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Black, Maurice Hume (1835–1899)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Maurice Hume Black (1835-1899), sugar-planter and politician, was born on 15 December 1835 in London, son of Alexander Black, bookseller, and his wife Marianne, née Hume. Although said to have been educated at St Paul's, he is not mentioned in the school roll which includes his brother. He emigrated to Australia in 1853 and followed pastoral pursuits in South Australia and the Riverina, where he is reputed to have invented a steam-driven machine for washing sheep. Certainly on 4 September 1861 in Melbourne he married Maria Frederica Hunn, youngest daughter of Rev. Thomas Davies of Montego Bay, Jamaica; they had two sons and five daughters.

In 1864 Black was attracted to Queensland, and three years later settled in the newly-opened Mackay district to try his hand at growing sugar. He founded a plantation known as the Cedars, and was soon a leading grower in Mackay, hospitable to his neighbours and generous even towards his Pacific Islanders. Early in 1881 he was elected to represent Mackay in the Queensland Legislative Assembly. From his family background he inherited an unusual variety of political traditions: his father was related to Adam Black, the Edinburgh publisher who was one of Gladstone's mainstays in Scotland; his mother was a niece of Joseph 'Orator' Hume, the radical reformer; and his wife's mother was a half-sister of George Canning. These were not his only claims to political notice. Mackay was prospering under a boom in sugar lands, and Black, like most of his constituents supported Sir Thomas McIlwraith's Conservative administration, with its toleration of non-European labour and its lavish public works policy. He soon established himself as a trenchant advocate of his district's needs and was re-elected in 1883 and 1888.

Black was a firm believer in the necessity for indentured Pacific Island labour in the sugar plantations, and one of his earliest tasks in parliament was the preparation of a statistical table arguing that the industry created jobs for white men as well as brown. When (Sir) Samuel Griffith's ministry came to power in 1883 on a platform hostile to coloured labour, Black denounced them violently and became a leader of the movement for separating north Queensland into an autonomous colony. He spoke at length in support of John Macrossan's motion for separation in 1886 and with another northern member, Isidor Lissner, went to England to lobby for separation in 1887. This did not prevent him from supporting, against most of his party, Griffith's proposals to establish government-financed central sugar-mills in the Mackay district, or from accepting office in McIlwraith's ministry in 1888. As minister for lands and agriculture he remained in office under McIlwraith's successor, Boyd Morehead. He authorized the important 1889 royal commission on the sugar industry, and sought to promote the diversification of tropical agriculture by founding government nurseries at Mackay and Kamerunga, near Cairns. He also successfully sponsored the establishment of travelling model dairies through which Queensland's numerous small farmers might be taught better husbandry. But his useful term of office ended when McIlwraith changed sides in 1890 and coalesced with Griffith, so bringing down the ministry of his former supporters. From that time Black was an embittered cross-bencher.

'Though he knew the alpha and omega of sugar-planting', wrote Charles Bernays, 'he had not made a success of it, and this accounted largely for the bitterness, irony and sarcasm which dominated most of his speeches'. Because of his political activities, Black could not give his property the attention it demanded especially when prices were low, and by 1892, despite a fortunate speculation in Mount Morgan mining shares, his difficulties were pressing. The coalition government looked after him by creating a special post in the agent-general's office in London, with a salary of £1000 equal to a cabinet minister's. The duties were those of an immigration agent, concentrating especially on attracting farmers and small capitalists to Queensland. He held this post in 1893-94 before it was abolished. Accompanied by some of his family, the old politician then decided to try his fortunes on the Coolgardie goldfields, where he arrived in 1896 and set up as an attorney for mining companies. There he died on 16 August 1899 of cirrhosis of the liver and cardiac failure. Their symptoms might sufficiently explain the reduced circumstances of his later years; but even as a newcomer to Coolgardie Black apparently made himself well liked in the community, and was considered fit to be a justice of the peace. Inventive, enterprising, often disappointed but always buoyant, he was characteristic of many among his generation of colonial politicians who throve on prosperity but had little foresight for harder times.

Select Bibliography

  • H. L. Roth, The Discovery and Settlement of Port Mackay, Queensland (Halifax, 1908)
  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During the Last Sixty Years (Brisb, 1919)
  • Mackay Mercury, 16 Mar 1893
  • Coolgardie Miner, 17 Aug 1899.

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Black, Maurice Hume (1835–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/black-maurice-hume-3001/text4387, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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