Was John Macarthur a genius or a “colonial monster” and a tyrant?

If hagiography’s problem is that it uproots people from history and singles them out as lone stars from the vast constellation of influences that shaped them, then so does denigration. A monster, like a saint, is someone who is made radically unique by removing them from their social, intellectual, and political context. Both lack intimate life – for villain or genius is a lonely pursuit – and their ideas are ennobled or demeaned by being utterly different from those of others of their time.

John Macarthur whether he is remembered as “the genius Mr. MacA”, “father of the Australian fleece” or most recently by writer Kate Grenville as “colonial monster”, bully or “the most difficult man in the world at that time”. oscillates wildly between the two extremes.

It is for this reason that Alan Atkinson’s superb biography is aptly titled Elizabeth and John: The Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm is a welcome contribution to Australian history, written in a manner that is not readily accessible but poetic and enduringly enjoyable to both the scholar and the intelligent reader.

Alan Atkinson explains that the story of John Macarthur (left) must also be a story of his wife Elizabeth (right).

Alan Atkinson explains that the story of John Macarthur (left) must also be a story of his wife Elizabeth (right).

Atkinson explains that the story of John must also be a story of his wife Elizabeth, who in turn is a story of marriage, family and friends; of the close ties that made imperial expansion possible. Far from uprooting the Macarthurs, Atkinson grounds them in an archival “forest of voices,” taking the reader on a gentle stroll to inspect the surroundings — the soil, the air, and the climate — in which their ambitions were sown, and the imprint of Enlightenment philosophy on their ways of thinking, their emotional structures, and John’s political interventions.

We see how their wealth depended not simply on genius or skill, but on the vagaries of markets in Britain and the violence of expropriation in Australia. This is a story embedded and embodied – we hear “tear-ragged” voices as family members die, we feel the pangs of gout, the sharp pangs of madness, and we sit with the Macarthurs in the imperial webs of trade, curiosity, coercion and caring that shimmered in the 18th-century twilight and swept the surface of the European world.

Elizabeth and John: The Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm by Alan Atkinson.

Elizabeth and John: The Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm by Alan Atkinson.

Elizabeth and John focuses on the period from the 1790s to the 1830s, but its intellectual framework derives from the scholarship of 18th-century Enlightenment thought. To that end, we follow the history of the Macarthurs through a series of well-known episodes – John’s military service, their arrival in Sydney in the 1790s, their experiments in sheep farming, the (so-called) Rum Rebellion, and John’s politics and commercial interventions in the 1820s and ’30s – but instead of being a simple tale of colonial ambitions or burgeoning democracy, it is surprisingly a tale of the influence of European philosophical and scientific thought on the early colony.

Macarthur’s research into viticulture in 1815-16, for example, sees him and his sons quoting Rousseau on the streets of Geneva, attending public lectures, and learning to understand wine production as an integrated agro-economy: further evidence of the “persistence” of the French philosophers on a unified web of life″⁣. The Macarthurs’ thinking is a guide for farmers grappling with climate change today.

Atkinson is as concerned with the history of ideas as he is with the Macarthurs, and these two preoccupations produce a book delightfully dizzying in breadth and scope. This is a story that hovers between mammoth global processes and exquisite personal feelings.

https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/a-history-that-soars-and-swoops-the-life-of-the-macarthurs-20221229-p5c9bq.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture Was John Macarthur a genius or a “colonial monster” and a tyrant?

Jaclyn Diaz

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