John Macarthur
Timeline: Napoleon's Australian Victory

John Macarthur
Portrait of John Macarthur

2nd Governor of Van Diemen's Land
1824 – 1832

Predecessor Lachlan Macquarie

Lieutenant-Governor of Northern Van Diemen's Land
1805 – 1810

Predecessor none (title established)
Successor none (Lachlan Macquarie as Governor of whole island)

1st Earl Macarthur
1832 – 1834

Predecessor none (title established)
Successor Edward Macarthur

Colonial Secretary of Van Diemen's Land
1810 – 1813

Predecessor None (position established)
Successor John Thomas Campbell
Born 1767
Portsmouth, England
Died 10 April 1834
Elizabeth farm, Van Diemen's Land
Spouse Elizabeth Veale
Religion Anglicanism
Profession Soldier, Administrator, Pastoralist

Sir John Macarthur, 1st Earl Macarthur, KH (1767--10 April 1834) was a British soldier, colonial adminstrator, pastoralist, architect and pioneer. Macarthur is universally recognised as the father of modern Van Diemen's Land . He served as the first (and only) Lieutenant-Governor of Northern Van Diemen's Land between 1805 and 1810, and as the Dominion's second governor from 1821 to 1827. Macarthur drove the early economy of the island by introducing merino sheep to his estate and by encouraging whaling in the Bass Strait. However, recently, historians have begun reconsidering his untarnished reputation, citing his instrumental role in the so-called "Black War" against the indigenous Vandiemonians. 

Pre-Colonial Life

John Macarthur was born near Plymoth as the second son of Alexander Macarthur, a former Jacobite who had returned to Britain after a delf-imposed exile in the West Indies and was, by some accounts, a linen draper and "seller of slops". John Macarthur's exact birthdate is not known, however he was christened on the 3rd of September, 1767.  In 1782, Macarthur was commissioned as an Ensign in Fish's Corps, a unit formed to serve in the American War of Independence, which ended before the regiment sailed. Macarthur, on half-pay, lived for five years on a farm in Devon, where he became interested in "rural occupations". In April 1788, Macarthur secured a posting in the 68th Regiment of Foot. In October that year, Macarthur married Elizabeth Veale. In 1789, after negotiations with the War Office, he managed to gain a posting in Sydney with the newly-formed New South Wales Corps. John and Elizabeth traveled on the Neptune, but due to Macarthur's various disputations with the crew, including a duel with the captain, the couple transferred to the Scarborough, another ship of the Second Fleet. 

New South Wales

The Macarthurs arrived in Sydney in 1790. John had been promoted to Lieutenant during the voyage, and was appointed the commandant of Parramatta. The Acting-Governor, Major Francis Grose, granted John 100 acres of land, which was doubled after he cleared 50 acres. Grose appointed Macarthur to paymaster for the regiment and master of public works, however he retired from the latter in 1796 to focus his energies on his farm. He was promoted to a captaincy in the late 1790s. It was also during this time that Macarthur introduced merino sheep to the colony.

John Macarthur was argumentative and had disputations with a series of governors. His complaints about Governor Hunter resulted in the latter being recalled to England to answer to charges of ineffectual leadership and rum trafficking. In 1801, Governor King overturned a one year sentence on a Lieutenant accused of assaulting Macarthur. John organised a social boycott against the Governor, and when his superior officer, Colonel Paterson, refused to comply, Macarthur attempted to blackmail him. Incensed, Paterson challenged Macarthur to a duel and was severely wounded. The governor ordered Macarthur's arrest, but released him and appointed him Lieut.-Governor of Norfolk Island to defuse the situation. Macarthur refused the posting, and demanded a court martial. Governor King, who realised that a court martial by Macarthur's fellow officers would undoubtedly acquit him, sent Macarthur to England to face trial there. Macarthur departed in November 1801, accompanied by his two sons and a "bulky dispatch" of Governor King's complaints which mysteriously went missing during the voyage.


Macarthur and his sons arrived in London in December 1802, after an exceedingly rough voyage. The courts martial took many months to process his case, and Macarthur used the time to show off samples of his merino wool. Macarthur's arrival in London conveniently occurred when Britain was in dire need of wool for its soldiers and sailors fighting France. Macarthur approached the government with an optimistic scheme of massive New South Welsh wool production, to be managed by himself. It garnered significant interest from the government, and Macarthur was given a grant of 5000 acres to establish a substantial flock, and promised a further 5000 once results were forthcoming. 

