Lachlan Macquarie is a vexing figure, as he’s painted as the architect of the nation or a mass murderer. What is lesser known, however, is the criticism he faced from within the colony.
Two centuries ago this year, John Thomas Bigge arrived in Sydney in the ship the John Barry. He received the prescribed thirteen-gun salute, but, unusual for such an important guest, he was not met by the Governor. Lachlan Macquarie, who had only been told about Bigge’s visit five days before, was in Windsor for the muster and census of his people, and couldn’t be persuaded to abdicate his duties there. So, if Mohammed wasn’t coming to the mountain, the mountain was coming to Mohammed, and two days after his arrival, after 149 days at sea, Bigge rode a horse to Windsor to meet the man he was here to investigate. Macquarie was confused and slightly annoyed by the arrival of the Commissioner. More than a year earlier, he had written a letter to Earl Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, asking him to be relieved from his post and allowed to come back to London. Bathurst had replied to the resignation letter by asking him to postpone his decision, but the missive had been lost, and when Bigge arrived, Macquarie was still waiting for an answer. The sudden appearance of a man who was now, according to his letters of introduction, more powerful than the Governor himself, naturally confounded Macquarie. What was he to think of this? He hoped, he wrote to his uncle, that this “must be favourable to my administration of the Colony and highly honourable to my character,” but we will see that this expectation was quickly quashed.
In 1819, Governor Lachlan Macquarie had been ruling NSW for almost ten years; much, much longer than anybody before or since. He had been enormously influential and had changed the colony beyond recognition. So, in most versions of Australian history, Macquarie is the Father of the Nation, the man who made us us. We’ve also got him fixed in our minds as a democrat, the inventor of the Fair Go, the leader who turned this country into a classless, egalitarian society. That is why the man who would become his adversary, John Bigge, was destined to play the role of villain. But was he, and what really went on between these two men who were so important to our history? If you’ve missed it at school, gather round. It is a lovely story. When Bigge, and later Macquarie, left Australia 1821 and 1822, they were scathing about each other. Bigge called the Governor, essentially, a dangerous humanist, which at that time meant a radical, somebody who had no decorum, who didn’t know what proper society looked like. Somebody, really, who by his actions had worked to actively undermine the social order. Macquarie made his thoughts about Bigge well known, and described the reports he published as “vile, insidious…false, vindictive and malicious.” Clearly, something had gone wrong here.
Let me first introduce you to Lachlan Macquarie before he arrived in NSW. Like many men who ended up on the other side of the world, Macquarie came from less-than-salubrious surroundings. Although his father was a cousin of the last chieftain of the Macquarie clan and his mother the only sister of the leader of the Murdoch clan, the boy grew up on a small farm on the island of Ulva in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. He was born in 1762, the third of four sons, one of whom, Hector, was a lieutenant in the New York Volunteer Regiment. He died in a prisoner camp run by the American rebels in 1778. It was a year before young Lachlan managed to buy himself into the army as well, as an ensign in the Royal Highland Emigrants, that was commanded by a cousin. First posted to Nova Scotia, he then went to New York and Charleston, where he fought in what the Americans now call the War of Independence. On the British side, of course. Over the next twenty years or so, Macquarie was station in Jamaica, India, Sri Lanka and Egypt, where he fought against Napoleon Bonaparte. He was also an ambitious young man from a minor family and in 1796 he was given the command of the French army, which seriously started what would become known as the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted until 1815. The military expedition to Egypt that Macquarie became involved in catapulted Napoleon to power. In 1799 he orchestrated a coup and became First Consul of the new Republic, then Emperor in 1804. Of course, this was only five minutes after the blood-stained and chaotic French Revolution, and the European powers, Britain most of all, were even more weary of the French than they had been before. Especially because Napoleon was a very good and methodic military commander. Within a brief period of time, he created a state with a well-trained army and a strong bureaucracy, geared towards taking over and uniting Europe under his leadership. In forever differing coalitions, the European powers fought the French army, until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 finally ended hostilities.
