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Hunter, John


Was born on 29 August 1737, at Leith, Scotland. The date usually given is 1738, but F. M. Bladen, in Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. I, states that he was christened at Leith on 1 September 1737. His father, William Hunter, was a captain in the merchant service. His mother a daughter of J. Drummond. As a boy he was sent to live with an uncle in the town of Lynn, where, and also at Edinburgh, he received the classical education of the time. He was sent to Edinburgh university, but soon left it to become a captain's servant in the navy. In 1755 he was made a midshipman, and after serving in various vessels passed the examination for a lieutenant in 1760. He was not, however, appointed lieutenant until 1780. When the preparation of the First Fleet was in progress, he was made second captain on the Sirius and sailed with Phillip (q.v.) to New South Wales in 1787. There he was on the best of terms with the governor, but lost his ship at Norfolk Island and had to go to England for the customary court martial at which he was exonerated. In England he prepared for publication his interesting An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, published at the beginning of 1793. An abridged edition appeared later in the same year. In the first edition of this work will be found the earliest reference to the possibility of there being a strait between the mainland and Tasmania. On page 126 Hunter says: "There is reason thence to believe, that there is in that space either a very deep gulf, or a straight, which may separate Van Diemen's Land from New Holland." When Hunter learned that Phillip had resigned his governorship in July 1793, he applied for the position in October, and in January 1794 was appointed. Various delays occurred, and it was not until February 1795 that he was able to sail. He arrived at Sydney on 7 September.

Hunter's difficulties soon began. Immediately Phillip left the colony the military took complete control, and during the lieutenant-governorship of Grose (q.v.) unmercifully exploited the convicts. A great traffic in spirits sprang up, on which there was an enormous profit for the officers concerned. They had obtained the control of the courts and the management of the lands, public stores, and convict labour. Hunter realized that these powers had to be restored to the civil administration, a task of great difficulty. And in Macarthur (q.v.) he had an opponent who would hardly stop at anything in defending his supposed rights. Eventually Hunter found himself practically helpless. A stronger man might have sent the officers home under arrest, but it is not unlikely that if Hunter had attempted to do so he would have only precipitated the rebellion which took place in Bligh's time. Anonymous letters were even sent to the home authorities charging Hunter with participation in the very abuses he was striving to prevent. In spite of Hunter's vehement defence of the charges made against him, he was recalled in a dispatch dated 5 November 1799. Hunter acknowledged this dispatch on 20 April 1800, and left for England on 28 September. When he arrived he endeavoured to vindicate his character with the authorities but was given no opportunity. He was obliged to state his case in a long pamphlet printed in 1802. Governor Hunter's Remarks on the Causes of the Colonial Expense of the Establishment of New South Wales. It is a valuable document in early Australian history. In 1804 Hunter was given command of the Venerable of 74 guns, which in the following November was driven ashore during a fog and lost. Hunter was subsequently acquitted of all blame. He became rear-admiral in October 1807 and vice-admiral in July 1810. He died in London on 13 March 1821.

Hunter was a courageous, humane, and amiable man, and a good officer, but the circumstances in which he was placed made it almost impossible for him to be completely successful as a governor. As his successor King (q.v.) said his conduct was "guided by the most upright intentions", and he was "most shamefully deceived by those on whom he had every reason to depend for assistance, information, and advice ". Of his sojourn in the colony Hunter said that he "could not have had less comfort, although he would certainly have had greater peace of mind, had he spent the time in a penitentiary". He did good work in exploring and opening up the country near Sydney, and also encouraged the explorations of Flinders (q.v.) and Bass (q.v.). He continued his interest in Australia for long after he left it, and the suggested reforms in his pamphlet were of much value.


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