By Stephen FosterNon-fictionPier 9

A Private Empire

In this superb family history, Stephen Foster takes the reader on a lively, illuminating tour of the British empire, through the prism of five generations of one Scottish family, the Macphersons.

Drawing on an extraordinarily rich and detailed archive of letters, documents and diaries, Foster tells the story of how the enterprising Macphersons sought new opportunities in the far-flung outposts of Australia, India, and (briefly) Guyana. This is the story of sometimes frustrated ambition and the pressures and opportunities yielded by new lands, but Foster is also interested in the intimate tangle of personal relationships and the role of love, deception, passion and affection, as well as the shifting dictates of class and social mores.

Expertly blending the tumult and triumph of individual stories against the backdrop of significant world events – particularly the vacillating fortunes of the Empire – this is the kind of book that makes history immediate, compelling and irresistibly human.

Portrait of Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster is a historian and museum specialist based in Canberra. He has served as executive editor of a multi-volume history marking the bicentenary of European settlement in Australia, principal of a heritage consultancy, a general manager at the National Museum of Australia, and a professor at the Australian National University, where he developed graduate programs in museums and collections.

Judges’ report

A Private Empire charts five generations of Macphersons, the forks and branches of whose family tree embody the sprawl of Britain’s empire across three centuries. Stephen Foster has written a sweeping saga in the proper sense of that overworked term. He tells a terrific story, well stocked with nuanced, memorable characters and the leaps and twists of fortune that give momentum to a family’s history. Underlying A Private Empire is substantial research – in Britain, Australia, India and America – and Foster weaves the primary source material through his narrative to masterly effect.


A Private Empire charts the stories of the Scottish Macpherson clan from the late 18th century through to the 1990s. It is a collection of fascinating narratives with a backdrop of colonial pursuits, corruption, betrayal, deceit, war and exploitation. Curiously, the MacPhersons named most of their male children Allan or William.

Allan (born 1740) sought his fortune in colonised India and faced severe colonels, corrupt officials and the inhumane treatment of native Indians. William (1784) leaves the family home to secure a future for himself in Guyana where issues of race and slavery become integral to his survival.

Allan William (1818) tried his hand at sheep farming in 1840s Australia, only to become embroiled in conflict with Aborigines until finally dabbling in early Australian politics. Willie (1855) returns to his great grandfather’s land, India, only to experience a very different colonial environment.

These stories tell an intimate tale of the British Empire and how issues of race, heritage and conquest play out through generations. This family struggled to obtain the rewards that the Empire promised them, and it was this struggle perhaps that bred the tenacity common throughout the clan. This book reads beautifully due to the author’s craft handling their stories and the MacPhersons' meticulous record keeping. It is a must-read for those interested in family history, colonialism or Australian history.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist