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MacArthur, John


Was born in 1767 near Plymouth, Devonshire. His father, Alexander Macarthur, had fought for Prince Charles Edward in 1745, and after Cullodon had fled to the West Indies. Some years later he returned to England and established a business at Plymouth. His son John was educated at a private school and entered the army in 1782 as an ensign, but having been placed on half pay in 1783, went to live at Holsworthy in Devonshire. He spent some time in study and thought of reading for the bar, but in 1788 was in the army again and, about this time, married Elizabeth, daughter of a country gentleman named Veale. In June 1789 he was appointed a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps. He sailed for Australia on 14 November 1789 in the Neptune with his wife and child and immediately quarrelled with the captain with whom he fought a duel, without injury to either, at Plymouth. After a long and trying voyage the Neptune arrived at Port Jackson on 28 June 1790. Mrs Macarthur was the first educated woman to arrive in Australia, and for some time was the only woman received at the governor's table. Later on in this year Macarthur was involved in a dispute with his brother officer, Captain Nepean. The details have been lost, but a court-martial could not be held on account of the absence of some of the other officers. The matter was patched up and the two men became reconciled. In February 1793, during the administration of Francis Grose (q.v.), Macarthur was appointed an inspector of public works and received his first grant of land, 100 acres adjoining the site of Parramatta. An additional grant of 100 acres was made in April 1794. He was promoted captain between June and October 1795. On 25 October Governor Hunter (q.v.), in a dispatch to the Duke of Portland, informed him that he had judged it necessary for the good of the service to continue Macarthur in his office of inspector of the public works, "a situation for which he seems extremely well qualified". However, in September 1796, the governor in another dispatch stated that "scarcely anything short of the full power of the governor would be considered by this person (Macarthur) as sufficient for conflicting the duties of his office". The governor found it necessary to check him in his interfering with other officers not responsible to him, and Macarthur promptly sent in his resignation. Hunter "without reluctance" accepted. But Macarthur had other interests. In September 1795 he was working his land with a plough, the first to be used in the colony, and experimenting in the breeding of sheep. He had imported sheep from both India and Ireland and produced a cross-bred wool of some interest. In 1796 he obtained a few merino sheep from the Cape of Good Hope, the progeny of which were carefully kept pure-bred. A few years later he purchased nine rams and a ewe from the Royal flock at Kew, and eventually raised a flock from which has grown the Australian wool industry. It was Macarthur's greatest achievement. He was engaged in a quarrel with Richard Atkins who had succeeded him as an inspector of public works, in connexion with Atkins having reported that soldiers were stealing turnips from the governor's garden. Atkins objected as a magistrate to not being given the title of esquire. Macarthur in reply wrote to the governor complaining that he had been grossly insulted, and stating that Atkins could be proved to be "a public cheater, living in the most boundless dissipation, without any visible means of maintaining it than by imposture on unwary strangers". David Collins (q.v.) as judge-advocate held an inquiry and reported in favour of Atkins, and having been vindicated Atkins wrote a furious letter to Macarthur. Hunter was about to appoint Atkins as judge-advocate, when Macarthur requested that he might institute criminal proceedings for libel in respect to Atkins's letter. Hunter, however, saw that Macarthur's real motive was to embarrass the civil power, and so reported to the English authorities. But Macarthur was a dangerous man to quarrel with. He wrote a long letter to England with many complaints against Hunter, which arrived in England early in 1797 and was sent out for reply to Hunter. His answering letter was dated 25 July 1798, but Macarthur had had a long start and undoubtedly was largely responsible for Hunter's recall. Hunter had only done his duty in endeavouring to restore to the civil administration the control of the land and the law courts, but this did not suit Macarthur and the other officers, who had been in full power between the departure of Phillip and the coming of Hunter, and in the fight that ensued Macarthur was the leading figure.

In 1798 when Dr Balmain while carrying out his duties came into conflict with the officers, Balmain found that his only resort was to challenge Macarthur to a duel. Macarthur's reply was that the corps would "appoint an officer to meet him, and another, and another, until there is no-one left to explain". In August 1801 his quarrel with Lieutenant Marshall led to Macarthur endeavouring to get the officers of the corps to unite in refusing to meet Governor King (q.v.). His commanding officer, Colonel Paterson (q.v.) refused to join in, and eventually Paterson challenged Macarthur to a duel and was severely wounded. King sent Macarthur to England under arrest to stand his trial by court-martial, and prepared a formidable indictment of him. King took every precaution he could for the safety of this document, but it was stolen on the way to England. Mr Justice Evatt in his Rum Rebellion says, "The inference is irresistible that either he (Macarthur) or some close associate of his arranged that the damning document should be stolen and destroyed". Whoever was responsible Macarthur arrived in London able to exercise his personality to his own advancement. He could be friendly when he wanted to be, and managed to become on good terms with officials in the colonial office. Samples of the fine wool he had produced had previously been sent to England, and he was able to show how valuable the development of its production would be. He proposed that a company should be formed to "encourage the increase of fine-woolled sheep in New South Wales" but it was never formed. Having addressed a memorial to the committee of the privy council appointed for the consideration of all matters of trade and foreign plantation, Macarthur gave evidence before this committee which decided that his plan should be referred to the governor of New South Wales, with instructions to give every encouragement to the growth of fine wool. Another recommendation was that Macarthur should be given a conditional grant of lands of a reasonable extent. The theft of King's dispatch was not investigated, Macarthur resigned his commission, and was allowed to return to New South Wales where he arrived on 9 June 1805. Apparently Macarthur had so impressed his views on the English authorities that long before this they had decided to recall Governor King. His successor, William Bligh (q.v.), was appointed in 1805, but did not arrive at Sydney until August 1806.

