THE FOUNDING OF
A diary of the events ‘on the Derwent’ between September 1803
and August 1804, supplemented with background notes.
by frank bolt
“The Founding of Hobart 1803 – 1804”
A ms compiled by Frank Bolt, Hobart,
The author asserts his full rights to
the entire contents of this work.
Over the past few decades, my various professional activities seemed to come repeatedly across several aspects of the initial settlement of Hobart Town: how and precisely where it happened, and who they were that were involved: their background, their attitudes to life and their aspirations (or the lack of them) for the future.
To my surprise, no serious effort ever seemed to have been made to study these matters in detail; in the end my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to start fossicking around in this fascinating subject.
The basic research was relatively easy; virtually all the primary existing sources covering the events of 1803 and 1804 are quite well known but also quite limited, while for the material that is not known the law of diminishing returns awaits the intrepid researcher with the full weight of its validity.
What, however, never seemed to have been attempted before was to break this recorded material down into individual items of information which could then be used again as the pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle, hopefully re-establishing a fuller picture of the events of those first days.
The result of this technique was like the restoration of an old painting: many of the original colours of the story came back to life again, and while there are still many details missing, it did produce a much clearer and more colourful overall impression of the daily events and human emotions that ran their full range in the small community during those first few critical months of their new life on what to them would become Tasmanian soil.
* * * * *
After much agonising on the question of how to present this material, I decided in the end to use the form of a day-by-day diary, thus creating a practical framework for dealing with the many and often quite separate and wide-ranging items of information as the text pieces them together again from a large range of original sources such as official documents and reports, ships journals, diaries, letters and the like. It also facilitated a much better treatment of the events as they unfolded on a day-by-day basis, like the hurried considerations that took place over several days before the shore of Sullivans Cove was chosen as a place ‘well calculated for a settlement’, or the daily increasing friction between Lt. Bowen and Lt. Moore.
The advantages of such an approach are that it helps to give us a much better insight into the context of the many things that happened in those days, right from the physical problems one faces when being dumped ashore with a few suitcases and little else (as happened quite literally to those settlers who chose to go to the New Town area), to the broader community problems soon cropping up within the mixed society that took part in these events.
Of course, the disadvantages of using contemporary documentation only is that the writer is hemmed in by the confines of the surviving material at his disposal. Thus it is Knopwood who frequently figures in the story, simply because through the entries of his diary he seems to come through as one of the main players in the story. (He often was, of course, but that does not alter the issue.)
Another character well known in the early history of both Tasmania and Victoria, John Pascoe Fawkner, similarly crops up at times but was a boy only eleven years old at the time of the settlement, requiring us to be very careful with the accuracy of his recollections from this period in his youth penned down many years later.
Governor Collins, on the other hand, wrote much official correspondence and reports, but apart from the odd throw-away line rarely expresses his private thoughts. There are clear indications that there was a fair amount of private correspondence during the first few years or so between Collins and Gov. King –who was an old friend of Collins- in which Collins unburdened his private thoughts about many matters, but very few of these letters seem to have survived, while during the term of his governorship in Hobart Town he does not seemed to have kept a diary like the one he carefully tended during his service years in Sydney.
We know therefore much about the daily management issues and progress of the settlement as a government activity, but hear virtually nothing from him as a private person about the pressures and intrigues around him until we begin to analyse his official writings against the backdrop of other surviving material from those first days.
A good example of such personal feelings and frustrations come through to us in his official comments on the killing of a few aborigines by panicking soldiers at Risdon Cove in May 1804 - comments from which it becomes abundantly clear that he much resented what happened, and feels deeply for the unfortunates who were killed and their race in general. But he cannot undo what happened and, as Governor of the settlement, has to salvage the situation as well as he can. (A few decades later we find Gov. Arthur facing similar dilemmas on similar subjects, but is then facing other circumstances and with even fewer options at his disposal.)
Interestingly, a much clearer image of his feelings towards the community around him is evident from his book on the settlement in New South Wales, which he published after his return to London in 1798. In it, he comes through as a (for his time and circumstances) very humane person with an ever-inquiring mind, and in cases of disputes (and there were many brought before him in his function as judge-advocate) was always willing to listen to the arguments of the accused party. The book also clearly demonstrates the wide experiences he gained during his years in Sydney, as a result of which many problems, first at Port Phillip and later in Hobart Town, to him must have had a distinct ‘deja-vu’ air about them.
