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John Mackay (1839–1914)

by J. A. Nilsson

This article was published:

John Mackay (1839-1914), explorer, sailor and harbourmaster, was born on 26 March 1839 in Inverness, Scotland, son of George Mackay, farmer, and his wife Ann, née Munro. Educated at the Free Church Academy in Inverness, he went with his parents to Melbourne in the Australia in 1854 and next year to the New England district, New South Wales. His father took up Ness Farm, a sheep run between Armidale and Uralla. John lived there mostly but made one South Pacific voyage as purser.

In 1859 Mackay joined the gold rush on the Rocky River near Armidale. His claim was almost worked out next year when he was persuaded by pastoralist friends to lead an expedition in search of northern grazing land. His qualifications for the enterprise included some surveying for landowners and overlanding with his friend, Nat Buchanan. In his party were John Macrossin, who contributed largely to its finances; Hamilton Robinson, a grazier from Bendemere; Giovanni Barberi (John Barber), an Italian and former ship's carpenter; Duke, an Aboriginal, the only one to lose his life on the expedition; and J. Muldoon and D. Cameron, who left the expedition before it was completed. They left Armidale in January 1860 and travelling inland reached Rockhampton on 2 March. The exploration began after they left the settlement at Marlborough some sixty miles (97 km) north of Rockhampton on 22 March. Mackay led his party along the banks of the Isaacs River but tree markings and a deserted camp indicated they were following the track of G. E. Dalrymple, whose expedition had left Rockhampton before Mackay's arrival. The party retraced their steps for some distance and then turned east into terra incognita between the Burdekin and the watershed of the Isaacs River which Leichhardt had noted. Their discovery of this area on 16 May became known as the Mackay district.

Mackay's association with the district after its discovery was brief. His tender for a run was accepted by the Queensland government early in 1861. The proviso that runs be stocked within nine months led him into partnership with James Starr, a New England squatter. Unaware of his partner's financial difficulties, Mackay had stocked his lease, Greenmount, with 1200 cattle by January 1862 but Starr's insolvency forced him to sell out in 1863. With Dick Spencer, Mackay discovered a better pass through the Clarke Range than the one he had used earlier.

Mackay's labours won him little recognition. Since Governor Sir George Bowen had promised in 1864 that the government would remunerate him if his discovery ever became important, Mackay petitioned the Crown Lands Office in 1874 seeking recognition of his find. He also included his soundings and geographical sketch of the bar and mouth of the Pioneer River at Mackay and work he had done in 1860 in the cutter Presto chartered at his own expense. His petition resulted in the river being gazetted a port of entry, and two months later his sketch is said to have appeared in Buxton's Map of Queensland. In 1882 from Fiji Mackay petitioned for 'consideration as his discovery had proved highly beneficial to the colony'. On 30 October John Stevenson, member for Normanby, successfully moved an address to the governor praying him to grant Mackay a thousand agricultural acres (405 ha). However, the Executive Council threw the address back to the Legislative Assembly on the grounds that the governor had no power to act on a motion. Stevenson promptly proposed to amend the resolution by turning it into a bill for Mackay's land grant, but the premier insisted on postponing the bill and before it could be introduced a new and hostile ministry had been formed.

After leaving Greenmount Mackay had become interested in exploring New Guinea but it came to nothing. He gained his master's certificate in 1865 and for eighteen years commanded ships under various flags in the South Pacific. In 1883-89 he was harbourmaster at Cooktown and in 1892-1902 at Brisbane. He was chairman of the Queensland Marine Board in 1902 until appointed portmaster in 1912. He died at St Helen's Hospital, South Brisbane, on 11 March 1914. He was survived by his wife Marion, née McLennon, whom he had married at Cooktown in 1883, and by their two sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • H. L. Roth, The Discovery and Settlement of Port Mackay (Halifax, 1908)
  • G. C. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away (Brisb, 1963)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1882 (2)
  • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Queensland), 11 Apr 1914
  • Daily Mercury (Mackay, Queensland), 6 Apr 1962
  • John Mackay papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Hugo Strong papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. A. Nilsson, 'Mackay, John (1839–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 March, 1839
Inverness, Inverness-shire, Scotland


11 March, 1914 (aged 74)
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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