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Image credit: Governor Macquarie 1819, by R Read Junior. Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie: Nation builder

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6 min read
In 1810, a humble Scottish soldier by the name of Lachlan Macquarie ended a rebellion and became the fifth Governor of New South Wales in Australia – a role he held for more than a decade. In this article, volunteer researcher, Michele Harper considers Governor Macquarie's reputation as a nation builder and details his achievements, including the eradication of corruption, the implementation of societal improvement policies and the advocacy for emancipists.
Service and travel

Macquarie was born on 31 January 1761 on the small island of Ulva in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.  At the time, Ulva had around 600 inhabitants and most families lived in poverty. Macquarie’s family was no different. 

At the age of 15, Macquarie joined the British Army and, from this time, he served in North America, Europe, the West Indies and India.  In 1788, he arrived in Bombay (then known as Mumbai) with the 77th Regiment. Four years later, and after several promotions, Macquarie married his first wife, Jane Jarvis. Sadly, Jane died in 1796 at the age of 24.

In 1803, Macquarie left India to take possession of land he had purchased on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. He named the estate Jarvisfield, in honour of his late wife, before returning to India for a further two years of service. In 1807, Macquarie returned to Britain and married Elizabeth Campbell. Within a year, their daughter – Jane Jarvis, named after Macquarie’s first wife – was born. 

Rebellion and morality

In 1809, Macquarie was selected as the fifth Governor of New South Wales and set sail to Sydney with his wife and the 73rd Regiment. Macquarie had actively lobbied for the role in London and, as part of his appointment, he was required to carry out confidential orders in the colony. These orders came from the Secretary of State for the Colonies and included improving public morality, promoting marriage, providing education, increasing agricultural production and prohibiting the use of liquor.

Macquarie’s predecessor, William Bligh, had been deposed as Governor in 1808 by the New South Wales Corps. A regiment of the British Army, the Corps had enacted the military coup, later known as the Rum Rebellion, due to Bligh’s efforts to clean up the illicit trade of rum within their ranks. After Macquarie was sworn in as Governor on 1 January 1810, he disbanded the Corps and their military control of the government ended.

During Macquarie’s first year as Governor, church attendance increased – as did the marriage rate – and the number of public houses decreased dramatically.  As a strong inducement to reform, Macquarie decided that ex‑convicts, if of good character, could rejoin society. Accordingly, he appointed 2 emancipists as magistrates. Although this policy was approved by the Colonial Office, it aroused opposition from the free settlers who refused to fraternise with the emancipists, and soon Macquarie had powerful and influential enemies, both in England and in the colony.

Growing the colony

Macquarie’s feats as Governor are many. He launched a currency for the colony and assisted in establishing its first bank. Macquarie expanded the settlement west over the Blue Mountains and north and south along the coastline. The expansion created conditions that led to the colony becoming almost self-sufficient.

Macquarie began a program of public works construction and town planning and, by 1822, he had sponsored more than 200 building works. Hyde Park Barracks, the Conservatorium of Music, NSW Parliament House and St. James Church are just some of the buildings Macquarie commissioned that survive to this day. Macquarie is also known for having more places named after himself than any other person in Australia.

Inquiry and resignation

Macquarie’s promotion of emancipists and his public works program attracted criticism and, in 1819, John Thomas Bigge arrived in Sydney to undertake an inquiry. The resulting report was critical of Macquarie’s expenditure in the colony and the appointment of emancipists to public positions – for example, Francis Greenway, the architect of Macquarie Lighthouse in Vaucluse. As a result, Macquarie endeavoured to resign as Governor. In March 1820, he learned his third application to resign had been accepted, and in February 1822, he sailed home to Britain. 

Macquarie spent the rest of his life trying to secure his promised pension and attempting to restore his reputation. He died on 1 July 1824, survived by his wife and son. His body was taken to Mull and buried at Jarvisfield. The family tomb is now administered by the National Trust of Australia.

A layered legacy  

Macquarie not only encouraged Britain to adopt the term Australia (first used by Matthew Flinders), he positioned the settlement to progress from a penal colony to a vibrant, successful egalitarian country.

Despite his reputation as a nation builder, Macquarie has drawn criticism for his treatment of First Nations Peoples and his attempts to assimilate them through native schools and the promotion of European agricultural practices.

In April 1816, seeking to counteract raids against colonists, Macquarie authorised a campaign of ‘terror’, with soldiers ordered to kill or capture Aboriginal people who didn’t submit to colonial rule. Consequently, at least 14 men, women and children were killed at Appin, near the Nepean River. In correspondence, Macquarie acknowledged that innocent people might be caught up in the military operation.

The Harbour Trust manages destinations that are associated with Macquarie. Notably, Georges Heights in Mosman was where Macquarie granted farmland to celebrated Garigal pioneer, diplomat and leader Bungaree in February 1815. The Harbour Trust also protects Macquarie Lightstation, which is the site of Australia’s first lighthouse, constructed on Macquarie’s orders and completed in 1818.




Article was originally published on 16 May 2023.


“Macquarie has more places named after himself than any other person in Australia.”

- Michele

Helpful links

Learn more about Macquarie Lightstation, including Australia's first lighthouse, and plan your trip.