John Hunter (New South Wales)

John Hunter (New South Wales)

Vice-Admiral John Hunter, RN (29 August 1737 – 13 March 1821) was a British naval officer and colonial administrator who succeeded Arthur Phillip as the second governor of New South Wales, Australia from 1795 to 1800.


Hunter was born in Leith, Scotland in 1737. His father, William Hunter, was a captain in the merchant service. His mother a daughter of J. Drummond. As a boy he was sent to live with an uncle in the town of Lynn, where, and also at Edinburgh, he received the classical education of the time. He was sent to University of Edinburgh, but soon left it to become a captain's servant in the navy. In 1755 he was made a midshipman, and after serving in various vessels passed the examination for a lieutenant in 1760. He was not, however, appointed lieutenant until 1780. When the preparation of the First Fleet was in progress, he was made second-in-command on HMS "Sirius". The captain of that ship, Arthur Phillip, was in command of the new colony of New South Wales. Hunter carried a dormant commission as successor to Phillip if he should have died. As with many of the First Fleet officers, he had fought in the American Revolutionary War (1775 to 1783).

An expedition to explore the Parramatta River was led by Hunter early in 1788. This expedition explored and made soundings as far as Iron Cove, Five Dock Bay and Hen and Chicken Bay on the Parramatta River. The Sir William Dixson Research Library in Sydney holds the original copy of the chart of the expedition, entitled [ "Chart of the coasts and harbours of Botany-Bay, Port-Jackson and Broken-Bay, as survey'd by Capt.n John Hunter of H.M.S. Sirius"] . The expedition was significant because it may have marked the first contact to take place between the British and the Indigenous owners of the land, the Wangal Clan, on 5 February 1788. William Bradley's log says that this contact took place while Hunter was having breakfast and is remembered in the name of the suburb, Breakfast Point.

Hunter returned to England in 1792 after the loss of HMS "Sirius", there he prepared for publication his interesting "An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island", published at the beginning of 1793. An abridged edition appeared later in the same year. In the first edition of this work will be found the earliest reference to the possibility of there being a strait between the mainland and Tasmania. On page 126 Hunter says: "There is reason thence to believe, that there is in that space either a very deep gulf, or a straight, which may separate Van Diemen's Land from New Holland." Whilst in England, Hunter saw service in the war with France. With Arthur Phillip's resignation from the governorship of New South Wales in July 1793, Hunter applied for the position in October and was appointed governor in January 1794. Various delays occurred, and it was not until February 1795 that he was able to sail. He arrived at Sydney on 7 September 1795 on HMS "Reliance".


Hunter's difficulties soon began. Immediately Phillip left the colony the military took complete control, and during the lieutenant-governorship of Francis Grose unmercifully exploited the convicts. A great traffic in spirits sprang up, on which there was an enormous profit for the officers concerned. They had obtained the control of the courts and the management of the lands, public stores, and convict labour. Hunter realized that these powers had to be restored to the civil administration, a task of great difficulty. And in John Macarthur he had an opponent who would hardly stop at anything in defending his supposed rights. Eventually Hunter found himself practically helpless. A stronger man might have sent the officers home under arrest, but it is not unlikely that if Hunter had attempted to do so he would have only precipitated the rum rebellion which took place in William Bligh's time. Anonymous letters were even sent to the home authorities charging Hunter with participation in the very abuses he was striving to prevent. In spite of Hunter's vehement defence of the charges made against him, he was recalled in a dispatch dated 5 November 1799. Hunter acknowledged this dispatch on 20 April 1800, and left for England on 28 September 1800. When he arrived he endeavoured to vindicate his character with the authorities but was given no opportunity. He was obliged to state his case in a long pamphlet printed in 1802. Governor Hunter's "Remarks on the Causes of the Colonial Expense of the Establishment of New South Wales". It is a valuable document in early Australian history. In 1804 Hunter was given command of the "Venerable" of 74 guns, which in the following November was driven ashore during a fog and lost. Hunter was subsequently acquitted of all blame.

Hunter was a courageous, humane, and amiable man, and a good officer, but the circumstances in which he was placed made it almost impossible for him to be completely successful as a governor. As his successor Philip Gidley King said, his conduct was "guided by the most upright intentions", and he was "most shamefully deceived by those on whom he had every reason to depend for assistance, information, and advice." Of his sojourn in the colony Hunter said that he "could not have had less comfort, although he would certainly have had greater peace of mind, had he spent the time in a penitentiary". He did good work in exploring and opening up the country near Sydney, and also encouraged the explorations of Matthew Flinders and George Bass. He continued his interest in Australia for long after he left it, and the suggested reforms in his pamphlet were of much value .Hunter was promoted to Rear Admiral on 2 October 1807, and then to Vice-Admiral on 31 July 1810 but never hoisted his Line Flag at sea.

Vice-Admiral John Hunter RN spent his final years at Judd Street, New Road, Hackney, London; where he died on 13th March 1821. His tomb can be seen in the churchyard of St John at Hackney.

The Hunter River and Hunter Valley north of Sydney are both named after him, as is the suburb of Hunters Hill in Sydney, and (partly) the John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle.

Further reading

* "The Life of John Hunter, Navigator, Governor, Admiral", Arthur Hoyle, Mulini Press, Canberra, 2001


*Dictionary of Australian Biography|First=John|Last=Hunter|Link=

External links

* [ Portraits of Hunter] in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

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