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Australia's third-largest city, Brisbane (population 1.3 million) could well adopt the motto of its San Francisco namesake sister city, and call itself The City of Stars.  After all, the Oz city was named after a noted Scottish astronomer, Sir Thomas Brisbane, who catalogued 7385 stars in what was then the largely uncharted southern sky. Brisbane's Planetarium, a popular tourist attraction, is named after him.

Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, born on July 23, 1773,  at Brisbane House, near Largs, Ayrshire, certainly gave his name to Australia's Brisbane  (his middle name, Makdougall, was his wife's maiden name, which he added to his own in 1826.)

Sir Thomas, a British soldier and astronomical observer, is mainly remembered in the U.K. as a patron of science. He built an astronomical observatory at Parramatta, in New South Wales, Australia, and a combined observatory and magnetic station at Makerstoun, Roxburghshire, Scotland. After entering the army in 1789 and serving in Flanders, the West Indies, Canada, and Spain, he was knighted in 1814.

He had first decided to master astronomy in 1795, after being nearly shipwrecked because of a navigational error on his first voyage to the West Indies. In 1821 he was appointed governor of New South Wales, which embraced what is now the separate State of Queensland. Although he was a poor administrator, he organised the convict system, hiring out convicts to settlers for clearing land. He also reformed the currency, abolished press censorship, and established the observatory at Parramatta in 1822.

As every true Queenslander knows (or should know), Australia's Brisbane was named in honour of the New South Wales Governor, Major-General Sir Thomas Brisbane. In 1823,  Sir Thomas sent Lieutenant John Oxley north from Sydney to find a new site for convicts who were repeat offenders. Oxley discovered the Brisbane River and named it after the Governor. A year later, convicts arrived at Moreton Bay and initially settled at Redcliffe. When that site proved unsuitable, Oxley suggested that the settlement be moved to its present site.

Sir Thomas visited the settlement in 1826, accompanied by the Chief Justice, who had wanted the new site to be called Edenglassie (could that have been a combination of Edinburgh and Glasgow?). Oxley however suggested Brisbane and (not surprisingly)  Sir Thomas agreed.

Returning to Scotland in 1826, Sir Thomas built the observatory at Makerstoun, where he did astronomical work until 1847. He was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828 and elected president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1833. He was made a baronet in 1836 and attained the rank of general in 1841. He died on January 27, 1860, at Brisbane House.

Back in Queensland, the convict settlement called Brisbane was declared a town in 1834. Officially, free men could not settle within 50 miles of the colony until its penal function was abandoned in 1839, but the ban was not observed.

A short-lived rivalry with the town of Cleveland ended when Cleveland's wharves burned in 1854, allowing Brisbane to become the leading port. Proclaimed a municipality in 1859, it became the capital of newly independent Queensland that same year.  Nearly a century later, In World War II, General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, had his headquarters there. (My wife Jerry, then a staff-sergeant in the Australian Women's Army Service, was employed in his office).

Brisbane, California calls itself The City of Stars. not in memory of Sir Thomas Brisbane, but because for more than 50 years its residents have displayed large wooden stars with Christmas lights on their houses during the holiday season. Several other places in the U.S. are also named Brisbane, for various reasons.

* See our earlier story, Brisbane, City of Stars



Copyright 2003

Eric Shackle

Story first posted July 2003

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