Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Gyles (?–1827)

by Niel Gunson

This article was published:

John Gyles (d.1827), mission agriculturist and pioneer of the sugar industry, was a native of Somerset, England. After leaving school in England he went to live on his brother's sugar plantation in Jamaica, and later became overseer. On a visit to London he secretly married Maria Slyth who did not return with him to Jamaica. Later he returned to London, where his two daughters were born.

In 1817 the directors of the (London) Missionary Society were anxious to introduce 'the arts of civilization' into the recently evangelized Society Islands. Gyles, who had been accepted as a missionary in 1815 but resigned, was engaged to introduce tropical agriculture into Tahiti, and both he and his wife were given the status of missionaries. They arrived in Sydney in January 1818 bringing with them the ironwork necessary for a sugar mill. On the recommendation of Samuel Marsden the woodwork was completed in the colony under the superintendence of the son of a West Indian merchant named Matthews, and the mill was actually mounted. In May 1818 Gyles left Sydney in the Active, taking with him the colonial-born Isaac Shepherd (1800-1877), later an active Methodist leader at Ryde. With his assistance Gyles attempted to introduce tropical agriculture into Tahiti but had little success, and they returned to New South Wales in October 1819. There Gyles was encouraged to found a local sugar-growing industry. In December 1819 he estimated that he could, 'by the Year 1825 … produce annually from four to five hundred tons of Sugar and thirty two thousand gallons [145,475 litres] and upwards of rum' in the colony, and he also forecast the cultivation of coffee, cotton and tobacco. In January 1820 he accompanied the expedition to the newly discovered Port Macquarie district with Commissioner John Thomas Bigge, John Oxley and their party, for the express purpose of 'examining the capabilities of the soil to the production of sugar cane'. Gyles recommended the country adjacent to the harbour, particularly Rawdon Island, as being suitable, and offered to supervise a government sponsored plantation, but Lachlan Macquarie confessed to Earl Bathurst that he was doubtful if the place was sufficiently 'tropical in climate'.

In March 1820 Gyles and his family returned to London. Later he accepted an official appointment to Sierra Leone, where he died in 1827. However, as a result of his appraisal at Port Macquarie, experiments were conducted in growing tropical plants (cotton, coffee, pineapples and sugar) at the penal establishment founded there in 1821, but they did not achieve much success.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 10
  • A. Strachan, Remarkable Incidents in the Life of the Rev. Samuel Leigh (Lond, 1855) pp 73-76
  • H. M. Suttor, Australian Milestones, vol 1 (Syd, 1925)
  • Eipper papers (copy, National Library of Australia)
  • LMS archives (Westminster).

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'Gyles, John (?–1827)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Sierra Leone

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