Macquarie by Grantlee Kieza

‘Fellow citizens of Australia.’

Before I picked up this biography, I knew little about Lachlan Macquarie’s life before he became governor of New South Wales in 1810.  Macquarie was governor from 1810 until 1821, and played a leading role in the social, economic and architectural development of the colony.  But there’s a dark side to that legacy as well.

First, some biographic details. Lachlan Macquarie (1762-1824) was born on 31 January 1762 on the island of Ulva in the parish of Kilninian in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland.  He died on 1 July 1824 in London, England.

The first half of the book covers Macquarie’s early life: a poor Scottish farm boy who joined the British army to make his fortune. He saw service in North America, India and Egypt, was married (in 1793) and widowed (in 1796).  Macquarie remarried in 1807.  Following his appointment at governor, he and wife Elizabeth set sail for New South Wales on 22 May 1809, arrived in Port Jackson on 28 December 1809 and was sworn in as governor on New Year’s Day 1810.

Here I enter more familiar territory: Macquarie the autocratic governor, the builder, the administrator.  Macquarie (whose name, and that of his wife Elizabeth) appears as place names across New South Wales and Tasmania.  This is the Governor Macquarie I was taught about in the third quarter of the last century: benevolent, visionary, and a champion of emancipated convicts.

But I didn’t appreciate the impact of this nation-building on the Aboriginal people, many of whom were killed in conflict.  I also didn’t know about some of his more questionable actions (such as adding relatives to the army lists).

A flawed hero.  A man who laid a solid foundation for Australia’s move from penal country to nation but at the same time continued the dispossession of the country’s original inhabitants.

I’m glad I read this book, which draws on details from Macquarie’s journals. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Australia’s journey from colony to nation.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Note: I read this book in 2019, so am not adding it to my 2020 reading challenges.


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