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John Macarthur (1767–1834)

by Margaret Steven

This article was published:

John Macarthur (1767-1834), by unknown artist

John Macarthur (1767-1834), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, DG 222

John Macarthur (1767?-1834), soldier, entrepreneur and pastoralist, was baptized on 3 September 1767 at Stoke Damerel, near Plymouth, England, one of three known children of two expatriate Scots, Alexander Macarthur (formerly of Argyllshire) and his wife Catherine (d.1777), who lived in the parish of St Andrew in Devonport. Alexander Macarthur was a mercer and draper in Plymouth, whose business was inherited by his eldest son, James. It was this background that later gave John Macarthur's enemies in New South Wales the excuse to lampoon him as 'Jack Boddice', a staymaker's apprentice. However, by 1782 enough influence had been secured to obtain an ensign's commission in Fish's Corps for the 15-year-old John. This corps, specially intended for the American war, was still being assembled in England when the war ended. When it was disbanded in 1783 Macarthur, on half-pay, retired to a farm at Holsworthy in Devon. There he remained in rural seclusion for almost five years, endeavouring fruitlessly to obtain military placement and in his discouragement toying with the idea of turning to law, for which he displayed an amateur but vigorous talent all his life. He returned to full pay in April 1788 as an ensign in the 68th Regiment (later Durham Light Infantry) stationed at Gibraltar since 1785. By 5 June 1789 he had dramatically enhanced his rank and opportunity by transferring as a lieutenant to the New South Wales Corps, then being enlisted for duty at Botany Bay.

At Bridgerule in October 1788 Macarthur had married Elizabeth, née Veale, whose family of sturdy Cornish stock regarded her obviously ambitious but withdrawn suitor as 'too proud and haughty for our humble fortune'. When the New South Wales Corps sailed with the Second Fleet Macarthur was accompanied in the Neptune by Elizabeth and their first child Edward. After a quarrel that ended in a duel with the first master of the ship and another disagreement with his successor, Macarthur transferred his family to the Scarborough before the fleet reached the Cape of Good Hope. There he contracted a critical illness which, though he made an unexpected recovery, was to leave recurring symptoms throughout his life.

The family arrived in Port Jackson on 28 June 1790, nourishing hopes of quick promotion and a subsequent return to England. Next year Macarthur was posted inland to the Rose Hill settlement for four months. Incorrigibly haughty he early trod a path strewn with minor hostilities which led to his withdrawal from all social intercourse at Government House after a reprimand from Governor Arthur Phillip. In 1792, under the benevolent aegis of his newly-arrived commanding officer, Major Francis Grose, Macarthur returned to Parramatta as regimental paymaster with an added salary more than double his lieutenant's pay. This appointment, when combined in 1793 with the unpaid appointment by Grose, now acting-governor, as inspector of public works, gave him extensive and crucial control of the colony's rudimentary resources. Orders for the corps's regimental slops were by this time being placed with his brother James in Plymouth, while in combination with his brother officers Macarthur had already begun tentative commercial speculation within the colony.

Grants of land and gifts of stock from Grose helped to establish Elizabeth Farm which Macarthur began at Parramatta in 1793 on a 100-acre (40 ha) grant of 'some of the best ground that has been discovered'. With unrestricted access to convict labour Macarthur became the first in the colony to clear and cultivate fifty acres (20 ha) of virgin land, and this earned him another 100-acre (40 ha) grant. From this commanding position he soon became one of the foremost landholders in the colony, selling produce to the government, which even by 1794 returned several hundred pounds. Grose also lent his influence to compose serious differences between Macarthur and Captain Nicholas Nepean, to divert the menace of a court martial, and to intercede for a captaincy to which Macarthur was promoted on 6 May 1795.