Bligh, a stronger man than either Hunter or King, proceeded to carry out his instructions to suppress the rum trade. But this touched the pockets of the officers and other monopolists, and less than six months after the governor's arrival Macarthur in a letter described him as "violent, rash, tyrannical". Apparently the settlers on the Hawkesbury took another view, for on the very day of Macarthur's letter, a large number of them signed a letter in which they spoke of the governor's "just and humane wishes for the public relief", and promised "at the risk of their lives and properties" to support the "just and benign" government under which they were living. (Sydney Gazette 8/2/1807). In Bligh's dispatch to Windham dated 7 February 1807 he stated that he had "considered this spirit business in all its bearings, and am come to the determination to prohibit the barter being carried on in any way whatever. It is absolutely necessary to be done to bring labour to a due value and support the farming interest" (H.R. of N.S.W., vol. VI, p. 250). In September of the same year principal surgeon Jamison a friend of Macarthur's was dismissed by Bligh from the position of magistrate, and Macarthur was evidently becoming openly hostile to the governor. Before the end of the year Macarthur was charged with sedition and committed for trial. Evatt in his Rum Rebellion examines the evidence and the law, and comes to the conclusion that a jury should have found Macarthur guilty on two out of the three counts. When the trial began on 25 January 1808 Macarthur objected to Atkins, the judge advocate, sitting on various grounds, mostly absurd or irrelevant. During the reading of Macarthur's speech Atkins intervened and said that Macarthur was defaming him and should be committed to prison. Atkins eventually left the court and proceeded to government house to consult Bligh. Gore the provost marshal also left and ordered away the constables on duty. The six officers who had been sitting with Atkins agreed that Macarthur's objections to Atkins were valid, and asked the governor to appoint an acting judge-advocate which Bligh refused to do. The officers then allowed Macarthur out on bail. Next morning the officers met in the court room at 10 a.m., but in the meantime Macarthur had been arrested by the provost marshal and put in gaol. The officers took up a perfectly illegal position and announced that they intended to bring Gore the provost marshal to justice. Bligh on the previous day had sent for Colonel Johnston who declined to come on the ground of illness, and he now wrote to the six officers summoning them to government house next day. Johnston apparently was now well enough to come to town and sign an order to release Macarthur, and that evening the New South Wales Corps marched in military formation to government house and arrested Bligh. It is generally admitted that Macarthur was the leading spirit in the deposing of Bligh, and undoubtedly he and his associates were guilty of high treason. Macarthur, always fully conscious of his own rectitude, wrote an affectionate note to his wife to tell her that he had been "deeply engaged all day in contending for the liberties of this unhappy colony. . . . The tyrant is now no doubt gnashing his teeth with vexation at his overthrow". At a new trial for sedition held seven days after the rebellion Macarthur was acquitted.

Immediately the rebel government was formed Macarthur was appointed colonial secretary, and until after the arrival of Paterson was the real ruler of the colony. The rum traffic was restored, and though in The Early Records of the Macarthurs of Camden it is stated that "the public expenditure was greatly reduced by Macarthur exchanging surplus cattle from the government herds for grain", Evatt refers to it as a "system of peculation". It seems clear that the recipients of government cows and oxen were practically all officers or supporters of the rebel administration. On 31 March 1809 Macarthur left for England with Johnston where they arrived in October 1809. In the previous May Viscount Castlereagh had given instructions that Johnston was to be sent to England to be tried, and that Macarthur was to be tried at Sydney. Johnston was tried by court-martial. Legally his position was extremely bad, and the defence made was that the extreme measures taken were necessary to save the colony. Macarthur in his evidence did his best to discredit Bligh, and no doubt helped Johnston in preparing his defence, which has been described as a masterpiece of specious insinuations against Bligh. On 2 July 1811 Johnston was found guilty and cashiered, the mildness of his punishment no doubt being on account of the full realization that he had been a mere tool of Macarthur.

