IN 1803-1804






History is full of occurrences that were never planned in advance or even intended to take place yet did take place, and then only because other and totally unrelated decisions elsewhere suddenly created the impulse for these unplanned events to happen.


The founding of Hobart was one such event.

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As a result of the many economic, industrial and political upheavals in the rural areas of England, Scotland and Ireland, the associated problems in many urban centres during the eighteenth century –as evidenced by the famous Gordon Riots in London of 1780- and combined with an era of unprecedented urban growth and the inflationary effects of the wars with the French, major social problems developed which the successive British governments of the day did not really know how to handle other than to dispose of the troublemakers by either hanging them, incarcerating them in dark prisons, or sending them overseas to be used as cheap labour.


At first the new colonies in Northern America were used as a dumping ground for those prisoners sent overseas, but after the American Revolution of 1765-82 this was no longer possible. For a short while Africa was considered as a possibility, but then attention was drawn to the reports by Captain Cook and others (such as Joseph Banks) about this New Holland, a distant – and seemingly vacant -  continent on the other side of the world.


But there were other (and in many ways far more important) reasons which encouraged the British government to look more closely at New Holland. As a country that depended much on the might of its navy, there was an ongoing need for such practical items as long tall timbers suitable to be used as masts on big ships, and flax, the material from which several factories in England wove the canvas needed for the sails that pulled England’s ships all over the globe. Argued an internal Whitehall memorandum of October 1786:

              ‘Besides the removal of the dreadful Banditti from this country, many advantages are likely to be derived from [a settlement at Botany Bay].  Some of the Timber there is reported to be fit for Naval purposes, particularly Masts, which the Fleet operating in the East Indies are frequently in need of, and which can not be supplied other than from within Europe’.                                                                                

But above all, the cultivation of the Flax Plant seems to be the most considerable object:

‘This plant has been found in that neighbourhood in the most luxurious state, and small quantities have been brought to Europe and manufactured and, from its superior quality it will hopefully soon become an article of commerce from that Country’.

(In his instructions, Governor Phillip was specifically asked to foster the cultivation of flax  for, among other things, ‘maritime purposes’.)


When thus the traditional sources for timber in Russia (via the Baltic Sea) became increasingly uncertain because of the ongoing hostilities with the French and the seemingly unlimited resources from the Americas were no longer accessible, other places had to be found from which these supplies could be obtained or, preferably, just taken, and indeed one of the constant instructions which explorers and naval captains received was to be on the lookout for ‘tall timber’.  The main reason for instance behind the settlement of Norfolk Island were the tall pine trees on this island (which, in the end, proved to be no good as ship’s masts), while even here in Tasmania only some fifty years ago there were still forest reserves on the register which had been specifically set aside for ‘tall timber’ or ‘naval reserve’.


Private enterprise also had, of course, good reason to look more closely at that part of the world: British ships trading on China and South America were in need of a safe supply port after the long haul from England, while many stories made the rounds of large profits being made by whalers, sealers, fur traders and the like, profits which could more easily be directed in favour of Britain if a power base flying the Union Jack had a presence in these faraway places.             

(James Matra, an American living in London, is often named as being the very first person to raise the whole proposition of colonising New Holland as an advantageous economic proposition, although John West gives this honour to Col. Purry who, in 1723, suggested that in the southern latitudes of 330 ‘a fertile region would be found, favourable to European colonisation’, an idea  which was promptly scotched by the Academy of Science in Paris on the – seemingly not unreasonable - grounds that ‘they could not judge of countries they had not seen’.)


The Whitehall Memorandum of 1786 furthermore argued that the very existence of such a power base would also discourage other nations –and in particular the French- from establishing similar settlements in New Holland, and thus endanger British interests in these regions. (This was an interesting policy argument which, in hindsight, laid the foundations of what in another 50 years or so would become the mighty British Empire, one on which the sun never did set.)


