modern understanding of universal rights with a sudden stroke of virtue.

Arthur Phillip himself believed that Aboriginal people had the same rights as everyone else.

Chances are, put in that same position, you wouldn’t have. In any other time in history, you would have had slaves if you could. If you think you are simply better than that, then you understand very little about the human condition.

We take the ideas of individual property rights and an impartial rule of law to enforce them for granted today but they are not the natural way of things. These ideas had to be envisioned, explained, understood, misunderstood, questioned, tried, rejected and envisioned again. It took brave and critical thinkers like Sydney and Phillip to set them into motion.

A free society for all, with all its flaws and contradictions, was part of the fabric of Australia from the very first moments of the Nation.

That is what arrived in Australia, together with Henry Kable, Susannah Holmes and Arthur Phillip, one 26th of January 1788.

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