The last of the tyrants
Macquarie governor of New South Wales — British military forces sent to Australia — Demand for a council — The emancipist question — The Governor’s policy — His difficulties with military officers — Trial by jury — Quarrels with the Bent brothers — Emancipist attorneys — Macquarie’s autocracy.
After the Bligh mutiny the governing authorities in England came to the conclusion that a change was required in the kind of man selected to govern New South Wales. The first four Governors were post-captains in the Navy. But it had become clear that the local military force — the New South Wales Corps — really dominated the situation. Its officers had thwarted, insulted, and defied the chosen representatives of the Sovereign, and there could be no peace and security in the colony until this corps was firmly set back into disciplined obedience or wiped out of existence. It was necessary, wrote the Secretary of State, to place the Government ‘on a more respectable basis.’
Therefore it was determined that Bligh should be succeeded by a military officer, who should go out to Sydney in command of a British regiment. Colonel Lachlan Macquarie of the 73rd — a Highland regiment since merged in the Black Watch — was chosen for the service, and he was ordered to take his battalion with him. Macquarie had had a creditable military career of over thirty years. He was a man of thoroughly dependable character, gentlemanly in his manners, kindly but firm, with the pride of a pedigreed Highland laird, the paternal authority of a Hebrew patriarch, the masterful self-sufficiency of a Norman baron, and the personal rectitude of an English squire.
Macquarie arrived at Port Jackson with his seven hundred Highlanders in December 1809, and he continued to rule the colony till December 1821, a longer period of continuous administration than has been filled by any other Australian Governor. He had no trouble with the New South Wales Corps, because he had a superior force under his command, and it was recalled — and afterwards ceased to exist — shortly after he gathered the reins of government into his hands. About three hundred of its members joined the 73rd regiment, nearly four hundred were sent to England, whilst a hundred who wished to remain in the colony (to which, Macquarie reported, they had become ‘much attached’) were permitted to do so. From this time forth until 1870 troops belonging to the Imperial Army were constantly stationed in Australia.
Macquarie governed the colony in no less arbitrary a manner than his predecessors had done, but his mode of enforcing his will made his government less objectionable. ‘I cannot but think the present Governor as arbitrary as Bligh,’ wrote John Macarthur ‘only that he has a manner of reconciling people to his measures.’ At the beginning of his period the suggestion was made that a council should be formed to advise him, and a definite proposal to that effect was formulated by a House of Commons Committee on Transportation which sat in 1812. But the Secretary of State was not inclined to limit the scope of the Governor’s powers by setting up a body which, in the natural course of things, would sometimes dissent from his policy. Parties would thereby be formed, and it was feared that the weakening of the Governor’s authority in a community composed of somewhat discordant elements would be mischievous. Macquarie, when the report of the committee was communicated to him, fervently expressed ‘a fond hope that a council would never be set up in New South Wales.’ He thoroughly believed in the exercise of undivided power.
Nevertheless, the very suggestion of a council brought into being a party which began to work for one; and as the number of free settlers increased the demand became more insistent. Macquarie was, indeed, the last of the purely arbitrary Governors. He finished his own eleven years’ course of benevolent autocracy beyond the effective reach of criticism except from Downing Street; but the demand made after 1812 bore fruit when the next Governor was appointed, and was the real beginning of the movement towards popular government in Australia.
The outstanding question which arose during Macquarie’s governorship related to the official and social recognition which should be extended to emancipists. Such a question inevitably presented itself in a colony founded primarily for the reception of convicts, but wherein there was a considerable population, increasing every year, of persons who had never been under sentence. Moreover, these free settlers were on the whole the wealthier class. In 1810 there were 2,804 adult persons in New South Wales who had not been convicts, and these owned 145,000 acres, whilst there were 16,428 convicts or emancipists, the latter of whom owned 192,000 acres. The free people were inclined to look upon themselves as a moral aristocracy, and to regard the emancipists with some disdain. But Macquarie insisted that as New South Wales had been originally occupied purely as a penal colony, and in the hope of reforming malefactors, it was unjust that any stigma should attach to those who had endured the ordeal imposed upon them and had become free in the eyes of the law. This principle he stated in plain terms in a despatch. ‘Once a convict has become a free man,’ he said, ‘he should in all respects be considered on a footing with every other man in the colony, according to his rank in life and character.’
