Flat White

The real Macquarie

29 August 2017

8:14 PM

29 August 2017

8:14 PM

Lachlan Macquarie. The name of New South Wales fifth governor is now the subject of controversy, its owner branded a symbol of foreign domination. The head of the department of indigenous studies at the university that bears has name has even described him as “a mass murderer who ordered the genocide of indigenous people”.

Macquarie is credited with overseeing the transition of the far-flung outpost of the Empire from a penal settlement to a free colony; seen as a key shaper of the future Australia.

An earlier episode in what is now Sri Lanka give us the measure of the man. It reveals a soldier with no mean skills as a diplomat — in matters large and small.

The future Governor of His Majesty’s colony of New South Wales began his army career at 14, accompanying his uncle, Murdoch Maclaine of Lochbuie to North America, where the Revolutionary War threatened to engulf any British troops  and settlers, who were now calling themselves by that new-fangled name, ‘Americans’.

In April the  next year, young Mr Macquarie was elevated to Ensign Macquarie of the 2nd Battalion of the 84th Regiment, known as the Royal Highland Emigrants and went on to soldier through sparsely settled outposts of Halifax, Nova Scotia and New York and Charleston.

Then to Jamaica, still Britain’s most valuable West Indian colony after Barbados, and after Jamaica, India and Ceylon, where he fought at Cannanore, Seringapatam and Cochin. In Ceylon, he oversaw the capture of Colombo and Point de Galle, both held by a vast mercantile multinational, the Dutch East India Company.

Perhaps it was because Macquarie was not English but a Highland Scot, a man from the islands, left fatherless when he was 13, in a family with little more than an honourable Scottish clan name – his mother was a Maclaine and his father closely related to the clan chieftain – that he behaved with such diplomatic skill and deftness.

The times required a practiced pair of hands, for Europe lay under the well-polished boots of Napoleon’s Grand Army. The Dutch ruler had fled to England, to Chatham House from which safe place he wrote the so-called ‘Chatham House letters’, in which he directed all Dutch governors in Batavia, Ceylon and other Dutch possessions to cede their territories to British forces to save them from falling into French hands.


Macquarie’s report on the handover of Galle, have a brisk corporate flavour:

I have now the honor to report to you that I took possession and received charge of the   Town and Fortress of Galle from Mr. Fretz the Dutch Commandeur this morning at Nine O’clock; having previously made the necessary arrangements with him for disarming the Dutch Garrison and receiving the British Troops into the Fort; which was done accordingly in all due form at the hour I have already mentioned.

In justice to Mr. Fretz I must beg leave to say…., that the Place was delivered up and surrendered to us in the most orderly, regular, and polite manner possible. The Dutch Garrison Paraded, Presented their Arms, and Piled them afterwards with the utmost regularity and order, on the Grand Parade within the Fort, fronting the British Detachment which was formed on the same Parade opposite to them.

That ‘most orderly, regular and polite manner possible’ reveals the realpolitik of the situation; the Fort’s Dutch inhabitants had realized early on that it was only a matter of time until the British, a seafaring nation of shopkeepers even more determined than the Dutch, would be in control of the island and the dominant European power in Asia.

Lord Hobart, later to give his name to an Australian capital city, was the Governor of Madras. He wrote to Van Anglebeek, the harassed Dutch governor in Colombo, offering incentives including a peaceful transition that might be effected, existing laws and customs respected and no new taxes and duties imposed.

Officers of the Dutch Government would be left in full and free possession of their employment until his Majesty’s [wishes] shall be known, European troops in the Dutch service would be taken into British pay on the terms on which they are already employed … friendly relations to be maintained with the inhabitants who are permitted to carry on their occupations and their external trade carried on a most-favoured nation basis.

In Galle, Macquarie, who could have thrown his weight about, was quietly, determinedly diplomatic, Fretz equally so; both men, representing their respective nations, had much to gain and equally to lose, if the endeavour went wrong.

I introduced the officers of the Detachment to Mr Fretz, who politely invited them all to a very handsome Entertainment at his own house at 2 O’clock, and when [they were] assembled, received them with the utmost politeness and hospitality.

His diplomatic skills were tested when ‘Mr Fretz’, the former Commandeur of Point de Galle Fort asked for Macquarie’s personal intercession with the British commander-in-chief in Colombo, General Stuart, on a very personal matter pertaining to the eldest Fretz daughter.

Anna Diederica was unhappily married to Pieter Van Spall, son of Cochin’s Governor. She needed a divorce settlement, and this required agreement of the British commander-in-chief. Macquarie wrote to Fretz:

General Stuart… has been able to allow your own Civil Court of Justice to take Cognizance of your Daughter’s present very unpleasant and unhappy situation with her husband Mr Van Spall [sic] and I trust an eternal separation.

It seems likely Macquarie was indicating that the British administration would have no objections to the matter being handled under Roman-Dutch law, which, still applies in matters of inheritance in Sri Lanka.

Diedrich Fretz and Lachlan Macquarie, on opposite sides in the surrender of Point de Galle were both required to act in delicate diplomatic situations.

In a thank-you letter before he returned to Colombo, Macquarie wrote to Fretz:

I consider myself peculiarly fortunate in having gained and Secured the friendship of so very respectable a character as yourself.

His gratitude, perhaps relief, at the practical and courteous dealing of Fretz in Galle, assisted matters; Macquarie to Major Patrick Alexander Agnew, on February 1796:

The inhabitants of Galle are a quiet, peaceable Sort of People and agree with the troops extremely well.

Galle, now a popular tourist destination, UN Heritage site, with inhabitants indeed a ‘quiet, peaceable sort of people’ is one of the top tourist destinations. Bridal parties pose for pictures on the ramparts and at night the sea is shining pewter, strung with jewel lights shimmering across the water, from the fishing boats out at sea. Many of the old Dutch trading houses are now luxurious B&Bs.

Macquarie moved on to yet another, somewhat larger island where he dealt with the rebellious Rum Corps, recalcitrant convicts and unhappy settlers and staked out a land claim to lay the foundations of the merino sheep industry.

It seems a shame that Macquarie’s record, outstanding in its time, should be brought down, judged by the mores of a much later age.

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