Lachlan Macquarie Father of Australia - Panoramic view of Port Jackson, ca. 1821, drawn by Major James Taylor.  Inset: Portrait of Lachlan Macquarie, 1822, by Richard Read snr.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the appointment of Lieutenant Colonel Lachlan Macquarie as Governor of New South Wales, a 12-year tenure in which he laid the foundations for modern Australia.
Bruce Stannard examines his extraordinary legacy.
Photos courtesy of State Library of NSW.


In December 1809, when Lieutenant Colonel Lachlan Macquarie arrived in Sydney at the head of his regiment, the 73rd Highlanders, he found the British penal colony in a state approaching anarchy.
Major George Johnston, head of the notorious Rum Corps, had deposed the Governor, the infamous Captain William Bligh, and Bligh had fled into exile leaving the infant colony awash in an oceanic tide of Bengal rum.
In the 22 years since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, the settlement at Sydney Cove had become the dumping ground for English and Irish petty criminals. The pristine shores of the world’s most beautiful natural harbour had been transformed into an iniquitous prison camp, a squalid shantytown, where rot-gut rum was a currency and a corrupt and blighted administration turned a blind eye to drunken debauchery and horrifying brutality.
Government House, Sydney 1805, artist unknown, watercolour.It is difficult to conceive of a more daunting beginning for any administrator and yet, in the 12 years of his tenure, the longest of any Australian Governor, Macquarie transformed the place from “a colony barely emerging from infantile imbecility” into a thriving British settlement where, by his own reckoning, “private comfort and public prosperity” went hand in hand. He certainly deserves the appellation, Father of Australia.
Macquarie was born into an impoverished family on the Inner Hebridean island of Ulva on January 31, 1761. He joined the British army at the age of 15 and served with distinction in Canada, America, Jamaica and India. He rose steadily through the ranks and by 1803 was appointed Adjutant-General of the London District.
At home in Scotland, Macquarie met and greatly admired an amiable and accomplished kinswoman, Elizabeth Campbell of Airds, whom he was in due course to marry. She agreed to wait for him while he again returned to India for a second, albeit brief, tour of duty.
On his return to London he was given command of a new regiment, the 73rd Highlanders and in 1809 he successfully lobbied the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, for appointment as Governor of New South Wales, a post in which he was expected to clean up the chaos left in the wake of the Rum Corps’ 1808 rebellion against Captain Bligh. With his wife and his regiment, Macquarie sailed for Sydney in May 1809.
They arrived on December 28 and at noon on New Year’s Day, 1810, Macquarie was sworn in as Governor by Judge Advocate Ellis Bent. In a speech of “peculiar energy” Macquarie assured the assembled citizens that he would exercise his authority with strict justice and impartiality.
Panoramic view of Port Jackson, ca. 1821, drawn by Major James Taylor.He immediately cancelled all the civilian and administrative appointments and revoked all the pardons, leases and land grants made in Sydney between January 26, 1808, the day of the Rum Rebellion and his own arrival. He reinstated all dismissed officers and set about converting a wretched prison into a thriving, law-abiding colony.
For the next 12 years Macquarie ruled New South Wales and its dependencies in much the same absolute, paternalistic spirit as some of his ancestors had ruled their Highland clans.
He ordered public houses to be shut on the Sabbath and insisted on mandatory church parades for convicts. The number of licensed houses was sharply cut and a stiff duty was imposed on imported spirits in the hope of pricing drunkenness out of existence. That was one measure which, of course, failed.
Macquarie made it clear from the outset that he rejected the idea that convict labour was a pool from which officers and a few favoured settlers could enrich themselves. So far as he was concerned, convicts were there not so much to be punished as to be rehabilitated and emancipated through honest toil. His basic policy was that, subject to good behaviour, convicts who had served their terms or had been pardoned, were entitled to be restored to the position in society that they had originally occupied.
One of Governor Macquarie’s early tasks was to put an end to the sexual exploitation meted out to the female convicts. From the moment the convict transports sailed from London, the women were “the victims of the basest seduction” as the seamen began to pair off with their human cargo.
John Nicol, a Scottish steward aboard the convict transport Lady Juliana, wrote that “every man on board was allowed to have one woman to cohabit with him during the voyage.”
In The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes tells us that “when a ship bearing women anchored in Sydney Cove, its upper deck became a slave market, as randy colonists came swarming over the bulwarks, grinning and ogling and chumming up to the captain with a bottle of rum, while the female convicts, washed for the occasion and dressed in the remnants of the English finery, were mustered before them, trying as hard as they could to set themselves off to the best advantage.”
