A thin red line across the Blue Mountains: Governor Macquarie and the military campaigns of 1816

For two violent years between 1814 and 1816 the so-called ‘Wild Mountains Natives’, mostly Gandangarra people, were seen by the Sydney colonists as a major threat. Their raids on the fringes of the Cumberland Plain were regular and at times deadly. There were reports they would ally with the Dharawal warriors and attack the settlements, and ‘murder all the white people before them’. Gandangarra warriors had been seen in warbands of several hundred and settlers had been forced to flee outlying farms for the safety of townships.

After the Battle at Razorback in March 1816 where a scratch militia force under the command of the Bringelly Magistrate Robert Lowe had been defeated in open battle, and after increasing numbers of settlers’ deaths at the hands of warriors, Governor Lachlan Macquarie decided to act.

Historians have long emphasised the fact that Macquarie was the first Governor of New South Wales who had an army rather than navy background, and have seen this as part of his methodical and clinical approach to the sweeping campaigns of 1816, designed to ‘Strike them (Sydney Aboriginal people) with Terror’. But what particular military experience did Macquarie bring to the colony? And did this have any bearing on what was essentially guerrilla warfare in 1816? There has been little attention paid to the influence Macquarie’s field and campaign experience may have had on warfare in the Sydney region and there has been no real interrogation of his – and others in his circle – motivations for the largest military campaign in the early colony.

An old soldier

Before the dire situation of 1816, Macquarie had travelled by coach and horses across the Blue Mountains to inspect the ‘New Discovered Country’ of the Wiradjuri lands around Bathurst. In his journal and his reports back to the authorities in England he waxed lyrical about the grasslands of the Bathurst Plains. This ‘rich, fertile country’ was, he believed, critical to the expansion of the colony beyond the Sydney basin that it had been trapped in for so long.

So Macquarie certainly had a good first-hand knowledge of the long and isolated route of William Cox’s newly built road over the mountains, and would have well understood its vulnerabilities. Perhaps he was reminded of the road from the Malabar Cost to Mysore in India. This road up and over the Western Ghats via the Poodicherum Pass was a significant physical challenge (and remains so today, popular with trekkers and mountain bikers). Macquarie had traversed this road three times (in 1791, 1792 and 1799) and had also campaigned in the Western Ghats against the Pazhassi Raja (aka Kerala Varma) in 1797.

This campaign of guerrilla warfare prior to the defeat of Tipu Sultan had dragged on from 1793-1805. British forces stretched out along the narrow, jungle covered mountain roads were always vulnerable. The similarities between the new road across the rugged Blue Mountains and the road from the Malabar Coast to Mysore may well have influenced Macquarie’s decision in April 1816 to send a detachment under Sergeant Jeremiah Murphy to defend the road and escort all government movements across it. (The Sydney Wars, 243-4)

The Western Ghats in Kerala. ‘View to the west, of Sispara bungalow and Sispara peak across the stream in Sispara pass from the Sispara ghat trail’, Lithograph after Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke, 1847 (details)

By 1797 Macquarie had made his way through the ranks of the British Army in India to the position of Brevet Major. He had seen action in regular warfare at the siege of Cochin in 1795 and the capture of Colombo and Point de Galle in 1796. In April 1797 he heard news that Governor Jonathan Duncan and Lieutenant General Stuart were in Tellicherry preparing for a military campaign against the Pyché Rajah in the Cottiote region of the Malabar Coast. Macquarie immediately volunteered for active service and was given command of the Advance Guard of 700 men, made up of four companies of the 77th Regiment and a battalion of the 3rd Native Infantry Regiment. Macquarie recorded his experiences during the campaign for the three-week period from 3-22 May, 1797. On May 9 Macquarie led his Advance guard out from Kydree and as he wrote in his journal:

… we marched on for about an Hour, through very close Jungle, and occasionally through Batty Fields, without meeting with any molestation, until we entered a narrow Pass that led through remarkable thick Jungle and rough broken Ground full of Ravines, Rocks and Banks that afforded excellent cover for the Enemy. 

It was in this pass that the British ‘convoys were afterwards so severely attacked and annoyed by the Enemy’ and Macquarie went through several days of skirmishing with forces who were ‘no sooner Dislodged from one set of Rocks and Banks than they occupied others at a distance to annoy us from with this teasing and galling Fire’. Macquarie led his men in charging ‘the different Bodies of the enemy posted on the Heights and very soon put them to the Rout’, and he received a minor wound from a spent musket ball. Macquarie reflected on his experience of what he called an ‘extraordinary mode of warfare’ and noted how communication and supply route guard posts were established after the campaign in response to the fact that while ‘their Troops must now be fully sensible that they never can stand us in the Field’, the enemy could still easily cut British communications in narrow roads through mountain passes covered in dense jungle.

