JOHN MACARTHUR THE GREAT PRETENDER

‘What is the most arresting thing in all these recordings is the way in which they perceive Aboriginal Australians on not exactly equal terms, but on terms of people who have a right to the occupancy of this land’. Dr Nicholas Brown, The Australian National University and National Museum of Australia, on inclusion of some ‘First Fleet’ Journals onto UNESCO’s World Heritage List. ABC AM Programme, 15 October 2009

1790 – June, Sydney: What went so wrong? Lieutenant John Macarthur the teetotaller who was to put rum into the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps arrived in Sydney with a second fleet in June 1790.

‘Macarthur’s haughty quarrelsome nature which manifested itself on the voyage was to provoke much more conflict after his arrival in New South Wales in June 1790’. Michael Flynn, The Second Fleet, Britain’s Grim Armada of 1790, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1993

‘Four companies of Marines landed with the first Europeans [1788] to settle in Australia. Twenty-five regiments of British infantry served in the colonies between 1790 and 1870.

They fought in one of the most prolonged frontier wars in the history of the British empire, and for the first half of their stay were probably more frequently in action than the garrison of any other colony besides that of southern Africa’. Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, The British Army In Australia 1788 to 1870, Kangaroo Press, 1986

Lieutenant Macarthur was part of the first contingent of ‘British infantry’ raised specifically to replace; ‘four companies of Marines’ who left England in May 1787 on the ‘First Fleet’ = disembarked at Sydney Cove in January 1788 – and in June 1790 were overdue for repatriation.

Major Francis Grose Commander of the New South Wales Corps did not accompany his men. Grose remained in London to recruit sufficient numbers to satisfy establishment requirements sourcing many; ‘derelicts and delinquents’ from the Savoy military prison.

Lieutenant Macarthur ruthless, driven by over-arching personal ambition, moved swiftly to fill the power vacuum.

THE BACK STORY

‘From 1788 there had been continuous disputation between the civil power represented by the autocratic uniformed naval governors, and the military’. John McMahon, Not a Rum Rebellion but a Military Insurrection, Journal of Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 92, 2006

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip RN, first of four (4) ‘autocratic uniformed naval governors’, landed at Sydney Cove in January 1788, raised the Union Jack and, ‘without consent’ of its First Peoples, claimed British sovereignty over New Holland, now Australia.

‘Continuous disputation‘ was played out initially between Governor Phillip and Marine Major Robert Ross commander of the Sydney Garrison. Ross’ men numbered two hundred and forty-five (245) marines, officers and men of the military arm of England’s navy.

‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross. Of all Phillip’s problems, including those of the terrible famine of 1789 and 1790, probably none was so harassing as the persistent antagonism, both covert and open, which Ross pursed against him’. John Moore, The First Marines 1786-1792, Queensland University Press, 1987

1790 – March, Norfolk Island: Governor Phillip got rid of Major Ross in March 1790 by transferring him to Norfolk Island as Lieutenant-Governor. See: Missing in Action – HMS Sirius and HMS Supply

June 1790

1790 – January, Sydney: ‘We had now been two years in the country, and thirty-two months from England…no supplies…entirely cut off since the 13th of May 1787…the day of our departure from Portsmouth’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961  

England abandoned the ‘First Fleet’ Robinson Cruscos leaving them to starve 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from their homeland; ‘the misery and horror of such a situation cannot be imparted, even by those who have suffered under it’. Tench. op. cit.

1790 – June, Sydney: ‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross’. This statement held true until Lieutenant Macarthur disembarked in June 1790 from Scarborough one (1) of the second fleet’s three (3) death ships.

Macarthur, embolden by the absence of his commanding officer, was quick to pick-up on existing ‘antagonism’ and make it his own. Governor Phillip, known for his insight, could not have failed to recognise in John Macarthur a ruthless enemy not only to himself but to King and Empire.

‘New Holland is a good blind, then…stationing a large body of troops in New South Wales…when we want to add to military strength of India’. Historical Records of New South Wales. Anon.

The stakes were high for, in 1793 within five (5) years of invading New Holland, England and France were at war. There can be no doubt Britain’s pre-emptive positioning of a military presence and naval base in the southern oceans figured prominently in Prime Minister William Pitt’s plans.

If Phillip failed to hold the line against Macarthur and his cronies Britain’s chances of retaining the strategic advantage of ‘stationing a large body of troops in New South Wales’ would be lost.

‘Phillip was authorised to see to the defence of the colony’. Professor Bruce Kercher, An Unruly Child, A History of Australian Law in Australia, Allen and Unwin, 1995

That authorisation applied when ever, from where ever and from whom ever such threat arose.

‘Military and police raids against dissenting Aboriginal groups lasted from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries…These raids had commenced by December 1790’. Kercher. ibid.

In 1790 the threat to Governor Phillip came from within military ranks and not from the Bidjigal people of Botany Bay, ravished by smallpox the previous year (1789). See: A Lethal Weapon – Smallpox: Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

Animosity, well documented, surfaced quickly between Phillip’s ‘people’ of 1788 and the new comers of 1790. Phillip perceived danger in widespread unrest and, given the circumstances, not unreasonable unrest.

1790 – June: The weekly ration ‘without distinction…to every grown person’ – convict and soldier – ‘and to every child of more than eighteen months old…two pounds of pork, two pounds and a half of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease, per week’. Tench. ibid.

When the second fleet brought another one thousand (1000) hungry mouths; ‘the public stores contained salt meat until…2d July; flour…20 August; rice, or pease in lieu…until 1st of October. Marine Captain David Collins, First Fleet Journal 

1790 – July, Sydney:: Despite the arrival in July 1790 of Justinian, a store-ship with the first supplies from England, food was  very scarce. John Macarthur’s boundless ambition, linked to hunger, anger and fear, created a perfect storm.

Governor Phillip wily experienced, a proven strategist, intent on saving the Sydney settlement from insurrection and anarchy, moved to assert his authority. See: Death of a Sure Thing – John M’Entire

EPILOGUE

1790 – September, Manly Beach: A trigger presented itself in September 1790 when a ‘monster’ whale stranded on Manly Beach.

‘A native with a spear in his hand …aimed his lance with such force and dexterity striking the governor’s right shoulder, just above the collar bone’. Tench. ibid. See: Manly – Location, Location, Location

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