In order not to sprinkle the main text with endless references to notes elsewhere in the book, background information or other comments were provided in small type in small type following the main entry for that day, and can be read then or left for later reading. Also, the sources used for this book have been listed in an appendix at the back.
* * * * *
The focus of these Diary entries then is primarily on the first few months of permanent European settlement in Tasmania, and the local Aboriginal people are only mentioned where and when they appear in the surviving documentation covering the very short period dealt with in the text (September 1803 – August 1804)1.
From the little that we do know about them during these first days of settlement it becomes clear that while, of course, the dimensions of the relationship between the newcomers and the original local aboriginal population were still at a very early stage, the fundamental problems facing Collins and his successors were in the wider ramifications of the philosophical ethics of Christian Europe of those days in relation to the 'black savages' living in foreign parts, in the same way as we of today as ‘Westerners’ have other but equally fixed moralistic -and often equally disastrous- ideas about cultures and societies which are not our own. 2)
The resulting conflicts with the Aborigines are very much regretted by us of today, but were seen in a quite different light by many of the newcomers two hundred years ago.
The social conscience of England and its morality towards the end of the 18th century was very different to our present perceptions of ‘correct thinking’, a matter not helped by the fact that those taking part in the Collins expedition were, on the whole, a raw, ill-educated and uncouth bunch of people from the lower levels of society, many senior civil and military officers not excluded. As far as they were concerned, many of the things that happened within their community were considered to be either quite acceptable, condoned or were simply ignored, and for the rest it was an anything-goes environment anyway when it came to improving one’s own comfort level and progress in society.
Nevertheless, the members of the Collins expedition were under specific instructions from London to ‘open intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their good will, enjoining all persons under your Government to live in amity and kindness with them. And if any person shall use any acts of violence against them, or shall wantonly give them any interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, you are to cause such offenders to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence’.
Collins attempted to adhere to that instruction very rigorously but was unable to control those under him at all times, people who often had quite other ideas of how to deal with ‘these savages’, hence, for instance, the incident at Risdon Cove in May 1804.
Of course, we all know what happened during the following decades and after that, and the burden of these events will forever stay with us as part of the history of this island.
To do justice to this aspect of the surviving documentation, I saw my role in the preparation of this manuscript as a chronicler of recorded events rather than as a interpreter of these events within the framework of modern contemporary concepts.
This by itself was difficult enough; indeed, as the American historian David Lowenthal reminds us: ‘… everything that is known or surmised about the past gets re-interpreted through each new generation’s updated lenses’.3) (Mark Twain, of course, had little time for such polite chit-chat, and bluntly declared that ‘the very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice’.4))
It was with this kind of warnings in mind that an utmost effort was made to let the surviving documents from that era speak for themselves, and leave the formulation of modern views on these events to others.
* * * * *
There was also the matter of the prior settlement of the expedition on the shores of Port Phillip in what is now Victoria. One the one hand it could be considered as a part of the history of the settlement on the Derwent, yet on the other hand it also was a story in its own right. It is rich in events and profound drama, but it also concentrated on problems that were far removed from the practicalities of landing at the foot of Mount Wellington and the issues arising from then onward.
In order therefore to keep the two stories apart, the Port Phillip episode was therefore dealt with in a separate chapter (Appendix 5), which concentrates in the main on the growing realisation that that location was not a good one, and the associated monumental problems of establishing a dialogue between Gov. Collins and Gov. King for the purpose of solving the dilemmas facing the Collins settlement.
* * * * *
One vexing problem was the virtual absence or even a mention in the surviving early documentation of those women (other than their names) in the settlement who had the courage to come out with their convict husbands, yet the reason for their very presence is a story in its own right.
While the background and severity of the sentences meted out to the convicts seem bizarre to us of today, once they were in the justice system as sentenced to be transported, there seems to have been a clear wish on the part of the authorities (and certainly in Collins’ time) to inject at least some elements of rehabilitation in their punishment.
For this reason, some prisoners who had already shown an appropriate amount of 'favourable circumstances in their behaviour’ while still in England could be given 'permission for their wives to accompany their husbands into exile, and taking their children with them’, presumably on the basis that they were less likely to cause unruly problems than their single (and unencumbered) mates.