Macarthur considered resigning his commission to focus on his wool indeavours when news arrived from New South Wales. The convicts had risen in rebellion, and the loyalists had fled to Van Diemen's Land. With Governor King and Colonel Paterson dead, Macarthur was acquitted by the court martial. However, the rebellion did not stop interest in a colonial wool scheme. On Joseph Banks' advice, Macarthur was promoted to Major and appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Northen Van Diemen's Land. He was ordered to establish a free, sheep-based settlement on the North of the island. Shocked and pleased with his sudden propotion, Macarthur immediately set to work preparing for the new colony.


Lieut.Governor Macarthur departed England in April 1805 with three ships, carrying 70 free settlers, 100 English convicts, 50 soldiers for the colony's security, and many sheep. After an eleven month voyage, the expedition made landfall in the Tamar River in Northern Van Diemen's Land. Macarthur read out the proclaimation separating the North of the island from the South. Under Macarthur's leadership, Collinston was quickly established and the Royal Flock began to thrive in the lush Tamar valley. In January 1807, Macarthur visited Hobart, where he was reunited with Elizabeth and their other children. The family, along with the possessions and livestock they had managed to bring from Sydney, relocated to Macarthur's land grant behind Collinston. 

After three years of careful governance, Collinston was a thriving town with a burgeoning wool industry. The first shipment of Macarthur's wool arrived in England (with Macarthur's eldest son, Edward) in 1808, and the northern colony had followed it up with two bumper successive shearings. Macarthur also went to great lengths to encourage American, British and even French whalers and sealers to stop in Collinston. This brought oil to the town, as well as another market for the colony's wool. When Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived in 1810 to take the governorship of the whole island, he was deeply impressed with Macarthur's progress with the settlement, and wrote a glowing report to the Colonial Office. 

Colonial Secretary

Three weeks after Governor Macquarie arrived in Hobart with the 73rd Regiment, he appointed Macarthur as his Colonial Secretary. As Secretary, Macarthur was responsible for the day-to-day running of the entire island, which had been united into a single governorship upon the arrival of Macquarie. Macarthur became the Governor's right-hand-man, and was largely responsible for the implementation of Macuarie's projects: the civil court, the new government house, and the Macquarie Highway. During this time, Macarthur remained responsible for the Colonial Wool Scheme, and amassed significant personal wealth through the sale of the wool. 

Macarthur, characteristicly, did not always see eye-to-eye with his superior, the Governor. This was particularly so when Governor Macquarie took the bold step of introducing a Vandiemonian currency. The so-called "Holey Dollar" came into being when the Governor purchased 40,000 pounds worth of Spanish dollars, and had them restamped. Macarthur was fervently opposed to the scheme. Personally, he felt that the introduction of legal currency would be detrimental to his business interests, which were based on barter and trade. Politically, he believed that only the British government should be able to mint coins for its colonies. The difference of opinion almost led to Macarthur's resignation as colonial secretary, but chief justice John Thomas Campbell managed to mediate the two parties, and the two were reconciled in time for the implementation of the currency in early 1813.


On the 10th of May of that year, the colony was rocked by its very foundations when the HMS Samarang arrived with news of the Fall of Britain and subsequent exile of the royal family. Macarthur was shocked by the news. He feared for the life of his son Edward- who was serving in Spain under General Wellesley- for the future of his thriving wool trade, and for the continued existence of the colony itself. The following day, Governor Macquarie called a meeting of the colonial administration and other notable Vandiemonians. After hearing Macquarie's speech in support of declaring Van Diemen's Land's independence, Macarthur ordered the decision be put to a vote. The motion passed, and Macarthur spent the entire night drafting and redrafting the colony's declaration of independence. 

The next morning, the 12th, Governor Macquarie let Macarthur read out the declaration. It was signed by Macquarie, Macarthur and Campbell. 

Foreign Secretary

It is indicative of the great faith that Governor Macquarie had in Macarthur that the latter was appointed Van Diemen's Land's first foreign secretary. Macarthur boarded the Samarang on the 15th of May bound for Terre Napoleon, unsure if he would return. 