Macquarie appointed them to prestigious jobs…even invited them to dinner at Government House. The free landowners didn’t want a bar of it. This country was for them, not a bunch of crims.
The wars were important for Australia for a number of reasons. First of all, while they were happening, it was almost impossible for ships to go from A to B, because it was simply too dangerous. That meant that transportation of convicts slowed down to a trickle. This was also because the British army, instead of sending criminals to NSW or locking them up, press-ganged them into military service. So in 1810, when Lachlan Macquarie arrived in Sydney, only three ships docked at Port Jackson, with 122 female and roughly 400 male convicts aboard. In 1815, just after the war ended, there were seven ships with 1,200 prisoners. In 1818, there were 3,000 people on 18 ships. In 1819, it was 3,100 men and women on 17 ships. From then, it would climb until 1833, when 7,000 people arrived in one year alone. These numbers seem trivial, but they would be all-important in the way Lachlan Macquarie was to run his governorship. And, in one way or another, they also, at least partially, caused his downfall.
But in 1809, all seemed more than cheerful. When Macquarie and his new wife Elizabeth arrived in the country just after Christmas, there were “a great number of sky rockets and bone-fires (sic)” and a probably a glass or two. But the next morning, work started bright and early. Macquarie thought the state of the place was horrendous: “I found the Colony barely emerging from infantile imbecility, and suffering from various privations and disabilities; the Country impenetrable beyond 40 miles from Sydney; Agriculture in a yet languishing state; commerce in its early dawn; Revenue unknown; threatened by famine; distracted by faction; the public buildings in a state of dilapidation and mouldering to decay; the few Roads and Bridges, formerly constructed, rendered almost impassable; the population in general depressed by poverty; no public credit nor private confidence; the morals of the great mass of the population in the lowest state of debasement, and religious worship almost totally neglected.”
In the first couple of years of his tenure, Lachlan Macquarie motored through his to-do list. He boosted church attendance and better morality by making land ownership dependent on the marital status of the prospective titleholder. He planned, widened and renamed roads. He removed houses and built more. He gave D’Arcy Wentworth, surgeon, justice of the peace, chief police magistrate and talented schemer, the job of building Sydney Hospital, together with merchants Alexander Riley and Garnham Blaxcell. It was Australia’s first private-public partnership, because instead of paying for it, Macquarie gave the men a three-year monopoly on the import of rum. Like a lot of these kinds of enterprises, it was built to a price. It had no kitchens, no lavatories and soon it was called the Sydney Slaughter House, but at least it was something for sick people to go to. Wentworth also became instrumental in getting the Bank of New South Wales going, the first financial institution in the country. Earl Bathurst was not a fan and ordered Macquarie to declare its charter null and void, but Macquarie pretended he hadn’t seen the instruction. Instead, in 1819 he approved the founding of the Savings Bank, with branches in four cities, especially set up for the lower end of the market.
There were other reorganisations as well. New public departments, including a police force and a department in charge of getting funds together for the running of the state. Money instead of promissory notes and other improvised barter. Exploration boomed too: the crossing of the Blue Mountains, the foundation of the new town of Bathurst, the “discovery” of the Northern Rivers, New England, Queensland. There were tours, to Van Diemen’s Land, Newcastle, the Illawarra and the new towns of Liverpool, Wilberforce and Castlereagh. But more than anything, Lachlan Macquarie took initiatives to change the class system. In Britain, you were your class. If you were an aristocrat, you were important, regardless of what you did or didn’t do. If you were not, you could try to work your way up, but even if you became very rich, or very influential, you were always seen as part of a lesser group of people. For a lot of people from that second group, NSW had been a godsend. Because there was no white society when this country started, they could, within reason, make it up as they went along. Here, second and third sons, the lower ranks of the military, the lower ranks of anything really, could become what they could never be at home: wealthy landowners; men (and even some women) of consequence. For the ambitious, for the upwardly mobile, the colony was their one shot at respectability. They had travelled to the other side of the world to get it, and therefore their aspirations had become as strong as steel. Macquarie believed that it was better, for people and for the colony itself, to involve men and women in work they were actually good at. So he appointed them to prestigious jobs as architects, lawyers, judges and whatever else was necessary. He even invited them to dinner at Government House. The free landowners didn’t want to have a bar of it. This country was for them, not a bunch of crims. And they weren’t going to let that party be interrupted by some Scottish twat, thank you very much.
