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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ross, Robert (1740–1794)

by David S. Macmillan

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

Robert Ross (1740?-1794), officer of marines and lieutenant-governor, was born probably in Scotland. In June 1756 he joined the marines as a second lieutenant, and in 1757-60 served in North America, being present at the siege of Louisburg and the capture of Quebec. He was promoted first lieutenant in October 1759, captain in March 1773 and brevet major in March 1783. In the American war in 1775-76 he saw action at Bunker's Hill. While he was returning to England in H.M.S. Ardent in August 1779 the ship was captured and he became a prisoner of the French until exchanged. In 1781-82 he served in several actions in the Mediterranean and West Indies. He was appointed lieutenant-governor of New South Wales on 24 October 1786 and sailed in the Scarborough with the First Fleet. Ross owed this appointment to his acquaintance with Sir John Jervis and Evan Nepean, with whom he had served in the Foudroyant in American waters.

From the foundation of the colony, Ross and Captain Arthur Phillip were at odds, and David Collins expressed his 'inexpressible hatred' for the major. Ross considered that the marine officers' status in the settlement was not elevated enough. He supported Captain James Campbell when the latter objected to being compelled to sit as a member of the Criminal Court, and he tried to persuade the other officers to take a similar attitude. He opposed Phillip's schemes for organizing the convicts and refused to allow the officers to help to supervise the prisoners. He criticized the governor for not building fortifications, while at the same time complaining that his officers had to remain under canvas and later throwing difficulties in the way of Phillip's efforts to have barracks built. Certainly he missed no opportunity of embarrassing and hindering Phillip and at one stage placed five officers under arrest after a trivial disagreement about the sentence of a court martial, suspended two more, had two others asking to be relieved, and the adjutant and quartermaster under his displeasure. He was, wrote Ralph Clark 'without exception the most disagreeable commanding officer I ever knew'. These quarrels naturally made Phillip's task of carrying on the administration more difficult, and later Ross encouraged friction between the marines and the convict guards.

Ross never adapted himself to life in the colony and he had no faith in its future. He was, in addition, worried about his 'very small tho' numerous family' in Britain, who seem to have been in poor circumstances. In 1788 he stated: 'I do not scruple to pronounce that in the whole world there is not a worse country than what we have yet seen of this. All that is contiguous to us is so very barren and forbidding that it may with truth be said, here Nature is reversed'. Ross was critical of Phillip's choice of a site for the settlement, which he declared would 'never answer'. The British government gave him scant sympathy, and in due course decided to recall the marines; but before this was made known in New South Wales, Phillip sent Ross in March 1790 to take charge of Norfolk Island, probably to avoid an open quarrel. Soon after his arrival the Sirius, which had brought him to the island, was wrecked and Ross proclaimed martial law, which remained in force for four months. In this he apparently exceeded his authority. He lost many of his personal possessions on the island, and more about the same time when the Guardian which was carrying them was wrecked near Cape Town. He worked out a scheme by which the convicts should grow most of their own food, but this entailed the clearing of more land and the heavy work increased the convicts' discontent. The scheme was abolished by Ross's successor.

Relieved on Norfolk Island, where he had quarrelled with his officers as vigorously as he had at Port Jackson, Ross reached Sydney on 5 December 1791. A few days later he fought a duel with Captain Hill, in which both participants escaped unscathed. On 13 December he embarked with the marines for England and resumed his military career. He died on 9 June 1794, probably at Brompton, Kent. His son, John, who went out with him to New South Wales as a 'volunteer', without pay, was given by his father a commission as second lieutenant in 1789.

Ross was not a success as second-in-command of the new colony. He was conscientious and efficient but hankered after more active duty with prospects of promotion, and these the colony could not supply.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 1, part 2
  • Historical Records of Australia series 1, vols 1, 2
  • manuscript catalogue under R. Ross (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

David S. Macmillan, 'Ross, Robert (1740–1794)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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

View the front pages for Volume 2

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