|John Macarthur was probably born on 18 August 1766 and was baptized on 3 September 1767 at Stoke Damerel, near Plymouth, Devon, one of three known children of the expatriate Scot Alexander Macarthur (1720?-1790), mercer and draper, and his wife, Katherine (d. 1777). Another son believed him self-educated, 'having been cast upon the world at 14 years old', though in December 1782 John Macarthur became an ensign in a minor defence body (Fish's corps). The corps was disbanded in April 1783 and he remained on half-pay until April 1788, when he exchanged into the 68th (Durham) regiment of foot. At Bridgerule, Devon, on 6 October 1788 he married Elizabeth Veale, the stepdaughter of a local farmer. Macarthur joined the New South Wales Corps in June 1789, and the following June he arrived at Botany Bay with Elizabeth and their son, Edward Macarthur.
Like other officers, Lieutenant Macarthur readily engaged in trafficking, and while regimental paymaster from 1792 he ordered military slops from his brother at Plymouth. He was one of the first to cultivate land (Elizabeth Farm) at Parramatta, where he was inspector of public works from 1793. In 1795 he was promoted captain. A leading landholder by 1800--when he contemplated a return to England--he estimated his worth at #4000. This enviable progress had been punctuated by jarring feuds, carried on particularly, but not exclusively, with every governor since Arthur Phillip. Governor Hunter complained of Macarthur's 'restless, ambitious and litigious disposition' and, following a duel with his commanding officer in 1801, the 'Perturbator' was ordered to England for court martial by Governor King, who trenchantly condemned his 'art, cunning, impudence and ... baselisk eyes'. During the voyage Macarthur befriended the son of the royal physician Sir Walter Farquhar, who generously supported Macarthur's interest after he reached London. When it was eventually decided that his offence required to be tried in New South Wales, Macarthur prudently resigned his commission, in 1804.
In the search for exportable colonial resources, specimens of wool from Spanish merino sheep brought to Sydney in 1797 had been sent to Sir Joseph Banks for appraisal. Macarthur owned several of these sheep and had taken similar samples to London. The favourable reaction of some English cloth manufacturers, concerned about wartime supplies, stimulated Macarthur into presenting a 'scheme' for the production of fine wool in New South Wales. His memorandum reached the committee for trade and plantations and was considered by Lord Camden. In 1805 Macarthur returned to Sydney with merinos from the royal flock and authority to select 5000 acres (which he named Camden Park) to aid his development of fine wool. He also returned with partnership interests in trade and in the Pacific fisheries.
Very shortly Macarthur ran foul of Governor and fellow Plymothian William Bligh and, in particular, his efforts to control the colony's notorious rum trade. Macarthur's importation of spirit stills and his flouting of certain obligations as a shipowner brought him to trial in January 1808. When Bligh refused Macarthur bail, Major George Johnston of the New South Wales Corps ordered his release and deposed the governor. Macarthur then arbitrarily administered the colony as 'colonial secretary' until July. He sailed for England in March 1809, and attended Johnston's court martial in 1811. Despite a 'deep-rooted prejudice' against him at the Colonial Office. Macarthur, as a civilian, escaped trial for treason, but was advised that he would be liable to arrest in New South Wales as the 'leading Promoter and Instigator' of the rebellion.
Stranded and hoping to do something in the mercantile way, Macarthur found the times 'frightfully hazardous'. Rising wool prices revived him, and his wife and nephew were instructed to transform the wool from his flocks into a commercial commodity. Although he occupied himself in investigating wool processing and marketing, he fretted over a cramped exile (shared with his younger sons, James and William), in which 'Our only beverage is water and our most sumptuous fare a mutton chop and a potato'. As a result of the persistent diplomacy of his son John, he was allowed to return to New South Wales in 1817 on condition that he avoid public affairs. He was thus conveniently reinstated in time delicately to court and impress Commissioner Bigge, whose crucial recommendation for the future direction of the colony ultimately coincided with Macarthur's: it endorsed a wool-based pastoralism of large estates, serviced by convict labourers, that would create a resource for British industry while reducing government penal expenditure.
Privately, Macarthur was aware that his own promotion of fine wool 'still creeps on almost unheeded'. However, some of his wool brought high prices in London in 1821, and he acquired medals from the Society of Arts in 1822 and 1824 for its quantity and quality. In 1824 the richly subscribed and chartered Australian Agricultural Company was launched--a cherished objective shepherded to completion by his son John in London. But in New South Wales, Macarthur remained deeply unpopular and was often baited in the local press. His nomination in December 1825 to the legislative council brought serious public protest. Yet he continued to fuel controversy, agitating against the chief justice, Francis Forbes, and showing hostility towards Governor Darling. In 1828 he seized local control of the Australian Agricultural Company and caused its shares to collapse. His mental instability accelerated and he was declared insane in 1832. He died on 11 April 1834, survived by his wife, three sons and three daughters, and was buried at his Camden Park estate. Complex, tortured, and ruthless, Macarthur achieved his essential ambition to be a landed esquire. His insistence on the potential of a colonial wool staple--a vision neither unique nor original--was secondary to that ambition but a testimony to his abilities and to his skill as a publicist.
by Margaret Steven
Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article | Significant Individuals
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