It cannot be supposed that a man of Macquarie’s character and antecedents arrived at such a conclusion without misgivings. He was proud of his own rank, had lived all his life among military men, and was saturated with the ideas of the class whence the British Army drew its officers. He acknowledged that when he came out to New South Wales he thought that he would have no other intercourse with persons who had been convicted than that of control over them. But a short experience convinced him that some of the most meritorious men to be met in Sydney, men who were most anxious to exert themselves for the public well-being, were ex-convicts. To his great surprise, he found among them men of manners and education. Such a one was Henry Fulton, a Protestant clergyman, who had been transported for suspected complicity in the Irish rebellion. Another was Redfern, a surgeon with a lucrative practice in Sydney, who had been sent out for his connexion with the naval mutiny at the Nore. He was, at the age of nineteen, naval surgeon on H.M.S. Standard, and was convicted of advising the leaders of the mutiny to ‘be more united among themselves.’ He was sentenced to death, but on account of his youth the sentence was commuted to transportation for life.
Macquarie, having in view the express purpose for which the colony was founded, came to the conclusion that he ought to ignore the past, and treat such persons as he would have treated them had they never had black marks against their names. He therefore invited to his table at Government House such of them as he deemed to be companionable men, and insisted that all emancipists should be eligible for the magistracy or for any civil posts for which they were competent. The House of Commons Committee of 1812 commended him for adopting this course, which they deemed to be the proper one to pursue in a colony established on such lines as was New South Wales.
Humane and logical as the policy of the Governor was, he experienced great difficulty in giving effect to it. The hindrances were both social and official. Many free settlers, though they traded with emancipists, objected to have social relations with them. Macquarie told them plainly that they had come to a convict colony of their own free choice, and that if they were ‘too proud or too delicate in their feelings to associate with the population of the country’ they should not have come.
As long as his own regiment was stationed in Sydney he could insist on the officers dining with his emancipist guests, though they did try by court-martial one of their number for playing cards with an ex-convict. But when the 73rd was replaced by the 46th (now the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry) the officers made it a strict rule that though they could not object to meet emancipists at the Governor’s table they would not invite any to their mess or hold social intercourse with them. Macquarie was very angry. His table, he said, fixed the rule or standard for the admission of persons into society, and the conduct of the officers did not impress him ‘with a very high opinion either of their good sense or their liberality.’ There was a lively quarrel between the Governor and the officers towards the end of this regiment’s period of duty on the station. It arose out of the same question, Macquarie being especially annoyed with a sentence in an address which the officers proposed to present to their colonel, wherein they asserted that ‘the mess table of the 46th regiment was regarded as the standard of society in the colony.’ The offending sentence was excised before the address was presented, but there can be no doubt that the officers believed it to be true, and that many among the free settlers were of the same opinion. In 1817 the 46th was relieved by the 48th (Northamptonshire) regiment, whose colonel, Erskine, endeavoured to meet the wishes of the Governor by cultivating friendliness with his own chosen band of emancipists. But when the colonel took Dr. Redfern to the mess as his guest the whole of the junior officers rose and left the table.
