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Portrait of John Macarthur by an unknown artist

John Macarthur (1766 – 11 April 1834[1]) was a soldier, entrepreneur, politician and pioneer of the Australian wool industry.


Early life

Macarthur was born in Plymouth, Devon, the second son of Alexander Macarthur, who had fled to the West Indies after the Jacobite Rising before returning and working as a linen draper and 'seller of slops', according to some accounts.[2] His exact date of birth is unknown, but it is known that his birth was registered on 3 September 1767.[3]

He spelled his surname "M'Arthur" for most of his life. He occasionally varied it to "MacArthur". The spelling "Macarthur" (with a lower case "a") became established only very late in his life.[4]

Military career

In 1782, John Macarthur was commissioned as an ensign in Fish's Corps, a regiment of the British Army formed to serve in the American War of Independence. The war ended before the regiment was ready to sail and was disbanded in 1783.[5] On half-pay, Macarthur went to live on a farm near Holsworthy in Devon, where he evidently pursued a program of self-education and became interested in 'rural occupations'. During the next five years Macarthur used his spare time to travel, read, and perhaps contemplate a future at the bar.[6] Instead, in April 1788, Macarthur returned to full-pay army duties, securing a commission as an ensign in the 68th Foot (later Durham Light Infantry), a regiment which had been stationed at Gibraltar since 1785.[7] Ensuing negotiations with the War Office resulted in an alternative posting to far-away Sydney, with the New South Wales Corps in 1789.[8] He sailed on the Neptune in the Second Fleet, the 'worst ship in the worst of Australian fleets'.[9] Before the Neptune had even departed the British Isles, Macarthur became involved in disputations with various personnel, including fighting a duel with Captain Gilbert, the Master of the Neptune.[10] Further disputes were provoked by the cramped and squalid accommodation provided for his wife and infant son on board the Neptune. This eventually resulted in his family being transferred mid-voyage and on the high seas, to the Scarborough, another Second Fleet ship.[11]

He arrived in Sydney in 1790 holding the rank of lieutenant and was appointed as commandant at Parramatta. In February 1793, the acting governor, Major Francis Grose, granted Macarthur 100 acres (0.40 km2) of land at Rose Hill near Parramatta. He was granted a further 100 acres (0.40 km2) in April 1794 for being the first man to clear and cultivate 50 acres (200,000 m2) of land. He named the property Elizabeth Farm in honour of his wife, Elizabeth Macarthur. Grose came to depend on Macarthur's administrative skills and appointed him as paymaster for the regiment and as superintendent of public works, which Macarthur resigned in 1796 to concentrate on his business and farming interests.

Macarthur was an argumentative man and quarreled with many of his neighbours and successive Governors. He was involved in a campaign alleging that Governor Hunter was ineffective and trafficked in rum. The allegations led to Hunter being forced to answer the charges and contributed to Hunter being recalled to England where he fought to try and restore his reputation.

In July 1801, Governor King overturned a sentence of one year's imprisonment for Lieutenant James Marshall of the Earl Cornwallis, who had been convicted of assaulting Macarthur and Captain Abbott during their investigation into a theft. King referred the matter for trial in England on the grounds that the court had refused to hear Marshall's objection to an officer of the NSW Corps hearing the case. Macarthur saw this as slight, and tried to organise a petty social boycott of Governor King and when his superior, Colonel Paterson, refused to cooperate Macarthur used personal material to try and blackmail him.[12] This resulted in Paterson challenging Macarthur to a duel in which Paterson was severely wounded in the shoulder. Governor King had Macarthur arrested then released him and appointed him as commandant on Norfolk Island to try and defuse things. Macarthur refused to comply and demanded a court martial by his fellow officers. King, realising that this would be pointless, sent Macarthur to England for trial. Macarthur sailed on the Hunter, departing Sydney in November 1801.[13] On this same vessel, Governor Hunter had sent a 'very bulky' dispatch, denouncing Macarthur. This dispatch went missing, apparently during the voyage. According to Evatt, in Rum Rebellion, Macarthur had a powerful motive for stealing and destroying it. Evatt infers that Macarthur, 'or some close associate', was responsible.[14]

