Macquarie and Marsden: Take a fresh look at colonial 'heroes'

As a society, Australia is learning to question ideas which have been ingrained in our thinking. For example, Australia’s colonial history and the treatment of our Indigenous people.

This movement towards re-evaluating our past has also stirred some Christians to reconsider the actions of even the people they have long admired.

New book Judging the Macquaries speaks right into this. Written by historian, Bible translator, linguist and award-winning author Dr John Harris, Judging the Macquaries does not shy away from uncomfortable history.

“Originally the book was simply going to be about Elizabeth Macquarie … but I soon found out that it would be impossible to write about Elizabeth without writing about her husband Lachlan,” Harris explains.

Lachlan Macquarie served as New South Wales governor between 1810 and 1821, and the Christian politician was heavily involved in transforming NSW from a penal colony into a ‘free’ society. Such achievements has seen him praised as ‘The Father of Australia’ but, in more recent times, Lachlan Macquarie has been criticised for his role in ordering military force be used against Indigenous people.

Rather than merely documenting the actions and events which took place under his governorship, Judging the Macquaries presents Harris’ insight into the values underpinning that era. Harris wanted to take a fresh look at the role played by values, due to the lasting impact of so much that happened during the early 19th Century.

“It ended up being a book about … what people thought of [Lachlan Macquarie] at the time, both those who loved him and admired him – and those who immensely disliked him,” Harris says.

One person who “immensely disliked” Macquarie was Reverend Samuel Marsden, the senior chaplain of the Church of England in the New South Wales colony.

Marsden has been revered by Christians as the “missionary who brought the gospel to the Maori people” in New Zealand, and much honour has been bestowed upon him. However, other more recent assessments of Marsden are consistent with the description of a “flogging parson”, a label that Harris affirms.

Conflict with Marsden eventually led Macquarie to resign as governor, so Harris dedicated a significant proportion of his book to understanding what went on between these two prominent Christian leaders.

“Macquarie thought that transportation to Australia was enough; that it was sufficient punishment.” – John Harris

Harris sought to re-assess Marsden’s character as well, to help understand why he disagreed with Macquarie so vehemently. This involved comparing and contrasting their differing political and theological views; in particular, their attitudes towards convicts.

“Marsden felt that people who had lost their class had no right to regain it,” Harris explains. “He saw that as an example of the wrath of God …whereas Macquarie underlined in his prayer book that God preferred to restore rather than punish.

“Macquarie thought that transportation to Australia was enough; that it was sufficient punishment.”

This personal conviction led Macquarie to free 1,600 convicts, although his predecessors freed very few.

Such divergent attitudes and understandings of the Bible, between Macquarie and Marsden, extended into their actions towards Indigenous Australians and their treatment by English settlers. Harris looks back at their actions by applying a contemporary lens that recognises and grieves the dispossession of Indigenous people.

“Marsden regarded Aboriginal people as primitive and degraded, and he was not enthusiastic about the missions,” writes Harris.

This was a commonly held attitude at the time – and one which Australian society has progressively reassessed as wrong.

“Whereas Macquarie’s intent was always to try to help and encourage them to accept a new way of living. He was genuinely friendly and they reciprocated, but he did not try to understand life from their perspective as the original but now occupied people.”

Harris judges both these views as the “blindness at the heart of colonialism”. He claims that Marsden and Macquarie were both moulded to believe in the superiority of British culture, an outlook both men held in their perception of Indigenous people.

“Macquarie served the Empire. And he was blind to the sins of Empire.” – John Harris

In this light, Harris addresses such infamous events as the Appin Massacre, where fourteen Gandangara people were killed by the military in 1816.

“We cannot avoid and should not want to avoid the fact that Lachlan Macquarie did send troops against Indigenous people,” says Harris.

“He served the Empire. And he was blind to the sins of Empire. The sins of dispossession of people from their lands, the sins of thinking that some people are of less worth than your own people.”

Through his analysis of character, assumptions and actions, Harris brings not only the blind spots of Marsden and Macquarie to the fore, but also the problematic legacy of the colonisation of Indigenous peoples. A legacy whose widespread consequences continue to be felt and .

On the one hand, Judging the Macquaries can be read as a history textbook. On the other, by its identifying of historical blind spots, Judging the Macquaries may prompt readers – including Christians – to identify their own blind spots. Or, at least, to consider they may even have blind spots.

“We all have to respond to God’s word and to think very deeply about how we should behave as well,” notes Harris about the continual call to all of us, to live out values upheld by God – and not merely ‘judge’ the actions of those before us.

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