William Paterson

Birth: 1755


William Paterson (1755-1810), traveller and lieutenant-governor of New South Wales, was born on 17 Aug. 1755. He entered the army at an early age, but not before he had developed a strong liking for natural history, especially botany. The interest and patronage of Lady Strathmore enabled him to gratify these tastes, and before entering upon active service he had made a series of exploring expeditions in the Hottentot country. He left England early in 1777, arrived at Capetown in May, and on 16 Oct., in company with Captain Gordon, made his first expedition, returning to Cape Town on 13 Jan. 1778. His second expedition lasted from May to 20 Nov. 1778. His third was into the district which he called Caffraria, and claimed as hitherto unknown, and it lasted from 23 Dec. 1778 to 23 March 1779. His fourth journey occupied him from 18 June to 21 Dec. the same year. He made several fresh contributions to science, and is credited with having brought to England the first giraffe-skin ever seen there. The French traveller Le Vaillant several times refers to his researches in high terms.

Soon after his return to England Paterson was gazetted to the 98th regiment (7 Oct. 1781), and was sent to India, where he was at the siege of Caroor in 1783. In 1785 the 98th regiment was disbanded, and on 24 Sept. 1787 he became a lieutenant in the 73rd foot. In June 1789 he was one of the lieutenants chosen to recruit and command a company of the New South Wales corps, which was formed in that year for the purpose of protecting the new convict settlement at Botany Bay. On 5 June 1789 he was appointed a captain in the corps. It seems probable that he was introduced to this enterprise by Sir Joseph Banks, to whom he dedicated his book on Caffraria. Banks took a keen personal interest in all that concerned the infant colony.

Paterson had married, and did not go out with the first draft of the corps, but with Philip Gidley King, afterwards governor, on the Gorgon, his wife accompanying him. They arrived in New South Wales in October 1791. After a few days' stay in Sydney, Paterson was ordered to Norfolk Island, and was apparently stationed there at intervals till the end of 1793. The chief event in this period of Paterson's career was his exploration of the Hawkesbury river early in 1793; he ascended the rapids in small boats, where the governor had failed, and discovered and named the Grose river. He also found several new plants. The expedition lasted ten days. On 15 Feb. 1794 he was senior member of the court held at Sydney to inquire into the conduct of the mutinous detachment of the New South Wales corps at Norfolk Island. On 20 Feb. his name appears as taking up six acres of land at Sydney. On 8 Dec. 1794, on the departure of Grose, the major commandant of the corps, who had been acting as lieutenant-governor of the colony since the departure of Governor Arthur Phillips, Paterson succeeded to the command of the corps and administration of the government. In February 1795 he sent Grimes, the colonial surveyor, to explore Port Stephens. His rule ended on 16 Sept. 1795. It is clear that he was alive to the requirements of the rising settlement, and Governor John Hunter (1738-1821), soon after his arrival, in referring to Paterson's application for leave, speaks of him as 'a very valuable officer.' Paterson, who doubtless bore much of the trouble which was given in 1796 by the New South Wales corps, did not actually depart till much later. He was in England during 1798, and was admitted a member of the Royal Society on 17 May. He also joined the Royal Asiatic Society. In 1799 he returned to the colony in the Walker, and in connection with certain transactions as to the victualing on board that ship was censured by the secretary of state. He was now commandant of the corps, having received the step of major on 1 Sept. 1795, and that of lieutenant-colonel on 18 Jan. 1798; he was at once involved in quarrels, and one of his earliest acts as colonel was to send his major, Johnston, to England under arrest; in September 1801 he resisted an effort of some of the officers to insult Governor King; fought a duel with John McArthur, and was so dangerously wounded that for a time all persons concerned were under arrest, in expectation of Paterson's death. Yet in 1802, when King withstood the action of the corps on the drink question, Paterson went with the malcontents, and was humiliated by the success of King's opposition. He seems at this time to have endeavored to keep in with both the opposing civil and military factions, and to have had the confidence of neither. In the serious insurrection of 1804, however, he and his corps stood by the governor and saved the colony.

On 7 June 1804 Paterson was sent by King to Port Dalrymple in Tasmania as lieutenant-governor, and instructed to form a post of occupancy at such point as he thought suitable. He occupied Port Dalrymple in November, and experienced many anxieties as to food supply, native unfriendliness, and convict insubordination. He was also drawn into disputes with David Collins at Hobart as to superiority of title and jurisdiction. The notorious Margarot was in August 1805 sent to complete his sentence under Paterson's special supervision.

Paterson, who was made colonel by brevet on 25 April 1808, was still at Port Dalrymple when Major Johnston reported to him the deposition of Governor William Bligh In January 1809 he went to Sydney, and administered the government till the king's pleasure was known. He had approved the proceedings taken against Bligh by the officers of the New South Wales corps, and declined to entertain Bligh's appeals that he should restore him. Bligh had plotted to place Paterson under arrest on his arrival, and Paterson wrote indignantly to Lord Castlereagh of Bligh's conduct. On 4 Feb. 1809 he and Bligh signed the convention by which the latter consented to go home 'with the utmost despatch,' but Bligh had not gone further than Tasmania by March, and continued to give trouble. Paterson was relieved on 31 Dec. 1809 by the arrival of the new governor, Lachlan Macquarie His corps-now become the 102nd regiment-was ordered home, and he left the colony in May 1810, amid the enthusiastic farewells of the colonists. He died on the passage home, on board her majesty's ship Dromedary, on 21 June 1810.

Paterson was apparently more at home in exploration and study of science than as an administrator or even a soldier. 'The weak Colonel Paterson,' writes Rusden on one occasion, 'thought more of botanical collections than of extending the cords of British sovereignty.' He seems to have been of an amiable and undecided character, often giving offense to two opposing parties by his anxiety to please both. He was the most lavish of the early administrators in his grants to private persons of the land of the colony.

Paterson river and mountain in New South Wales and Paterson creek in Tasmania are named after him, and it is said that a Paterson's Bay in the Cape Colony was for a time found on the maps.

Paterson published 'A Narrative of Four Journeys into the Country of the Hottentots and Caffraria in the years 1777-8-9,' London, 1789, 4to. A second edition and a French translation appeared in 1790. His botanical collections are in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington.

[War Office records and Army Lists, 1781-1810; Registers of Royal Soc.; Poggendorff's Handworterbuch; Gent. Mag. 1810, vol. lxxx. pt. ii. p. 356; Rusden's Hist. of Australia, vol. i., see index to vol. iii. sub voce; Hist. of New South Wales from the Records, vol. ii.]


Charles Alexander Harris, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 44. pgs. 26-28.

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