Governor Lachlan Macquarie – the Father of Australia (2)

From my book (Chapter 1) PRISON HULK TO REDEMPTION. Lachlan Macquarie as a nation builder.

* * * * *

THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT was determined to end the Colony’s chronic problems that only an energetic authority, they seemed to think, could overcome. An energetic authority, in their terms, was an authority that secured obedience. Fortunately, the man they chose was not one to come with a big stick to beat the people into submission no matter what. It was Colonel Lachlan Macquarie who arrived with his wife in 1810. He has been given the title ‘Father of Australia.’ The title is not at all undeserved. Though interrupted and bent at times, the basic lines of his regime would carry on into the future and be the foundation of the nation that would officially bear the name Australia before his return to the mother country. He was conscious of his supreme authority and the administrative and moral tasks ahead but was determined to be just to all. Above all, he accurately sized up the cultural groups that were jostling each other. He set about calibrating their power position.

First, he disbanded the New South Wales Corps and absorbed those staying in the Colony into the 73rd Regiment, which he had brought with him as their commander. The rest of the New South Wales Corps returned to the mother country. He had thereby considerably reduced the power of one class. He then embarked on an extensive infrastructure building program. Schools, churches, courthouses, hospitals, and army barracks rose everywhere. Towns and roads were improved, and new roads laid. Each district was to have a new town with a church, a school, and a courthouse. At the end of his tenure as governor, he could look with pride on 265 buildings, some of which one can only describe as imposing today, particularly those designed and built by the convict architect Francis Greenway.

At the same time, he took measures to raise the community’s moral standards. His Christian faith was of the first importance to him, so he was eager to uphold Christian morality as well as the requirements of gentility and civility. Accordingly, he combated the easy tendency of cohabitation between couples, enforced the Sabbath, prohibited drunkenness, and promoted Bible study. The truly ground-breaking policy, however, was his treatment of convicts, ex-convicts, and their children. And this is where his regime, highly regarded in London as well as in the Colony, met resistance. It would be his undoing. That warhorse, that monstrous troublemaker and despiser of all authority except his own, John Macarthur, would be back in town by 1817 to take his place in the vanguard of attempting to get rid of Macquarie.

When Macquarie arrived in 1810, the Colony was twenty-two years old. During that time, many convicts had served their time and stayed on to establish themselves. Lifers, of course, had no choice. They married within their class and had children. The number of ex-convicts and native-born Australians would continue to grow. Some ex-convicts, seizing their opportunities, had become extremely wealthy by Macquarie’s time. The children of convicts were forming a breed of their own. Visitors to the Colony saw they were healthier, taller, and less respectful of authority than their contemporaries back in England. The criminal ways of their parents did not attract them. They showed more determination and endurance than their parents in building a future. From this distance, it is difficult to understand how the Colony’s leaders did not recognize where this would lead. They could not see that individual native-born Australians would rise to lead their class against Macarthur and his ilk. Australia was their country. They had come of age and wanted their inheritance. Macquarie understood.

He reached out to convicts and ex-convicts. If they rejected the habits that had brought them to the penal Colony and showed a willingness to establish themselves according to their culture’s proper customs, religion, and moral standards, they would be allowed to resume the place in society they had forfeited. He ventured so far as to invite ex-convicts of substance and propriety to dine with him at Government House. He appointed others to responsible positions. The exclusives, the officer class, and the growing group of free settlers were appalled. Many refused to cooperate with Macquarie’s emancipist policies. Ex-convicts calling themselves ‘emancipists’ had formed a political class. Macquarie showed his weakness in these circumstances.

Manning Clark writes that Macquarie harmed his cause by seeing resistance to his policies as motivated by malice, hypocrisy, and selfishness. There could be no valid objections to his sensible, humane treatment of ex-convicts, those emancipated after serving their terms. His policy was fair, and it was legal. Conflict with his opponents increased, and relations became soured. When Macarthur returned to the Colony and was refused a large grant of land to forward his economic vision for the Colony, he gave great impetus to the exclusives’ undermining of the governor. London began receiving reports of Macquarie’s high-handedness, alleged mismanagement of finances, misuse of convict labour, and harsh punishments of free settlers. Indignant, Macquarie refuted the charges in letters to the colonial secretary, condemning them as a basket of lies. His health was now suffering, and that only worsened his state of mind.

The conflicting reports reached such a peak that London sent an official to the Colony to investigate. That man was Commissioner John Thomas Bigge, whose brief was to interview all and sundry except the convicts. Bigge produced three famous reports that, contrary to Macquarie’s confident expectations, were highly critical of his regime. Macquarie was devastated. He resigned and returned to London in 1822. He attempted to vindicate himself while his health deteriorated and personal commitments swallowed up his fortune, the largest of which was securing his estate on the Isle of Mull. Although the king received him and praised his work, as did the Colonial Secretary Lord Castlereagh, and other high officials, he died in ignominy in his wife’s arms in a London boarding house in 1824, two years after returning from Australia. His wife Elizabeth described the moment of his death as ‘the most sublime of my life.’

Macarthur and his exclusives were a determining influence on Commissioner Bigge, who persuaded London of the form and direction the Colony should take. In brief, the economic interests and development of the Colony should go hand in hand with the economic interests of Britain. London should give the great landholders like Macarthur the support and resources to develop those products that Britain could best use. The convicts, subject to the new ideas on prison reform, should be utilized to achieve that economic aim. One product, above all, was to be developed. Wool. Macarthur had in mind a sort of plantation society in which bonded workers – the convicts – would do the hard work necessary to breed and manage great flocks of sheep. He would relax on the verandah, sipping his sherry and surveying his domain. Macarthur would get his way economically, but he would not have his plantation society. The reason was that Macquarie had already frustrated those grandiose plans.

Macquarie’s genuine concern for the welfare of the convict and emancipist class had endeared him to them. There were great demonstrations of affection on the eve of his departure from the Colony. When he and his wife and son sailed out of Port Jackson on 12 February 1822, they were cheered by a ‘Harbour full of People.’ Although not yet possessing the political power to shake the exclusives’ ascendancy, those same people would promote and forward Macquarie’s regime. They would grow in numbers, strength, and respect. A sign of what lay ahead was the tribute to Macquarie that appeared four months after his death in the Colony’s newest newspaper, The Australian.

The Australian’s owners were lawyers Robert Wardell and William Charles Wentworth, both to make a name for themselves as strident supporters of the emancipist cause. W. C. Wentworth was already in ascendancy as a leader and would be a torment to the governors that followed Macquarie. The passionate, even wild, language of the tribute reflected the antagonism between the exclusive class and the emancipists and what the stakes were for power in the Colony. If Macarthur wanted to crush a class he thought of no account, people beneath his dignity and condescension, he would meet stiff resistance. Indeed, the enemy had already galloped out to meet him in open battle. The warning was there.

Elizabeth Macquarie had her husband’s body conveyed to his estate on the Isle of Mull, Scotland, where he was buried. Her tribute was more than the tribute of a loving wife, part of which is a fair assessment of the man and his achievements.

He was appointed governor of New South Wales A.D. 1809 and for twelve years fulfilled the duties of that station with eminent ability and success. His services in that capacity have justly attached a lasting honour to his name. The wisdom, liberality, and benevolence of all the measures of his administration, his respect for the ordinances of religion and the ready assistance which he gave to every charitable institution, the unwearied assiduity with which he sought to promote the welfare of all classes of the community, the rapid improvement of the Colony under his auspices, and the high estimation in which both his character and government were held rendered him truly deserving the appellation by which he has been distinguished, The Father of Australia.