Macquarie never did, in fact, succeed in his honest and humanely-meant endeavour to break down the social barrier dividing emancipists from the part of the population which prided itself on being untainted. He might perhaps have done better had he been more rigorous in his selection. A few of his emancipist friends wore men of exemplary life, and the offences for which they had been transported, however serious, did not imply moral degradation. But such was not the case with all of them. There were several very rich men in Sydney whose mode of life did not win general respect, though the wealth which fortune tossed at their feet enabled them to keep their hands from picking and stealing. Macquarie weakened his case by associating socially with some of these. He ignored the nature of an emancipist’s past when the law had exacted its penalties. As he himself defined his attitude: ‘I have taken upon myself to adopt a new line of conduct, conceiving that emancipation, when united with rectitude and long-tried good conduct, should lead a man back to that rank in society which he had forfeited, and do away, in as far as the case will admit, with all retrospect of former bad conduct.’ But through his lack of discrimination in disregarding the reputation of some of his ‘pets,’ he made the promotion of his liberal policy less acceptable in the case of the more worthy. In one notorious instance Macquarie wrote an epitaph for the tombstone of an emancipist, stating in it that it was in consequence of his character and conduct that he appointed him to be a magistrate of the colony, and that by the same act he ‘restored him to that rank in society which he had lost.’ Yet this man was described in an official document as one who had made money by illicit distillation, and whose private life was lax.
A change in the administration of justice was made during Macquarie’s governorship, and led to a new set of troubles. The old method was primitive in its summary simplicity. The only Court consisted of the Judge-Advocate and six naval or military officers; and from their verdicts there was no appeal to any other Court. The first three holders of the office of Judge-Advocate were not lawyers, and the third of them, Richard Atkins, was not only wholly ignorant of the law, but a drunken reprobate to boot. He was described in a scurrilous satire circulated during King’s governorship as one —
Who hangs alone where effigies are chalked
On doors or walls, the gallows having balked.
When Macquarie was appointed the Government sent out an English barrister as Judge-Advocate in the person of Ellis Bent; and in 1814 a Civil Court was established under the presidency of the Judge-Advocate’s brother, Jeffery Hart Bent, who was also a barrister. The Secretary of State considered that the time had not yet arrived when trial by jury could be instituted, but the separation of the criminal and civil jurisdictions, and the placing of both Courts under the direction of men of legal education, was a salutary reform. Jeffery Bent strongly objected to emancipist attorneys practising in his Court, on the ground that, as they had been struck off the rolls for misconduct in England, they were not fit and proper persons to appear before the Court in New South Wales. If ex-convicts were admitted to practice in Sydney, he argued that it would be impossible to refuse to admit any person who had been struck off the rolls in Great Britain but had not been transported. Such persons would naturally flock to New South Wales, and the population would consequently be exposed to the chicanery of those whose conduct had been proved to be a menace to the public and a disgrace to the profession.
Macquarie, however, fought hard for the emancipist attorneys, and especially tried to force the claims of a rascally lawyer named Crossley, who had been transported for forgery. Jeffery Bent peremptorily refused to hear him. Inasmuch as Jeffery Bent’s Court could not adjudicate without the co-operation of two magistrates appointed by the Governor, and as these magistrates took Macquarie’s view of the dispute, the Supreme Court held no sittings for two years.
The two magistrates appointed to act with the Judge-Advocate, Ellis Bent, took the opposite view, and agreed to a rule excluding from practice before their Court any person who had been struck off the rolls in any part of the King’s dominions. There was a bitter quarrel between the Governor and the Bent brothers, which was only terminated with the death of the Judge-Advocate in 1815 and the recall of Jeffery Bent by the Secretary of State in 1816. The place of the latter was filled by Barron Field, the friend of a famous group of English men of letters, including Charles Lamb, who wrote to him a very amusing letter inquiring how he occupied his time in ‘the land of thieves.’ ‘Going about the streets with a lantern, like Diogenes, looking for an honest man? You may look long enough, I fancy. Do give me some notion of the inhabitants where you are. They don’t thieve all day long, do they? No human property could stand such continuous battery. And what do they do when they aren’t stealing?’ Barron Field perpetrated a volume of verse entitled First Fruits of Australian Poetry, which was so little original that Lamb, in a review of it, described it as containing too much evidence of the ‘unlicensed borrowing which had helped to colonize Botany Bay.’