By contrast with the accommodating acquiescence of Grose and his successor, Captain William Paterson, tension grew between Macarthur and the new naval governor, John Hunter, particularly when Hunter tried to modify the structure of military autocracy with which Macarthur chose to identify himself prominently. Consequently in February 1796 Hunter accepted Macarthur's resignation as inspector of public works 'without reluctance'. Further administrative disturbances, as well as bitter feuds with Richard Atkins and William Balmain, convinced Hunter of Macarthur's 'restless, ambitious and litigious disposition'. His official strictures on Macarthur ('scarcely anything short of the full power of the Governor wou'd be consider'd by this person as sufficient for conducting the dutys of his office') intensified when Macarthur, over his head, sent serious criticisms of Hunter's administration directly to the secretary of state and the military commander-in-chief. Despite the success of this campaign against Hunter, who was precipitately recalled, Macarthur at this time was strongly inclined to return to England himself. He proposed to the next governor, Philip Gidley King, that he negotiate purchase by the government of Macarthur's entire colonial property which he valued at £4000, but before this matter could be decided Macarthur had committed himself to an extensive and subtle campaign intended to dismay and discredit King. The situation became unexpectedly critical for Macarthur when he failed to manipulate his commanding officer, Paterson, in an involved attempt to alienate his allegiance from the governor. Macarthur, challenged by Paterson, wounded his superior in an irregularly conducted duel on 14 September 1801. Macarthur, now openly flouting the governor, was put under immediate arrest by King, who was goaded to the point of regretting that official responsibility prevented him seeking personal satisfaction from 'this perturbator'. King, in the conviction that Macarthur's trial in the colony would merely yield a victory to Macarthur's interest, took the unusual step of dispatching him to England for court martial, accompanied by the observation that 'Experience has convinced every man in this colony that there are no resources which art, cunning, impudence and a pair of basilisk eyes can afford that he does not put in practice to obtain any point he undertakes'.

Macarthur sailed from Sydney in the Hunter in November 1801 accompanied by two of his children on a voyage which proved so devious that they did not reach England until December 1802. At Amboina Macarthur befriended the young British Resident, son of Sir Walter Farquhar, physician in ordinary to the Prince of Wales. As a result of this propitious circumstance the father's considerable influence was to be exerted for many years in serious promotion of Macarthur's interests. In London the army's advocate-general reported that it was impossible to investigate Macarthur's case in England and recommended that he be remanded to New South Wales to join his regiment. Though official censure was scattered liberally over Macarthur as well as the administration at Botany Bay, it was made clear to King that the matter should be carried no further.

Before Macarthur left New South Wales some attention had already been directed to the colonial fleeces sent to Sir Joseph Banks by Governor King. These first examples of colonial potential had returned promising appraisal, and Macarthur carried with him to England some specimens of fleeces from his own flocks. It was incredibly propitious that Macarthur should return to England at the very time when war requirements, technical developments and the continental blockade were threatening a crisis in the British wool market. In July 1803 Macarthur was approached by two clothiers who, as deputies appointed to superintend the passing of a parliamentary bill relating to their trade, had seen samples of his wool which they declared to be 'of a very superior quality, equal to the best which comes from Spain'. From this meeting resulted the vision of the coincidence of interest of the British woollen market and the wool producers of New South Wales, stimulated in Macarthur's imagination by the inflated wool prices of the Napoleonic war period. Within a week Macarthur had composed for government a Statement of the Improvement and Progress of the Breed of Fine Woolled Sheep in New South Wales (London 1803) which was supported by a memorial from the clothing interest to the Privy Council Committee for Trade and Plantations on the same subject. Investing himself with a sudden monopoly of authority and interest in this industry, Macarthur energetically canvassed support for an optimistic scheme of colonial wool production, to be developed under his personal supervision, which he maintained could free the British market from dependence on Spain. Though Banks was cautious and became increasingly sceptical, Macarthur's influence was sufficient to secure permission through Lord Camden for his resignation from the army and for his return to New South Wales to develop its wool industry. Official approval for his scheme was emphasized in a unique grant of 5000 acres (2024 ha) of the best pasture land in the colony, to be increased by a further 5000 (2024 ha) if tangible results were forthcoming, and by Macarthur's possession of rare Spanish sheep from the Royal flocks.

When Macarthur returned to Sydney on 8 June 1805 in the felicitously named whaling ship Argo, he faced unusual opportunity. With his now formidable patronage it had been simple to arrange part-ownership of the ship and commence as merchant. Governor King, with the best grace he could muster, described and accepted his project of sheep breeding and employing ships in the whale fishery as 'laudable and beneficial, exclusive of his being able to export the Wool of his increasing Breed to England … and returning with Articles of use and Comfort to sell the Inhabitants. Nor ought I to doubt, from his Assurances, that every expected Benefit may be derived from his exertions'. Hannibal Macarthur accompanied his uncle to assist in these exertions. Also accompanying him as a hostage to fortune was Walter Davidson, the nephew of Sir Walter Farquhar, who carried permission for a grant of 2000 acres (809 ha), which were taken up alongside the Macarthur lands and eventually incorporated in them.

