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Margarot, Maurice (1745–1815)

by Michael Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Maurice Margarot (1745-1815), a 'Scottish Martyr', was the son of a wine and general merchant who operated between Portugal, France and Britain, and was an ardent supporter of John Wilkes. Educated at the university of Geneva, Margarot followed his father's business and political interests. He was living in France about 1789 and had acquaintances among the revolutionary leaders. Returning to England early in 1792, he joined the London Corresponding Society, which Thomas Hardy (1752-1832) then led. Margarot immediately dominated the society and became its president; in September he and Hardy carried a Congratulatory Address to the National Convention of France. Pamphlets from his pen urged fiscal and electoral reform, shorter parliaments and a broader franchise. In November 1793 Margarot and Joseph Gerrald went to Edinburgh to represent the society at the British Convention of the Friends of the People. The two stood out in debate and authority selected them and William Skirving to be charged with sedition. Margarot's trial in January 1794 was distinguished by mob demonstrations in his favour, by his own truculence and by the judge's bias against the accused. Margarot was sentenced to transportation for fourteen years and in April embarked in the Surprize. He had remained as active as possible in urging his followers to continued action.

Arrived in Sydney, Margarot at once demanded his freedom from Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose, maintaining that the very process of transportation discharged the sentence. The plea failed; but though he had to remain in the colony he was not liable for compulsory labour; his wife had accompanied him and he soon built a congenial life. In letters to friends and the Colonial Office he criticized the officers' economic power and urged that the British government extirpate it. The officers said he was seditious, and his name was mentioned apropos alleged rebellion in September and October 1800; but he had impressed Governor John Hunter and probably informed him of political moves within the colony.

Margarot's relations with Governor Philip Gidley King were complex and mysterious. He warned that he would scrutinize the newcomer's behaviour and implied that he would report on it to the Colonial Office, yet he seemingly became an informant for King too. At the same time his home became a centre for seditious elements, including radical 'gentlemen' convicts and United Irishmen. Margarot probably helped the Irish to plan their rebellion on 4 March 1804. Some months later King seized Margarot's papers which he found to contain republican sentiments, evidence of conspiracy with the Irish, denunciation of colonial avarice and a forecast of Australia succeeding America as the world's chief power. The military officers urged King to punish Margarot, but the governor delayed, probably not only because of Margarot's useful information but also for fear that the convict was writing to the Colonial Office about himself. However, in July 1805 Margarot was sent in turn to Norfolk Island, Van Diemen's Land and Newcastle, where he arrived early in 1806.

The following years are blank, but he returned to England in 1810 and at once began to lobby the Colonial Office. He complained that he had been kept in New South Wales beyond his term, and his allegation that the officer junta which seized power on 26 January 1808 had thus avenged his long-standing hostility was probably correct. He was a witness before the 1812 parliamentary committee on transportation, where he pursued his campaign against the officers and evidently influenced the committee. He resumed his interest in British politics. Two pamphlets, Thoughts on Revolution (Harlow, 1812) and Proposal for a Grand National Jubilee (Sheffield, nd) propounded the old radical themes as well as arguing how desirable it would be to base the whole economy on the yeoman farmer, and to restrict commerce to the minimum. He died in London on 11 November 1815; his widow died some twenty years later.

Most commentators have judged Margarot harshly, generally founding their argument on his behaviour aboard the Surprize, when he sided with the captain in accusing Thomas Palmer of fomenting a convict mutiny. Rumours have alleged that Margarot was a police spy among British radicals; conceivably he reported to Hunter and King on his apparent friends, gentlemen radicals and United Irishmen, as well as on his declared enemies, the officers. Certainly Margarot was an arrogant, cantankerous man; he yearned for power and lacked judgment. Yet Thomas Hardy, who knew him well, remained loyal and Francis Place, who studied Margarot's life story in 1837, discounted extreme criticisms of him. This attitude was probably the wisest. Margarot's feeling for social justice was true and in him the intellectual 'left' came to Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 2-4
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 1
  • Select Committee on Transportation, Report, Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1812 (341)
  • M. Roe, ‘Maurice Margarot: A Radical in Two Hemispheres, 1792-1815’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research (University of London), vol 31, no 83, May 1958, pp 68-78.

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Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Margarot, Maurice (1745–1815)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/margarot-maurice-2431/text3233, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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