The Expedition to Botany Bay, by Watkin Tench

CHAPTER XV.

The Face of the Country; its Productions, Climate, &c.

To the geographical knowledge of this country, supplied by Captain Cook, and Captain Furneaux, we are able to add nothing. The latter explored the coast from Van Diemen’s land to the latitude of 39 deg south; and Cook from Point Hicks, which lies in 37 deg 58 min, to Endeavour Streights. The intermediate space between the end of Furneaux’s discovery and Point Hicks, is, therefore, the only part of the south-east coast unknown, and it so happened on our passage thither, owing to the weather, which forbade any part of the ships engaging with the shore, that we are unable to pronounce whether, or not, a streight intersects the continent hereabouts: though I beg leave to say, that I have been informed by a naval friend, that when the fleet was off this part of the coast, a strong set-off shore was plainly felt.

At the distance of 60 miles inland, a prodigious chain of lofty mountains runs nearly in a north and south direction, further than the eye can trace them. Should nothing intervene to prevent it, the Governor intends, shortly, to explore their summits: and, I think there can be little doubt, that his curiosity will not go unrewarded. If large rivers do exist in the country, which some of us are almost sceptical enough to doubt, their sources must arise amidst these hills; and the direction they run in, for a considerable distance, must be either due north, or due south. For it is strikingly singular that three such noble harbours as Botany Bay, Port Jackson, and Broken Bay, alike end in shallows and swamps, filled with mangroves.

The general face of the country is certainly pleasing, being diversified with gentle ascents, and little winding vallies, covered for the most part with large spreading trees, which afford a succession of leaves in all seasons. In those places where trees are scarce, a variety of flowering shrubs abound, most of them entirely new to an European, and surpassing in beauty, fragrance, and number, all I ever saw in an uncultivated state: among these, a tall shrub, bearing an elegant white flower, which smells like English May, is particularly delightful, and perfumes the air around to a great distance. The species of trees are few, and, I am concerned to add, the wood universally of so bad a grain, as almost to preclude a possibility of using it: the increase of labour occasioned by this in our buildings has been such, as nearly to exceed belief. These trees yield a profusion of thick red gum (not unlike the ‘sanguis draconis’) which is found serviceable in medicine, particularly in dysenteric complaints, where it has sometimes succeeded, when all other preparations have failed. To blunt its acrid qualities, it is usual to combine it with opiates.

The nature of the soil is various. That immediately round Sydney Cove is sandy, with here and there a stratum of clay. From the sand we have yet been able to draw very little; but there seems no reason to doubt, that many large tracts of land around us will bring to perfection whatever shall be sown in them. To give this matter a fair trial, some practical farmers capable of such an undertaking should be sent out; for the spots we have chosen for experiments in agriculture, in which we can scarce be supposed adepts, have hitherto but ill repaid our toil, which may be imputable to our having chosen such as are unfavourable for our purpose.

Except from the size of the trees, the difficulties of clearing the land are not numerous, underwood being rarely found, though the country is not absolutely without it. Of the natural meadows which Mr. Cook mentions near Botany Bay, we can give no account; none such exist about Port Jackson. Grass, however, grows in every place but the swamps with the greatest vigour and luxuriancy, though it is not of the finest quality, and is found to agree better with horses and cows than sheep. A few wild fruits are sometimes procured, among which is the small purple apple mentioned by Cook, and a fruit which has the appearance of a grape, though in taste more like a green gooseberry, being excessively sour: probably were it meliorated by cultivation, it would become more palatable.

Fresh water, as I have said before, is found but in inconsiderable quantities. For the common purposes of life there is generally enough; but we know of no stream in the country capable of turning a mill: and the remark made by Mr. Anderson, of the dryness of the country round Adventure Bay, extends without exception to every part of it which we have penetrated.

Previous to leaving England I remember to have frequently heard it asserted, that the discovery of mines was one of the secondary objects of the expedition. Perhaps there are mines; but as no person competent to form a decision is to be found among us, I wish no one to adopt an idea, that I mean to impress him with such a belief, when I state, that individuals, whose judgements are not despicable, are willing to think favourably of this conjecture, from specimens of ore seen in many of the stones picked up here. I cannot quit this subject without regretting, that some one capable of throwing a better light on it, is not in the colony. Nor can I help being equally concerned, that an experienced botanist was not sent out, for the purpose of collecting and describing the rare and beautiful plants with which the country abounds. Indeed, we flattered ourselves, when at the Cape of Good Hope, that Mason, the King’s botanical gardener, who was employed there in collecting for the royal nursery at Kew, would have joined us, but it seems his orders and engagements prevented him from quitting that beaten track, to enter on this scene of novelty and variety.

To the naturalist this country holds out many invitations. Birds, though not remarkably numerous, are in great variety, and of the most exquisite beauty of plumage, among which are the cockatoo, lory, and parroquet; but the bird which principally claims attention is, a species of ostrich, approaching nearer to the emu of South America than any other we know of. One of them was shot, at a considerable distance, with a single ball, by a convict employed for that purpose by the Governor; its weight, when complete, was seventy pounds, and its length from the end of the toe to the tip of the beak, seven feet two inches, though there was reason to believe it had not attained its full growth. On dissection many anatomical singularities were observed: the gall-bladder was remarkably large, the liver not bigger than that of a barn-door fowl, and after the strictest search no gizzard could be found; the legs, which were of a vast length, were covered with thick, strong scales, plainly indicating the animal to be formed for living amidst deserts; and the foot differed from an ostrich’s by forming a triangle, instead of being cloven.