The governor, though deferring to Camden's instructions 'whether right or wrong', still demurred at granting Macarthur his 5000 acres (2024 ha) at the coveted Cowpastures, the best land in the colony. Nevertheless it was arranged that both Macarthur and Davidson should occupy their grants provisionally while King argued his case with the British government. Macarthur soon had the assistance of thirty-four convict labourers to work his 8500 acres (3440 ha), though in 1806 his highly suspect proposal to manage the herds of wild government cattle at the Cowpastures was deferred with relief by King for the consideration of his successor, Governor William Bligh.

Bligh, a protégé of Banks, had been commissioned by a new ministry to set the colony in order and was unimpressed by Macarthur's influence or his requirements. His will power if not his subtlety matched Macarthur's more equally than any previous governor's and with more dramatic results. Despite Bligh's terse rejection of Macarthur's requirements for his pastoral schemes and the undisguised personal hostility between the two, it was Macarthur's mercantile activities that provided a context for the events which ended in the rebellion that deposed Bligh. When Macarthur, resisting obligations incurred through his part-ownership of the schooner Parramatta, was committed for trial in January 1808 Bligh refused him the bail granted by an illegally constituted court. The commander of the New South Wales Corps, Major George Johnston, thereupon ordered Macarthur's release, deposed Bligh and assumed the government of the colony. The specially created post of colonial secretary was bestowed on Macarthur who 'virtually administered' the colony until Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Foveaux arrived in Sydney on 28 July and assumed command.

During this period of 'contending for the liberties of this unhappy Colony' the 'hero of the fleece' found his political energies too strong for his pastoral inclinations. Only his mercantile hopes persisted undiminished. In various partnerships, particularly with Hullett & Co. who supplied the ships, Macarthur dabbled in various Pacific enterprises including the whale and seal fisheries, and the sandalwood and pork trades. By 1808, with the aid of Davidson who later moved to Macao, the Macarthur trading interests were proposing with dubious legality to complete an ambitious Sydney, Canton, Calcutta cycle.

In 1809 Foveaux's successor as acting governor, Lieutenant-Colonel Paterson, authorized Macarthur to leave the colony along with other rebels intended to support Johnston in presenting his defence in England. Macarthur sailed on 29 March in the Admiral Gambier, after fruitlessly offering his lands and stock for public sale. He left the ship at Rio in order to supervise the sale of a sandalwood cargo and reached Bristol on 9 October 1810. In the course of acting as agent for partnership concerns being juggled by Garnham Blaxcell in Sydney, Macarthur found that commercially 'the times are frightfully hazardous … and almost universal distrust and alarm prevails'. By November 1812 he revealed to Elizabeth that his mercantile adventures had swallowed up all the money he could command and left him considerably in debt.

In these two years accounts had been settled for the Bligh rebellion. Though Johnston had been cashiered after his court martial, which Macarthur attended, at Chelsea between April and June 1811, legal opinion was that none of the civilians involved could be tried for treason in England. Governor Lachlan Macquarie received instructions from Lord Castlereagh that 'as Gov'r Bligh has represented that Mr McArthur has been the leading Promoter and Instigator of the mutinous Measures … you will, if Examinations be sworn against him … have him arrested thereupon and brought to Trial before the Criminal Court of the Settlement'. Macarthur's obvious course was to remain in England and exert every influence to have this obstacle removed. Because of the uncertainty of his position he was thrown into perplexity and doubt, toying with the idea of taking 'a small Farm of about a Hundred a Year' to help to balance his living expenses. At the same time he tried to resolve the problem of returning to New South Wales at personal risk and the alternative of withdrawing his family from 'plenty and affluence' in the colony to a life of 'pinching penury' in England. He became increasingly convinced that unless their colonial property would yield the £1600 a year necessary to support the family and educate and establish his sons he would have to return. Though he left the final decision to Elizabeth, he advised her to speak of leaving the colony as a settled thing because 'I have for some time spoken in that way here, and I am persuaded it has been beneficial'.

In this impasse his interest in wool revived as its value became more established and as other market prices in the colony had begun a sharp decline, 'it is obvious enough that the only marketable commodity will be the Wool'. References to wool and exhortations to Elizabeth and Hannibal to organize their methods at Parramatta and Camden increased, especially when Macarthur learnt to his chagrin that his wool was bringing only 20d. a lb. when his old rival, Samuel Marsden had received 45d. a lb. Macarthur turned his own attention to the English wool market, analysing production and processing techniques, and in 1815-16 went to the Continent to investigate agriculture and the wine industry. Nevertheless in December 1814, depressed by accounts of colonial stagnation, he had returned to investment in trade, in the conviction that though wool was becoming yearly more valuable 'it will be but a scanty provision for us all unless we can do something in the Mercantile way'.

