Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 31, 2010

An Unlikely Leader (2009), by Robert Barnes

I rather like reviewing the occasional book from Sydney University Press.  The Australian Classics Library introduced me to some authors I didn’t know, and Appo, Recollections of a Member of the Sydney Push was a chance to learn about the Push, a phenomenon I had heard of, but knew nothing about.

An unlikely leader: the life and times of Captain John Hunter by Robert Barnes seemed intriguing because poor old Hunter tends to be a bit neglected in Australian history: as the second governor of the infant colony of New South Wales (1795 – 1800) and sandwiched in between  Captain Arthur Phillip and Captain Phillip King , Captain John Hunter (unwillingly) presided over the anarchic rule of the military (who were trafficking in rum) and was recalled to England because he couldn’t make them behave themselves.  Where Phillip had the prestige of being ‘founder of the nation’ and King at least took on the ringleader John Macarthur even if he wasn’t very successful, Hunter didn’t have the leadership qualities to do much more than wring his hands.  His efforts to improve the conduct of the colony by insisting on church attendance provoked the arson of the church, and not only that, during the course of his naval career he managed to lose two ships under his command, the HMS Sirius and the HMS Venerable. (To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, while the loss of one may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.)

Robert Barnes had made a stout effort to vindicate Hunter, but the trouble is, it reads a bit like his PhD. In part, it’s the way the book is structured, beginning with a discussion of his sources (of which there are not many) and then an introduction to the historical period and the role of the Enlightenment in shaping British policy.  There are a few B&W pictures, maps and diagrams, but dot points and numbered arguments slip into the text; paragraphs are long and the language is academic in tone.  I suppose it depends on who the target audience is: SUP is an academic imprint, so it’s probably not intended to hit the popular history shelves.  Is it meant for students of Oz History, in the later years of schooling or at university?

An adventurous anecdote early in the book might have been a better start.  When Hunter was 40, he was badly injured during the wreck of the Sirius off Norfolk Island: like the other men being rescued he was hauled through a raging surf by a flying fox and it often broke down.   He copped major bruising on his shoulder when he was buffeted around underwater for a good long time and onlookers feared for his life.  But he was fit and strong and survived this harrowing incident, only to have to face similar peril when the Venerable went down and at 67 had to be dangled overboard into the lifeboats.

Anyway, it would be a pity if An Unlikely Leader never makes it much past browsing on the bookseller’s shelf or a compulsory reading list.    Hunter’s advancement from humble beginnings to governorship of our first colony and a Vice Admiralty is a metaphor for social mobility in Australian history, and he was actually a brave, compassionate and thoughtful man.   He was unfortunate that preferment took a while because late promotion seems to have limited his opportunities to develop leadership skills; he was also unfortunate in the loss of the ships because it may not have been really his fault. He made tactical mistakes, it’s true, but only the most brilliant of naval commanders did not and the occasional grounding or near-miss was not unusual in the days of sail.   Then again, as Barnes points out, Hunter’s records don’t always give the full picture, and the courts martial were really only formalities rather than thorough investigations, so it’s hard to know whether there was a bit of a whitewash going on.

Well, was Hunter, as Manning Clark said,‘a man of incorruptible integrity, unceasing zeal and a sound and impartial judgement’ or was he ‘out of his depth’? (p166) Barnes thinks that these assessments are simplistic, given the complexity of governing the fledgling colony at the time.   The military was corrupt, and determined to hang onto its power.  They defied Hunter, they sabotaged him, and they spread innuendo that made its way back to Britain.  Barnes is at pains to be as fair as possible to the New South Wales Corps and notes their positive contribution to the development of agriculture and the early economy of the colony, but he can’t really rescue Hunter from the conclusion that he wasn’t up to the job of managing a very difficult place to govern.  He was ‘inexperienced, trusting, gullible and naive’. (p194).

Nevertheless, his achievements stand.  He advocated trial by jury, he introduced a form of local government, he undertook practical capital works including roads, took a keen interest in the welfare of the small community, and had an enlightened attitude towards the Aboriginal population.  One of the most interesting propositions in this book is the question of the smallpox epidemic which decimated the Aboriginal population in this early period.  Barnes is keen to refute the accusation that the epidemic was a form of deliberate bio-genocide because it impacts so harshly on Hunter’s reputation – and he appears to have science on his side. Recent research shows that smallpox came to Australia before settlement and through contact with the Macassan fishermen who traded with Aborigines up north, spreading south and east  along Aboriginal paths.

Hunter’s achievements, however, are not the things for which he has been remembered.  Once back in Britain, he worked hard to restore his reputation but his promotion to Vice-Admiral seems to have had more to do with his longevity than anything else. While there are plenty of places named after him (the Hunter Valley, the Hunter River, some mountains and islands, a park, a suburb and a hospital) most people, says Barnes, know little about him.

Alas, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there are good reasons for that!

Author: Robert Barnes
Title: An unlikely leader: the life and times of Captain John Hunter
Sydney University Press
ISBN: 9781920899196
Source: Review copy from Sydney University Press. $34.95


  1. Nice review Lisa. (And if all he left behind was the Hunter Valley, I’d approve – LOL)


  2. I’ll raise a toast to him next time I go! (


  3. A bit hard to see why the smallpox outbreak of 1789 would have affected Hunter’s reputation, since Phillip was the then Governor, and Hunter was actually sailing the “Sirius” back from Cape Town when the outbreak occurred.


  4. Hello, Brian, thanks for your comment:)
    I’m afraid it’s been rather a while since I read this book and I don’t have it any more to clarify what was written about smallpox. Sorry!


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