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John Hunter (1737–1821)

by J. J. Auchmuty

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John Hunter, by William Bennett, c.1812

John Hunter, by William Bennett, c.1812

National Library of Australia, 2272205

John Hunter (1737-1821), admiral and governor, was born on 29 August 1737 at Leith, the port of Edinburgh, one of at least nine children of William Hunter, a shipmaster, and Helen, née Drummond, whose uncle was a lord provost of Edinburgh. As a child he was shipwrecked when sailing with his father off the coast of Norway, and he lived for some time with an uncle, Robert Hunter, at Lynn in Norfolk, where his interest in music brought him under the influence of Dr Charles Burney, the organist and composer. John Hunter received a sufficient education, especially in the Latin classics, to become briefly an undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen with a view to ordination into the ministry of the Church of Scotland, but the inherited call of the sea proved stronger, and in May 1754 he became captain's servant to Thomas Knackston in H.M.S. Grampus. In 1755 he was enrolled as an able seaman in the Centaur, after fifteen months became a midshipman, transferred to the Union and then to the Neptune, successive flagships of Vice-Admiral Charles Knowles, and in 1757 took part in the unsuccessful assault on Rochefort. In 1759, still in the Neptune, in which John Jervis, later Earl St Vincent, was serving as a lieutenant, he was present at the reduction of Quebec. In February 1760 Hunter passed examinations in navigation and astronomy and qualified for promotion as a lieutenant, but he remained without a commission until 1780.

In the interval Hunter had considerable sea-going experience. In 1760-64 he served as a midshipman in the Royal Ann, Princess Amelia and the Royal George, flagships of Admiral Durrell; thereafter he went to Newfoundland in the frigate Tweed, and in 1766 Durrell appointed Hunter as master's mate when he commissioned the Launceston to carry his flag on the North American Station. Hunter was acting master in 1767 and master in 1768. Next year he passed the Trinity House examination for his fourth-rate qualification, and throughout his years at sea ever showed himself an eager student of navigation and an accurate and careful observer of the harbours and coastline he visited. In 1769-71 he served in the Carysfort on the Jamaica Station, and distinguished himself when that ship was almost lost on the Martyr's Reef. In 1772-74 he was master of the Intrepid on its journey to the East Indies and in 1775 he joined his former shipmate, Captain Jervis, in the Kent and later the Foudroyant. He served next with Admiral Lord Howe in the Eagle on the North American Station, and was warmly recommended by Howe for a commission as a recognition of his services on the Delaware and in defence of Sandy Hook.

Hunter obtained his first commission in 1780 as lieutenant in the Berwick through Admiral Rodney, when the latter was appointed to command the fleet in the West Indies. When Howe, after four years retirement, assumed command of the Grand Fleet in 1782, he appointed Hunter as admiral's third lieutenant; then in quick succession he became first lieutenant of the Victory, was given command of the fireship Spitfire, and in November 1782 of the sloop Marquis de Seignelay (Signally according to the Naval Chronicle) at Portsmouth. When the American war of independence ended in 1783 Howe became first lord of the Admiralty. Hunter was now a mature seaman with considerable experience on the North Atlantic and West Indies Stations, strongly influenced by and well known to some of the great British naval leaders. Generally speaking the navy was a Whig preserve, and for a man without fortune the only hope of promotion, in a period when more officers were drawing half-pay on shore than were serving afloat, lay in attachment to a possible source of patronage. Hunter was fortunate to have attracted the attention of Howe and to have earned his strong approval before the reduction of forces at the end of the American war. Throughout the first twenty years of his seafaring career Hunter proved himself an admirable seaman. He had served both in victory and in defeat under great commanders, shown himself loyal and devoted to his superiors, and in those days of very cramped shipboard accommodation had proved a very co-operative subordinate whose character provided no problems of acceptance in the narrow confines of day-by-day living. Nevertheless it is significant that Hunter had to wait twenty years after passing his lieutenant's examination before being granted a commission, and that real surprise was expressed at his wanting one, Howe always presuming his objective to be the post of master attendant at a dockyard.