As a result of this arrangement, several courageous wives did indeed join the Collins expedition and usually spent the outward journey with their convict husbands on the lower decks where the rest of the prisoners were also accommodated, a difficult environment for these women to be in under the best of circumstances. Beyond this there are, of course, the stories of some male and female prisoners who were more favoured than others, and in the end there was a fairly large range of (always conditional) forms of freedom in movement and work that could be obtained by the prisoners during the Collins period.
On the whole, there are relatively few stories about misbehaving wives (of prisoners or settlers alike), and Fawkner (whose mother also came out as the wife of a prisoner) remarks that ‘the far greater number [of women] behaved well, and made themselves respected as wives, mothers, and as useful members of society … the families they reared are, to this day, a good voucher of their sobriety, chastity and prudent and moral behaviour’. (It is fair comment to say that, by and large, the evidence of later times tends to confirm this observation by Fawkner.)
And while on this subject, it was of interest to note that a few soldiers had also been allowed to bring their wives with them, but that apparently for entirely different reasons: ‘The Comfort and appearance of the Military depending much upon their cleanliness, The Right Honourable The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty are pleased to permit a certain Number of Women to accompany their Husbands in the present expedition for the purpose of contributing to that end by washing for the Detachment’.
As a result, three childless wives were given the task of doing the laundry for 44 soldiers, the officers and non-commissioned officers presumably relying on their personal servants to have their washing done.
* * * * *
Another interesting problem concerned the rank of John Bowen, who in the narrative of this book is consistently described as 'Lt.' or Lieutenant, which was indeed the rank under which he came to NSW in 1803 and also left with it again in 1805 and who was, quite frankly, never looked upon as anything else but a lieutenant, and a junior one at that.
The consistent use of this title in these pages is simply a matter of convenience, as in reality his actual rank, his temporary rank and the various titles with which he was referred to after he became involved with Risdon Cove were widely different things and subject to whichever letter or document one cares to read.
For instance, shortly after his commission to go to Risdon Cove he is variously named or addressed as Lieutenant, Mr., Captain, Commander, Commandant, Superintendent etc., while at Risdon he apparently was always addressed as ‘the Governor’. Even Gov. King in Sydney is at times ‘flexible' -to put it mildly- in the manner in which he addresses Bowen while Capt. Colnett, Lt. Bowen’s commanding officer, at one stage goes as far as suggesting to him to masquerade and 'wear the Uniform of a Commander in the Royal Navy’ - and then addresses these instructions to a ‘Mr. Jno. Bowen, Junior Lieutenant of H.M.S. Glatton’, prudently adding at the same time that he is not to expect any ‘higher duty allowance', as the modern terminology in this kind of public service horse trading goes.
Furthermore, when Collins arrives in the Derwent he reports to King that ‘Mr’. Bowen is absent, but after Bowen's return from Sydney briefly refers to him as ‘Captain', either to be seen as a gesture to bolster his authority within the
-admittedly unruly- community of Risdon Cove, or as a brief attempt to pacify a rather angry Bowen, who had just discovered that he had been unceremoniously stripped of his command.
Contemporary correspondence skirts the issue nicely or is addressed to Gov. Collins, who is then politely asked to pass the information on ‘to the Commandant of Risdon Cove' - the official function with which Governor King had formally charged Bowen with.
The usual confusion about Bowen’s rank in later times may stem from the fact that the word ‘Commandant’ is linked with a job description and not with a formal rank within the military hierarchy – a matter which would give him much grief later on.
* * * * *
The settlement of the first cities in Australia were government-initiated events, occurring at a time when the first signs of modern bureaucracy began to develop:
government departments with departmental heads requiring detailed reports, returns and statistics, clerks copying letters etc. Their writers often used much flowery language, and in the body of the text frequently wasted much time and space with what were -to our modern eyes- badly written communications inefficiently put together.
Furthermore, poor spelling, missing words and a lack of punctuation often helped to create a form of late 18th century shorthand officialese that will test the patience and endurance of all but the most persistent readers – like the language used in many of our modern e-mail letters of today is sure to baffle many researchers in two hundred years from now!
