Major Robert Ross (c.1740–1794) was the officer in command of the First Fleet garrison of marines, and Lieutenant-Governor of the convict settlement of Norfolk Island.
He was born in Scotland, and joined the marines in June 1756, being present at the siege of Louisburg and the capture of Quebec during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Promoted to captain, he saw action at Bunker Hill in June 1775 during the American War of Independence. He was aboard HMS Ardent in August 1779 when it was captured and he was taken prisoner by the French.
He was appointed as major and, accompanied by his eight-year old son, sailed to New South Wales on HMS Sirius, transferring to Scarborough during the voyage.
From the start of his time in New South Wales Ross was in conflict with the governor Arthur Phillip and other officers. David Collins claimed an “inexpressible hatred” for him, and Ralph Clark described him at the time as “without exception the most disagreeable commanding officer I ever knew”. He refused to allow the marines to supervise the convicts at work, or to allow marine officers to sit as members of the criminal court, attitudes which some of his own officers disagreed with. He criticised Phillip for not building fortifications, and missed no opportunity to embarrass and hinder the governor. His actions made Phillip’s task of administering the fledgling colony more difficult.
Probably to prevent open conflict, Phillip sent Ross to Norfolk Island in March 1790. Here, following the wreck of Sirius and the stranding of its crew on the island, Ross proclaimed martial law for four months. His attempts to clear more land so that the convicts could grow most of their own food increased their discontent at the additional heavy work. He quarrelled with his officers here as vigorously as he had at Port Jackson and was relieved, returning to Sydney in December 1791.
Back in Sydney he immediately quarrelled and fought a duel with an officer of the newly arrived New South Wales Corps, neither party being injured. On 18 December he, and most of the marines, departed on HMS Gorgon.
Ross never adapted to life in the colony and had no faith in its future, stating that “in the whole world there is not a worse country than what we have yet seen of this. … it may with truth be said, here Nature is reversed.” He also claimed that “every person … who came out with a desire for remaining … are now most earnestly wishing to get away from it.” Perhaps the loss of many of his personal possessions in the wrecks of Sirius and HMS Guardian soured his attitude.
On his return to England, Ross resumed his military career. It is thought that he died on 9 June 1794 at Brompton, Kent, but one source states that he served until at least 1808.
While his regime at Norfolk Island may have been harsh, it was perhaps no more so than that of his successors. One historian says that he can be commended for his conscientious adherence to his principles, but appears to have been “narrow minded, censorious, self important and almost totally humourless”.
Ross appears as a significant character in the Timberlake Wertenbaker play, “Our Country’s Good”. In a sense, he appears as the main villain of the piece, sporting an outraged attitude towards Ralph Clark’s proposal to the play, and exhibiting near sadism in his treatment of the convicts.
He is an obvious choice as a protagonist; unfortunately, very little more is really known of the man. A pity, as I would like to learn more.