When the arrangements which resulted in the sending of the First Fleet to Australia were being made in 1786, H.M.S. Sirius was detailed to convoy it. Hunter was appointed second captain of the vessel under Governor Arthur Phillip with the naval rank of captain. He was also granted a dormant commission as successor to Phillip in the case of his death or absence. In Phillip's instructions, 25 April 1787, it was hoped that when the settlement was in order it might be possible to send the Sirius back to England under Hunter's command. On the outward journey, soon after leaving the Cape of Good Hope, Phillip transferred to the tender Supply, hoping to make an advance survey of their destination at Botany Bay; he placed Hunter in the Sirius in command of the main convoy, though in the result the entire fleet of eleven ships made Botany Bay within the three days 18 to 20 January 1788. When Phillip felt doubtful about Botany Bay as the site of the first settlement, he took Hunter with him on the survey which decided that the landing should be on the shores of Port Jackson. Despite Hunter's dormant commission, the lieutenant-governor was Major Robert Ross of the marines; Hunter was chiefly employed on surveying and other seaman's business, as well as sitting both in the Court of Criminal Judicature, which met for the first time on 11 February, and as a justice of the peace, the oaths of which office he took on 12 February. The relations between Phillip and Hunter always seemed excellent, though it was Philip Gidley King whom Phillip recommended as his successor. Far different was the situation with Lieutenant-Governor Ross; by February 1790 Phillip was reporting to London that both Captain Hunter and the judge-advocate, David Collins, were unwilling to sit further as justices of the peace if they had to endure the treatment meted out to them by Ross.

On 2 October 1788 Hunter sailed in the Sirius for the Cape of Good Hope to lay in stocks of grain to replace that lost on the voyage from England and because of the failure of the first harvest; he was also to take on supplies for the medical department. On his return to the colony on 8 May 1789, having circumnavigated the globe, he resumed his former duties as magistrate and as a surveyor of the rivers and harbours in the neighbourhood of Port Jackson, and on 13 February 1790 his sketch of the Hawkesbury River was sent to London. Next month the governor had to record the disastrous loss of the Sirius under Hunter's command off Norfolk Island on 19 March. This was a very heavy blow to the colony, which was on short rations, but the Norfolk Island roadstead was always dangerous. Hunter took advantage of his enforced stay of eleven months on the island to make a detailed survey there, and in his dispatch of 1 March 1791 Phillip recorded Hunter's suggestions in favour of an alternative landing place at Cascade Bay. This was the third shipwreck in which Hunter had been involved, and the first of two for which, in accordance with naval regulations, he was court-martialled as commanding officer; in both cases he was honourably acquitted of all blame.

As a result of the loss of the Sirius Hunter returned to England and reached Portsmouth in April 1792, after a voyage of thirteen months in the Dutch snow Waaksamheyd. England was once more at war. Howe, who had been replaced at the Admiralty by Chatham in 1788, was at sea again in the Queen Charlotte, commanded by Sir Roger Curtis. Hunter joined his old friends as a volunteer in this flagship and, when in the next year it became clear that the government had at length acceded to Phillip's requests for permission to return home, both Howe and Curtis pressed Hunter's claims to the succession. Hunter must have known before his return that Phillip's health prevented a long stay in New South Wales and it would seem that he undertook the steps necessary to ensure that his own name came up for consideration. He also published An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, With the Discoveries That Have Been Made in New South Wales and the Southern Ocean Since the Publication of Phillip's Voyage (London, 1793). There were German and Swedish editions.

