HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Lachlan Macquarie

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Lachlan Macquarie was born on Ulva Island, Scotland, in 1762, to a well-regarded family of Scottish clan chieftains. Macquarie left his home island at the age of 14 and eventually found his way into the British Army.

In April 1777, the young Macquarie was deployed to North America during the American Revolutionary War and ended up stationed in modern-day Nova Scotia as an ensign. But that was only the beginning of Macquarie’s military excursions, as he saw many different stations over the next decade — including the American colonies, Jamaica, India, and Egypt. During this time, he became known as a very successful commander, rapidly climbing the ladder from Lieutenant to Captain to Major.

In between his service stints overseas, Macquarie also spent some time in London as an assistant adjutant general to the honorable Lord Harrington. After returning to India for two years, Macquarie ended up in London again in 1807, this time commanding the 73rd Foot Regiment.

In April 1809, Macquarie received word that he was to become the Governor of New South Wales. At the time, it must have seemed like a demotion, as the New South Wales colony was widely regarded as a poverty-stricken penal settlement on the eastern coast of Australia.

With widespread political corruption, a group of rebellious, undisciplined soldiers, and conflicts with local Aboriginal groups, New South Wales was hardly considered a dream destination. Previously, the British had only wanted naval officers to govern the place due to its remoteness, but had experienced very little success. But nonetheless, Macquarie was viewed as the right man to bring law and order to the fledgling New South Wales colony.

Macquarie arrived in the colony by December 1809, bringing along a good-sized group of his own men; he officially became Governor on January 1, 1810.

His first order of business was to restore order among the populace after the so-called “Rum Rebellion” of 1808. Macquarie also had to navigate the testy relationship between free settlers (AKA “exclusives”) and reformed convicts who had finished their sentences and/or been granted pardons (known as the emancipists). Severe droughts occurred in consecutive years, and Macquarie also had his hands full while he attempted to overhaul the military corps and the justice system. The first few years in the colony were grim, indeed.

Macquarie’s plan for the courts clashed with Jeffrey Bent, the Chief Judge of the new Supreme Court. Bent had alliances with the military and the exclusive settlers, and some accused Macquarie of trying to rebel against English common law by issuing ordinances that were viewed as inconsistent with the Crown’s plans for New South Wales. Macquarie’s attempts to allow emancipist attorneys into the court were particularly frowned upon.

It became clear that Macquarie’s plans for New South Wales were facing an uphill battle. His greater vision was to have the colony as a egalitarian settlement — allowing ex-convicts to coexist peacefully with civilian settlers and military officers. While that may seem perfectly logical and innocuous today, Macquarie was largely viewed as a radical at the time.

In 1816, Macquarie had been subject to repeated harassment and decided to proclaim a new law against trespassing, having three offenders — all of them free settlers — flogged in order to send a message. While an extreme example, this was one incident that Macquarie’s political opponents used against him. Eventually, Macquarie was censored by Lord Bathurst, the man who was in charge of colonial affairs in New South Wales. The British set up a committee in order to investigate Macquarie, as well as detail further plans for the penal colony.

Surprisingly, the committee was mostly OK with Macquarie’s policies and vision, but they disapproved of his liberal use of pardons and tickets of leave. They ended up supporting Macquarie in his goal to help New South Wales become a prosperous colony for ex-convicts who desired to start anew. However, many others still wanted Macquarie gone, so he eventually resigned.

Shortly thereafter, the Napoleonic Wars ended, and many free settlers decided to move to Australia, as Britain was sinking into a post-war economic depression. By the time Macquarie had resigned and returned to London in 1822, nearly 40,000 settlers lived in New South Wales.

Macquarie is also credited with being the first governor to issue official currency in Australia, in 1813, and helped found the Bank of New South Wales four years later. He helped bring in architects and engineers to supervise the building of many sites, most of which are still standing in Sydney today. Macquarie also encouraged further exploration of the Australian continent and helped build some structures in Tasmania, another penal colony, when he visited there. Macquarie University in Sydney, one of Australia’s most prestigious schools, is named for the governor.

To this day, Australians universally regard Macquarie as an extremely influential and important figure. The idea of “giving everyone a fair go” is a phrase that continues to be popular among Aussies to this day, echoing Macquarie’s philosophy that regardless of background, religion, educational level, or socioeconomic status, one can attempt to succeed and make a good life.

Macquarie passed away in London at the age of 62 while still awaiting charges for his alleged crimes. He was buried at a remote mausoleum in Scotland alongside his wife and two children — with the words “the Father of Australia” written on his epitaph.

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