A diary of events from September 1803 to August 1804, leading up to the settlement of Hobart town

By Frank Bolt



Author Frank Bolt


To commemorate the beginning of European settlement in Tasmania and the founding of Hobart, The Mercury in September started publishing a newly researched diary by local author Frank Bolt, from which its readers can follow the events of 200 years ago.


The narrative of this diary starts with the arrival of the first settlers at Risdon Cove, on Hobart’s Eastern Shore, on September 6, 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 diary catches up with the arrival of Governor Collins and his diary will follow their struggles on a day-to-day basis, using contemporary documents as its main source. Of course, what with all the problems and hard work the new arrivals had to cope with there will occasionally be a day when the diary is silent. Let's just say that they were simply too busy with whatever new problem faced them that day.


The diary 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.  Its departure marked the end of the first beginnings of the Hobart settlement. All concerned had packed a lot of living into the past 12 months or so, but when the Ocean left again in August 1804 the first cottages and huts had been erected and were inhabited. The farmers had cleared and fenced their first paddocks and stocked them with cattle, sheep and grain, and their new life in a new country in general was ready to take off. From that moment onward they were, for all practical purpose, on their own, alone, and totally dependent on their own mettle.


The settlers soon realised 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.


The reasons given by Governor King for his decision to create a settlement in Tasmania clearly indicated his concerns about the presence of French ships in the south-eastern region of Australia, even to the extent where he was prepared to use the poor and limited resources of his own settlement in Sydney to equip an expedition aimed at preventing any formal French presence within his area of responsibility.

In May 1803 he wrote to Evan Nepean, Secretary of the British Admiralty in London: ”In my letter of November 23, 1802, I informed you that I had sent a Colonial Vessel to Basses Straits. It was reported to me soon after the French Ships sailed from here (Sydney after an R&R visit) that a principal object of their voyage was to fix on a Place in Van Diemen's Land for a settlement, and that the French officers who had talked of it had pointed out a particular place i.e. around Storm Bay (for this purpose). With this Information I considered it my duty to establish His Majesty’s Right to that Island, it being within the limits of this Territory.''


King then described the main objectives of the intended settlement at Risdon Cove as being to prevent the French from gaining a foothold on the eastern side of Tasmania, to divide the convicts, to secure another source for obtaining timber and other natural resources, to grow more grain, and to promote the seal industry.


Why the choice of Risdon Cove?


Sent out from India to explore the coast of Van Diemen's Land and its harbours, a Lieutenant Hayes had visited Storm Bay in 1794. From here he sailed up the Derwent and, almost casually, named a small bay on the shores of this river Risdon Cove, Risdon being the name of one of his ships officers.


Four years later, in 1798, Flinders and Bass circumnavigated Tasmania and visited the Derwent in the process, its pleasant appearance causing Bass to write rather enthusiastically about this Risdon Cove as a place where the soil is extremely rich, and the fields are well covered with grass.

``The soil along the bottom, and some distance up the slope, is a rich vegetable mould, apparently hardened by a small mixture of clay, which grows a large quantity of thick juicy grass and some few patches of close underwood.''


Bass may have referred to the area now in use as the Risdon prison vegetable garden, which indeed has pockets of good alluvial soils. But even then, the image conjured up by his description implies a far larger and lusher environment than this valley actually offers.


Flinders, on the other hand, was far less enthusiastic about Risdon Cove, and as a practical seaman noted instead the insignificance of the little creek which even his little boat could not enter and where he could barely fill his water casks.


But for the ideas of the time, the remarks by Bass were considered quite sufficient for Governor King in Sydney to instruct Lieutenant Bowen to use Risdon Cove as his place of settlement, although Bowen did indeed have the discretion to select another place if he should find a better spot after his arrival.


What with the much stretched resources of Governor King it took him several months to get the necessary provisions, and ships together, but in March 1803 he was able to appoint a new arrival, Lieutenant Bowen, to head the intended expedition to Van Diemen's Land. In June of that year the Lady Nelson and the Porpoise left Port Jackson but were driven back by adverse weather. A second attempt in mid-August also failed but a third effort later that month was successful, and both ships reached the Derwent safely early in September.


The first entry in the diary published in The Mercury on September 12 starts with the arrival of the Lady Nelson in the Derwent, where it will have to wait for a few days for the arrival of the much slower whaler Albion with Lieutenant Bowen on board.