On Saturday 20 January 1816 the Sydney Gazette reported that, ‘Thursday last being the Anniversary of the auspicious Birth of Our Gracious Queen, was celebrated with the fullest demonstrations of loyalty and joy.’
The Royal Standard (at Fort Phillip) and the Union Flag (at Dawes’s Point) were displayed at sunrise. A Royal Salute was fired at 12 noon, and the Governor inspected the 46th Regiment and the Royal Veteran Company in Hyde Park. His Majesty’s armed brig Emu fired a Royal Salute at one o’clock, and the Governor held a levee at Government House, ‘and received the Congratulations of the Civil and Military Officers, and other Gentlemen of the Colony.’
At the levee, ‘The Laureat Bard (for so we may venture to call him, from the frequency of his tributes on such occasions) presented his offering of an Ode, which, at the instance of His Excellency, he recited in an emphatic and appropriate style; the distinguished approbation of those who had the satisfaction to hear it, will best convey the high opinion entertained of the merits of this production – We have the pleasure of introducing it to our Readers in our present columns.’
In the evening a ball and supper, attended by over 120 ladies and gentlemen, were held at the New General Hospital, Government House being too small for the occasion. That morning, news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo had arrived, and the decorations included a salute to this triumph.
The ‘Laureat Bard’ was Michael Massey Robinson, who held several positions of trust in the colony despite having been transported for blackmail and having been detected acting in breach of regulations. Over the course of a decade during Governor Macquarie’s tenure he was regularly looked to for an ode for the King’s and Queen’s birthdays. It is intriguing that, if the year of his birth is correctly given as 1744 (there is some doubt about the date), he was born in the same year as Queen Charlotte, a circumstance which may have given him an additional emotional investment in poetically marking the passage of time and reflecting on human progress.
The odes vary in quality and clarity, but they have a sense of feeling and power, and they give valuable insights into the thinking of the time. While audiences may not have followed every convoluted thought or expression, even in an age when convolution was accepted as a part of high style, they no doubt appreciated the values that Robinson was careful to promote: pride in ‘Albion’ and her heroes in war and peace; a commitment to reason, civilisation, the wisdom of classical Athens, Christianity, the arts and sciences, education (with mention of Oxford, where Robinson studied, and Cambridge), and human valour and industry in such fields as exploration and agriculture; and firm rejection of all that was regarded as unsympathetic to these ideals.
Each ode develops a timely theme. That for the Queen’s birthday in 1816 begins by praising those who have explored the world by sea, including Columbus (a great but flawed adventurer) and even more so Albion’s heroic representatives (‘Firm as the Oak that bound their Vessels’ Sides’). The poet then considers the glorious and patriotic achievements of adventurous Britons whose explorations take them across ‘Tracts of untravers’d Earth’ in Australia, and in particular ‘Where yon Blue Mountains, with tremendous Brow, / Frown on the humbler Vales that wind below, / Where scarcely human Footsteps ever trac’d / The craggy Cliffs that guard the lingering Waste / O’er the wild Surface of the Western Plains…’ Bringing agriculture to this new domain caused surprise: ‘Invaded Nature startled at the Plan’; but the ‘stubborn Glebe’ yielded, shared in the triumph and disclosed its riches. ‘And proud Posterity shall prize the Land / That owes its Culture to a Briton’s Hand!’
One can imagine Governor Lachlan Macquarie being very pleased with these sentiments.
The date of the Queen’s birthday, and the date of its celebration, present some difficulties. George III (4 June 1738 – 29 January 1820) married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whose dates seem generally to be given as 19 May 1744 – 17 November 1818. According to Percy Fitzgerald, The Good Queen Charlotte (1899), p. 6: ‘The future queen, Sophia Charlotte, was born May 16th or May 19th, o.s. 1744.’ In colonial New South Wales the anniversary was celebrated on 18 January (or 19 January if the 18th was a Sunday). It seems that Queen Charlotte’s Birthday Ball (a traditional occasion for the coming out of debutantes) is held in May in Britain but in January in at least one or two places elsewhere.
Given the recent and current floods in eastern Australia (though not in the Sydney region), it is interesting to note that this period in January 1816 was a time of rains with a threat of floods, as the Sydney Gazette reported below its description of the Queen’s birthday celebrations: ‘The continuance of the rains begins to excite apprehension for the safety of the crop of wheat newly gathered, as well as for the growing maize. The earth is already saturated, the lagoons and hollows are in general full, and are likely to overflow unless the rains should cease.’
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 20/1/1816, p. 2, including Mr. Michael Robinson, ‘Ode for the Queen’s Birth Day, 1816’. Donovan Clarke, ‘Robinson, Michael Massey (1744-1826)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2, 1967, pp. 387-389, and online. George Mackaness (ed.), Odes of Michael Massey Robinson, First Poet Laureate of Australia, with five illustrations, Sydney, Ford, 1946. Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald, The Good Queen Charlotte, London, Downey, 1899; ‘o.s.’ = ‘old style’.