The Scottish Father of Australia

Lachlan Macquarie attributed to John Opie (176...
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The father of Australia was a Scot, it’s sometimes claimed. Lachlan Macquarie was Governor of New South Wales from 1810 until 1821, and he is considered by many historians to be the leading influence in the transformation of New South Wales from a penal colony into a free settlement. Born on the Island of Ulva in 1761, just off the west coast of Mull, Macquarie would become one of the most important characters of colonial Australia.

Many of us will know of his life and achievements, or at least his name, but something I think we need to consider is how his very Scottishness shaped the way in which he approached governance of the new colony. Born into an impoverished Gaelic-speaking family, and having inherited a strong sense of kinship and social duty, Macquarie was also a child of the Scottish Enlightenment, a man who optimistically saw benevolence and civility as a central part of human nature, and who believed that men were essentially moral and social beings.

With a solid education from Edinburgh, Macquarie was well equipped to challenge to the dominant English philosophy that had shaped the new colonies. Throughout his career as Governor, his policies reflected the ideas of the great Scottish philosophers — but we cannot know whether he ever read the works of Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson or William Alexander. In any case, he cannot have escaped their influence during his youthful years at school in Edinburgh or in the army, where he spent a number of years in North America, India, Egypt and Jamaica.

After being appointed Governor of New South Wales in 1810, Macquarie consistently pursued the improvement of the settlement, often making proposals for public works which went beyond the needs and resources of the Australian colony. He became frustrated when funds were lacking, or the colonial office rejected his requests as extravagances in a convict world.

His wife, Elizabeth, advised her ambitious husband on matters as diverse as Aboriginal welfare, gardening, public works, and women convicts, and showed all the Enlightenment ideals in doing so. She had a role when Macquarie wanted Australia to be the ideal society of the Scottish Enlightenment, and angered the British authorities — who only saw the colony as a cheap dumping ground for convicts — when he designed Sydney’s streets and buildings with the extravagance of a classic Georgian city.

Macquarie placed much importance on morality and civility — something that he felt the penal colony tended to lack. He insisted that convicts be treated fairly, and that when they were free they were seen as social equals. He scandalised the colony when he appointed an emancipated convict, Andrew Thompson, as a magistrate. Sadly, though he was quick to recognise and respect Indigenous leaders, Macquarie’s attitude towards the First Australians was at best ambiguous — at his worst, Macquarie ordered the massacre of Indigenous men, women, and children near Sydney as a means of instilling a sense of fear and terror.

In the end, Macquarie’s visions for Australia upset many of the more conservative colonists — in fact, all Governors after him were only given limited control over colonial affairs. After being forced to resign by the English judge, John Bigge, Macquarie returned to his home in Scotland. He died in London, defending himself against Bigge’s charges. However, after his death Macquarie’s legacy grew, and to this day many Australians see him as the founder of their nation, a man who tried to change a remote convict dumping ground into the ideal society of the Scottish Enlightenment.

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