Oiling The Wheels Of Patronage

John Macarthur is well remembered as the ambitious and ruthless soldier who forged a powerful colonial farming dysnasty. His role in championing the colony’s olive oil industry has largely been forgotten. In fact, his ability to convince colonial officials in London that olives might flourish in Sydney gave him the support he needed to kick-start his struggling career as a wool trader.

An old, bedraggled, pair of grey-leafed olives (Olea europaea) survives in the garden at Elizabeth Farm. They are believed to be the oldest olive trees in Australia, planted either in 1805 or 1817. Their existence enabled John Macarthur to claim credit for pioneering the introduction of olives into Australia.​

Photograph of an olive tree in front of the Elizabeth Farm homestead
The olive tree at Elizabeth Farm. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

In 1825, the French explorer Hyacinthe de Bougainville visited Macarthur at Parramatta and encountered ‘a very fine 20-year-old olive tree laden with fruit from which oil is manufactured’

In fact market gardener and free settler George Suttor is often reported to have introduced the olive to Australia. Although the colony’s first recorded olive did arrive with him in November 1800 in a collection of plants sent to New South Wales by Sir Joseph Banks, only a small number of these plants survived the voyage. An official inventory of imported plants drawn up three years later made no mention of the olive, so it is very likely that Suttor’s single specimen had perished in the meantime1.

By contrast, the olive tree brought to Sydney by John Macarthur in 1805 had flourished. It was a healthy tree in 1808 when John Macarthur’s eldest son Edward returned to England. Years later, as a British army officer stationed in Spain during the Peninsula War, Edward wrote to his sister Elizabeth in Sydney, advising her that once the tree began to bear fruit he would send instructions on how to press and extract its oil2.

And yet again, in 1816, the tree is mentioned in family correspondence, with the clearly proud Elizabeth Macarthur describing her Parramatta garden as brimming with a great abundance of fruit, including ‘oranges, lemons, olives, almonds, grapes, peaches, apricots, nectarines, medlars, pears, apples, raspberries, strawberries, walnuts, cherries, plums, as well as loquats, citrons, shaddocks, pomegranates and guavas3.

  • 1. Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol IV, p277; Historical Records of Australia, Vol IV, pp234–239
  • 2. Letter from Edward Macarthur to Elizabeth Macarthur, 12 February 1813, in Macarthur Papers, ML MSS A2912
  • 3. Letter from Elizabeth Macarthur to Eliza Kingdon, March 1816, in Macarthur Papers, ML MSS A2908 4 Sydney Gazette, 23 May 1812, p2
John Macarthur was also sensing the mood of the administration and its optimism for the future of colonial olives. In 1815, accompanied by his sons James and William, he set off on a research tour of France and Switzerland to study ... the Culture of the Vine and the Olive.

Suttor had meanwhile been back to England and returned to Sydney in 1812 with ‘several plants of the date, palm and olive in a healthy state’, confident that they would do well in the local climate1. Sharing his confidence was London’s Colonial Office, where great hopes were held for horticulture in New South Wales.

At the same time, John Macarthur, while forced to remain abroad in London owing to his involvement in the overthrow of Governor William Bligh, was also sensing the mood of the administration and its optimism for the future of colonial olives. Macarthur, under a cloud of despair and financial hardship, was weighing up his options - return home to the colony or uproot the family and bring them back to England? Remarkably, it was olives that offered an answer. In 1815, accompanied by his sons James and William, he set off on a research tour of France and Switzerland to study ‘the whole practice of the Culture of the Vine and the Olive, and the making [of] the Wine and the Oil’2.

  • 1. Sydney Gazette, 23 May 1812, p2
  • 2. Letter from John Macarthur to Elizabeth Macarthur, 26 December 1814, Macarthur Papers, ML MSS A2898
B/W portrait of man wearing dark coat looking sideways towards the artist with grey hair and white shirt collar.
Portrait of Henry, Earl Bathurst, by Henry Mayer, c1810. National Library of Australia

By May 1816 Macarthur was back in London with a collection of vines and olives, ready for shipment to Australia. He was certain that they would impress Earl Bathurst, Secretary of State for the colonies, and help gain official approval to return to Australia. In the event, it took nearly another year of anxious letters and representations before the Macarthurs got the go-ahead. John and his sons arrived in Sydney in September 1817 with a collection of ‘useful plants’ including two olives from Provence1.