Bigge took a lot of evidence informally, with no distinction between sworn and unsworn testimony… Most of the interviews started with the same question: “Have you any complaint to make against governor Macquarie?”, which was less than unbiased, we can say.
The Colonial Office wasn’t very happy either. NSW had been set up as a penal colony, but the more word got back to London and Dublin, the less people were impressed by the penal part of it. Nice weather, a clean slate, land after your release, even other convicts to help you clear it. So, over time, more and more criminals actually asked for transportation, and there is research that shows that people actually committed crimes in order to be put on a ship to the other side of the world. That, of course, wasn’t really what was supposed to happen. Which is why the Colonial Office was putting more and more pressure on successive governors to make sure that NSW remained a place of “severe punishment”, or, as Earl Bathurst would later say to Bigge, “an object of real terror”. “If”, he would add, “by ill-considered compassion for convicts, or from what might under other circumstances be considered a laudable desire to lessen their sufferings, their situation in NSW be divested of all salutary terror”, that was not a good thing. Macquarie, who believed in a meritocracy, and in giving a leg-up to ex-convicts, was doing exactly that.
So in the end, those were a few of the reasons why John Thomas Bigge was sent to Sydney: Macquarie’s half-deaf ear for London’s instructions, his strange attitude to class, the pace at which he spent money. And then, over time, there were some other niggles, great and small. Fights with people, some as powerful as John Macarthur, the richest man in the country. Angry letters to London, that got on the nerves of the powers-that-be. Ultimately, in 1817 there was a petition against the governor that was discussed in the British Parliament, and it decided to send a Commissioner to investigate what the hell was going on over there on the other side of the world. Bigge went to work immediately. He spoke to everybody, but mostly to the large landowners. John Macarthur, of course, made certain the Commissioner had everything his heart desired: the best horses, the softest beds, the most entertaining company and all the flattering he could handle. Bigge took a lot of evidence informally, with no distinction between sworn and unsworn testimony, and this meant that part of the Bigge Reports now read as a catalogue of gossip and hearsay. They are also thousands of pages of minutiae, with no real investigations and no observation of the rules of evidence. Most of the interviews started with the same question: “Have you any complaint to make against governor Macquarie?”, which was less than unbiased, we can say.
From 1822, Bigge’s reports were published and tabled. They were full of recommendations that were intended to curtail not only the emancipists, but the whole of the colony. There would be extensive legal reforms, and most of all, the position of the convicts would be changed to turn to the penal colony back into, well, a penal colony. The public works program was halted, pardons and tickets-of-leave would be limited, liquor traffic regulated. The majority of convicts were reassigned to free settlers in the country, who were given the job to discipline them. Those who were of “bad character” were sent to new and distant settlements. Property that convicts held when they arrived was to be confiscated, only to be returned when they became free. Emancipists were no longer allowed to own land until they could prove they had the money to clear it. Governor Brisbane and his successors tried to follow Bigge’s recommendations to the letter. Sometimes they succeeded, but more often they realised that this new country and its new and strange population was less malleable than they had given it credit for. The freedoms of the start, and the practical meritocracy that Macquarie had introduced, proved difficult to really reign in. And the more people were born in this country, the more the old difference between emancipists (ex-convicts) and exclusionists (those who had come here free) disappeared. Of course, we are still not an equal society, however much we tell ourselves we are. But our class system is based on other values than in Britain, values that are not as simple to pinpoint anymore.
One of the people who taught us that was Lachlan Macquarie, however much John Thomas Bigge tried to stop him.