In 1788 a young gentlewoman raised in the parsonage of an English village married a handsome, haughty and penniless army officer.
In any Austen novel that would be the end of the story but for the real-life woman who would become a genuine Australian pioneer, it was just the beginning.
Elizabeth and John Macarthur married for love – and the son born five months after the wedding ceremony proved it. With her new husband and sickly infant, Elizabeth (pregnant again and nauseous with it) had the courage to break out of her confined world and sail half way around the world in a foetid convict ship. Along the way John fought a duel with a colleague, quarrelled with his commanding officer and had half the family’s already tiny cabin appropriated for use as a convict hospital.
When John eventually fell gravely ill, Elizabeth nursed him around the clock, exhausting herself in the process and endangering her pregnancy. The small family survived, although the baby girl born to Elizabeth during that arduous voyage did not.
After such a beginning, the subsequent achievements of Elizabeth and John are doubly fascinating. A woman of intelligence and wit, Elizabeth became a favourite with the officers and personal friend to a series of Governor’s wives. After years of privation in a colony on the edge of the world the Macarthurs painstakingly carved out a vast agricultural empire, all the while maintaining a relationship with the indigenous locals that evidence suggests was, perhaps surprisingly, based on respect and friendship. This is an aspect I explore in some depth.
John Macarthur would eventually be credited with establishing the Australian wool industry, although it was practical Elizabeth who ably managed their holdings for a dozen or so years while John was in exile and disgrace. He sent letter after letter full of advice and suggestions – most of which Elizabeth sensibly ignored. Upon his return the family faced bankruptcy and scandal, before a widowed Elizabeth became a sharp-eyed dowager whose grown sons and daughters regularly sought her advice and counsel.
Elizabeth Macarthur’s life is interesting in itself but it also serves as a prism through which to view the first sixty years of the colony. Elizabeth Macarthur was an engaged participant in many of the important historic, commercial and political activities of her era.
To date, where she is mentioned at all it is usually only as John Macarthur’s wife, a staid society matron, rather than as the vibrant woman who, in her own right, played a key role in the establishment of the nation. But this was a matron who managed an extensive farming enterprise, who regularly rode across her acres to work side by side with the former convicts who comprised her workforce and then would come home again to her children (she had nine) in order to wash, change, and dine in splendour at the Governor’s table.
Elizabeth was very much a party to the important decisions that shaped her family’s fortunes – including key decisions about staying in or leaving Australia forever. She took immediate and practical action to ameliorate some of her husband’s wilder political gaffes. And the farmer’s daughter was never simply a farmer’s wife but a farmer and business manager in her own right. Through Elizabeth Macarthur we gain a clearer picture of the way women were then, as now, crucial to the economic viability of a family farming enterprise.
In the biography I examine Elizabeth’s life in context – as a woman, an officer’s wife, a white colonist, a farmer, a mother, an employer and as an ambitious person keen to cement her family’s future. You can read an early draft of the opening paragraph here, in my first blog post.
Elizabeth Macarthur: a life at the edge of the world will be published in April 2018, by Text Publishing.