Five years later Macarthur made a favourable impression on Commissioner J T Bigge who had been sent to New South Wales to investigate all aspects of Governor Macquarie’s colonial administration, including the development of agriculture and trade. Bigge reported that the olive trees introduced by Macarthur had already shown signs of assimilation to the climate. He was also confident that olive oil from New South Wales could prove a successful export either to India or Britain and recommended that plants be sent in the convict ships at every convenient opportunity2.

  • 1. Letters from John Macarthur to Elizabeth Macarthur, 1814–1817, in Macarthur Papers, ML MSS A2908; ‘List of plants, remaining alive, on board the Lord Eldon’ in Macarthur Papers, ML MSS A2943
  • 2. Report of the Commissioner of Inquiry on the state of agriculture and trade in the colony of New South Wales: ordered to be printed 4th July 1823, p93

He [Commissioner Bigge] was also confident that olive oil from New South Wales could prove a successful export either to India or Britain and recommended that plants be sent in the convict ships at every convenient opportunity.

Hard on the heels of Bigge’s report, the London-based Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce offered a prize for ‘the person who shall, in the years 1824, 5, and 6, manufacture and import the finest specimen of oil, not less than 10 gallons’ produced from olives grown in New South Wales. In response, the Agricultural Society of New South Wales was forced to admit that, while the olive was now in the hands of more than one individual in the colony, it was too early to expect the commercial production of oil.1

Even by 1828, when the Sydney Botanic Gardens could boast several varieties of European olive trees and had thousands of olive cuttings available for distribution to colonists, an olive-oil industry showed no signs of emerging. According to one landowner, the problem lay with the settlement’s British cultural background. Had the colonists ‘been brought up in climates where the grape vine and olive tree are cultivated, we should have years ago been exporters of wine, olives, and oil.2

  • 1. First anniversary address, list of members, and rules and regulations of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales, Sydney, 1823, pp12–14
  • 2. Sir John Jamison, Report of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of New South Wales for 1828, Sydney, 1829, p32
Portrait of John Macarthur
Portrait of John Macarthur Artist unknown, c1850s. State Library of New South Wales DG 222
the Macarthurs knew that their supporters in the Colonial Office were interested in their progress with the olive

Experience was probably lacking in New South Wales, but the real competition came from the industry for which Macarthur is best remembered, the production and export of fine wool. Even so, the Macarthurs knew that their supporters in the Colonial Office were interested in their progress with the olive, anxious to have a bottle of olives and a bottle of wine as evidence to support their political investment1.

Macarthur’s reputation as the colony’s olive pioneer was consolidated in the 1820s. When French explorer Hyacinthe de Bougainville visited Macarthur at Parramatta in September 1825 he was shown ‘a very fine 20-year-old olive tree laden with fruit from which oil is manufactured’2. A few years later the Sydney Gazette published a chronological history of the introduction of the olive into New South Wales, giving Macarthur credit for its first appearance and listing a number of other early cultivators. A letter to the editor challenged the list of names but did not question Macarthur’s role as pioneer. No one mentioned Suttor3.

Nearly 200 years later it’s impossible to know if the two surviving olive trees at Elizabeth Farm are descendants of those in Macarthur’s 1805 cargo, or perhaps from his later imports. Either way they are a powerful symbol of early European interest in cultivating the olive in Australia.

  • 1. Letter from John Macarthur (junior) to James Macarthur, 24 March 1882, in Macarthur Papers, ML MSS A2911
  • 2. Marc Serge Rivière, The governor’s noble guest: Hyacinthe de Bougainville’s account of Port Jackson, 1825, Melbourne, Miegunyah Press, 1999, p126
  • 3. Sydney Gazette, 29 May 1830, p3; 1 June 1830, p2
Colour photograph of a curving gravel driveway with cactus garden, shrubs and trees, with glimpses of the house visible through the foliage.
The Elizabeth Farm carriage loop, bordered by cactus garden, prickly pear and shrubs. Photo © Paolo Busato for Sydney Living Museums EF10_047