Therefore, in order to enhance the reading and enjoyment of the material dealt with in this book, many quotations from ship journals, letters, contemporary reports or commentaries were abbreviated and/or edited into modern English where this would help the understanding of just what went on. It is hoped that in this manner the thoughts and emotions of the past will speak more clearly to us living two centuries later, and living in a society of which the social structure and language of communication could not have been more different.
* * * * *
Readers will note the absence of the usual gruesome stories of convicts languishing in dark cells, and female convicts suffering harsh treatment in female factories and the like.
All this undoubtedly did happen, but did not become general practice in Tasmania until after the departure of Gov. Arthur, when sadistic monsters such as John G. Price were appointed to run the convict system and in particular convict prisons like Port Arthur. Men like Price (and Joseph Foveaux before him on Norfolk Island) and the Governors who knowingly appointed and kept people like these in their positions would nowadays probably be receiving close attention from organisations such as the UN’s International Crime Tribunal, indicating the degree of sufferings which these people inflicted on their charges - a matter of which it is well to be remembered next time when we visit places such as Port Arthur.
However, all this was still to come, and certainly during the Collins era, much compassion was shown to those convicts who made genuine efforts to begin a new life. Every encouragement possible was given to them to start their own farm or business after the expiry of their term (and often even before then), marriages were encouraged, and any useful skills amongst the convicts would, where at all possible, be used again by the authorities to everyone's benefit.
Of course, the success of the settlement (in fact, the very survival of the whole expedition) was in many ways dependent on the contribution of these convicts, the very reason that Collins, for instance, would often punish offenders in Hobart rather than send them to Sydney for trial - and in doing so would lose their labour for lengthy times.
But through it all, we come again and again across the humane attitude of Collins towards all ‘his’ people, the reason why there was so much genuine grief in the Hobart community when he died in 1810 – both convicts and settlers knew what they had lost, even if the senior military officers were less inclined to grieve overly much.
* * * * *
The compilation of this manuscript describing events based on late-18th century considerations for consumption by a generation eagerly facing the 21st century was an interesting exercise.
Interesting, because beyond the immediate details of the settlement itself, we see the slow emerging of the first foundations of our Australian society as it is today: a society where the recognised need for initiative, self-reliance and perseverance is combined with an inherited and deep-founded distaste for anything governmental.
These elements of the emotional makeup of our modern Australian society did not suddenly come to us overnight, but trace their roots back to the creation and development of communities hastily and randomly thrown together some two centuries ago, a time span long enough to produce character traits and attitudes now clearly recognisable as being typical ‘Australian’.
This book then is about people who, for one reason or another, left the grey skies of Europe to make for themselves a new life under the bright Australian sun.
Some one hundred and fifty years later I did the very same thing, and in many ways my experience echoed that of the Collins expedition when ‘the system’ took me many thousands of miles in the holds of a ex-naval transport ship along the very same sea route as the earlier settlers had taken, and at the end of it dumped me and my suitcase on a wharf at Williamstown in Melbourne, and later that same day on the tarmac of the old Cambridge (Hobart) airport. Then the door of the old DC3 closed again behind me and my suitcase, and from that moment onward I was left to my own resources. Around me was stillness and clean air; long rows of hills were showing off their first hint of spring green, while over it all a seemingly endless blue sky began giving me messages which I, as a newcomer, had never seen or heard of before.
With these memories behind me, I have since learned to respect those early newcomers for what they did with infinitely fewer resources than what I had access to.
May this publication be a salute to their memory.
Kingston Heights, Tasmania – 2002.
1 For a brief but comprehensive introduction to the Tasmanian Aborigines through time, the reader is referred
to the first chapter of Lloyd Robson’s book ‘A Short History of Tasmania’ -OUP 1997, while a more detailed
treatment of the aboriginal tribes of Tasmania in general and their tribulations following the arrival of the
settlers can be found in Lyndall Ryan’s ‘The Aboriginal Tasmanians’ - UQP 1996.
2 N.J.B. Plomley made some interesting observations on this issue in his paper: ‘Aborigines and Governors’ –
Bulletin Centre for Tasm. Hist. Studies, Vol. III no.1 1990-91.
3 D. Lowenthal: ‘Possessed by the Past’. New York 1996 – p.112.
4 Mark Twain: ‘Following the Equator’ – 1897.