One year later, when Macarthur reached England, the courts ruled that the matter should be tried in Sydney, where all the evidence and witnesses were.[15] The Duke of York, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, rebuked King for failing to deal with the matter himself, but confirmed that King's orders releasing Macarthur and transferring him to Norfolk Island stood. To avoid the posting, Macarthur resigned his commission, eventually returning to Sydney in 1805 after an absence of nearly four years[16] to run his businesses as a private citizen. Governor King had declared while Macarthur was in London that, "if Captain Macarthur returns here in any official character, it should be that of Governor, as one-half the colony already belongs to him, and it will not be long before he gets the other half."[17]

Establishing his flock of sheep

An Australian stamp commemorating the centenary of the death of Macarthur in 1934

Macarthur was eventually to realise that the economic potential of wool production for export far exceeded that of rearing sheep primarily for the provision of mutton within the colony. Initially, however, he reared sheep for mutton, purchasing his first flock in 1795.[18] In 1797, Macarthur purchased a portion of a small flock of Spanish Merinos imported from Cape Colony by Captain Waterhouse, a Royal Navy officer who had been despatched to the Cape by Governor Hunter to obtain ‘live cattle’.[19] The Merinos, including three rams, were bought by several landowners, including Samuel Marsden. By 1801, Macarthur was the largest sheep rearer in the colony,[20] although he was certainly not the only landowner to have experimented with the breeding of fine-wooled sheep.[21] As late as July 1800, there is no evidence of any ‘prophetic word’ from Macarthur about the future of Spanish wool: at that time he was considering selling his entire flock.[22]

On his way to England, for trial over the duel with Colonel Paterson, Macarthur's ship had put in for repairs in Indonesia, where he met and offered timely advice to the young and inexperienced British Resident at Amboyna, Sir Robert Farquhar, son of the Physician in Ordinary to the Prince of Wales, Sir Walter Farquhar.[23] Sir Walter became an important patron and friend to Macarthur. For example, when William Davidson, later Macarthur's business partner in New South Wales, applied for land next to Macarthur's holdings at Parramatta, he carried with him a letter of introduction announcing his Royal connections as nephew to Sir Walter Farquhar.[24]

While in London, Macarthur lobbied extensively in support of his interests back in New South Wales. The Colonial Secretary, Lord Camden, was highly supportive and backed Macarthur for a grant of 10,000 acres (40 km²) of his choosing. Sir Joseph Banks, however, was not impressed with either Macarthur or his commercial venture. When Macarthur failed to conceal his low opinion of Banks, Banks became a strong opponent of the plan and had the grant halved. [25]

When he arrived back in Sydney in 1805 Macarthur further antagonised local authorities by claiming his 5,000 acres (20 km²) in the Cowpastures. This was prime grazing land, well supplied by water from the Nepean river, and reserved by the Governor exclusively for the colony's cattle herds. Both Governors King and Bligh strongly objected to this and wanted the grant moved, but the Colonial Office wrote back affirming Macarthur's right to the land. Macarthur named it Camden Park after his patron. Bligh also turned down Macarthur's request for the remaining 5000 acres (20 km²) after he had begun exporting wool to England. Bligh was firmly opposed to Macarthur's venture, according to Evatt, not because he objected to the fine wool industry, but because he believed that 'first preference should be given to agriculture'.[26] As reported much later by Macarthur, Bligh said to him in a conversation at Government House; "What have I to do with your sheep, sir? What have I to do with your cattle. Are you to have such flocks of sheep and such herds of cattle as no man ever heard of before? No, sir!".[27]

Rum Rebellion

Governor William Bligh was appointed, with backing by Sir Joseph Banks, to crack down on the commercial activities of the NSW Corps, especially their trade in alcohol. Macarthur and his friend and business associate Thomas Jamison (the colony's Principal Surgeon) were two prime targets. Macarthur clashed repeatedly with Bligh throughout 1807 while Jamison was dismissed from the magistracy.

Macarthur was owed a debt in wheat, the price of which had gone up fourfold, but on appeal Bligh ruled it was only payable at the original value. Bligh cancelled a lease Macarthur held for some government land that Bligh wanted to use and Macarthur tried to prevent Bligh taking hold of it.

When a convict stowed away and escaped to Tahiti on the Parramatta, a ship Macarthur part-owned, Bligh demanded that the 900 pound Transport Board bond be forfeited. Macarthur refused to comply and the ship was seized when it returned. In December 1807 Bligh had an order issued for Macarthur to appear before the courts, which Macarthur refused to obey and subsequently was arrested and bailed for a trial on 25 January 1808. This trial led to the so-called Rum Rebellion, when the officers of the NSW Corps, who had been assigned to the court, sided with Macarthur and his allies: as a consequence, Bligh was overthrown by the Corps in a military coup on 26 January.

