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de Mestre, Jean Charles Prosper (1789–1844)

by G. P. Walsh

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

Jean Charles Prosper de Mestre (1789-1844), merchant, was born at sea in a British ship on the way to the West Indies, and baptised on 17 August 1789, the son of a French officer fleeing from France during the revolution. At Martinique his father was killed and his mother later married a British officer, Captain Armstrong. At the evacuation of Martinique after the peace of Amiens he was sent to school at Philadelphia where he remained until 1812. He then went to China, later lived in Mauritius and India and arrived in New South Wales in the Magnet in August 1818.

In Sydney Prosper began business as an importer, but his mercantile activities soon aroused the opposition of Edward Eagar. De Mestre, who was regarded as an American citizen, was said to be able to import tea through his countrymen in China and undersell other Sydney merchants who had to buy through the East India Co. In an attempt to ruin him Eagar brought a qui tam action against him in 1820 under the obsolete Navigation Act (12 Car. II, c. 18), which prohibited aliens from trading in the King's plantations. Had Eagar succeeded in this public penal action all de Mestre's property would have been forfeited, two-thirds going to the King and governor and the remainder to the informer. De Mestre pleaded that the emancipist Eagar, a convicted felon, could not sue in a court of justice and Barron Field agreed. The action went no further, but as a result the emancipists began to organize to protect their rights and improve their doubtful status.

In 1825 William Charles Wentworth acting for him successfully urged the Legislative Council for a special Act to naturalize de Mestre. Under this Act (6 Geo. IV, no. 17 NSW) he took the necessary oaths in September 1825, the second person to be naturalized in Australia. The legality of this ceremony was doubted in 1830 when he applied to register a ship, but Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes ruled that because he had been born on the high seas in a British ship he was a British subject and therefore his application must succeed.

In 1823 de Mestre had a small farm at Bargo, and in 1829 he was granted 1300 acres (526 ha), which he called Terara, on the Shoalhaven River, near Alexander Berry and Edward Wollstonecraft's large grant. He was also very active in the commercial and business life of the colony. He was a director of the Bank of New South Wales in 1826-42, a director of several companies including the Marine Assurance Co. in the 1830s, and a founder of the Mutual Fire Insurance Co. of Sydney in 1840. His company management reflected his other business interests: he was interested in shipping and began whaling in the 1820s and towards the end of his life owned many houses in Sydney. His residence and counting house were first in George Street, Sydney, and later in Liverpool Street. In 1825 he was elected to the committee of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales. In 1836, as a supporter of the Church of England, he joined the committee in opposition to the proposed National school system and in 1841 became a trustee of Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney. De Mestre become insolvent in 1844 and died at Terara after a short illness on 14 September 1844.

On 1 March 1821 he had married Mary Ann Black at St Philip's Church, Sydney. She died in 1861. They had ten children; one of their three sons, Etienne Livingstone (1832-1916), established a horse stud at Terara and won five Melbourne Cups, including the first two, with the horse Archer in 1861 and 1862.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 10, 11, 18
  • J. D. Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, vol 1 (Lond, 1875)
  • Sydney Gazette, 26 May 1821
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Sept 1844.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'de Mestre, Jean Charles Prosper (1789–1844)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/de-mestre-jean-charles-prosper-1976/text2393, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 25 November 2014.

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

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