The vision expressed in this Memorandum apparently touched a responsive mood; decisions followed rapidly, as a result of which a settlement named Sydney was founded in 1788 on the east coast of Australia. But the French were also soon noted to explore and survey the same area, and the despatches from the new Sydney outpost began to increasingly urge the forestalling of any possible French territorial claims and commercial intrusions by organising an additional settlement in the region.                                                                

Due to the war with France this was at first not possible, but after a peace agreement with this country was reached (Treaty of Amiens – March 1802), the issue resurfaced again. Various discussion papers and letters were written and considered, but it was not until yet another urgent warning from Gov. King in Sydney reached London in November 1802 that Lord Hobart decided to take action. In December of that year he submitted a formal Government ‘Memorandum of a Proposed Settlement in Bass’s Straights’, on the strength of which King George III in the end gave his (somewhat reluctant) approval. 


The basic thrust of the proposal was that for strategic reasons a new settlement was to be located on the shores of the recently discovered Bass Strait. This would not only secure and preserve the value of Bass Strait as an important passage between the Indian Ocean and Sydney and beyond, but would also create a British foothold for ‘ the valuable industry that may be carried on the Straights’ (sealing, fur trade etc.) before the French might lay a claim on this lucrative source of income and wealth. (In 1819, Stamford Raffles was to found another British foothold for very similar reasons on a small Malayan island on the shores of the Straits of Malacca.)


An interesting third reason was the acknowledgement that the ongoing concentration of convicts in Sydney (by then nearly 6000) did not do much for the ‘moral improvement’ of these people, because the new arrivals were simply reinfecting the old ones again with ‘those vicious habits which were the cause of their having fallen under the Sentence of Law’.


For these multiple reasons, the proposition contained in the Memorandum was to establish a new settlement

‘by the means of a certain [mixture] of Settlers and Male Convicts … on a similar footing to that on Norfolk Island’.

To encourage good behaviour among the convicts an element of rehabilitation was introduced by proposing                                                                               

                ‘that such of them as shall merit [this favour]  should be informed that their Wives and Families will be permitted to go with them at public expense as indentured servants; and to render this act of humane policy as inducive [as possible] to the benefit of the Colony … those Families … should be informed that their reunion … would depend upon their own good behaviour, as well as upon that of their Husbands’.

It also was thereby hoped that  ‘over an interval of some years’ the hoped for  ‘moral improvement’  could thus be achieved, which in turn would lead to a more useful and reliable settlement of use to the British Government.


Such then were the sentiments on the basis of which the founding of Hobart Town came about, albeit in an entirely unintended location  . . .

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While officially the war between England and France had ended in March 1802 it was recognised that this peace might not last very long, and for this reason the planning, organising and fitting out of the expedition was hurriedly commenced.

In casting around for a leader of the expedition, the Government had an obvious choice in the person of David Collins.

Not only had this Marine officer played an important role in the settlement of Sydney in 1788, but from then onward had spent many years working in several positions close to the Governor himself. Furthermore, after his return to London in 1797 he had written a lengthy account of the  settlement at Port Jackson in which he demonstrated that he had a very clear grasp of the administrative, military and civic issues within the new community so far removed from ‘normality’ in England.

As Secretary for the Colonies, Lord Hobart immediately realised that in Collins he had found the right man for the job on hand, and from here  onward things began to move very quickly. Early in January 1803 Colonel David Collins was formally appointed to lead the expedition while, like Governor Phillip before him in 1786, he was also charged with much of the purchasing of the needed supplies. Others hurriedly arranged for the provision of military troops, civic officers and convicts; advertisements were placed in the newspapers for volunteer settlers to come forward, while the Admiralty got the job of providing the needed ships.


