The Settlement at Port Jackson, by Watkin Tench


Facts relating to the probability of establishing a whale fishery on the coast of New South Wales, with Thoughts on the same.

In every former part of this publication I have studiously avoided mentioning a whale fishery, as the information relating to it will, I conceive, be more acceptably received in this form, by those to whom it is addressed, than if mingled with other matter.

Previous to entering on this detail, it must be observed that several of the last fleet of ships which had arrived from England with convicts, were fitted out with implements for whale fishing, and were intended to sail for the coast of Brazil to pursue the fishery, immediately on having landed the convicts.

On the 14th of October, 1791, the ‘Britannia’, Captain Melville, one of these ships, arrived at Sydney. In her passage between Van Diemen’s Land and Port Jackson, the master reported that he had seen a large shoal of spermaceti whales. His words were, ‘I saw more whales at one time around my ship than in the whole of six years which I have fished on the coast of Brazil.’

This intelligence was no sooner communicated than all the whalers were eager to push to sea. Melville himself was among the most early; and on the 10th of November, returned to Port Jackson, more confident of success than before. He assured me that in the fourteen days which he had been out, he had seen more spermaced whales than in all his former life. They amounted, he said to many thousands, most of them of enormous magnitude; and had he not met with bad weather he could have killed as many as he pleased. Seven he did kill, but owing to the stormy agitated state of the water, he could not get any of them aboard. In one however, which in a momentary interval of calm, was killed and secured by a ship in company, he shared. The oil and head matter of this fish, he extolled as of an extraordinary fine quality. He was of opinion the former would fetch ten pounds per ton more in London than that procured on the Brazil coast. He had not gone farther south than 37 degrees; and described the latitude of 35 degrees to be the place where the whales most abounded, just on the edge of soundings, which here extends about fifteen leagues from the shore; though perhaps, on other parts of the coast the bank will be found to run hardly so far off.

On the following day (November 11th) the ‘Mary Anne’, Captain Munro, another of the whalers, returned into port, after having been out sixteen days. She had gone as far south as 41 degrees but saw not a whale, and had met with tremendously bad weather, in which she had shipped a sea that had set her boiling coppers afloat and had nearly carried them overboard.

November 22d. The ‘William and Anne’, Captain Buncker, returned after having been more than three weeks out, and putting into Broken Bay. This is the ship that had killed the fish in which Melville shared. Buncker had met with no farther success, owing, he said, entirely, to gales of wind; for he had seen several immense shoals and was of opinion that he should have secured fifty tons of oil, had the weather been tolerably moderate. I asked him whether he thought the whales he had seen were fish of passage. “No” he answered, “they were going on every point of the compass, and were evidently on feeding ground, which I saw no reason to doubt that they frequent.” Melville afterwards confirmed to me this observation. December 3rd, the ‘Mary Anne’ and ‘Matilda’ again returned. The former had gone to the southward, and off Port Jervis had fallen in with two shoals of whales, nine of which were killed, but owing to bad weather, part of five only were got on board. As much, the master computed, as would yield thirty barrels of oil. He said the whales were the least shy of any he had ever seen, “not having been cut up”. The latter had gone to the northward, and had seen no whales but a few fin-backs.

On the 5th of December, both these ships sailed again; and on the 16th and 17th of the month (just before the author sailed for England) they and the ‘Britannia’ and ‘William and Anne’ returned to Port Jackson without success having experienced a continuation of the bad weather and seen very few fish. They all said that their intention was to give the coast one more trial, and if it miscarried to quit it and steer to the northward in search of less tempestuous seas.

The only remark which I have to offer to adventurers on the above subject, is not to suffer discouragement by concluding that bad weather only is to be found on the coast of New South Wales, where the whales have hitherto been seen. Tempests happen sometimes there, as in other seas, but let them feel assured that there are in every month of the year many days in which the whale fishery may be safely carried on. The evidence of the abundance in which spermaceti whales are sometimes seen is incontrovertible: that which speaks to their being ‘not fish of passage’ is at least respectable and hitherto uncontradicted. The prospect merits attention — may it stimulate to enterprise.

The two discoveries of Port Jervis and Matilda Bay (which are to be found in the foregoing sheets) may yet be wanting in the maps of the coast. My account of their geographic situation, except possibly in the exact longitude of the latter (a point not very material) may be safely depended upon. A knowledge of Oyster Bay, discovered and laid down by the ‘Mercury’ store-ship, in the year 1789, would also be desirable. But this I am incapable of furnishing.

Here terminates my subject. Content with the humble province of detailing facts and connecting events by undisturbed narration, I leave to others the task of anticipating glorious, or gloomy, consequences, from the establishment of a colony, which unquestionably demands serious investigation, ere either its prosecution or abandonment be determined.

But doubtless not only those who planned, but those who have been delegated to execute, an enterprise of such magnitude, have deeply revolved, that “great national expense does not imply the necessity of national suffering. While revenue is employed with success to some valuable end, the profits of every adventure being more than sufficient to repay its costs, the public should gain, and its resources should continue to multiply. But an expense whether sustained at home or abroad; whether a waste of the present, or an anticipation of the future, revenue, if it bring no adequate return, is to be reckoned among the causes of national ruin.”*

[*Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society.]

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