John Dunmore Lang – An Enigmatic Pioneer

John Dunmore Lang, Australian politician and c...
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As readers would have by now observed, Scots formed a large proportion of the most influential people in the early years of British settlement in Australia. There is one very important Scot, though, that we haven’t discussed so far – the Rev. Dr. John Dunmore Lang. This enigmatic and volatile preacher was one of colonial Australia’s most vocal opinion-makers, influencing politics, the church, migration and education in the colony.

Born on 25 August 1799 at Greenock, Scotland, John Dunmore Lang was a Presbyterian clergyman, politician, educationist, immigration organiser, historian, anthropologist, journalist, gaol-bird and, in his wife’s words engraved on his statue in Sydney, ‘Patriot and Statesman’. As some observers have commented, Lang had a finger in most pies in colonial New South Wales.

Lang grew up in nearby Largs, and attended the University of Glasgow, where he graduated in 1820. His brother, George, had found employment in New South Wales and Lang followed him to the Antipodes. Having been ordained by the Presbytery of Irvine in September 1822, Lang arrived in Sydney Cove in May 1823. The Scottish community of New South Wales welcomed him as their Presbyterian minister.

His first achievement was to establish the Scots Church in Sydney, and later his own secondary school, the Australian College. As a politician, his republican and democrat sympathies grew during 25 years in the Legislative Council. Alongside this, he ran three newspapers, and travelled the globe eight times. One of his many missions was to recruit clerics, along with respectable tradesmen and small farmers from the British Isles – anywhere but ‘Papist’ Ireland.

He would often write a book or two during these voyages, in which he would frequently encourage the creation of a ‘Scottish’ colony in Australia and lament the migration of thousands of Irish Catholics to Australia. Indeed, Lang used to dread that the colony would be become a ‘receptacle for the very worst portion of the population of all of Europe.’ To counter the ‘rise of Rome’ in Australia, Lang drew up a plans to form emigration societies – ‘one for agitation in London for New South Wales, and the other for agitation in Scotland for the south-western district of Port Phillip.’

An explosive and sometimes unforgiving character, Lang loved to debate and fight, especially with fellow clergymen. By the time of his last years, he had been locked out of the very church he had built. But the trouble didn’t stop there. Lang’s financial dealings have been described as ‘labyrinthine and shady’. They landed him in gaol on more than one occasion – as did his enthusiasm for attacking his critics. Yet he was a hero to the working class and an early critic of the treatment of Aboriginal Australians.

As his biographer Don Baker wrote, in colonial Australia Lang was ‘almost as large a figure as he claimed to be.’ Whilst he was hugely influential and did many a good deed, his shortcomings were just as numerous, and so he will forever be one of colonial Australia’s most enigmatic and paradoxical Scots.

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