In 1795, Lachlan Macquarie and first wife Jane, stationed in Calicut, India, ordered the purchase of five-year-old boy for Rs 85 from a slave market of Cochin. He was named George Jarvis, he joined their domestic staff and travelled with them around India, Egypt, Scotland, Britain, Europe and Australia for over 20 years.
Lachlan arrived as Governor of New South Wales in 1810 and stayed for almost 12 years, and left behind significant Indian effects when he moved back. They stayed in Old Government House, a convict-built Georgian structure, now a heritage site, overlooking historic Parramatta. When Lachlan died in 1824, he had left enough money in his will for George, his valet at the time, to live in comfort, having freed him by then.
Historian Robin Walsh and author Roanna Gonsalves attempted to unravel the elusive man servant in a recent talk entitled Finding ‘George Jarvis’ at the Parramatta Lecture Series, hosted by the National Trust. It was part of Tales from the East, an exhibition that concluded last month. The event was an initiative to gather rich stories from 1788, capturing links between India and colonial Australia, and celebrate the current cultural expanse of Western Sydney.
Robin has spent 30 years exploring Lachlan Macquarie, Jane Macquarie and George. He describes George as an Indian-born child slave, man servant, and valet to Governor Macquarie. He also adds a caveat, “At the outset, I want to stress that we are dealing here with the question of historical reminisce: there are few certainties about George.”
And yet, according to him, “It’s a compelling story and challenging narrative of personal friendship and transnational journey. The fragmented elements of one boy’s life raise some really important questions about slavery, domestic servitude, personal devotion and human worth.”
“It’s also a deeply personal account. One that allows us to see the complexities and contradictions of Lachlan Macquarie’s life and puts both of them in quite a unique light. George is also a cipher for wider questions that relate to ideas of race, colour, ethnicity, child slavery, the Indian Ocean slave trade, the place of coloured servants in 18th century polite British society,” observes Robin.
Roanna, who is currently penning a novel on George, is trying to make the slave visible, led by three impulses. She is interested in the intricacies of the time when slaves were entrenched with their masters. “I am delving into the archives of my imagination, standing on the shoulders of giants like Robin and other Australian historians. As he articulated so well, George was a mute observer to Australian colonisation and history. He was complicit in the whole process, a beneficiary of colonisation but also a colonised subject.”
Inspired by the works of Tom Griffiths, Grace Karskens and Dolores Hayden, Roanna is trying to imagine a version of Australian history from the point of view of the vanquished and not the victors. “They were co-opted, beholden to their masters, who provided them with an education in English. But the learning of the language came at the cost of forgetting their mother tongues.”
Her first instinct is to make sense of the present by examining the past. “I look around contemporary Sydney and Indian restaurants, waiters and waitresses, petrol station attendants, of which I was one in the past, cab drivers, call centre workers, thinking about this history of Indian labour in Australia. I am interested in the collective memory this place holds of Indian labour.” Secondly, Roanna is curious about the role gender played in hierarchies then, particularly the way the constellations of gender, race and class collided. Lastly, she wants to consider the instinctual and material significance of place on people of the early colony of New South Wales, particularly servants. She says, “I am personally interested in the intimacy of the local, the collision of the ragged and the sublime. This place that holds the interactions between the memories of the Gadigal people, the Burramatagal people, the colonisers, the convicts, and those other colonised people.”
So what happened to George? He married a convict Mary Jelly who had reached Sydney in 1820, and served as a chambermaid at Government House. Their first child died within six days, then they had a daughter Elizabeth. The couple left with the Macquaries in 1822 for Britain and then to Mull, Scotland. George did not live long after Lachlan to appreciate his inherited material comforts; he died in 1825. His wife and daughter survived and enjoyed the fruit of his labour and loyalty.