There is an old clichéd travel joke that encapsulates Australia’s convict history. It goes something like:
A man approaches the immigration officer at the airport. The officer takes his card and asks “Do you have a criminal record?. A little despondent, the traveller responds “No. I didn’t know you still needed one”.
When Lachlan Macquarie became the colony’s fifth governor in 1810, the fledgling British outpost had more convicts and ex-convicts than free settlers, with more prisoners arriving regularly. Macquarie took dramatic decisions that set about Australia developing as a nation, bringing early prosperity to this distant land and earning him the epithet of “Father of Australia”. Macquarie’s name appears all over Australia as suburbs, towns, waterways, streets, banks, hospitals and rivers.
Completely changing the standards of the day, Macquarie ordained that emancipists (convicts who had completed their sentences or been pardoned) were to be treated as equals and were to be given the full opportunity to contribute to the emerging country. Some were offered high roles with ex-convicts becoming head architect, a judge and poet laureate among others.
Other convicts on suitable completion of a difficult task were pardoned. The road over the restrictive Blue Mountains which blocked Sydney from the wide open farming lands of Australia was built to a high standard in just six months, with the convict construction crew offered free land to farm along with their freedom in exchange. Indeed, Macquarie is credited with Australian’s value of classless society and a fair go.
Impressively, Macquarie built reasonable relations with the (rightly) suspicious native Aboriginals and unfashionably greatly respected and promoted women’s rights. He planned cities for the future, introduced banking and coinage into Australia, and commenced projects to explore the vast lands and construct key buildings for the future. His canny judgement often overrode the English rulers of the day, his being on the ground being more important than the thoughts of his superiors back home.
Today, along the broad Sydney boulevard of Macquarie Street in Sydney that runs from the Opera House to Hyde Park are many of Sydney’s key historic buildings, including the state parliament, state library, mint (no longer functioning), original convict barracks, an early hospital, St Mary’s cathedral (where Macquarie laid the original stone) and botanic gardens.
To celebrate the bicentenary of Macquarie’s governorship, his stewardship over Sydney and Australia's development and his considerable legacy, the Sydney Vivid festival recently highlighted his achievements in lighting and film projected against these remarkable buildings.
While six buildings were lit, the projections onto St Mary’s cathedral and the Conservatorium of Music were simply spectacular. The columns, arches and doorways were accounted for with the lighting needing such precision that altering a projector by the width of a coin would have completely upset the images.
The photos through this article highlight a small number of these remarkable lighting spectacles enjoyed by thousands of Sydneysiders and visitors alike in an exhibition titled Macquarie Visions, all a part of the Vivid Sydney festival. Other events included a concert for dogs and a Bollywood production over water.
While today, it is nearly impossible to imagine the difficulties of settling a new country, over 12,000 kilometres away from the home country, there is little doubt that Australia enjoys the fruits of visionaries like Lachlan Macquarie that built the foundations of the cultural and civil fabric of today's Australian society.