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IA Book Club: Lachlan Macquarie's dismissal

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Grace Karskens of the Sydney Morning Herald described The First Dismissal by Luke Slattery as 'a fierce little book'

The subtitle of the book is: 'How Governor Macquarie invented an idea of Australia, a convict built it and Britain tried to tear it down'.  Let that description swirl around in your thinking and understanding of early colonial New South Wales.

Lachlan Macquarie took over from Governor William Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty and the Rum Rebellion notoriety, deserved or not) from the start of 1810 when Sydney had around 10,000 inhabitants. He finally relinquished his role in 1821 when it had a population of over 24,000.

Prior to the sailing of the First invasion Fleet, discussions between Arthur Phillip and Lord Sydney had made it clear that the colony to be established at Botany Bay was not to be based on slavery.

Macquarie, early in his stewardship, recognised that to bring order to the harbourside colony he would need to employ the talents of those sent to Sydney into exile. He granted them ticket-of-leave status (thus able to work for themselves, earn money etc after certain hours of work had been performed as a part of their sentence), gave remissions of sentences and welcomed them as emancipists once sentence terms had been served.

That excited the prejudices of those who saw their own privileged hierarchical status in the military or otherwise. They believed they were superior to all who’d been sent to Australia. We know this disgruntled group with its variously shared sense of grievance against Macquarie: including John Macarthur, Samuel Marsden, Jeffrey Bent, Captain Edward Sanderson.

Among the emancipists were luminaries such as the surgeon Dr William Redfern, the merchant Simeon Lord, the educator Lawrence Halloran (his school morphed into Sydney Grammar) and the architect Francis Greenway. Among my ancestors was a former partner of Simeon Lord, Henry Kable, who, along with his wife Susannah, lies buried in the churchyard behind the beautiful church of St Matthews in Windsor. 

At a family reunion dinner just four years ago in Windsor, kinsman Scott Kable drew our attention to the matter of land grants, relatively generous earlier on to those who had served their time as convicts during the Macquarie era. But from 1821 onwards the time of Governor Thomas Brisbane, and especially during the era of the ugly Governor Ralph Darling virtually no grants at all were given to the emancipists and their free-born children.

Vast acreages were awarded to "the exclusives" and those of the allied squattocracy class coming from the UK to make their fortunes or as shareholders in companies.

It's a fierce little book indeed.

Slattery points to the highborn status of Lachlan Macquarie and his military leadership background as well as the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment which clearly shaped his beliefs not only in the redeemable nature of the convicted class but also in the vision he held for the future. He and his wife Elizabeth saw a great town arising and sought to make plain that vision in beautiful civic structures: churches, lighthouses, a hospital, stables, a barracks, dedicated parklands, townships, roads and bridges.

There is much commentary on Sydney from visitors such as Charles Darwin and from the French visitor Jacques Arago, both of whom were surprisingly amazed at the beauty of this outpost and its development.

Enter John Thomas Bigge, answering the call and complaints to Henry Bathurst and Lord Liverpool back in London from the Exclusives, to the colony in 1819, to conduct an audit.

As Bigge saw it: 

‘The convict class should function as permanent chattels for the use of propertied settlers, particularly wool graziers: as an army of land clearers and rural labourers.’

And:

'He was unequivocal in his condemnation of Macquarie’s emancipist policies.’ 

Slattery finishes up his book: 

The lines of historical continuity are imprecise but nevertheless discernible in Australia’s political and ideological landscape today.

 

Macquarie’s social ambition, his abiding concern for the poor and disadvantaged, his faith in the lower class’s innate capacity for improvement, his belief in government as a moral agent and public welfare as an ethical imperative, his faith in the fair go; all have their institutional home in contemporary party politics.

 

And so do the values that informed Lord Liverpool and Bigge’s assault on Macquarie: small government with a focus on the protection and promotion of established wealth, an aversion to public expenditure to ameliorate social ills, and an absence of sympathy. 

 

Macquarie’s legacy lives on in Australian politics. So, too, does Bigge’s.

Thank you, Luke Slattery.

The First Dismissal is available from Booktopia for $13.75 (paperback) RRP.

Jim Kable is a retired teacher who taught in rural and metropolitan NSW, in Europe and later, long-term in Japan. He is also a member of the steering committee of political party The New Liberals.

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