Terre Napoleon

The Samarang arrived at Bonaparte on the 13th, flying under the new Vandiemonian flag. The French governor there, Admiral de Lacrosse, was initially skeptical about Macarthur's legation, and refused to allow them to moor the Samarang. However, after a fretful night on board, Macarthur was permitted an audience with the governor. Macarthur showed Lacrosse his credentials, and explained the situation in Van Diemen's Land. The French governor described the event in his diary:

"The so-called Foreign Secretary entered my chamber and presented himself as the Vandiemonian Ambassador Extraordinaire to the French Empire. I laughed uncontrollably at the thought of a British colony engaging in diplomatic relations. Once I had calmed down, the man, visibly shaken, proceeded to inform me that Van Diemen's Land had declared its independence from Great Britain, and that it wished its neutrality to be recognised. I managed to say 'It appears we have an antipodean America on our hands' before bursting into laughter once more."[1]

Despite the bad start, Macarthur managed to persuade de Lacrosse to sign a declaration recognising the Dominion as an independent nation, and an assurance of non-aggression between the signatories. Returning to Hobart in June, Macarthur was hailed as a savior by the Van Diemen's Land Gazette and by the people in general.

For several months after his return, Macarthur retreated to Elizabeth farm to tend to his flock and his family. It was during this time that the farm came to resemble its present-day form. Macarthur ordered apple orchards to be planted, and created an embryonic vineyard, which produces award-winning wine to this day.

Saint Helena and Europe

In the early months of 1814, Macquarie ordered Macarthur to Saint Helena to meet with the King and receive any orders for the future of Van Diemen's Land. The voyage, again on the Samarang, was long and treacherous, but after six months at sea, Macarthur arrived at Jamestown. 

Upon arrival, he was taken for an audience with the King and Frederick, the Prince-Regent. He informed Prince Frederick of the situation in Van Diemen's Land, and delivered an official letter from Macquarie, as well as an oral request for orders. The Prince-Regent was almost as taken-aback as de Lacrosse had been the previous year. However, with his usual tact, he drew up a declaration acknowledging Van Diemen's Land as an independent nation and accepting the Kingship on his father's behalf. 

Macarthur remained in Jamestown for three weeks as a guest of the royal family. During this time, he took his opportunity to point out his achievements in establishing Collinston and his farm, as well as the great achievements of Macquarie's. Macarthur was also quite appalled at the small size of the new kingdom, and offered Van Diemen's Land as an alternative. However, the Prince-Regent turned down the offer, citing the terms of the surrender as reason enough to stay on Saint Helena. 

From Jamestown, Macarthur sailed aboard the Samarang to Europe, where he met with his French counterpart, the Marquis de Calaincourt. Armed with de Lacrosse and the Prince Regent's declarations, Macarthur was able to convince the French foreign minister to officially declare France's recognition of Van Diemen's Land as an independent nation, and to afford the Vandiemonian flag its due respect. His mission complete, Macarthur sailed back to Hobart, arriving in January 1815.

First Retirement

Macarthur was once again hailed as a hero upon his return to Hobart. Despite Macquarie's offer of the position of Home Secretary, Macarthur decided to withdraw from public life and spend time with his family and farm. For the next six years, he tended his merino flocks, apple orchards and vineyards, making Elizabeth Farm exceedingly prosperous, and himself a small fortune. Despite his retirement, Macarthur remained abreast of political news in the Dominion, engaging in long correspondences with Macquarie and his other acquaintences in Hobart.   

In 1820, news arrived from Saint Helena that the Prince Regent had made Macarthur a Knight of the Royal Guelphic Order, "in recognition of his services to the Crown, to Van Diemen's Land, and the the British People across the world". As the King's representative, Governor Macquarie gave Macarthur his accolade in Hobart, the first to occur in Australia. The event brought Macarthur back into public attention, and there were many calls in the newspapers for him to return to public life. With Elizabeth Farm in his son Edward's competant hands, Macarthur eventually acquiesced, accepting a commission as Commandant General of all Forces in Van Diemen's Land. 

Macarthur devoted himself to his new position. Under his guidance the VDL Corps grew into a more proffessional unit, strong defenses were built along the entrance to the Derwent River, and the Loyal Associations were put uder central organisation. During his tenure as Commandant, Macarthur and Macquarie grew closer friends, finally putting their former differences to rest. 


Governor Macquarie died in 1824 of an old bowel complaint. Macarthur was said to have wept when he heard the news, and he was one of the pallbearers at Macquarie's state funeral. Without a Governor, the Colonial Secretary took control, and appointed Macarthur Acting-Governor. His appointment was affirmed later in the year by letter from Queen Charlotte. 

