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McKay, Alexander (1802–1882)

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

Alexander McKay (1802?-1882), convict, explorer and farmer, was convicted in Glasgow, Scotland, on 25 April 1823 of robbery and sentenced to transportation for life. He arrived in Van Diemen's Land on 30 December in the Sir Godfrey Webster. His only offence after his arrival was to escape from a gang while clearing land for Dr Edward Bromley on 20 August 1824 and to stow away in the Ardent; for this he received fifty lashes. In February 1827 he petitioned for a ticket-of-leave, saying that he had for two years been employed by the government under Captain John Welsh, on whose recommendation he had been assigned to the Van Diemen's Land Co. in April 1826 and had explored north-west Tasmania with the company's surveyors; he had gone round the island in an open boat examining every practicable harbour. Edward Curr and Welsh testified to his good behaviour. However, (Sir) George Arthur refused to grant a ticket-of-leave as McKay had been in the colony only three years and had attempted to escape. In December 1829 McKay sought leave to go in pursuit of troublesome Aboriginals and Arthur decided that he should join George Augustus Robinson and promised him emancipation in two years if his conduct merited it.

From January 1830 to April 1831 McKay worked under Robinson rounding up Aboriginals in the north-east. For thirteen weeks McKay was in charge of natives whom they had taken to Swan Island, while Robinson went to Hobart Town whence he returned in a government vessel and took the natives to Preservation Island. McKay claimed that he had tried to persuade the sealers not to molest the Aboriginals but Robinson declared that McKay had connived with the sealers and cohabited with the natives, even killing some of them. In 1830, however, he was granted a conditional pardon for his services in opening 'a conciliatory communication with the Aboriginal Tribes'.

In April 1831 George Frankland asked for McKay's services at £1 a week to search for a lead-mine indicated by specimens McKay had been given by Aboriginals and in June asked for him again to mark out a road to Port Davey. However, Arthur was still chary of putting McKay in charge of such projects. In September, while in an expedition led by Robinson, he captured six natives and found the bodies of Captain Bartholomew Thomas and his overseer Parker who had been killed by Aboriginals near Port Sorell. As a reward Arthur gave him a suburban allotment and in November he was given a free pardon for meritorious conduct in capturing several natives in spite of repeated bold attempts by the tribes to rescue them. Frankland's request for McKay's services to explore in preparation for road-making was granted in April 1835, and by next January he had sixteen men under his charge on road work. While with the Survey Department he traced the River Mersey to its source, and explored round the Great Lake, Lake St Clair, and the Gordon River. In this phase he became acquainted with James Calder. About 1864 McKay settled on forty-six acres (19 ha) at Peppermint Bay. He died there on 14 June 1882 in his eightieth year.

Frankland and Calder thought well of his work but there is evidence that he was a violent and untrustworthy man.

Select Bibliography

  • N. J. B. Plomley (ed), Friendly Mission (Hob, 1966)
  • correspondence file under Alexander McKay (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

'McKay, Alexander (1802–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mckay-alexander-2404/text3179, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 31 October 2014.

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

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