Phillip was informed that he could leave the colony, and embarked on 10 December 1792. The government of the colony was then conducted by Major Francis Grose as lieutenant-governor until December 1794, and by Captain William Paterson the senior military officer in the settlement, as administrator, until Hunter assumed office in September 1795. This period of military rule greatly complicated problems for Hunter, whose instructions required him to pursue a policy much at variance with that which had developed since the departure of Phillip. For the length of the interregnum the British government was greatly at fault, but there was also an unexplained delay in Hunter's departure from England for more than a year after the original drafting of his instructions on 23 January 1794. His commission as captain-general and governor-in-chief was dated 6 February 1794, and the Reliance and the Supply were commissioned to undertake the journey in March, yet the ships with Hunter on board did not sail until 25 February 1795. They arrived in Port Jackson on 7 September 1795 and Hunter formally assumed office four days later.

Hunter's first impressions on his return, as recorded in his official dispatches, were favourable, but as he privately confessed later in a letter to Sir Samuel Bentham he had little understanding of the trials and tribulations of his office when he solicited the appointment. Not merely was he given instructions which would have been difficult to implement had he possessed a loyal and competent public service with an obedient military arm, but he was subject to erratic long-range directions from London which might take over a year for discussion and comment. The New South Wales bureaucracy was poorly trained and inefficient, the administration in London was by no stretch of imagination streamlined, and many authorities had to co-operate if action were required in the southern seas. As governor, Hunter was responsible to the King through the Duke of Portland, one of the three secretaries of state. Since the convict settlement developing into an infant colony had neither a free press nor other organ of public opinion, Portland allowed himself to be influenced by private correspondence from disgruntled residents such as Captain John Macarthur of the New South Wales Corps and accordingly the governor was rarely aware of the entire information at the disposal of the government when it communicated its wishes. Moreover, although the control of the colony and of the convicts lay with the Home Office, it had to rely on the transport branch of the Admiralty for conveying the prisoners half-way round the world. The military who acted as guards were the responsibility of the secretary at war and of the commissariat, and the Ordnance Department was responsible for military buildings. The Treasury, the Mint and two audit officers were concerned with the financial well-being of the colony and the Post Office had the relatively easy task of dispatching the mails whenever opportunity arose.

Against this mighty series of government departments Hunter had a resident civil establishment of thirty-one; it included medical staff, superintendents of convicts, master carpenters and the like, and not more than a third could be considered serious official advisers. The number of officers on duty with the New South Wales Corps was seventeen. There was a great disparity in age between the newly arrived governor, approaching 60, and those who might be called on to act as his advisers. Macarthur, in the situation of inspector of public works, to which Grose had appointed him, and on whom Hunter relied exceedingly in the early months of his governorship, was 28; Captain Paterson, the corps commandant, was just turned 40; Captain Joseph Foveaux was 30; almost everyone else was younger than Paterson. Captain John Hunter, R.N., was accustomed to the discipline of the quarterdeck and expected to see it reflected in New South Wales. Instead he faced an entrenched and mutinous soldiery, and an increasingly dispersed body of settlers largely dependent on rum as a currency medium and much at the mercy of the monopolistic trading practices of the military hierarchy and other officials.

There seems to be general agreement that the external appearance of Sydney had improved considerably between Hunter's departure and his return, and this improvement can legitimately be considered the result of the activities of the officers of the New South Wales Corps who had been granted land, convict servants, and finally, though they were officers and gentlemen in an age when trade was looked down upon, permission to enter into the importing business on a large scale. As each year passed there was an increase in the number of persons no longer supported from government stores as government servants or as convicts, and these people found themselves at the mercy of men who were rarely satisfied with anything less than one hundred per cent profit on their transactions.