As Governor, Macarthur transitioned Van Diemen's Land from an autocratic governate to, what was for the time, a representative democracy. In the first year of his administration, he created the Legislative Council; an appointed council of prominent citizens who advised Macarthur on the exercise of his power. This move was followed four years later by the creation of the House of Commons; a legislative assembly elected by limited suffrage (only property-owning white men could vote).  

During his tenure, Macarthur was also responsible for bringing Van Diemen's Land fully onto the World stage through his successful foreign affairs policy. Trade agreements were signed with the French colony of Terre Napoleon, and a permanent embassy was established in Paris and Jamestown (Saint Helena). In 1830, Macarthur travelled to India to attend the coronation of Queen Charlotte as the first Empress of India. The Empress was said to have enjoyed the company of her "loyal Vandiemonian Governor" who she remembered from his 1814 visit to Jamestown. Macarthur discussed ways that the (then) three "Britannic Dominions" (India, Saint Helena and Van Diemen's Land) could cooperate and assist one another. These informal discussions are today considered to be the initial foundations for the Britannic Commonwealth. In the shorter term, Macarthur's attendance at the coronation allowed for an increase in trade with India, and the establishment of strong military ties, beginning with a gift of a frigate to Van Diemen's Land from its Queen.

Van Diemen Land's population explosion is generally attributed to the policies of Macarthur's government. His policy of offering British people free passage to Van Diemen's Land was extremely popular amongst the British public; many thousands of whom wanted to leave French-occupied Britain, but didn't wish to risk the tropical diseases and intolerable heat of India (the main destination for British migrants).

This immigration policy, however, resulted in increased conflict with the indigenous people of the island as more and more land was taken up by white settlers and farmers. Decades of rising tensions came to a head in 1827, when Macarthur declared a state of emergency and sent the army to round up the indigenous population into small "reserves"; at once protectong them from further violence from the whites and also opening up their land for white settlement. This so-called "Black War" lasted until 1831, by which time the vast majority of indigenous people had either been killed by the army, died of European diseases, or been rounded up and deported to Flinders Island. Although the events were welcomed by Vandiemonians at the time, recently descendants of the Vandiemonian Aborigines as well as historians have brought the actions of the Macrthur administration to public attention, presenting a slightly tarnished view of Macarthur the national hero.

Second Retirement, Death and Legacy

In 1831, Macarthur announced that he would retire the following year. John Thomas Campbell was designated his successor. On the day of his official resignation, the new Indian Envoy announced that Queen Charlotte had honoured Macarthur "her faithful servant" with the title of "1st Earl Macarthur, of Tamar in the Dominion of Van Diemen's Land". It was reported that Macarthur wept tears of joy when he heard the news, so amazed was he that the son of a "seller of slops" had risen to the peerage. The appointment set a precedent for the establsshment, by Macarthur's successor as Governor, of the Peerage of Van Diemen's Land; of which Macarthur's title is the first and has the highest precedence after the Queen. 

Earl Macarthur spent the remainder of his days in retirement on Elizabeth Farm with his wife, visited often by his many children. He died peacefully in his bed on the 10th of April 1834. Van Diemen's Land went into a week of official mourning, culminating in his state funeral attended -by some estimates- by three-quarters of Hobart. 

Macarthur was succeeded in his title by his eldest son Edward, who later went on to become a prominent politician. The Macarthur family has had a major effect on Vandiemonian politics throughout the centuries, and even to this day, the 8th Earl Macarthur wields considerable power thanks to his seat in the Legislative Council as a Representative Peer. Macarthur's policies had far-reaching impacts beyond his death, shaping Van Diemen's Land into the nation it is today. When Van DIemen's Land staked a claim to Antarctica in 1902, the region was named the "Macarthur Dependency" in honour of the man still revered as the founding father of Van Diemen's Land.

Titles and Styles

  • 1767-1820: Mr John Macarthur Esq.
  • 1820-1824: Sir John Macarthur, KH
  • 1824-1832: His Excellency, Governor Sir John Macarthur, KH
  • 1832-1834: The Right Honourable Sir John Macarthur, 1st Earl Macarthur, KH


  1. Adminal de Lacrosse, Memoirs of Terre Napoleon. 1820, Rochefort Publishers, Paris
Regnal titles
Preceded by:
Earl Macarthur Succeeded by:
Edward Macarthur, 2nd Earl Macarthur
Sir John Macarthur, 1st Earl Macarthur, KH