Goldsmith, whose account of the emu is the only one I can refer to, says, “that it is covered from the back and rump with long feathers, which fall backward, and cover the anus; these feathers are grey on the back, and white on the belly.” The wings are so small as hardly to deserve the name, and are unfurnished with those beautiful ornaments which adorn the wings of the ostrich: all the feathers are extremely coarse, but the construction of them deserves notice — they grow in pairs from a single shaft, a singularity which the author I have quoted has omitted to remark. It may be presumed, that these birds are not very scarce, as several have been seen, some of them immensely large, but they are so wild, as to make shooting them a matter of great difficulty. Though incapable of flying, they run with such swiftness, that our fleetest greyhounds are left far behind in every attempt to catch them. The flesh was eaten, and tasted like beef.

Besides the emu, many birds of prodigious size have been seen, which promise to increase the number of those described by naturalists, whenever we shall be fortunate enough to obtain them; but among these the bat of the Endeavour River is not to be found. In the woods are various little songsters, whose notes are equally sweet and plaintive.

Of quadrupeds, except the kangaroo, I have little to say. The few met with are almost invariably of the opossum tribe, but even these do not abound. To beasts of prey we are utter strangers, nor have we yet any cause to believe that they exist in the country. And happy it is for us that they do not, as their presence would deprive us of the only fresh meals the settlement affords, the flesh of the kangaroo. This singular animal is already known in Europe by the drawing and description of Mr. Cook. To the drawing nothing can be objected but the position of the claws of the hinder leg, which are mixed together like those of a dog, whereas no such indistinctness is to be found in the animal I am describing. It was the Chevalier De Perrouse who pointed out this to me, while we were comparing a kangaroo with the plate, which, as he justly observed, is correct enough to give the world in general a good idea of the animal, but not sufficiently accurate for the man of science.

Of the natural history of the kangaroo we are still very ignorant. We may, however, venture to pronounce this animal, a new species of opossum, the female being furnished with a bag, in which the young is contained; and in which the teats are found. These last are only two in number, a strong presumptive proof, had we no other evidence, that the kangaroo brings forth rarely more than one at a birth. But this is settled beyond a doubt, from more than a dozen females having been killed, which had invariably but one formed in the pouch. Notwithstanding this, the animal may be looked on as prolific, from the early age it begins to breed at, kangaroos with young having been taken of not more than thirty pounds weight; and there is room to believe that when at their utmost growth, they weigh not less than one hundred and fifty pounds. A male of one hundred and thirty pounds weight has been killed, whose dimensions were as follows:

                                      Feet. Inches.
Extreme length 7 3
Ditt of the tail 3 4 1/2
Ditto of the hinder legs 3 2
Ditto of the fore paws 1 7 1/2
Circumference of the tail of the root 1 5

After this perhaps I shall hardly be credited, when I affirm that the kangaroo on being brought forth is not larger than an English mouse. It is, however, in my power to speak positively on this head, as I have seen more than one instance of it.

In running, this animal confines himself entirely to his hinder, legs, which are possessed with an extraordinary muscular power. Their speed is very great, though not in general quite equal to that of a greyhound; but when the greyhounds are so fortunate as to seize them, they are incapable of retaining their hold, from the amazing struggles of the animal. The bound of the kangaroo, when not hard pressed, has been measured, and found to exceed twenty feet.

At what time of the year they copulate, and in what manner, we know not: the testicles of the male are placed contrary to the usual order of nature.

When young the kangaroo eats tender and well flavoured, tasting like veal, but the old ones are more tough and stringy than bullbeef. They are not carnivorous, and subsist altogether on particular flowers and grass. Their bleat is mournful, and very different from that of any other animal: it is, however, seldom heard but in the young ones.

Fish, which our sanguine hopes led us to expect in great quantities, do not abound. In summer they are tolerably plentiful, but for some months past very few have been taken. Botany Bay in this respect exceeds Port Jackson. The French once caught near two thousand fish in one day, of a species of grouper, to which, from the form of a bone in the head resembling a helmet, we have given the name of light horseman. To this may be added bass, mullets, skait, soles, leather-jackets, and many other species, all so good in their kind, as to double our regret at their not being more numerous. Sharks of an enormous size are found here. One of these was caught by the people on board the Sirius, which measured at the shoulders six feet and a half in circumference. His liver yielded twenty-four gallons of oil; and in his stomach was found the head of a shark, which had been thrown overboard from the same ship. The Indians, probably from having felt the effects of their voracious fury, testify the utmost horror on seeing these terrible fish.

Venomous animals and reptiles are rarely seen. Large snakes beautifully variegated have been killed, but of the effect of their bites we are happily ignorant. Insects, though numerous, are by no means, even in summer, so troublesome as I have found them in America, the West Indies, and other countries.

The climate is undoubtedly very desirable to live in. In summer the heats are usually moderated by the sea breeze, which sets in early; and in winter the degree of cold is so slight as to occasion no inconvenience; once or twice we have had hoar frosts and hail, but no appearance of snow. The thermometer has never risen beyond 84, nor fallen lower than 35, in general it stood in the beginning of February at between 78 and 74 at noon. Nor is the temperature of the air less healthy than pleasant. Those dreadful putrid fevers by which new countries are so often ravaged, are unknown to us: and excepting a slight diarrhoea, which prevailed soon after we had landed, and was fatal in very few instances, we are strangers to epidemic diseases.

On the whole, (thunder storms in the hot months excepted) I know not any climate equal to this I write in. Ere we had been a fortnight on shore we experienced some storms of thunder accompanied with rain, than which nothing can be conceived more violent and tremendous, and their repetition for several days, joined to the damage they did, by killing several of our sheep, led us to draw presages of an unpleasant nature. Happily, however, for many months we have escaped any similar visitations.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04