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Major Robert O'NEILL

Perhaps the most enigmatic of Macquarie's travelling companions in 1807 is Major Robert O'Neill who held a commission in the 56th Regiment of Foot.

O'Neill was an experienced career soldier. He joined the 56th (or West Essex) Regiment of Foot as an ensign in Ireland in 1790 and remained with this regiment until 1808. He saw extensive military service in Ireland, the West Indies, Holland and India, gaining additional promotions, reaching the rank of Major in August 1804.

When war broke out with Napoleon, Britain's land forces were greatly expanded to deter an invasion. On 25 December 1804 four hundred Surrey men were placed on the Army establishment as the 2nd Battalion of the 56th Regiment. Soon after it was expanded to a total of 656 men. The existing battalion, in which O'Neill was gazetted as a Major, was redesignated the 1st Battalion, 56th Regiment.

In January 1805 the 1st Battalion left Kinsale, Ireland, for the Isle of Wight where it was garrisoned and brought up to a full strength of 1000 rank and file. In April O'Neill and the 56th Regiment sailed for India on three East Indiamen, the City of London, Earl Camden and Retreat. The ships arrived in Bombay on the 11th August.

Ironically, this was exactly the same fleet that Lachlan Macquarie sailed with on his return to India in 1805. In fact, he was a passenger on the City of London; and amongst his fellow passengers were Major Fletcher Barclay and 10 other officers of the 56th Regiment as well as three companies of rank and file of the 56th. Major O'Neill would have sailed on either the Earl Camden or the Retreat. There is a strong likelihood that, as the second major in the Regiment, his name would have been mentioned in passing conversation with Macquarie during the voyage on the City of London.

When the three ships reached Bombay in August 1805, the 56th Regiment was garrisoned at Colabah. For the next 12 months Major O'Neill would have served with his regiment. However, from at least December 1806 onwards he appears to have received permission from Lieutenant General Nicholls, Commander in Chief of the Forces, for regimental leave in India. This was soon extended to permit him to return to Europe.

It is currently unknown at what date, and on which vessel, Major O'Neill departed from Bombay for the Persian Gulf. Similarly, his arrival date in Baghdad is unknown, but presumably he was planning to travel overland to Constantinople at the same time that Macquarie was planning a similar route and itinerary. What does seem clear is that O'Neill had preceded Macquarie to Bussora (Basra), for in a letter to Samuel Manesty on 16 January 1807 from Bombay Macquarie raises the question of the inclusion of O'Neill in his travelling party:

"I am not likely to have any
Travelling companion from hence,
except my Servant, who is a smart
Portuguese Boy. — I understand Major
O'Neill has some thoughts of going
Home overland. — If so, and that his
time suits mine, I shall be very happy
to travel along with him from Bussora
to England. —"

'Macquarie to Samuel Manesty' 16 January 1807 [Bombay].
Macquarie, Lachlan. Letterbook 24 July 1804 - 15 May 1807. ML: A793.

The first specific mention of Major O'Neill in Macquarie's journal appears on 10 May 1807 at Baghdad:

Sunday 10th. May 1807.
We got up to dress between 5 and 6,O'Clock this morning; but before we were ready to go on shore, we were very politely visited by Mr. Hine the Acting British Resident at Bagdad, accompanied by Major O'Neill of H.M. 56th. Regt., on board of our Boat, and conducted to the English Factory between 6 and 7,O'Clock, where Mr. Hine had a good Breakfast and excellent good Apartments prepared for us. —

Lachlan Macquarie. Journal 18 March 1807 – 17 October 1807.
ML Reference: A771

Later the same day it has been agreed and arranged that O'Neill would join Macquarie's travelling party:

"I have consequently, by the advice of Mr. Hine, come to the resolution of prosecuting my Journey to England through Persia to the Caspian Sea – and thence to Russia. — I have therefore determined to set out from hence by the very first Caravan proceeding to Tiran or any other part of Persia. — Dr. Thomas & Lieut. Brande are still to accompany me by this new Route, and we are to be joined by Major O'Neill of the 56th. Regt. – who has determined to make one of our Party to England – and who will be a valuable acquisition to our little Society – being a very pleasant well informed man."

Major O'Neill's independent nature was demonstrated at a number of key points in the journey, and he never appears to have felt compelled to adhere to Macquarie's travel arrangements in Persia or Russia. Among his many adventures were his kidnapping by Kurdish bandits in Persia on 6 June (and subsequent release); an unspecified 'incident' in Moscow in early September that delayed his departure for St Petersburg; and finally his decision to remain in St Petersburg after Macquarie's departure for Britain with Brande and Thomas on board HMS Calypso.

"[10 September]
Having discharged my Bills and provided a fresh Carriage for ourselves, and a Kabitka to convey George and our Baggage to Cronstadt, I set out from the Dhaimond Hotel at 2,O'Clock in the afternoon, accompanied by Dr. Thomas and Lieut. Brande; leaving our friend Major O'Neill at Petersburg, where he wished to remain a few days longer to gratify his curiosity in that elegant City. —

There is currently no indication as to how or when Major O'Neill departed from Russia to return to Britain. Similarly there is no further record of him after 1810, when he resigned his commission from the army. He is known to have exchanged with Lt. Colonel Thomas Walsh to half-pay (Queen's Rangers) on 23 June 1808; and twelve months later transferring as a Major in 57th. (or West Middlesex Regiment of Foot) on 1 June 1809.

There is currently no known death date or evidence of probate in O'Neill's estate.

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