The population of New South Wales when Hunter took charge of the government was 3211, of whom 1908 or 59 per cent were convicts. Almost all the remainder were military and administrative personnel and prisoners whose terms of servitude had ended. There were only a dozen or so free emigrants and the settlement was confined to a small region close to the coast, with its economic centre at Parramatta. Although in a favourable season the colony was almost self-sufficient in grain, it was dependent on overseas supplies for nearly all its essentials, and the need to import cattle and sheep was stressed more strongly in Hunter's instructions than in Phillip's. During the two years and three-quarters between the departure of Phillip and the arrival of Hunter, private enterprise had tended to supplant that of government as the main form of economic activity. In December 1792 the government cultivated by far the larger proportion of land and most people spent their days working under its direction either on the public farm or on the construction of roads and necessary buildings. By late 1795, however, the officers and small farmers combined cropped an acreage far exceeding that belonging to the government, produced the greater part of the grain supply and owned most of the livestock in the settlement; so many convicts were privately employed that insufficient were left for limited public works, and Hunter claimed that so acute was the labour shortage that at least another thousand workers could be absorbed. Thus the colony was becoming increasingly unlike a gaol.

The problem facing the smallholders was that if the government produced on its own lands sufficient food for that section of the population fed from government stores, then the farmers would have no market for their produce and it would be impossible to develop a self-reliant colony. On the other hand the British government, though anxious to encourage private farming, was even more firmly determined that the settlement should be as limited a burden as possible on the Treasury, so Portland insisted that Hunter should pursue a policy that in the long run could only harm local farmers.

Hunter's first action as governor was deliberately to disobey his instructions, and to continue the practice established by Grose of allowing ten convict servants for agricultural and three for domestic purposes to each officer occupying ground. Other farmers were provided with from one to five assigned convicts. Hunter started out with the idea that government farming was wasteful and inefficient; he was also initially impressed, while still under the influence of Macarthur, with the success achieved by some of the officers whose efforts he thought might prove the backbone of future prosperity. It is easy to blame the governor for this disobedience of his instructions, and an armchair critic like Portland had no difficulty in doing so, yet it is very difficult for a new ruler to effect a revolution overnight, especially when that revolution would have to be made at the expense of those whose duty it was to be his principal supporters.

The practices indulged in by the New South Wales Corps were not without parallel in other parts of the King's dominions. Macarthur's profits as regimental paymaster were far less than those often accumulated by similar officers in India; the difference between the commercial activities of Macarthur and his fellow officers in New South Wales and equivalent operations elsewhere was that in New South Wales they achieved a position almost of monopoly, whereas on other stations this was rarely possible. In any case Hunter, after his first strange disobedience, soon repented of his association with Macarthur, and told Portland that 'scarcely nothing short of the full power of the Governor' would satisfy him; it also became obvious that the soldiers of the New South Wales Corps were not over-respectful of the civil power. Hunter, a pleasant, friendly person as all described him, was easily deceived but, when he learned what was going on, he showed himself choleric, petulant and self-pitying, so much so that with the best will in the world and with full knowledge of the deceptions practised upon him, it is difficult to retain any sympathy for him in his later dispatches. Yet if Hunter failed as a governor, and Portland judged him a failure, the secretary of state was equally incompetent, slow to answer dispatches, failing to understand the essential weakness of an isolated individual without physical or moral support thousands of miles from his homeland. Portland severely criticized Hunter for allowing more than two assigned servants to any military officer; he directed that these servants should be fed and clothed by their masters and not from the government store, and particularly required that the officers should cease to trade in spirits. Yet Portland also paid attention to correspondence from Macarthur, a known dealer in spirits, vehemently attacking the governor for refusing him 100 labourers instead of the two allowed by law.

By 1798 Hunter was clearly aware that trading by the officers had to be controlled if the settlers were not all to be bankrupt, and in March he sent a detailed account of the settlers' grievances about inflated prices. This showed differences of as much as 700 per cent between the landing costs and the price of sale to the public; but, though his solutions would have been satisfactory in a convict prison, they were useless to a developing free community. As government control of wages, prices and hours of work proved increasingly ineffective, Hunter called on a small group of supporters, Dr Thomas Arndell and the clergymen, Richard Johnson and Samuel Marsden, to prove to the British government that the deterioration in the public morals and economic progress of the colony was entirely due to the nature of the military government during the interregnum. It is not necessary to take these tendentious documents at their face value to admit that a definite change of economic momentum and of political development had taken place in that period. Neither the convict records nor the surviving letters from residents in 1793-95 support charges of increased crime, especially theft and excessive drunkenness, at that time. The era of military rule seemed very profitable for the agricultural community and the majority of contemporaries commented excitedly on the material progress. These commentators were faithfully mirrored in Hunter's early dispatches.

