John Macarthur (ca. 1767-1834) was an Australian merchant and sheep breeder. He became a powerful political leader and was a spokesman for the free settlers.
The date of John Macarthur's birth is uncertain, but he was baptized on Sept. 3, 1767, at Stoke Damerel near Plymouth, Devon, England, the second son of Scottish parents, Alexander and Katharine Macarthur. In 1782 he became an ensign in the army but the following year retired on half pay, as the American War had ended. In 1788 he rejoined the army in the 68th Regiment and in 1789 transferred as a lieutenant to the New South Wales Corps for service in the new colony. With his wife and son he arrived in Sydney on June 28, 1790.
Almost at once Macarthur set the standard for a lifetime of turbulence by quarreling with Governor Arthur Phillip. But in 1792 he became regimental paymaster, and the next year he became inspector of public works and was in a position to advance his own interests in the rudimentary settlement. He established Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta and with additional land grants soon became a leading farmer and sheep breeder. In 1795 he was promoted to captain and consolidated his position as the chief trader among the army officers in the colony.
Trouble with the second governor, John Hunter, was followed by more serious differences with the third, Philip Gidley King. After a duel with his commanding officer, William Paterson, in 1801, Macarthur was arrested and sent to England for court-martial. He took some samples of his own wool with him and, because of the wartime problems of the British wool industry, was able to interest some textile manufacturers in the colonial product. Macarthur astutely capitalized on this situation, resigned his commission, obtained a grant of 5,000 acres of the best land in the colony, and returned in 1805 with the blessing of the British government to concentrate on the growing of fine wool.
Macarthur took up his grant at the Cowpastures near Camden and between 1805 and 1808 expanded and developed not only his wool production but also his merchant interest. But the replacement of Hunter with Governor William Bligh brought a determined attempt to restrict illegal trading, especially in rum, as part of a plan to restore order to the colony.
Macarthur emerged as the chief leader of the private enterprise group adversely affected by Bligh's policy; the governor, in many ways as irascible and uncompromising as Macarthur, also provoked other elements in the settlement including some of the senior army officers. When Macarthur was arrested in January 1808 for an alleged breach of mercantile regulations, the senior officer, Maj. George Johnston, released him and deposed Bligh in the so-called Rum Rebellion. Macarthur was colonial secretary until July. The next year he sailed for England to support Johnston at his court-martial. In 1817 he returned to New South Wales.
In his absence Macarthur's wife had carefully nurtured his Merino sheep, in a period of increased demand for fine wool that coincided with a commercial depression. Macarthur continued this process, and when Commissioner John Thomas Bigge recommended in 1822 that fine wool production be encouraged in the colony, Macarthur was able to take rapid advantage of the increasing opportunities.
In 1824 Macarthur helped to promote the Australian Agricultural Company. He had become one of the wealthiest and most influential of the free colonists, or "exclusives," of New South Wales. He was appointed as one of three to the first Legislative Council in 1825 but was removed in 1832, "pronounced a lunatic." He died on April 11, 1834, and was buried at Camden Park.
Sibella Macarthur-Onslow, ed., Some Early Records of the Macarthurs of Camden (1914), gives a useful selection from the many papers left by Macarthur and his sons. The biography by M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (2d ed. 1967), offers an idiosyncratic and approving view of Macarthur and has an extensive bibliography. A wellbalanced general account is in Charles M. H. Clark, A History of Australia (2 vols., 1962-1968). S. J. Butlin, Foundations of the Australian Monetary System, 1788-1851 (1953), provides an erudite survey of the mercantile and financial background against which Macarthur operated.
Ellis, Malcolm Henry, John Macarthur, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1978, 1969. □