The Settlement at Port Jackson, by Watkin Tench

CHAPTER I.

A Retrospect of the State of the Colony of Port Jackson, on the Date of my former Narrative, in July, 1788.

Previous to commencing any farther account of the subject, which I am about to treat, such a retrospection of the circumstances and situation of the settlement, at the conclusion of my former Narrative, as shall lay its state before the reader, seems necessary, in order to connect the present with the past.

The departure of the first fleet of ships for Europe, on the 14th of July, 1788, had been long impatiently expected; and had filled us with anxiety, to communicate to our friends an account of our situation; describing the progress of improvement, and the probability of success, or failure, in our enterprise. That men should judge very oppositely on so doubtful and precarious an event, will hardly surprise.

Such relations could contain little besides the sanguineness of hope, and the enumeration of hardships and difficulties, which former accounts had not led us to expect. Since our disembarkation in the preceding January, the efforts of every one had been unremittingly exerted, to deposit the public stores in a state of shelter and security, and to erect habitations for ourselves. We were eager to escape from tents, where a fold of canvas, only, interposed to check the vertic beams of the sun in summer, and the chilling blasts of the south in winter. A markee pitched, in our finest season, on an English lawn; or a transient view of those gay camps, near the metropolis, which so many remember, naturally draws forth careless and unmeaning exclamations of rapture, which attach ideas of pleasure only, to this part of a soldier’s life. But an encampment amidst the rocks and wilds of a new country, aggravated by the miseries of bad diet, and incessant toil, will find few admirers.

Nor were our exertions less unsuccessful than they were laborious. Under wretched covers of thatch lay our provisions and stores, exposed to destruction from every flash of lightning, and every spark of fire. A few of the convicts had got into huts; but almost all the officers, and the whole of the soldiery, were still in tents.

In such a situation, where knowledge of the mechanic arts afforded the surest recommendation to notice, it may be easily conceived, that attention to the parade duty of the troops, gradually diminished. Now were to be seen officers and soldiers not “trailing the puissant pike” but felling the ponderous gum-tree, or breaking the stubborn clod. And though “the broad falchion did not in a ploughshare end” the possession of a spade, a wheelbarrow, or a dunghill, was more coveted than the most refulgent arms in which heroism ever dazzled. Those hours, which in other countries are devoted to martial acquirements, were here consumed in the labours of the sawpit, the forge and the quarry*.

[* “The Swedish prisoners, taken at the battle of Pultowa, were transported by the Czar Peter to the most remote parts of Siberia, with a view to civilize the natives of the country, and teach them the arts the Swedes possessed. In this hopeless situation, all traces of discipline and subordination, between the different ranks, were quickly obliterated. The soldiers, who were husbandmen and artificers, found out their superiority, and assumed it: the officers became their servants.” VOLTAIRE.]

Of the two ships of war, the ‘Sirius’ and ‘Supply’, the latter was incessantly employed in transporting troops, convicts, and stores, to Norfolk Island; and the ‘Sirius’ in preparing for a voyage to some port, where provisions for our use might be purchased, the expected supply from England not having arrived. It is but justice to the officers and men of both these ships to add, that, on all occasions, they fully shared every hardship and fatigue with those on shore.

On the convicts the burden fell yet heavier: necessity compelled us to allot to them the most slavish and laborious employments. Those operations, which in other countries are performed by the brute creation, were here effected by the exertions of men: but this ought not to be considered a grievance; because they had always been taught to expect it, as the inevitable consequence of their offences against society. Severity was rarely exercised on them; and justice was administered without partiality or discrimination. Their ration of provisions, except in being debarred from an allowance of spirits, was equal to that which the marines received. Under these circumstances I record with pleasure, that they behaved better than had been predicted of them — to have expected sudden and complete reformation of conduct, were romantic and chimerical.

Our cultivation of the land was yet in its infancy. We had hitherto tried only the country contiguous to Sydney. Here the governor had established a government-farm; at the head of which a competent person of his own household was placed, with convicts to work under him. Almost the whole of the officers likewise accepted of small tracts of ground, for the purpose of raising grain and vegetables: but experience proved to us, that the soil would produce neither without manure; and as this was not to be procured, our vigour soon slackened; and most of the farms (among which was the one belonging to government) were successively abandoned.

With the natives we were very little more acquainted than on our arrival in the country. Our intercourse with them was neither frequent or cordial. They seemed studiously to avoid us, either from fear, jealousy, or hatred. When they met with unarmed stragglers, they sometimes killed, and sometimes wounded them. I confess that, in common with many others, I was inclined to attribute this conduct, to a spirit of malignant levity. But a farther acquaintance with them, founded on several instances of their humanity and generosity, which shall be noticed in their proper places, has entirely reversed my opinion; and led me to conclude, that the unprovoked outrages committed upon them, by unprincipled individuals among us, caused the evils we had experienced. To prevent them from being plundered of their fishing-tackle and weapons of war, a proclamation was issued, forbidding their sale among us; but it was not attended with the good effect which was hoped for from it.

During this period, notwithstanding the want of fresh provisions and vegetables, and almost constant exposure to the vicissitudes of a variable climate, disease rarely attacked us; and the number of deaths, was too inconsiderable to deserve mention.

Norfolk Island had been taken possession of, by a party detached for that purpose, early after our arrival. Few accounts of it had yet reached us. And here I beg leave to observe, that as I can speak of this island only from the relations of others, never having myself been there, I shall in every part of this work mention it as sparingly as possible. And this more especially, as it seems probable, that some of those gentlemen, who from accurate knowledge, and long residence on it, are qualified to write its history, will oblige the world with such a publication.

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