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Erskine, James (1765–1825)

by David S. Macmillan

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

James Erskine (1765?-1825), soldier and lieutenant-governor, was born at Maryborough, Queen's County, Ireland. He joined the army, served in India in the 1780s and then with the 22nd Regiment in the West Indies in 1791-97, taking part in the San Domingo campaign in 1794, the year in which he was gazetted captain. Being transferred to Ireland he fought at the battle of Vinegar Hill in June 1798 and shared in the task of suppressing the rebellion. In 1803 he was transferred to the 48th Regiment, and promoted major. He married Sarah Andrews of Cheltenham in April 1805 and had three sons and three daughters in the next ten years. He served in the Peninsular campaigns, being slightly wounded at the Douro in May 1809, promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel in July 1810, lieutenant-colonel in June 1811 and severely wounded at Badajoz.

In August 1817 he arrived with his regiment in Sydney in the Matilda, and was sworn in as lieutenant-governor on 12 September. Immediately after his arrival he was involved in the controversy between his predecessor, Lieutenant-Colonel George Molle, and D'Arcy Wentworth concerning the insults and alleged libels which they had been hurling at each other. He tried his hand at conciliation without success. Molle insisted on bringing his opponent to trial, and Erskine presided over the ensuing court martial, but as Judge-Advocate (Sir) John Wylde ruled that Wentworth was not subject to its jurisdiction the matter lapsed. However, Erskine showed himself, very properly, ready enough to take offence when Commissary Frederick Drennan insulted his regiment, in its turn. In February 1819 Drennan alleged that the military were adopting a 'Scandalous' system in the use (or misuse) of the regimental windmill, and in March he objected to Erskine's forbidding the commissariat clerk, Andrew Allan, from entering the barracks after Allan had tried to bribe a soldier to give him copies of some of the regimental books. Erskine pressed Governor Lachlan Macquarie to court-martial Drennan, but although the governor fully shared Erskine's views of the commissary's 'Insulting and Insubordinate Conduct', after holding an inquiry he thought it best merely to report him to the lords of the Treasury, perhaps bearing in mind Wylde's opinion in the Wentworth case. Drennan's charges against Erskine were never proceeded with.

Erskine remained on excellent terms with Macquarie. Unlike all but three of his brother officers he was willing to accept the society of Dr William Redfern and he invited Henry Fulton to the mess. In August 1819 he was one of the founders of the New South Wales Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge among the Aborigines, and in 1819-20 was president of the 'native institution', which the governor had much at heart. In February 1820 he assured Macquarie that, contrary to the allegations of Henry Grey Bennet in the House of Commons, the 'lower orders' were well-behaved under his administration, and next year showed the governor marked cordiality on the eve of the latter's departure for Van Diemen's Land. Erskine was patron of the Benevolent Society and president of the Bible Society in 1820, and also took such interest in his 3000-acre (1214 ha) grant, Erskine Park, at Melville that Commissioner John Thomas Bigge commented favourably on his treatment of his convict servants.

In August 1819 he was promoted colonel and made a C.B. On 25 February 1823 he sailed for England in the Marshal Wellington, bearing an address and silver trowel presented by the Masons. In 1825 he went to Madras to rejoin his regiment, but died of cholera on 7 June, four days after arriving there.

Select Bibliography

  • manuscript catalogue under J. Erskine (State Library of New South Wales)
  • WO 42/15/ E105 (National Archives of the United Kingdom).

Citation details

David S. Macmillan, 'Erskine, James (1765–1825)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/erskine-james-2028/text2499, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 18 September 2014.

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

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