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Blaxland, John (1769–1845)

by T. H. Irving

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

John Blaxland (1769-1845), by Richard Read

John Blaxland (1769-1845), by Richard Read

State Library of New South Wales, Original : ML 308

John Blaxland (1769-1845), landowner and merchant, was born on 4 January 1769, the eldest son of John Blaxland and Mary, née Parker, of Fordwich, Kent, England. After education at The King's School, Canterbury, he entered the army, rising to the rank of captain in the Duke of York's Cavalry. He resigned his commission in 1792 and lived at Newington, Kent, where he managed the family estates. His first wife Sarah, née Davies, whom he married in 1794, died in childbirth. In 1797 he married Harriet, daughter of Jean Louis de Marquett, merchant of Calcutta; they had four sons and six daughters.

Blaxland decided to emigrate because his farm resources, even when swollen by wartime prices, were inadequate for his pretensions. Moreover he became depressed at England's 'gloomy prospects'. New South Wales was fixed upon by John and his younger brother Gregory as a result of the persuasions of Sir Joseph Banks and the indulgences promised them by the Colonial Office. John agreed to invest £6000 in the colony, in return for a free passage for his family and servants, free freight for his stores and equipment, a land grant of 8000 acres (3237 ha), and eighty convicts, to be clothed and fed for eighteen months by the government. Castlereagh, writing to Governor Philip Gidley King, stressed the 'property and Education' of the Blaxlands, who could be expected to 'set useful Examples of Industry and Cultivation … and … be fit persons to whose Authority the Convicts may be properly entrusted'.

Although the British government, by sponsoring the Blaxlands, had taken a step which directly fostered private enterprise, there was no attempt to alter the colonial judicial and administrative structures to encompass a broadening of economic activity. Thus when John arrived in the colony in April 1807, he found that his capital and proposed activities were regarded with suspicion by officer-entrepreneurs of the colonial government and the New South Wales Corps. His first mistake in the eyes of the government was to ignore crop cultivation, and, in partnership with Gregory, to concentrate on the cattle industry: breeding, slaughtering, salting down (for which he produced the first suitable colonial salt), and selling meat and dairy produce. His other ventures, which Governor William Bligh disparaged as 'speculative' and 'mercantile', included sealing with the ship Brothers, of which he was part-owner with a London firm. He earned the disfavour of the commercial community as well as of the governor by his association with the former convict, Simeon Lord, but his crowning indiscretion was, after applying for a distilling licence, to offer Bligh a share in the company. Accordingly, Bligh was indifferent to Blaxland's complaints that he had received only 1290 acres (522 ha) on the Parramatta River, called Newington, and a third of the convicts due to him.

Blaxland participated zealously in the revolt against Bligh, and Major George Johnston at first expressed sympathy with Blaxland's claims. He was made a magistrate, a member of the Vice-Admiralty Court, and of the committee to inspect public stores. Within three months, however, he had fallen out with Johnston and John Macarthur over his association with Lord, and over the extensive commercial litigation in which Blaxland involved some of the military officers. In September 1808 Blaxland sailed for England to press the British government to fulfil its pledge to him.

On Bligh's orders he was arrested at Cape Town and spent a month in gaol. After this he was compelled to remain in England for three years as a witness at the pending court martial of Johnston. Returning to the colony in 1812, Blaxland carried Liverpool's instructions to Governor Lachlan Macquarie to honour the original agreement. The governor conceded the minimum possible, completing the land grant on the Nepean River, but refusing Blaxland's other demands: a cattle raiser and trader did not conform to Macquarie's vision of a colony of independent agriculturists. Governors Sir Thomas Brisbane and (Sir) Ralph Darling also found Blaxland difficult, and discontented by his failure to receive his promised privileges. Finally, in 1831, after the encouragement of private enterprise had become accepted by Britain as an aim of its policy in the colony, Blaxland received as reparation an extra 10,240 acres (4144 ha).

His experiences at the hands of successive colonial governments produced in Blaxland a strong sense of the constitutional and legal rights of Englishmen. As early as 1812 he was a supporter of trial by jury for the colony. From 1829 to 1843 he was a non-official member of the Legislative Council, in which he distinguished himself by his protests against the appropriation of colonial funds for imperial purposes. He was foremost in the agitation against the colony's paying the whole of the expenses of the police and gaols, and was named 'defender of the public purse'. He was reappointed in 1843 to the partly elective council, where his unwavering opposition to the government was ruefully approved by Governor Sir George Gipps, who hoped it would reduce popular hostility to the 'nominees'. Although not a large squatter, Blaxland actively opposed the 1844 squatting regulations, but ill health cut short this activity and forced him to resign from the council in September. He died at Newington on 5 August 1845.

His contemporaries regarded Blaxland as the 'type of the English Country Gentleman', an impression reinforced by his apparent indifference to the colony's economic and social peculiarities. Although he developed industriously his 29,000 acres (11,736 ha) of freehold estates, he ignored the transient but more profitable benefits of large-scale squatting. He encouraged the cattle industry, thereby gaining a modest place in the colony's economic history. His public activities were motivated by belief in his right to acquire and defend his property and not by attachment to political ideals or sympathy with the emancipist cause. Yet this secured his prominence in colonial politics, although he rarely spoke in the legislature and his protests on financial matters were prompted by his friends William Bland and Sir John Jamison. He symbolized to colonial liberals the uniform good sense, consistency and firmness that they considered characteristic of the mother country.

Select Bibliography

  • A Slight Memoir of the Late Hon John Blaxland (Lond, 1867)
  • A. W. Jose, Builders and Pioneers of Australia (Lond, 1928)
  • J. K. S. Houison, ‘John and Gregory Blaxland’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 22, part 1, 1936, pp 1-41
  • Australian, 20 Jan 1846
  • Blaxland and Walker family papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

T. H. Irving, 'Blaxland, John (1769–1845)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blaxland-john-1796/text2033, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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