Although not as large as the Botany Bay expedition in 1787/88, the magnitude of the entire exercise was still very considerable: while Governor Phillip’s task was to bring some 1000 people safely across largely unknown oceans to a totally unknown land, Governor Collins left England with just under half that number with the instruction to create a settlement ‘on the southern coast of New South Wales (now Victoria) to the northward of Basses Streight and on King’s Island, or any other Island within the said Streight’ – in other words, ideally one major settlement at Port Phillip with a smaller one across Bass Strait on King Island, thus hopefully controlling the access to and use of this strategically important waterway.  Should, on the other hand, the coast around Port Phillip prove to be not suitable, Collins was in his ultimate choice ‘not positively restricted from giving the preference to any other part of the said southern coast of New South Wales (now Victoria), or any of the islands in Bass’s Streight’.                                                  


While not quite as disastrously badly supplied and organised as the First Fleet in 1787, the Collins expedition was still very poorly planned, prepared and executed.  Although a list of objectives had been formulated, no feasibility study of these objectives had ever been made.  Even worse, nobody knew anything concrete about the proposed location other than that it was a large bay which had been discovered and formally claimed in the name of George III in March 1802.  (A better survey of the quality and potential of the land around Port Phillip made by the Surveyor-General Grimes was on its way but did not reach London until after Collins’ departure.)


The response to advertisements in the local papers for volunteer settlers had been distinctly lack-lustre, and (as a result?) the final candidates had only been cursorily checked for their apparent health and had not been screened for their professional and physical suitability. With respect to the necessary supplies, no proper tally and quality control seems to have taken place on the goods purchased for the colony when they were received in store or loaded into the holds of the ships. Furthermore, there was far more cargo than what the holds of the ships involved could accommodate, causing a considerable quantity of essentials to be mounting up on the wharf alongside the ship.                                      

Departmental bureaucrats solved this problem by instructing to offload much of the food that had already been stowed into the holds(!), while other cargo was also put back ashore with the vague promise that it would follow in a later ship. There are indications that at least some of this overflow eventually did reach Sydney in later ships, but whether anything of these badly needed supplies were ever sent on to Hobart Town is debatable.


The rush to get the expedition safely away while England was still at peace with France paid off; the expedition sailed from England in late April 1803, and therefore escaped by only a matter of days the resumption of the war with France during the next month.  Blissfully  unaware of these developments, the ships called in at  Rio de Janeiro and then at Cape Town for fresh water and supplies, where the expedition not only replenished its food supply on board but also bought some cattle and a large quantity of grain.                                                                 

The crossing of the Indian Ocean was uneventful, and on October 9th the expedition arrived at their Port Phillip where they went ashore near what is now Sorrento on the south eastern coast of that bay.  But it was soon realised that the site – if not the entire area - was badly chosen, forcing Collins to send a message to Governor King in Sydney consulting him about his predicament: good drinking water was very scarce, there was little or no good agricultural land in the area, and there were potentially very threatening encounters with the local aborigines.  Moreover, the bay could only be reached from Bass Strait via a very difficult and dangerous entrance (commented Collins: ‘it cannot be supposed that Commercial People will be desirous of visiting Port Phillip’), while initial surveys on the other side of Bass Strait (the Tasmanian coastline) seemed to offer only one other possibility: the mouth of the Tamar River.


In Sydney meanwhile, Governor King, totally unaware of these latest developments in London and Collins’ expedition being on its way, had received earlier that year several reports of French ships exploring the area of south eastern Australia (and in particular in Bass Strait and possibly in Frederick Henry Bay, Tasmania), and decided that the time had come to use his own initiative and create a formal British presence in Tasmania in order to forestall any French attempt to claim that island as French territory.

Not being keen to lose any of his better officers in Sydney, his choice eventually fell on John Bowen, a recently arrived young naval lieutenant who had offered his services (March 1803).  The provisioning of the adventure from the meagre government resources in Sydney and the departure from Port Jackson had its problems, but Bowen eventually arrived at Risdon Cove in September 1803, a place chosen in the main on the basis of comments made by Lt. Hayes during his 1794   exploratory visit to the Derwent. Bowen did the best he could with the minimal resources that had been given to him, but King soon understood from the various reports that filtered back to him that the future prospects of this settlement were marginal at best, while in the middle of these concerns the news reached him (24.11.1803) of the arrival of the Collins expedition at Port Phillip, and of the precarious situation also affecting this settlement.


