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Captain John Hunter
1737 - 1821


29 August 1737 in Leith, Scotland, the son of William Hunter, a captain in the merchant service, and Helen, née Drummond, daughter of J. Drummond, a lord provost of Edinburgh.
Early Years

As a boy Hunter was sent to live with an uncle in the town of Lynn in Norfolk, and also at Edinburgh.

He received the classical education of the time.

Hunter was sent to University of Edinburgh, but soon left it to join the navy as a captain's servant to Thomas Knackston on HMS Grampus.

In 1755 he was enrolled as able seaman on the Centaur, became a midshipman and served on the Union and then the Neptune.

He passed examinations and qualified for promotion to lieutenant in February 1760 but was not 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 or was absent.

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 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, in 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.

loss of HMS Sirius

After the loss of HMS Sirius off Norfolk Island, Hunter returned to England in 1792.

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.

Hunter arrived at Sydney on 7 September 1795 on HMS Reliance and took up the office of governor on 11 September 1795.

When the platypus was first discovered by Europeans in 1798, a pelt and sketch were sent back to the United Kingdom by John Hunter
Hunter's difficulties as Governor

After Phillip left the colony the military took complete control.

During the lieutenant-governorship of Francis Grose, who unmercifully exploited the convicts, a great traffic in alcoholic 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 realised that these powers had to be restored to the civil administration, a difficult task 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 likely that if Hunter had attempted to do so he would have only precipitated the rum rebellion which took place in William Bligh's time.

Recall to UK

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 from the Duke of Portland, one of the three secretaries of state.

Hunter acknowledged this dispatch on 20 April 1800, and left for England on 28 September 1800, handing over the government to the Lieutenant-Governor King.

When Hunter arrived he endeavoured to vindicate his character with the authorities but was given no opportunity. Hunter 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. Hints for the Reduction of Such Expense and for Reforming the Prevailing Abuses, which has become 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 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 13 March 1821.

His tomb can be seen in the churchyard of St John at Hackney.


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