Immediately after the 1808 rebellion took place, Macarthur dispatched his son Edward to London to convey Macarthur's version of the events. Accompanying him was the first bale of Australian wool to be exported. The British woollen mills were desperate for wool at the time because of the Napoleonic blockade, and the Australian bale sold for a record price.

Macarthur served as Colonial-Secretary in the rebel administration, until he was removed. Macarthur was sent to England where he remained for eight and half years to avoid an arrest warrant for him in Sydney. While there he put his sons into public schools and went for a tour of the continent. Macarthur had gained the right to return to Sydney through lobbying, but would not accept the conditions imposed that he admit his wrong doing and promise his good behaviour and so he remained in England until Lord Camden granted him unconditional return to NSW in 1817.

Macarthur was never tried, and apart from the exile, was not punished for his involvement in the Rum Rebellion. H.V Evatt, who was extremely critical of Macarthur, details the legal technicalities involved in his book Rum Rebellion.

Later life

On his return to NSW Macarthur devoted himself to his farming. Wool had great advantages as an industry for New South Wales, which because of its distance from European markets needed a commodity which did not perish during long sea-voyages and which offered high value per unit of weight. Wool also had a ready market in England because the Napoleonic Wars had increased demand and cut English cloth-makers off from their traditional source of quality wool, Spain. The export of wool soon made Macarthur the richest man in New South Wales. In 1822, The Society for the Arts in London awarded him two medals for exporting 150,000 lb (68,000 kg) of wool to England and for increasing the quality of his wool to that of the finest Saxon Merino.

In the early 1820s, John Macarthur was an owner of more than 100 horses. He established Camden Park Stud and was a major provider of bloodhorses. His sons, James and William Macarthur, followed in his footsteps and became important Thoroughbred owners and breeders.

Macarthur established Australia's first commercial vineyard.[28] He imported vine plants when he returned to New South Wales in 1817, which he successfully cultivated at Camden Park.[29] He was a founding investor in both the Australian Agricultural Company (London 1824)[30] and the Bank of Australia (1826).[31] His involvement in the Rum Rebellion blocked him from being appointed as a magistrate in 1822 but in 1825 he was nominated to the NSW Legislative Council where he served until 1832 when he was suspended due to his failing mental health.

John Macarthur died at Camden in 1834. His numerous and wealthy descendants remained influential in New South Wales affairs for many years. As the Macarthur-Onslows they are still wealthy but no longer prominent in public life.


In recognition of his contribution to Australian agriculture, Macarthur was honoured by a postage stamp issued on the centenary of his death in 1934 (depicting a merino ram).

The Division of Macarthur was named in honour of John and Elizabeth Macarthur in 1949.

John Macarthur's image and a merino ram appeared on the first Australian $2 note in 1966.

See also



  1. ^ Macarthur, John (1767 - 1834) Australian Dictionary of Biography
  2. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 5
  3. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 6
  4. ^'arthur&source=web&ots=SfJh88vtxJ&sig=r1Shn5WMk2b-c1nmuBXHRDIuiso&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=3&ct=result
  5. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 6
  6. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p.6.
  7. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p.9
  8. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 10
  9. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 17
  10. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), pp.18-19
  11. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 23
  12. ^ Australia's Heritage Vol. 1, pp. 211-2.
  13. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 209
  14. ^ H. V. Evatt (1938), p.44
  15. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 213
  16. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 239
  17. ^ Cited in M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 208
  18. ^ A. G. L. Shaw (1960), p.52
  19. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p.221
  20. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 224
  21. ^ A. G. L. Shaw (1960), p.52
  22. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 223
  23. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 212
  24. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 235
  25. ^ Australia's Heritage Vol. 2, p. 446
  26. ^ H. V. Evatt (1938), p.10
  27. ^ Cited in H. V. Evatt (1938), p.8
  28. ^ Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, About Australia, The Australian Wine Industry, Retrieved on 9/12/09
  29. ^ Fletcher (1969), p.214
  30. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 492
  31. ^ M. H. Ellis (1955), p. 495

Simple English

John Macarthur (1766 – 11 April 1834[1]) was a soldier, business man, politician and the man who started the Australian wool industry. His farmhouse, called Elizabeth Farm after his wife, is still standing in Parramatta, New South Wales, where it is open to the public as a historic house.


  1. Macarthur, John (1767 - 1834) Australian Dictionary of Biography


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