Towards the end of November 1803 the situation was thus that, in the opinion of Collins, Port Phillip was not a suitable place to create a proper harbour and settlement (an opinion backed up by a report from the Surveyor-General, Mr. Grimes, who had surveyed the bay in detail earlier that year), while King knew himself to be lumbered with an ineffective and ultimately unmaintainable foothold in southern Tasmania.

Faced therefore with the prospect of having two failing settlements on his hand, Gov. King wrote a carefully worded reply back to Collins, reminding him that on the one hand conform with the instructions from London, Port Dalrymple was the nearest next option that met with the instructions from London, but that on the other hand the removal of the entire settlement to the Derwent (Risdon Cove) also had very many advantages.  He then ended his letter by throwing the ball back in Collins’ court by remarking that  ‘These Circumstances you will Consider as a guide to your Judgment on going to that Settlement [i.e. Risdon], Or whether you may consider Port Dalrymple more eligible’. But the entrance problem of that port (several dangerous reefs) had already been reported upon to Gov. King during an earlier survey and more recently confirmed by Collins’ own survey crew, encouraging Collins to decide that the best course of action would be to cut his losses at Port Phillip and make for the Derwent in Van Diemen’s Land.                


Because of the politics hiding behind the pros and cons of Port Phillip versus Van Diemans’ Land their exchange of thoughts on this subject is guarded, but in hindsight the decisive reasons of Collins to abandon the Port Phillip as an unsuitable site for a settlement were undoubtedly the lack of basic essentials such as plentiful water, good timber, good soil and good access to the bay, while the ongoing dangers presented by hostile local aboriginal tribes and the recurring bushfires threatening all they had would not exactly have encouraged them to stay either.


In making his final decision, Collins would have no doubt been influenced by Bass’s description*) of the various features of Van Diemens Land, and especially those along the Derwent River.                                                                       

In his second volume of ‘An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales’ Collins repeatedly refers to Bass’s comments on the attractive nature of the Tasmanian countryside, and in summary concludes that  ‘In point of productive soil Mr. Bass gives the preponderance to Van Diemens Land’.                             

Going by the description given by Bass, Collins was probably not overawed with the option of the Derwent (‘… a dull lifeless stream, so little affected by the tides that its navigation is extremely tedious with a foul wind’), but believed that his hand was forced because of Bass’s warning of ‘the paucity of inlets into Van Diemens Land [rather] than any intrinsic merits of its own’.

On the other hand, the Derwent was known to have good anchorage facilities, and because of its cooler climate was also presumed to have creeks with plentiful running water, the latter being a major problem that bedevilled the settlement at Port Phillip.


And so Collins’ mind was made up: they would abandon the barren site on the shore of Port Phillip and go for the Derwent in Van Diemens Land.

*) Bass, George: Journal describing Two-Fold Bay, etc. in 1798 and 1799. Just to make sure that Collins was aware of this material, King sent him a copy with the returning Ocean, which he therefore had access to by the middle of December 1803, but Collins would most probably have already had a copy in his personal library anyway.                                     



Instructions were issued to commence the embarkation, and both the Ocean and the Lady Nelson left Port Phillip on Monday January 30 on their way to Risdon Cove.

Gov. King, of course, was glad to hear of the decision by Collins, probably on the grounds that one well-run settlement on the Derwent supplied (he assumed) by the British government in London would be better than him having two ailing settlements on his hands, neither of which would be any good for the reasons they had originally been established.                                                              

However, his conscience remained uneasy about the overall strategy intentions behind the clear instructions from London about founding a settlement ‘on the shores of Bass’s Streight’, and a few months later decided to organise a small formal settlement at Port Dalrymple anyway, also a badly chosen location but which eventually would lead to the settlement of Launceston in March 1806.