Panoramic view of Port Jackson, ca. 1821, drawn by Major James Taylor.Military officers were given first choice, then non-commissioned officers, then privates and lastly such ex-convict settlers as seemed ‘respectable’ enough to obtain the Governor’s permission to keep a female servant.
Some witnesses found this spectacle morally barbarous, “rendering the whole Colony little better than an extensive Brothel.” Successive Governors were slow to discourage it because it took the women “off the store” so that they did not have to be fed and supported at government expense.
South Head Light House, New S.Wales,  c. 1820s, artist unknown.Macquarie put a stop to it by direct personal intervention. Whenever a convict transport arrived in Sydney, he was always there to meet the disembarking prisoners and deliver a fatherly speech in which he told them what a fine, fruitful country they had come to and what he would do for them, if their conduct merited it.
Macquarie built himself a handsome Georgian house and stables on elevated ground overlooking the vast expanse of Sydney Harbour, but neither Macquarie nor his wife were content to simply repose in vice regal splendour.
From the outset Macquarie realised that exploration and expansion were vital to the future of the colony and he and Elizabeth often travelled together upcountry, examining new territories opened up by explorers like John Oxley. In the process, the visionary Macquarie founded Liverpool and the five Hawkesbury River towns of Richmond, Windsor, Wilberforce, Castlereagh and Pitt Town. Subsequent tours took him to Bathurst and Port Macquarie (both of which he founded) as well as Newcastle and Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania).
Female Orphan School, Joseph Lycett, aquatint, from Views in Australia or New South Wales & Van Diemen’s land, London: J. Souter, 1824.
Francis Greenway, c.1814-37, artist unknown, pencil.True to his Scottish roots, Macquarie regarded education as a means of overcoming poverty and social disadvantage. One of his first acts on arrival in Sydney was to establish a public charity school and additional schools followed. He showed justice and humanity in trying to ameliorate the condition of the Indigenous inhabitants. He set up a ‘Native Institution’ to educate Aboriginal children and set aside land where Aboriginal people were meant to settle and learn about European farming.
Improving the manners and morals of the colony was a priority for Macquarie. He built churches in the principal towns and under his administration the Church of England became a kind of moral policeman, preaching unquestioning obedience to the secular power of the State.
When Macquarie arrived in Sydney he found the few public buildings in “a state of dilapidation and mouldering to decay”. Within months he had given orders for a new army barracks to be built. It was the beginning of a vigorous and far-sighted public works programme that would give the colony 265 new buildings and a network of roads and bridges.
Macquarie was fortunate in having the services of a highly talented professional architect in Francis Greenway, a convict who had been sentenced to transportation for 14 years for forging bank notes. Many of Greenway’s elegant Georgian designs still stand in Sydney including Parliament House, the splendid Hyde Park Barracks and St James Church and perhaps his masterpiece, St Mathews at Windsor.
An elegant stone-built lighthouse on Sydney’s South Head, the first in Australia, was completed to Greenway’s design in 1818. Although the original had to be demolished, the exact replica we see today was built to replace it and for a time the two stood side by side. Macquarie’s public works were a visible sign of the colony’s growing prosperity. They transformed the architecture of New South Wales and earned Francis Greenway a pardon, but their expense and magnitude eventually attracted censure from the British Government. Such was the pressure that in 1819 London sent a commissioner of inquiry, John Thomas Bigge, to look into Macquarie’s administration.
Bigge’s highly critical three volume report was a tirade against Macquarie’s extravagance. By early 1820, Macquarie, had become seriously ill, and was “heartily tired” of the situation. He tendered his resignation and on February 15, 1822 he sailed for England aboard the Surry. His return was marred by the publication of Bigge’s reports which Macquarie described as “false, malicious and vindictive”.
He spent the rest of his life attempting to restore his reputation. The British Government added insult to injury by refusing to grant him his pension entitlements. Meanwhile his own health was failing and he retired to his estate on Mull.
In 1824 Macquarie returned to London where he learned the Government had finally relented on his pension. After nearly 40 years in the service of the Crown, he was granted a paltry £1,000 a year. It was too little, too late. On July 1, just five weeks after it was granted, Macquarie died alone in his London lodgings.

An exhibition celebrating the Macquarie bicentenary will be held at the NSW State Library from July 5 to October 10.