Macarthur was quite aware that if he returned to Sydney the new governor, Macquarie (q.v.), would arrest him. In October 1812 he writes to his wife that he is in great perplexity and doubt as to whether he should return to the colony or withdraw her from it. In August 1816 he sent to his wife a copy of two letters he had sent to Lord Bathurst. The first which attempted to justify his conduct was shown to Lord Bathurst's secretary, who suggested that a different type of letter might be more likely to succeed. In the second letter Macarthur asked "whether after the lapse of so many years, when all the harsh and violent feelings which formerly distracted the different members of the community in Port Jackson have been worn out" an act of oblivion might not be passed which would enable Macarthur to return to his home. Lord Bathurst consented but included in his letter a clause "that you are fully sensible of the impropriety of conduct which led to your departure from the colony". Macarthur would not, however, accept permission to return on such terms, but Lord Bathurst in his letters of 14 August and 14 October 1816 stood firm and would not withdraw the passage. However, on 18 February 1817 Macarthur wrote to his wife to say that "all the obstacles which have so long obstructed my return to you . . . have this day been removed". He was still pursuing his campaign against Bligh, for in the same letter he tells her that he had told the under-secretary of state that Bligh was a "brutal ruffian governed by no principle of honour or rectitude, and restrained by no tie but the wretched and despicable one of fear". Macarthur arrived in Sydney in September 1817 having been absent eight and a half years.

Macarthur, now possibly the richest man in New South Wales, settled down to the management of his estates, and his life henceforth was comparatively tranquil. His great interest was the development of the fine wool industry. In September 1818 he mentions that he is trying to break in his sons, James and William "to oversee and manage his affairs", but fears characteristically enough that they "have not sufficient hardness of character to manage the people placed under their control" and that "they set too little value upon money, for the profession of agriculture which as you know requires that not a penny should be expended without good reason". In 1820, writing to his son John in England, he emphasizes the necessity of the colony providing exports to pay for its imports by developing the wool industry, and in 1821 he was suggesting to Commissioner J. T. Bigge (q.v.) the advisability of really respectable settlers, men with capital, being encouraged to come out to New South Wales. In January 1822 the governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane (q.v.), invited Macarthur to become a magistrate, but the two judges, John Wylde and Barron Field (q.v.), wrote to Brisbane questioning the advisability of this in view of the part taken by Macarthur in the rebellion. Macarthur was unable to obtain a copy of the letter for some time but when he did the old fires revived, and he wrote an abusive and insulting letter to Field who quite properly took no notice of it. In 1828 disagreeing with a decision of the chief justice, Francis Forbes (q.v.), Macarthur threatened to impeach him, but apparently thought better of it. He had been appointed a member of the legislative council in 1825 and he was again appointed in February 1829 when the number of members was increased. The death of his son John in 1831 was a great sorrow to him, and towards the end of 1832 his mind began to fail. He died on 10 April 1834 at the cottage, Camden Park, and was survived by his wife, three sons, of whom Edward is noticed separately, and three daughters.

Macarthur had the slightly tilted nose and determined chin of a born fighter. His son James in some notes on his character described him as "a man of quick and generous impulses, loth to enter into a quarrel but bold and uncompromising when assailed and at all times ready to take arms against opression or injustice". The trouble was that Macarthur who always had a keen eye for his own interests, firmly believed that he was always in the right, and was ever ready to vehemently point out how much in the wrong his opponents were. By some process they immediately became dishonest scoundrels. The 20 years after his sailing for Australia in 1789 is full of his quarrels. He broke three governors, and the verdict of history is that they were honest men doing their duty and that Macarthur was in the wrong. His conduct to them and his share in the liquor traffic are blots on his character that cannot be forgotten. He even quarrelled with Phillip. (Rum Rebellion, p. 64). He was not unforgiving especially if he had obtained his object, and it says something for his personal charm that he became afterwards reconciled with both Hunter and King. In his family life he was affectionate and beloved, and in his development of the wool industry he did a great work for his country. His knowledge, ability and foresight, joined with a tremendous force of character, made him the greatest personality of his time in Australia.

Macarthur's fourth son, James Macarthur, was born at Parramatta in 1798. He was educated in England and afterwards assisted his father in managing his property. In 1837 he published New South Wales Its Present State and Future Prospects, an interesting work with valuable statistics. In 1839 James Macarthur was nominated to the legislative council and in 1859 was elected to the legislative assembly. He died on 21 April 1867. He married in 1838 Emily, daughter of Henry Stone, whose daughter, Elizabeth, married Captain Arthur Alexander Walton Onslow, R.N.

Sir William Macarthur (1800-1882), the fifth son of John Macarthur, was born at Parramatta in December 1800. He was educated in England, returned to Australia with his father in 1817, and assisted in the management of his estates. In 1844 he published a small volume, Letters on the Culture of the Vine, Fermentation, and the Management of the Cellar. In 1849 he was made a member of the legislative council, and represented New South Wales at the Paris exhibition of 1855. Shortly afterwards he was knighted. After his return to Australia in 1857 he was again a member of the legislative council for some time, but never took a prominent part in politics. He died unmarried on 29 October 1882.


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