Daily Archives: January 12, 2013

‘Macquarie: From colony to country’ by Harry Dillon and Peter Butler


2010, 329 p.

Probably my first introduction to historic argument, as distinct from historic narrative and fact, came in HSC Australian History (yes, I am old enough that it was HSC and not VCE and young enough that it was no longer ‘matric’.)  There I was feeling all soft and fuzzy over Macquarie when along came that nasty Bigge character.  But was it as simple as this? For the first time I realized that historians- Manning Clarke, Ellis, Ritchie- could have a different take on the same event, and that you could talk about historians’ arguments and set them up against each other,  rather than just relate what happened.

And there I was nearly 40 years later, reading another book on Macquarie, nicely timed with my trip to Sydney in December last year.  It evoked a whiff of the goodies-and-baddies sense of history, and Macquarie is definitely in the goodies camp in this book.  It’s a very readable account of Macquarie’s time in New South Wales and his contribution to the shift from ‘New South Wales’ to the entity of ‘Australia’.

The authors argue that Macquarie was the victim of a mismatch between the intended use of New South Wales as both penal settlement and free colony.  His position at the head of a penal colony gave him autocratic powers but he used them to make opportunities for ex-convicts, rather than the elite- which was pretty much the expectation at the time.  He was, at heart, a military man, which expressed itself through his authoritarianism and brittle response to criticism.  The authors emphasize his Scots background as a motivating factor, and indeed call him the ‘laird’ throughout, arguing that his policies sprang from a paternalist mindset.  I’m not convinced that ‘laird’ is the right imagery, and it’s not something that Macquarie himself claimed.  The book is written from a very Australian-centred perspective, and I think that the depiction of the Colonial Office would have benefited from a fuller empire-wide analysis. As it is, the goodies/baddies dichotomy is a little too simple.

Although the biographical details of the authors links them with Charles Sturt University, they both have a background in journalism, and I think that this comes through in the book, which is eminently readable.  They have been granted all the publishing features on a historians’ wishlist- footnotes (not all that many) AND a bibliography (what luxury!), index, and source list for the illustrations.  Many other much more academic tomes than this one are often short-changed in this regard.

I was attracted to read this book after a brief browse at the ‘reduced’ table in my uni book shop. I noted that the book started with a chapter highlighting the heritage of Macquarie today, followed by a chapter that had him returning home ‘under a cloud’.  It then reverted to a more conventional biography, ending with a 2010 visit to his ancestral home.  I’m interested in the way that historians structure biography at the moment, hoping to break out of a strictly chronological form for my own thesis, and so I was interested to see how this worked as a reader.  I think it did, in that it had a pleasing sense of symmetry and that the bookend chapters allowed an argument to be mounted in what is, essentially, narrative history.