Lachlan Macquarie takes the Overland Route

I’m on holidays in Russia at present.  Going to new places always sends me back to things I half knew, but wasn’t interested in before.  I vaguely knew that Governor Lachlan Macquarie had travelled through Russia, but now that I’m here myself, I thought I’d have another look at his journey.  His travel diary has been transcribed, and is available here.

Before he became Governor of New South Wales in 1810, Macquarie was a soldier in the Indian army – the sharp end of the East India Company.  In 1807, he was a lieutenant colonel.  His first wife had died, and at 44, he now planned to marry a cousin, Elizabeth Campbell, to whom he had proposed while on furlough in Scotland.

Lachlan Macquarie attributed to John Opie (176...

Elizabeth was waiting for him, slightly impatiently, and he needed to get home.  In early 1807, for reasons that don’t seem entirely clear, Macquarie decided to travel home through the Middle East and Russia, instead of taking the normal route around the Cape of Good Hope, in one of the EIC ships.

There was a war on, and the EIC convoy would be a major prize to the French, but overland travel had plenty of hazards too.  The Persian, Ottoman and especially the Russian Empires all had conflicting interests in this war – in many ways the first real World War.  Macquarie needed to get passports, authorizations, introductions, and he talks at length about travel documents in his diary.

On 19 March 1807 he sailed in the Benares for the Persian Gulf, arriving in Basra in late April, where the British Resident told him that Turkey had joined the war.  Diplomatic relations with Constantinople [Istanbul] were on hold, and there was no way that Macquarie could proceed, as planned, through Turkey.  He could either return to India, or continue overland, so on 29 April, carrying various dispatches from the British Resident, he headed for Baghdad.

The British Resident in Baghdad agreed with his colleague: there was no way home through Constantinople.  Instead, Macquarie headed for Persia, crossing the Zagros Mountains where snow still lay on the ground.   There was safety in numbers, and by now several other British travelers had joined him, including an Armenian interpreter.  On 4 June they toasted the King’s birthday.  The next day they were invited to the Shah’s court.  On 19 June they were entertained by the Shah’s Vizier:

We found an elegant large Tent belonging to the Vizier ready pitched for our reception close to the Kaunaute enclosing the King’s Tents; and which we were requested to occupy, and where we were immediately served with an excellent Supper from the King’s own Kitchen!

Finally at the end of June, they reached ‘Anseley’ [Enzeli] on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea.  Water transport was always the fastest form of transport before railways arrived, and he took ship for Baku, on the western shore.  There he learned of an epidemic of plague at Astrakhan, to the north.  Quarantine would cause further delay.  They set sail again, and reached the Volga.  After 4 days in a barge, rowing upstream, Macquarie decided to transfer to a ‘kibitka’, a covered wagon pulled by relays of horses, travelling through the land of the Don Cossacks.  Everywhere he encountered problems: plague in the south, bureaucratic delays, and difficulties with communication.  French was the usual lingua franca, but in many places they had no language in common at all.

He finally reached the walls of Moscow at 9pm. On 30 August, where it took him 2 hours of argument before he was let in.  He mutters about the Russian police, and Russian bureaucracy, throughout his diary – but no doubt the Russians were jittery about spies.  Only 5 years later Napoleon’s troops destroyed the city.

Two days later, he left on horseback for St Petersburg, where he met the British Ambassador, Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, who asked him to carry back dispatches to Britain, and arranged his berth on a British man-o’-war.  Britain was now at war with Denmark, so sailing with the navy made sense.  Leveson-Gower also told him that the EIC convoy had arrived safely in England in July, two months before.

Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of Lord Granville Leveson-Gower

Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of Lord Granville Leveson-Gower. This is a stunning portrait. Lawrence has managed to put texture into a variety of blacks – cloth, leather, fur, etc. Apparently he kept it in his studio for years, refusing to hand it over to Leveson-Gower, and my hunch is that he loved it too much to part with it.

It all seems rather hair-raising, even for a senior officer with introductions along the way – far different from my luxury river cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg.  I hoped when I read his journal, that Macquarie would say something about the Moscow-St Petersburg stage of his journey, but he rarely describes anything in much detail, and he dismisses this last stage as merely ‘a Journey of 5 days and 6 hours’.  I think he was just fed up.

He loved St Petersburg though.  It was the capital, and the Tsar and family were in residence in the Summer Palace.  He writes enthusiastically about

this most magnificent elegant City which is certainly by far the finest and most beautiful I have ever yet seen, and I believe is the finest and most regular built City in the whole World; – at least it far exceeds every idea I had formed of its grandeur and magnificence; which are greatly heightened by the three beautiful Branches of the Neva running through the City, with elegant Bridges of Boats across each Branch, none of which is less than half a mile broad. —

In the evening I took a walk in the Public Summer Gardens, and also in Count Strogonoff’s Gardens; which are always open on Sundays for the Public, with a Band of Music Playing in them in the Evening. Both these Gardens are very extensive and beautiful, and that of Count Strogonoff is most elegantly laid out.

I get there on 30 May.  I can hardly wait!

John Ritchie, Lachlan Macquarie: a Biography (1986)

This time last year:
Pictures from Two Exhibitions, 14 May 2011
Her Dedication, 18 May 2011
Candle in the Wind, 22 May 2011
Old Fritz and his dogs, 25 May 2011

2 responses to “Lachlan Macquarie takes the Overland Route

  1. residentjudge

    How amazingly mobile he was. Could he ever have imagined, I wonder, that he’d be in India, Russia and Australia all within a few years?

    • I agree, it’s amazing how people managed to get around great distances, despite the limited transport possibilities. He’d also be amazed that I flew from Dubai to Moscow in under 6 hours last week – following almost the same route across the Caspian Sea.

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