Hunter's first attempt to reduce the military power was of little real significance except as a gesture. Immediately upon taking up duty Lieutenant-Governor Grose had informed the civil magistrates that he would no longer require their services, and every court which sat from the departure of Phillip to the arrival of Hunter was composed entirely of officers in the armed forces. Hunter's return of the chaplains and the medical men to the bench of magistrates, even though they were necessarily in a minority, was regarded as a limitation on the military power.

In the military-civil struggle for power Portland reserved his strongest criticism of Hunter for his behaviour in the case between John Baughan and the New South Wales Corps, where in fact the governor appeared at his most statesman-like. It was perfectly true that the soldiers who had attacked Baughan were so obviously at fault that they should have been court-martialled and severely punished, but since the entire New South Wales Corps was inflamed against Baughan it would have been almost impossible for the civilian to be protected against subsequent military vengeance. Accordingly Hunter's acceptance of full apologies and indemnification on the part of the corps through Macarthur showed that he grasped the realities of the situation, whilst his Government and General Order together with his dispatches clearly revealed a full appreciation of the problems created by a disorderly soldiery.

Unhappily Hunter was in general a poor judge of character. When his steward, Nicholas Franklyn, was accused of being at the centre of the trade in rum at which he was making a fortune, the latter well-nigh admitted his guilt by committing suicide; when Richard Dore came out as the first trained free lawyer in the colony Hunter made him not merely deputy judge advocate but also his private secretary, only to discover within months that he could not be trusted. The governor's friendship with and support of Richard Atkins may have been due to respect for his position and family in England and their influence with government rather than to any admiration for his personal character; but this did not help him in New South Wales.

Although Hunter was greatly worried by the troublesome nature of the Irish sent out as a result of the United Irishmen's conspiracy and rebellion he showed much sympathy and humanity, by the standards of the day, towards the convicts in general, and especially towards their wives and children; much of his strong feeling against the rum trade and the prevalence of private stills was based on these humane sentiments. The severe criticism of his failure to control the rum trade, to keep down prices, to lower government expenditure and to control the trading of the military officers was grossly unfair, but especially so when it is remembered that, with the dismissal of Richard Dore, Hunter had to act as his own private secretary, whilst his aide-de-camp, Captain George Johnston, although at one time in temporary command of the New South Wales Corps, was arrested in 1800 for refusing a general court martial in the colony on a charge of forcing spirits on a sergeant as part of his pay at an improper price. Whilst he was probably no more censurable than any other officer of the corps save Paterson, nevertheless the charge implied habits at Government House similar to those elsewhere in the colony. When Paterson returned from overseas leave in November 1799 he arrived with strict instructions to prevent further trading by the corps, especially in spirits, and he assured the governor that he was being obeyed. It was odd that the opportunity to make an example of one of the officers should be seized at the expense of the governor's aide-de-camp.

In so far as Hunter enjoyed his period as governor of New South Wales it was as an explorer and traveller. He was a keen naturalist, sent back many specimens of Australian animals to Sir Joseph Banks and made a number of original drawings of them. To the annoyance of the officers of the corps it was the governor's pleasure to make extensive, if increasingly rare, journeys on his own, as in the case of the discovery of the missing herd of cattle; but it was for him no mere routine activity when he sent or encouraged Surgeon George Bass and Lieutenants John Shortland and Matthew Flinders on their journeys. Hunter's period in New South Wales is commemorated by the name which Shortland gave to the port and the river where Newcastle now stands, originally founded to develop the coal seams whose existence was proved by Shortland on Hunter's behalf.

