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Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur (1788–1861)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur (1788-1861), pastoralist, politician and businessman, was born on 16 January 1788 at Plymouth, Devonshire, England, son of James Macarthur, who was the elder brother of John Macarthur. Persuaded by his uncle John to accompany him on his return to New South Wales he arrived at Sydney on 9 June 1805. In 1808 he returned to England by way of China and the Philippines, trading sandalwood unsuccessfully for his uncle. He arrived in England in 1810 and rejoined John, who had gone there in 1809 to help Lieutenant-Colonel George Johnston explain his part in the overthrow of Governor William Bligh in 1808. In March 1812 John wrote to his wife Elizabeth that Hannibal was returning to the colony and would be able to help her, but added that he remained 'as blunt, honest and unsophisticated as when he left Parramatta'. This opinion had not prevented John from sending Hannibal in his Isabella with a cargo for disposal, which arrived in Sydney in August 1812. Hannibal's handling of this venture, shared by Keir, Buxton & Co. of London, did not come up to his uncle's exacting requirements, for in August 1813 John wrote critically and hoped that the affair would be a lesson to him. As late as July 1816 John was still complaining that he had hoped for a remittance from Hannibal but, 'God knows it would be very idle to hope for money from a man who will not answer my letters'. However, Hannibal had encountered a very severe commercial depression in the colony, which caused many merchants to fail. In the circumstances he handled the venture at least adequately and John's strictures reflected his own frustration and impatience.

As early as November 1812 Hannibal had seen the difficulties of combining trading with farming. But if he did not prove himself a lively business agent in John's opinion, he was at least useful to Elizabeth in looking after Macarthur's merino flocks during John's absence. In 1812 Hannibal had married Anna Maria, eldest daughter of the former governor, Philip Gidley King, and next year he bought for £160 Captain Henry Waterhouse's farm, The Vineyard, on the river near Parramatta, as a residence and settled down to help Elizabeth in the whole management of the flocks, including shearing, sorting, packing and shipping of the wool. He sought a land grant from Governor Lachlan Macquarie but was disappointed, and when he complained to John he was told in June 1814 that his uncle could do nothing for him. However, he received some formal recognition in 1814 when he was made a magistrate, and he was given grants of land, including 1060 acres (429 ha) in the Cooke district, in August 1819. Next month he was promised 1000 acres (405 ha) 'in newly discovered country south of the cowpastures', an area opened by Charles Throsby in his south-western explorations in 1817-19. In 1820 Macquarie, in his tour to the south-west, noted that Hannibal had 1854 sheep and 165 cattle depastured on the Wollondilly River.

After John's return in 1817 Hannibal concentrated on his farming and business interests, which now included a store where, according to evidence given to Commissioner John Thomas Bigge, spirits were sold to unlicensed publicans. He had begun earlier to take an active part in community affairs centred on Parramatta; he joined the committee of the school for Aboriginals in 1814, and of the Female Orphan School in 1816, and in 1819 was reported to have conducted the district's first savings bank.

Although Macquarie thought him 'factious and dissatisfied', by 1821 Hannibal held a position of social prominence and financial security in the colony, reinforced by his family connexions, however the leader of the clan regarded him. He had naturally gravitated to the ranks of the exclusives, who sought a degree of political power commensurate with their own estimate of their social worth and economic power, a policy that had enlivened the penal colony virtually from its beginnings and was intimately linked with the Macarthurs, chiefly because of the exploits of John. A feature of this policy was the vilification and denigration of successive governors from John Hunter to Macquarie. Sir Thomas Brisbane replaced Macquarie on 1 December 1821 and soon felt the familiar pressures, to be increased and diversified in the 1820s as legal reforms were effected and a Legislative Council established in 1824 under the provisions of 4 Geo. IV, c. 96.

In 1822 Hannibal played a leading part in a sordid affair that reflected generally the aims of the exclusives, and particularly their resentment of Brisbane. The case involved charges of immorality against Henry Grattan Douglass, who was also a Parramatta magistrate, laid by James Hall, a religiose naval surgeon. The upshot was the vindication of Douglass and the removal by Brisbane from the Commission of Peace of Hannibal, Rev. Samuel Marsden, and three other magistrates concerned. Marsden then complained bitterly about Brisbane to his English patrons, causing Bathurst to initiate an inquiry into Douglass's career as a magistrate. Again Douglass was cleared. A final attempt to ruin Douglass was made by the Grand Jury, with Hannibal as foreman, by indicting him for sentencing a convict to daily flogging until he confessed where stolen goods were hidden. The Legislative Council investigated this charge and found that such sentences were not uncommon, having, indeed, been sometimes used by Hannibal and Marsden since 1815. Bathurst rebuked Hannibal for his part in the affair.

Hannibal's party activities prevented his restoration to the magistracy by Brisbane, but they did not hinder him from accumulating property and stock. He had told Bigge in 1820 that the production of fine wool should be one of the most important activities in the colony. By 1825 when he applied with his brother Charles for additional land he could tell Bathurst that he had purchased 300 sheep in 1813 and had 4600 in 1824; he claimed that the flock was 'the second in value and quality in the colony', and that he had surrounded his original grant of 1000 acres (405 ha) in Eden Forest, on the Wollondilly River, with 15,000 acres (6070 ha), to make 'the largest private establishment in New South Wales, so distant from any Township'. It transpired that Hannibal and Charles, who died in 1827, merely had permission to graze stock on the extra 15,000 acres (6070 ha), and in 1832 the Colonial Office declined to confirm the grant; instead Hannibal was ordered to buy the land on terms. He was interested in the export of timber as well as wool. By 1826 he had also developed banking interests, with other exclusives becoming a director of the Bank of Australia, which was able that year to help the government in relieving the difficulties of 'the Old Establishment' Bank of New South Wales.