Though none of Macarthur's efforts in England served to clarify his position, the intention of returning to New South Wales had not been abandoned and was still the pivotal point of all his attempts 'to improve my fortune'. On the assumption that Macquarie was 'quite alive to the advancement of his own interest and Fortune', Macarthur wrote to Elizabeth in December 1814 and directed her to 'contrive to talk with Mrs Macquarie about our Sheep and take occasion to lament that the Flocks should remain Stationary. If this excite attention, you might cautiously hint at an arrangement that was on the point of being made with Governor King before he was relieved, which would have secured a splendid fortune for both our Families as he possessed the power to give me any quantity of Land and any number of Servants that might have been necessary. You might also say you have reason to believe that General Elliott, Lord Minto's Brother exerted all his interest to obtain the Gov'ship with a view to forward my plans'.

After protracted negotiations Macarthur received permission early in 1817 to return to New South Wales on condition that he should in no way associate in public affairs. With his sons William and James he reached Sydney in the transport Lord Eldon in September. Though he retired discreetly to Parramatta, he was soon out of humour with Governor Macquarie, who nonetheless had shown every consideration for his interests and many kindnesses to his household. Macquarie's refusal to grant more land in exchange for a monopolistic supply of pure-bred sheep and his rejection of the now traditional scheme for dealing with the wild cattle roused Macarthur to employ all his influence in London to destroy the governor's reputation in official circles and to precipitate his recall.

When Commissioner John Thomas Bigge arrived in 1819 to investigate the administration of New South Wales Macarthur manoeuvred to influence his outlook. As an official witness he informed Bigge that he sold all the pure-bred merino lambs he did not require himself and had recently averaged £14 a head from a sale of forty-eight rams, but at the end of 1818 he had sent Walter Davidson a most pessimistic account of his attempt to introduce the merino which 'still creeps on almost unheeded', observing that he sold less than ten rams a year. His flocks of over 6000 at this time included some 300 pure merinos. The result of his careful cultivation of Bigge was the official promotion by the commissioner of Macarthur's vision of New South Wales as an extensive wool-exporting country controlled by men of real capital, with 'estates of at least 10,000 acres (4047 ha) each' who would maintain transported convicts as their labour force and keep them landless and 'in proper subjection'. A colonial aristocracy would thus provide a necessary bulwark to the 'furious democrats' and their corroding influences.

Swiftly upon the official approval of the Bigge report came the sale of Camden fine wool in England for an unprecedented 124d. a lb., though one of Macarthur's sons 'could have desired that the general average had been higher'. In 1822 the Society of Arts in London presented Macarthur with two gold medals, one for importing 15,000 lbs. (6804 kg) of fine wool from New South Wales, the other for importing fine wool equal to the best Saxon; in 1824 a larger medal was awarded for importing the largest quantity of fine wool. Amidst these tokens of success Macarthur successfully pressed his claim, confirmed in 1822, to the supplementary 5000 acres (2024 ha) that he had been promised in 1804. They were also taken up in the Cowpastures. By the end of the decade Camden Park was 'the first agricultural establishment in the Colony', incorporating over 60,000 acres (24,281 ha) acquired by grant and purchase.

Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane, under whose command Macarthur's son Edward had served, was impressed by Macarthur and his talents, and found his opinion reinforced by 'friends' in England. Brisbane's favour revived disturbance in New South Wales in 1822 when he made known his intention to appoint Macarthur to the magistracy. This proposal produced such opposition, culminating in an official protest from Judge-Advocate John Wylde and Judge Barron Field, that Brisbane had to withdraw his offer, but the reverberations of Macarthur's injured dignity and wrath reached as far as London, producing the suggestion from Bathurst that the magistracy be offered to one of Macarthur's sons should either feel anxious to undertake the duties of this office. Both declined and Field was pursued by Macarthur's vituperation till he left the colony in 1824.