Western Ghats as seen from Gobichettipalayam, by Magentic Manifestations – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 (details)

An advantageous retreating ground

In Sydney between 1814 and 1816 an often repeated reason for the scourge of raids and attacks on outlying farms was that warriors could easily retreat into the rugged Blue Mountains after plundering farms of corn and livestock. The mountains were described by one early colonist as ‘advantageous retreating grounds’ where soldiers and armed parties could never hope to capture those responsible for these ‘depredations’.

In 1816, Macquarie and his military officers were obviously aware of this when they planned their campaign. Each detachment was to support the other and cover any warriors trying to escape into the mountains. Once the initial campaign was devised to sweep around the north, down the west and to the south of the Cumberland Plain, Macquarie added an important but often overlooked additional attachment to guard the Bathurst or Western Road.  

A map showing the extent of Macquarie’s 1816 campaign. The Sydney Wars, p 224

‘Celebrating’ the Appin Massacre

While Macquarie’s military experience should be highlighted, what of the other officers involved in the 1816 campaigns? Who else may have helped to shape Macquarie’s military thinking and planning? The officers directed to lead detachments in the campaigns also had direct military experience of campaigning in rough terrain. Captains James Wallis and William Schaw of the 46th Regiment had both served in the West Indies and campaigned in the defense of Dominica against the French in February 1805. Captain John Watts, Macquarie’s aide de camp, had served in the West Indies, firstly in the 64th Regiment, and later with the 46th Regiment in the capture of Guadeloupe from the French in 1810 and Captain John Gill (46th Regiment) probably also served in the West Indies.

There was a wealth of military experience surrounding Macquarie. Captain Henry Colden Antill, Macquarie’s Major of Brigade, served with the 73rd Regiment in India between 1798 and 1806 and earned promotion in the field during the storming of Seringapatam on 4 May 1799. And finally, Lieutenant Colonel Molle, commander of the 46th Regiment and Lieutenant Governor, certainly could have contributed to the planning of the 1816 campaign, although an increasing estrangement between Macquarie and Molle may have been at issue here.

This seating plan for a dinner party at Government House includes the senior military figures in the colony and officers involved in the 1816 campaign. It has been suggested that the dinner party may have been held to celebrate the recent safe return of the three detachments from campaigning on the Cumberland Plain – a campaign that included the massacre of 14 Aboriginal people, cutting off the heads of two and stringing their bodies from trees, and bringing women and children in as prisoners. ‘Table Plan for a Dinner Party at Government House.’ (Ca. 1815?) Macquarie Papers – Single Letters and Fragments 1801-1820 ML MSS 4199 Item 6

Macquarie researcher Robin Walsh raises other important questions about the 1816 campaign. What role did the Governor’s Secretary, ‘intimate friend and loyal supporter’ John Campbell play? Campbell was influential in shaping official policy during Macquarie’s governorship. He also had a vested interest in land near Bringelly on the fringes of the Sydney basin in 1816 with his Shancomore and Ballynashannon estates – both of which had been raided by warriors and plundered of stock and produce. Did he urge Macquarie to act? Campbell’s role in the military responses to the raids and attacks on the out-settlements in 1816 must be considered, as should his role in shaping the language of punishment by punitive expedition and any subsequent ‘reconciliation’ – his role as ‘official censor’ for the Sydney Gazette newspaper was in fact important in shaping the views of the entire colony.

The strategic significance of the Bathurst Road in Macquarie’s response to conflict with the Sydney people has been overlooked by a focus on the crossing of the Blue Mountains, the construction of the road, and the opening up of the ‘New Discovered Lands’. This teleological view of these histories has added to the erasure of the significance of Aboriginal resistance warfare in this period from broader historical memory (by non-Indigenous Australians at least).

The Gandangarra were perceived as the major threat in 1814-1816 and Macquarie almost certainly would have been aware of the similarities between this road and its’ vulnerabilities to attack in the same way that the road from the Malabar Coast to Mysore had been prior to the defeat of Tipu Sultan. The extent to which military officers in the early colony used their knowledge and experience of guerrilla warfare in places such as India and North America and adapted this to the specifics of Australian Frontier Wars, has only comparatively recently been of interest to military historians. From Captain Watkin Tench’s first use of what was to become a ubiquitous part of armed responses to Aboriginal resistance – the dawn raid – in 1790, to Macquarie’s thin red line across the Blue Mountains in 1816, there is much still to be uncovered about the impact of the British armed forces in Australia, and the significance of the threats they faced.


With thanks to Macquarie researcher Robin Walsh for insights into Macquarie’s military experience in India.


Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie Archive


Macquarie, Lachlan. Journal No. 3: 29 December 1794 – 27 September 1799. Mitchell Library, Sydney. ML Ref: A769 pp.225 – 260

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