Hunter was recalled in a stern dispatch from Portland dated 5 November 1799. It was acknowledged by Hunter on 20 April 1800, and he handed over the government to the Lieutenant-Governor King on 28 September. His final months in the colony were poisoned not only by the feeling of failure and undeserved blame, but also by the obvious eagerness of his successor to assume office.

Hunter arrived at Spithead on 24 May 1801, and immediately requested a public inquiry into the charges made against his administration. No inquiry was held, he was not received by the secretary of state, and for a time he had to live on his half-pay as a naval captain. However, he published Governor Hunter's Remarks on the Causes of the Colonial Expense of the Establishment of New South Wales. Hints for the Reduction of Such Expense and for Reforming the Prevailing Abuses (London, 1802). This vindication of his conduct, associated with his consistently useful advice on all that concerned New South Wales, and the realization that his successors were faced with equal or greater difficulties and that the government was as regularly misinformed of conditions in the colony, led to a reappraisal of his position. In due course he was granted a pension of £300 for his services in New South Wales, from which he had returned a poorer, if wiser, man than when he set out, and in 1804 he was given command as captain of the Venerable, 74 guns, attached to the Channel Fleet. On 24 November, while leaving Torbay, a man fell overboard and about 8 p.m. the ship ran aground on Paignton Cliff. Although the Impétueux and the Goliath came to her aid, the Venerable proved a total wreck with the loss of many lives. Once again Hunter faced a court martial and again he was acquitted of all blame, though the Admiralty refused to compensate him for loss of his private property.

Later Hunter was appointed to superintend the payment of ships of war at Portsmouth. He was promoted rear admiral on 2 October 1807, and vice-admiral on 31 July 1810. He never hoisted his flag at sea, but passed his last years quietly at Judd Street, New Road, Hackney, London, where he died on 13 March 1821. He was buried in the Hackney Old Cemetery.

Hunter never married, but was keenly devoted to his nephews and nieces, the children of his sister, and especially to Captain William Kent, his sister's son who had been with him in his final days in New South Wales and had been in command of the Buffalo in which Hunter with Johnston, Acting Commissary James Williamson and others had returned to England. His final years showed a recovery in his fame and reputation, partly through a flattering account of his career in the Naval Chronicle (vol 6, 1801) which affected public opinion. In a time of war memories are short and it became pointless to nurse grievances which the general public as well as government departments would prefer to forget. It was suggested that he should be appointed governor of the Bermudas, 'a situation for which he was peculiarly qualified by his professional talents and experience', but instead, after giving valuable evidence to the select committee on transportation in 1812, he lived out his days as a high-ranking naval officer, annually visiting his birthplace, Leith, where he had bought a house in which he established his widowed sister, and periodically discussing with Sir Joseph Banks or others interested, the past, present and future of New South Wales.

A collection of Hunter's original drawings are in the Nan Kivell Collection at the National Library of Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 1 part 2, vols 3, 4
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-3
  • D. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1798-1802)
  • M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (Syd, 1955)
  • F. M. Bladen, ‘Notes on the Life of John Hunter, Admiral, Governor of New South Wales’, Journal and Proceedings (Australian Historical Society), vol 1, part 3, 1901, pp 21-27
  • G. A. Wood, ‘Governor Hunter’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 14, part 6, 1928, pp 344-62
  • B. H. Fletcher, Development of Small Scale Farming in New South Wales 1787-1803 (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1961)
  • manuscript catalogue under John Hunter (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

J. J. Auchmuty, 'Hunter, John (1737–1821)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 May 2024.

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

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© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Hunter, by William Bennett, c.1812

John Hunter, by William Bennett, c.1812

National Library of Australia, 2272205

Life Summary [details]


29 August, 1737
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


13 March, 1821 (aged 83)
London, Middlesex, England

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