In 1824 a scheme Macarthur had cherished since 1804 for a chartered company to organize the production of Australian wool was steered to completion by his favourite son John. A statute (5 Geo. IV, c. 86) secured the incorporation by charter of the Australian Agricultural Co., with a capital of £1,000,000, to be established on a 1,000,000-acre (404,690 ha) grant at Port Stephens with harbour rights at Newcastle. This inspired arrangement, richly subscribed in London, met a hostile reception in New South Wales, where it was regarded as a naked contrivance of the Macarthurs for their own aggrandizement that 'must entail inevitable destruction of the industry of every loyal subject in the Colony', but the company prospered so well that soon Macarthur's colonial critics were waiting delightedly for him to appreciate that 'in proportion as the stock of the Company increases, just so are his stocks and herds deteriorating in value'. Four years after its establishment Macarthur suddenly and unconstitutionally asserted control in New South Wales and rumours of dislocation in the company's affairs soon resulted in its £100 shares being offered at £8.

His appointment in July 1825 as one of the three unofficial nominated members of the newly-created Legislative Council confirmed Macarthur as protagonist of the 'pure-merino' ultra-conservatives. Ironically, increasing outbursts of erratic temperament had already begun to destroy the remnants of his personal authority when, for the first time in his life, he was in a legitimate position to exercise it. His now automatic hostility towards governors was exposed early to Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling and was converted into an extended dispute with the governor on the composition of the council. Macarthur's official appearances became infrequent and he ceased even to maintain communication with Darling, who perceptively doubted Macarthur's 'soundness', observing 'He is now a wayward child and remains at home brooding', and adding philosophically, 'but I expect is not altogether idle'. Macarthur's propensity for involving himself in public disturbances was unimpaired, and an application for the impeachment of Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes followed a minor riot in which he was involved in 1828. His participation in any public venture, such as the Agricultural Society, the Bank of Australia and the Australian and Sydney colleges, was punctuated automatically by disagreements. He was nevertheless appointed to the reformed Legislative Council in 1829 and remained until 1832 when he was removed at the request of Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke on the ground that he had been 'pronounced a lunatic', there being 'little hope of his restoration'. Macarthur died on 11 April 1834 and was buried at Camden Park, survived by Elizabeth, three of his sons and three daughters, two of his children having predeceased him.

Macarthur's serene and puritanical domestic life always offered the most striking contrast to his public life. His home was a reliable retreat, where deference, affection and encouragement flowed to his need. It was to this protective source, the check and balance of his turbulent spirit, that he owed all the strength to defend the material interests secured by his patron, Lord Camden.

Cultivated and sensitive in his aspirations, Macarthur's domineering and magnetic personality exhibited an apparently impregnable sense of personal superiority, but his arrogance concealed an anxious insecurity that contributed to the pursuit of unscrupulous ends and eventually gained control of his tormented mind. His abundant talent and eager involvement too often became distorted under the pressure of a determined but wholly undisciplined will. One of the more sympathetic of his critics believed he knew 'no medium between friendship and enmity'; humourless and a stranger to self-criticism, Macarthur had no gift for personal relationships and few resources to spare for friendship. Any contention in which he was involved released an uncontrolled vindictiveness, paraded in his boast to Governor Darling that he had 'never yet failed in ruining a man who had become obnoxious to him'. Subtlety and frustrated political acumen made Macarthur a dangerous adversary or subordinate, and as a disintegrating element in the administration and society of New South Wales he had no equal. Without access to sources of influence in England his significance would have caused Darling less puzzlement when he doubted if Macarthur was 'really entitled to that deference, which I cannot help thinking has been too generally and without due consideration conceded to him'.

A brilliant publicist and organizer, Macarthur's great service was to focus and promote English interest in colonial potential, to inspire and communicate the enticing vision of a great commercial staple. But his vision was a personal one, the necessary vehicle for a restless ambition whose dynamic energy was as likely to overset as advance it. Ultimately it was to the persistence and loyalty of his wife and sons that Macarthur owed the greater part of that reputation derived from his practical achievements with Australian wool.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 1-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-17, series 3, vols 2-3, series 4, vol 1
  • S. Macarthur Onslow, Early Records of the Macarthurs of Camden (Syd 1914)
  • S. J. Butlin, Foundations of the Australian Monetary System, 1788-1851 (Melb, 1953)
  • M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (Syd, 1955) and for bibliography
  • H. B. Carter, His Majesty's Spanish Flock (Syd, 1964)
  • newspaper indexes under John Macarthur (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'Macarthur, John (1767–1834)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 29 May 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

John Macarthur (1767-1834), by unknown artist

John Macarthur (1767-1834), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, DG 222