Macquarie also stimulated strong feeling by appointing emancipists to the magistracy. The Colonial Office murmured in gentle phrases that it might be ‘injudicious, unless under very peculiar circumstances,’ to select convicts as magistrates, and Macquarie gravely responded that he had been and would be ‘particularly cautious.’ But magistrates who had no past to live down refused to act with the Governor’s nominees, and several of them proferred their resignations by way of protest, on the ground that the magisterial bench was degraded by the appointment to it of men who had been convicted of crimes.
An autocrat Macquarie unquestionably was; but the system which he was set to administer required that he should be one. He was supreme, and would tolerate no challenge to his supremacy. He would rise in church and make announcements concerning matters of public policy. On one occasion he summoned the Rev. Samuel Marsden before him, demanded to see the manuscript of a sermon which he had preached on the previous Sunday, and censured him for a passage in it. He had at least one free settler flogged without trial, the man’s offence being that he had contravened orders by ‘going through a hole in a wall into what the Governor called his park.’
Macquarie quite frankly disliked free immigration. The colony had been founded for the reception and reformation of criminals, and for that purpose he would have retained it. ‘The best description of settlers,’ he said in an official despatch, ‘are emancipated convicts or persons become free by servitude who have been convicts.’ He was of opinion that this class gave less trouble than did free persons. It was therefore with apprehension that he regarded the abolition of all restrictions on immigration to New South Wales in 1816. Previous to that year no person could enter the colony with a view to settlement without the special permission of the Government.
Some of the Governor’s arbitrary acts smack of the manner of a mediaeval noble ruling his baronial demesne. When an officer of the 73rd who had been dismissed from the service after the departure of the regiment from Sydney (but for an offence committed there) returned to marry a lady, Macquarie refused him a marriage licence and ordered him to depart by the ship which had brought him; and back he had to go, without his bride. Judge Jeffery Bent remonstrated, but the Governor curtly begged him to ‘spare himself the trouble’ of writing letters on the subject. In another instance he refused to allow a marriage because he thought the woman was too old for the man. He was benign towards the Roman Catholics, and laid the foundation-stone of their first church in Sydney; but he disliked the Methodists, and when a preacher of that denomination arrived, the Governor wrote, ‘We require regular and pious clergymen of the Church of England, and not sectaries, for a new and rising colony like this.’
There were, however, many excellent aspects of Macquarie’s autocracy. In a community formed largely of wrong-doers he laboured to make it easier to live by salutary rule and harder to offend against moral codes. He was vain, and sometimes petulant, but he had a strong sense of justice and high ideals of duty. He encouraged education and promoted building. In the latter work he availed himself of the services of an English architect who had been transported for concealing part of his effects at his bankruptcy, and who, amongst other very capable pieces of work, designed the first lighthouse erected at South Head, at the entrance to Port Jackson. Sydney had grown up a somewhat scattered and planless town, but Macquarie straightened its streets and marked out lines of development.
Socially he could be very pleasing and attractive. He travelled much in the large dominions over which he presided, and laboured hard at his desk. John Macarthur, who did not always take charitable views of official people, said that Macquarie was ‘a gentleman in manners, humane and friendly to all, at least to all who will take the trouble of recommending themselves to his favour.’ If we compare his arbitrary acts with those of Bligh, there does not seem to be very much difference between them. Yet he ruled for over a decade without serious trouble amongst a population always inclined to restlessness. He had his periods of unpopularity, but it arose from his policy, not from his personality. Whatever view may be taken of his policy towards the emancipists, it is impossible to withhold admiration for the tenacity with which he pursued it when once he had made up his mind that it was the right one. Despite warnings and difficulties, he never turned his back upon it.
During Macquarie’s governorship the population of New South Wales increased more than threefold. Before he left Sydney there were nearly 40,000 people in the several Australian settlements, and about 350,000 acres of land were occupied. More free settlers were arriving by every ship. A bank had been founded — the Bank of New South Wales (1816). A Savings Bank was established a year later. The ground was prepared for more rapid progress and an improved system.
Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 99-109
[Editor: Changed “humanely meant” to “humanely-meant”; “dismissed the service” to “dismissed from the service”.]