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John Macarthur - Rogue or Hero?
Year of production - 2009
Duration - 4min 36sec
Tags - Australian History, British Empire, colonisation, convicts, heroes and villains, historical representations, pioneers, see all tags
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John Macarthur – Rogue or Hero? is an excerpt from the documentary Rites of Passage the second episode of the two-part series entitled Rogue Nation, produced in 2009.
Historian Michael Cathcart tells the epic story of how the colourful characters of early colonial Australia transformed a penal settlement into a land with rights and opportunity in a mere 40 years. This sweeping two-part dramatised documentary covers formative events in Australia’s history, including the Rum Rebellion and early court cases, which established independence and civil rights for all settlers. Rogue Nation explores how a fledgling colony on the wrong side of the globe was rapidly transformed from a place of punishment to a place of opportunity; a confident and prosperous community. It goes behind the power struggles between wealthy landowners, the educated offspring of convict settlers and the governors who ran the colony.
A Screen Australia production in association with Essential Media & Entertainment.
Images in the clip courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
Investigate why Australia was colonised by Britain and how Australia was governed from colonisation to federation.
Investigate the influence of significant individuals and events on the development of democracy in Australia.
New South Wales in the early 1800s is generally thought of as a place of unrelenting brutality and squalor: a harsh prison colony, punctuated with sodomy, the lash, rum, rum, and more rum.
But while present to some degree, these things make up only a tiny part of the whole picture. Yes, the place had its harsh elements – hangings and floggings given out as required – but it was no gulag archipelago. Most convict arrivals quickly found more actual freedoms, more agency, more capacity to negotiate, hustle, bribe or legitimately work their way to prosperity than if they had remained in Britain.
People were making money and getting ahead, some eager to return to Britain with a quick-fire colonial fortune, others just keen to start new lives here in NSW. Alongside the primitive frontier conditions there sprang up a thriving entrepot, a sort of hustlers’ paradise for convicts, ex-convicts, free, and military alike.
First place amongst preeminent hustlers must surely go to John Macarthur, and his on-again off-again officer comrades in the NSW Corps. Macarthur and his like
had no interest in maintaining the kind of discipline-and-punish regime generally thought fit for a “proper” penal colony. They were far more concerned with making money very quickly. If you got the work done for them they didn’t care how you spent your free time.
As well as the officers there were the convict retailers they needed as middlemen, who sold the goods, who happily jacked up the price, and without whom officers couldn’t exist. Then there were the convicts who’d arrived with trades and highly sought after laboring skills – carpenters, builders, bricklayers, blacksmiths. So desperate was the young colony for their freely available labor that Governors started handing them their freedom – Tickets-of-Leave – as soon as they got off the boat.
Then, finally, there was a large class of convict and ex-convicts with no particular skills but who thrived by working as contractors, carters, laborers who hired themselves out at high rates. Many of these – shocking as it is to report – weren’t particularly interested in rationally accumulating wealth, saving and investing for the future. They were – even more shocking still – quite happy to simply get frequently and spectacularly drunk. Life in the new colony was not, complained various outraged moralists and clergymen, at all geared to penitence, piety and reform.
On top of all this, practically all the money to pay for all this was coming, directly or otherwise, from the coffers of the British Treasury. The colony was costing a bomb. Britain in the early 1800s was quite literally fighting for its national life, embroiled in the Napoleonic War. This meant that in New South Wales governors and inhabitants frequently had to develop ad hoc solutions to unforeseen problems due to a Home Government with far more pressing demands on its time and attention. It also meant that when London took time to look at their penal colony expenses bill they decided that it was well past time to crack down on this half-feral colonial outpost.
Something had to be done. Luckily they had just the man to send out to fix up the mess, someone with a reputation as a hard man, not afraid to crack heads. Fellow by the name of William Bligh…
Students can work in a variety of ways—individually, in small groups, and as a class to investigate, respond to and discuss the questions and points that follow.
- John Macarthur is sent to London to be court martialled. What is a court martial? How does Macarthur escape the consequences of a court martial in London? Listen carefully again to the opening scenes in this clip and think about what the narrator is implying about John Macarthur’s behaviour during these events leading to the dismissal of the case against him. What do you think might have happened to the evidence?
- Research and find out more about Governor King and his relationship with the NSW Army Corps and John Macarthur.
- What does the narrator mean when he says ‘... London is a big fat opportunity for Macarthur’? What does Macarthur do in London?
- What does ‘lobby the government mean’? Find out if lobbying occurs today and how it is done. What sort of issues do people lobby for now?
- What information do you find out from this clip about John Macarthur and sheep? For example, why does John Macarthur want to buy sheep? What sort of sheep does he want and why?
- Research and find out more about John Macarthur’s role in the development of a wool industry in the colony of NSW. Why does history see this development of the wool industry as so important?
- Who is Joseph Banks and why is he a significant figure in this story about John Macarthur? Why does the narrator call him ‘one of white Australia’s founding fathers’? What is his connection with the young colony? Research and find out more about Sir Joseph Banks. Why does the narrator describe their meeting as the first small step to the rum rebellion? Why does Banks want to stop Macarthur from getting more land?
- Macarthur names his new property ‘Camden Park’. Who is it named after and why? Research the history of Camden Park and what it is like there today.
- John Macarthur’s success with his sheep was the beginning of Australia’s wool industry. His wife Elizabeth Macarthur also was an important person in the later story although she isn’t shown in this clip. Research Elizabeth Macarthur and find out more about her role.
- What is the significance of John Macarthur taking the ‘Cow Pastures’ land? How do you think people in the colony of NSW would have reacted to this? Choose a character from the list below and write a role play, radio interview, story, PowerPoint or other presentation which gives the point of view of two different people in this story: Governor King, John Macarthur, Sir Joseph Banks, Elizabeth Macarthur (John Macarthur’s wife and business partner), a poor new settler seeking land, a poor family who rely on the cattle from the Cow Pastures for their food.
- What sources of historical information from the time are evident in this clip? Look at the use of old drawings and paintings. Discuss how they contribute to the telling of the story and the information from the time that is provided through the detail. For example, the landscape of old London, the sheep market and the Cow Pastures. Freeze frame each image and look carefully at the details. What information does each image show us?
- Research some other primary sources related to this event. See the web links below for some starting points.
- Examine the information you now have about this story and think about this question. Do you think John Macarthur is a rogue or is he a hero? Organise a debate on this subject within the class. Back your arguments up with research where possible.