The troubles of the Bank of New South Wales were indicative of economic depression for the colony in the late 1820s, aggravated by a severe drought in 1827 and 1828. These stringent conditions forced Hannibal and twenty-two others to seek relief from Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling in May 1828 from the payment of 'Forty thousand pound which will become due on or before the month of August from ourselves and other respectable landed proprietors' for land bought during Brisbane's governorship. Darling made sympathetic concessions, thus reinforcing the instinct of 'the respectable people' to support the governor against 'the democratic rabble', among whom were William Charles Wentworth, Edward Smith Hall and Robert Wardell. This instinct found formal expression in 1829 when Hannibal and 114 other landed proprietors and merchants presented an address strongly supporting Darling, whose 'every measure', they said, had been 'grossly vituperated by licentious public writers in a manner calculated to inflame the minds of the lower orders of the community against Your Excellency's Administration'. This memorial suggested a new and accommodating phase of the exclusives' striving for political power, conditioned by the rise of articulate and influential emancipist leaders and a growing number of colonial-born and free immigrants. Colonial politics were becoming more complex, if not more sophisticated.

Hannibal himself was taking an active part in politics. In 1829 he was appointed an alternative member of the Legislative Council and in 1830 succeeded John Thomas Campbell on the council. There he was a principled representative of the exclusives, who prospered briefly in their paternalistic Tory phase under Darling, but wilted under Governor Sir Richard Bourke's Whig-Liberalism, with colonial society diversifying as the increased immigration of free settlers in the 1830s began to take effect and demands for representative government became pronounced. In 1830 Hannibal opposed strongly the inclusion of ex-convicts in juries, arguing that it would be 'destructive of that consideration for Virtue, Morality and good Faith, which cannot be too carefully inculcated or seriously impressed on the minds of the rising Generation of this mixed community'. His council activities included reporting on the observations of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society, which remained one of his chief interests, and acting on a subcommittee to examine the South Head Road bill in 1832. In 1836 with 426 others he signed the petition of the exclusives to the King and House of Commons, a response to the more democratic pressures exerted by the Australian Patriotic Association formed in 1835 by Sir John Jamison, William Bland and Wentworth. The exclusives argued that 'disorganising doctrines' were being propagated 'under the name of liberty', which 'would subvert the land-marks of Social order, and, confounding all just distinctions, sap the foundations of Society—all these are at stake'.

Meanwhile his farming, pastoral and business affairs continued to flourish. He had been appointed a member of the colonial committee set up in 1824 to control the Australian Agricultural Co. John Macarthur manipulated the three active members of this committee, his son and son-in-law, and his nephew Hannibal, who shared in the obloquy that fell on the family as the company ran into serious difficulties in 1827. Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes reflected general opinion when he argued in a letter to (Sir) Robert Wilmot Horton that the resident committee had benefited itself 'at the expense of the employers', and had divided 'between eleven and twelve thousand pounds of the company's money' in the first year. But this was a temporary, and profitable, set-back. By 1835 Hannibal was chairman of directors of the Bank of Australia, and with his other financial interests and political activities he was one of the most prominent citizens of the colony.

The depression of the early 1840s brought a dramatic change to his fortunes as it did to many other colonists. The Bank of Australia failed and was liquidated in 1843. Hannibal lost a large part of his property and never fully recovered his financial status, though his political reputation remained. He was respected as one of the most intelligent and sincere of the conservatives who had now emerged in the increasingly democratic politics of the colony. He continued in the nominated Legislative Council until its end in 1843, when he was returned unopposed to represent Parramatta in the new part-elective council. He won recognition from Governor Sir George Gipps in 1844 as one of his enlightened supporters as the squatting crisis began. Hannibal retired from the council in 1848. In that year Captain Phillip Parker King, Hannibal's brother-in-law, writing from Port Stephens to his agent on 8 July, said that 'in consequence of the state of monetary affairs here', Hannibal had been 'obliged to bend to the storm and to pass through the Insolvent Court'. After this blow Hannibal retired to Ipswich, Queensland, where in 1852 he was appointed to the position of police magistrate on 1 January at £250 a year, raised to £275 on 1 July. His wife's death in September caused him such anguish that he had a physical breakdown. He applied for two months leave and on 30 October from Goomburra, the property of his son-in-law, Patrick Leslie, sent in his resignation. He returned to England in 1853, where he died at Norwood on 21 October 1861. Hannibal had six daughters and five sons, one of whom, George Fairfowl (1825-1890), was headmaster of The King's School, Parramatta, from 1869 to 1886.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 5-7, 9-12, 14-16, 18, 23-24, series 4, vol 1
  • M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (Syd, 1955)
  • King papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Bigge Report, evidence, Bonwick transcripts (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Macarthur, Hannibal Hawkins (1788–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Hannibal Macarthur, n.d.

Hannibal Macarthur, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, ML 145

Life Summary [details]


16 January, 1788
Plymouth, Devon, England


21 October, 1861 (aged 73)
London, Middlesex, England

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