BRISBANE, Sir Thomas Makdougall (1773-1860)

BRISBANE, Sir Thomas Makdougall (1773-1860)
governor of New South Wales, and astronomer
was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, on 23 July 1773. His father, Sir Thomas Brisbane, Bart., fought at Culloden, his mother was Eleonora, daughter of Sir William Bruce, Bart. He was educated by tutors and at the university of Edinburgh. In his seventeenth year he joined the army as an ensign, in 1793 was on active service in Belgium, and in 1796 in the West Indies. Returning to England in 1799 he held various positions and was appointed adjutant-general of the staff at Canterbury in 1810. He was a brigadier-general in the Duke of Wellington's peninsular army in 1812, was promoted to the rank of major-general in 1813, and went in command of a brigade to the United States in 1814. Recalled to England he was too late to fight at Waterloo, but was with the army of occupation until 1818. In November 1819 he married Anna Maria Makdougall. On 3 November 1820 he was advised that he had been appointed governor of New South Wales, and he arrived at Sydney on 7 November 1821.
Brisbane had always been interested in astronomy and in 1808 had erected an observatory near his house in Ayrshire. He brought with him to Australia two astronomical assistants, Karl Rümker (q.v.) and James Dunlop (q.v.), and while waiting for Macquarie to complete his final arrangements, interested himself in making astronomical observations. A few months later he built at Parramatta the first properly equipped Australian observatory. He took over the government on 1 December j821, and at once proceeded to carry out some of the reforms recommended in the report of J. T. Bigge (q.v.). It was unfortunate that Brisbane did not always receive loyal support from his administrative officers, and in particular from Frederick Goulburn, the colonial secretary. A reference to Brisbane's dispatch to Earl Bathurst dated 14 May 1825 will, however, show that Bigge's recommendations had been carefully considered, and that many improvements had been made (H.R. of A., vol. XI, pp. 571-88). Brisbane did not confine his attention to Bigge's report. Early in April 1822 he discovered with some surprise the ease with which grants of land had hitherto been obtained. He immediately introduced a new system under which every grant had the stipulation that for every hundred acres granted the grantee would maintain free of expense to the crown one convict labourer. He also encouraged agriculture on government land, with the result that not only were the convicts healthily employed, but they helped to pay for their own keep. More system was brought into the granting of tickets of leave and pardons. Generally Brisbane's administration had a good effect on the morality of the colony, as the number of persons convicted at the criminal court fell from 208 in 1822 to 100 in 1824. Another improvement made by Brisbane was the introduction in 1823 of a system of calling for supplies by tender. When Dr Wardell (q.v.) and Wentworth (q.v.) brought out their paper the Australian in 1824 Brisbane decided to try the experiment of allowing full latitude of the freedom of the press.
In 1824 an important step took place in the development of government in Australia by the appointment of a nominee council to assist the governor. Brisbane had no desire to be an autocrat and encouraged the development of the council by continually bringing matters before it for consideration. Improvements were also made in the constitution of the judicial courts, and a restricted form of trial by jury was introduced. One official piece of exploration carried out by John Oxley (q.v.) during Brisbane's administration eventually led to the colonization of Queensland, and the private expedition of Hamilton Hume (q.v.) and W. H. Hovell (q.v.) first drew attention to the possibilities of the colonization of what is now Victoria. Another important development was the encouragement of free immigration.
It is clear that Brisbane was doing useful work, but he could no more escape the effects of the faction fights that were constantly going on than could his predecessors. Henry G. Douglass, the assistant-surgeon, was the centre of one of the conflicts that was fought with great bitterness. Arising out of this, charges of various kinds against Brisbane were sent to England. The worst of these, that he had connived at sending female convicts to Emu plains for immoral purposes, was investigated by William Stewart, the lieutenant-governor, John Stephen, assistant judge, and the Rev. William Cowper (q.v.), senior assistant-chaplain, and found to be without the slightest foundation. Brisbane discovered that Goulburn, the colonial secretary, had been withholding documents from him and acting far too much on his own responsibility, and in 1824 reported his conduct to Earl Bathurst. In reply Bathurst recalled both the governor and the colonial secretary in dispatches dated 29 December 1824. Brisbane left Sydney in December 1825 and returned to Scotland. In 1826 he added the name of Makdougall before Brisbane, and settled down to the life of a country gentleman interested in science, his estate, and his regiment. In 1832 he was elected president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in succession to Sir Walter Scott, and in 1836 he was created a baronet. In the same year he was offered the command of the troops stationed in Canada and two years later the chief command in India, but declined both. He continued his astronomical researches, did valuable work, and died much respected and honoured on 27 January 1860. His four children predeceased him.
Brisbane was tall, handsome and benevolent-looking. He was sincerely religious, perfectly impartial, rational and far-seeing, an intellectual and scientific man and a patron of science. The only charge made against him that appears to have any foundation is that he left details to his subordinates. Some people would consider that to be the essence of government. There is no evidence for the suggestion that Brisbane's interest in his observatory caused him to neglect his official duties. When he found that Goulburn was not supporting him he brought the matter before the colonial office, which quite characteristically solved the question by recalling both officers without giving any reason for doing so. Brisbane did good work as a governor, and was the ideal man to be in that position when the first step from autocracy to responsible government was made by establishing the nominee council. He was the first patron of science in Australia, and as such was eulogized by Sir John Herschel when he presented Brisbane with the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. Oxford and Cambridge gave him the honorary degree of D.C.L., and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Societies of both London and Edinburgh. He was created K.C.B. in 1814 and G.C.B. in 1837.
Reminiscences of General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, Edinburgh, 1860; Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. X and XI; The Gentleman's Magazine, 1860, vol. I, p. 298; H. C. Russell, Report of First Meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, pp. 5-7; The Times, 1 February 1860.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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