In London meanwhile, two things happened in May 1804 which were not in favour of the Collins expedition: war broke out again with France, causing a change of Government which forced Collins’ patron and ‘friend at court’ Lord Hobart to resign as Secretary for the Colonies and retire to the backbenches. Fully occupied with their war with France, Hobart’s successors had other priorities and other things on their minds, all of them considerations in which the well-being of the Collins expedition ranked very low indeed.


Even so, the new government in London does not seem to have been very happy with the relocation of the settlement to the Derwent, probably because it still did not provide them with any control over the strategically important corridor of Bass Strait or its commercial advantages.                             This annoyance with Collins expressed itself in a typical bureaucratic manner: the government ceased corresponding with him, and in November 1805 instructed the newly appointed Gov. Bligh to inform Lt. Gov. Collins that henceforward all future correspondence between the Derwent and London had to go via Bligh’s office in Sydney, while the earlier promises by Lord Hobart of further supplies were virtually ignored.  These instructions reached Collins about a year later; they greatly discouraged him from writing many more letters and reports during the following few years  (as is quite evident from the surviving records), and in the end requested permission to return to England. Another result was that from then onward the only administrative and logistic support Collins ever received from then onward had to come from Sydney but got little else, soon causing major shortages of food and materials.


That the settlement at Sullivans Cove survived at all through these difficult years was mainly due to the personal efforts by Collins, who unceasingly encouraged, coaxed and cajoled his people to keep the small community on the Derwent alive and forging ahead.

The success of Collins’ efforts becomes even more remarkable when one considers the bizarre collection of people he had to work with.  His prisoners were a rough and ready lot more used to the rules of the game as they applied in the slums and prisons of London, in fact, many of them knew each other already quite well before they even boarded their ships.  His soldiers soon proved to be not much better, while many of his senior military and civic officers were either second-rate professionals or fortune seekers eagerly awaiting their chance.  The settlers had been attracted to the expedition via advertisements in the newspapers but had been badly selected; very few knew anything at all about farming, some had physical disabilities, while several already had had an ‘interesting’ life behind them.

Against this backdrop of the human material that Collins had to work with it is a telling commentary on the quality of the population of Bowen’s Risdon Cove settlement that Collins considered them to be a bad lot and point-blank refused to have anything to do with them (the settlers and the military included), and when the opportunity offered itself eagerly transported most of them back again to Sydney (August 1804).


Given also the total lack of any interest in the settlement from London and the lacklustre support which Collins received from the authorities in Sydney (which, of course,  had to battle their own problems), the success of the early pioneers ‘on the Derwent’ is remarkable.

It was through their persistent labours in the face of many privations that the foundations were being laid of what, eventually, was to become a thriving community living in an alive and successful city.

Already within a few decades, Hobart would –at least for a short while- rival Sydney in commercial, technical and intellectual pursuits, and it was not until the onset of the gold rush of the 1850s and the attendant loss of Tasmania’s labour force that serious economic problems would begin to develop, highlighting the island’s limited natural resources and its remote location, two basic problems which have ever since continued to trouble this beautiful island.

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 The narrative of our story then commences with the events of 1803 after Governor King had made the decision to establish a presence in Tasmania in order to forestall any similar attempts by the French. Some weeks later the story also catches up with the arrival of Gov. Collins and his expedition in Port Phillip, and ends in August 1804 with the departure of the transport ship the Ocean from Hobart Town back to Sydney, in hindsight a major milestone in the embryonic stage of settlement.


The departure of this ship ends the period of the early beginnings of the settlement: all concerned had packed a lot of living into the past twelve months or so, but now the first cottages and huts have been erected and are inhabited, the farmers have cleared and fenced their first paddocks and stocked them with cattle, sheep and grain, and commerce in general is ready to take off.  From this moment onward, the settlement is then virtually on its own, alone, and totally dependent on its own mettle. The settlers soon realise that, and while getting a grip on the immediate issues such as housing and the growing of food, they begin to focus on the improvement of their situation – and do so with gusto.