Australia’s first lemonade maker
History – and my history teachers – have not been kind to John McArthur. He might have kickstarted the Australian wool industry, but he has generally been portrayed as self-serving, volatile and arrogant. It seems there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do to turn a dollar. He smudged the lines when it came to corruption and bribery.
Yet there is an aspect of his life that gets little credit. John McArthur was a great lemonade maker.
The McArthurs arrived as part of the 2nd fleet in Botany Bay in 1790. John settled down to carve out a military career. He made a lot of money … and a lot of enemies, including a string of governors. But in 1801 he went too far. Never the diplomat, he wounded his commanding officer in a duel, and was transported back to England for trial.
He was away for 4 years. When he did return home he managed to behave himself for three years but then things came to a head with Governor Bligh. This little fracas ended up as the infamous Rum Rebellion.
The New South Wales Army Corp deposed Bligh and McArthur found himself appointed Colonial Secretary. While hundreds of petty criminals were being transported to Australia as a punishment for their crimes, this escapade scored John McArthur another dose of reverse transportation where he was sent back to England for eight years trying to clear his name.
Now you could forgive McArthur for giving up at this point. He was trying to breed a new type of sheep from thousands of miles away. He was virtually out of touch all the time. His only method of communication was letters and it often took more than a year for him to get a reply. He went for years without seeing any of the sheep he was trying to breed.
But John was a lemonade maker. When life coughed up lemons … he made lemonade.
McArthur used his first stint back in England to maximum advantage. On the boat trip, he befriended the son of Sir Walter Farquahar, physician to the Prince of Wales. When he arrived in England, John went to see Sir Walter and brought him news of his son’s progress. Sir Walter subsequently introduced John to key members of the British government who championed his cause.
John McArthur could not have arrived back in England at a better time. England imported most of its fine wool from Spain, but the Napoleonic war had severely disrupted supply. Woollen mills were desperate for a steady supply of fine wool.
When McArthur met with representatives of the wool staplers of England, he convinced them that he was the absolute authority on Australian wool.
This meeting lead to a submission to the Privy Council, and a recommendation from that Council to the British Government, that Australia be financially encouraged to develop its fine wool industry.
Not only did he avoid going to trial, John McArthur convinced the government of the day to support his efforts to build a national flock of fine wool merinos. He triumphantly sailed back to Botany Bay in his own ship, the “Argo” (Jason and the Argonauts sailed in the original “Argo” in their quest to find the Golden Fleece). He brought with him breeding merinos from the King’s own royal flock. The King’s flock was considered a national treasure and this was the first time any of these sheep were allowed to leave England. John also returned with a grant for 2000 hectares of the Colony’s best pastures!
McArthur’s second stint in England was just as fruitful. He became the sales and marketing department for his own wool. He developed new markets. He studied every aspect of the textile industry. He worked with clothing manufacturers assessing their needs. His letters home were full of valuable information on how to best clean and prepare wool for sale. In 1821 McArthur’s wool was being bought at auction for 10s 4d /lb, five times the price achieved by other colonial wool growers.
It wasn’t John’s choice to spend all this time away from the farm. When he was transported back to England it must have looked like lemons all the way. It just goes to show you what can be done, even with a load of lemons, when you put your mind to it.
Next time: My mission? Turn my lemons into sweet lemonade!
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