The Settlement at Port Jackson, by Watkin Tench


Transactions of the Colony until the Close of the Year 1789.

The anniversary of his majesty’s birth-day was celebrated, as heretofore, at the government-house, with loyal festivity. In the evening, the play of ‘The Recruiting Officer’ was performed by a party of convicts, and honoured by the presence of his excellency, and the officers of the garrison. That every opportunity of escape from the dreariness and dejection of our situation should be eagerly embraced, will not be wondered at. The exhilarating effect of a splendid theatre is well known: and I am not ashamed to confess, that the proper distribution of three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles stuck around the mud walls of a convict-hut, failed not to diffuse general complacency on the countenances of sixty persons, of various descriptions, who were assembled to applaud the representation. Some of the actors acquitted themselves with great spirit, and received the praises of the audience: a prologue and an epilogue, written by one of the performers, were also spoken on the occasion; which, although not worth inserting here, contained some tolerable allusions to the situation of the parties, and the novelty of a stage-representation in New South Wales.

Broken Bay, which was supposed to be completely explored, became again an object of research. On the sixth instant, the governor, accompanied by a large party in two boats, proceeded thither. Here they again wandered over piles of mis-shapen desolation, contemplating scenes of wild solitude, whose unvarying appearance renders them incapable of affording either novelty or gratification. But when they had given over the hope of farther discovery, by pursuing the windings of an inlet, which, from its appearance, was supposed to be a short creek, they suddenly found themselves at the entrance of a fresh water river, up which they proceeded twenty miles, in a westerly direction; and would have farther prosecuted their research, had not a failure of provisions obliged them to return. This river they described to be of considerable breadth, and of great depth; but its banks had hitherto presented nothing better than a counterpart of the rocks and precipices which surround Broken Bay.

June, 1789. A second expedition, to ascertain its course, was undertaken by his excellency, who now penetrated (measuring by the bed of the river) between 60 and 70 miles, when the farther progress of the boats was stopped by a fall. The water in every part was found to be fresh and good. Of the adjoining country, the opinions of those who had inspected it (of which number I was not) were so various, that I shall decline to record them. Some saw a rich and beautiful country; and others were so unfortunate as to discover little else than large tracts of low land, covered with reeds, and rank with the inundations of the stream, by which they had been recently covered. All parties, however, agreed, that the rocky, impenetrable country, seen on the first excursion, had ended nearly about the place whence the boats had then turned back. Close to the fall stands a very beautiful hill, which our adventurers mounted, and enjoyed from it an extensive prospect. Potatoes, maize, and garden seeds of various kinds were put into the earth, by the governor’s order, on different parts of Richmond-hill, which was announced to be its name. The latitude of Richmond-hill, as observed by captain Hunter, was settled at 33 degrees 36 minutes south.

Here also the river received the name of Hawkesbury, in honour of the noble lord who bears that title.

Natives were found on the banks in several parts, many of whom were labouring under the smallpox. They did not attempt to commit hostilities against the boats; but on the contrary shewed every sign of welcome and friendship to the strangers.

At this period, I was unluckily invested with the command of the outpost at Rose Hill, which prevented me from being in the list of discoverers of the Hawkesbury. Stimulated, however, by a desire of acquiring a further knowledge of the country, on the 26th instant, accompanied by Mr. Arndell, assistant surgeon of the settlement, Mr. Lowes, surgeon’s mate of the ‘Sirius’, two marines, and a convict, I left the redoubt at day-break, pointing our march to a hill, distant five miles, in a westerly or inland direction, which commands a view of the great chain of mountains, called Carmarthen hills, extending from north to south farther than the eye can reach. Here we paused, surveying “the wild abyss; pondering our voyage.” Before us lay the trackless immeasurable desert, in awful silence. At length, after consultation, we determined to steer west and by north, by compass, the make of the land in that quarter indicating the existence of a river. We continued to march all day through a country untrodden before by an European foot. Save that a melancholy crow now and then flew croaking over head, or a kangaroo was seen to bound at a distance, the picture of solitude was complete and undisturbed. At four o’clock in the afternoon we halted near a small pond of water, where we took up our residence for the night, lighted a fire, and prepared to cook our supper: that was, to broil over a couple of ramrods a few slices of salt pork, and a crow which we had shot.

At daylight we renewed our peregrination; and in an hour after we found ourselves on the banks of a river, nearly as broad as the Thames at Putney, and apparently of great depth, the current running very slowly in a northerly direction. Vast flocks of wild ducks were swimming in the stream; but after being once fired at, they grew so shy that we could not get near them a second time. Nothing is more certain than that the sound of a gun had never before been heard within many miles of this spot.

We proceeded upwards, by a slow pace, through reeds, thickets, and a thousand other obstacles, which impeded our progress, over coarse sandy ground, which had been recently inundated, though full forty feet above the present level of the river. Traces of the natives appeared at every step, sometimes in their hunting-huts, which consist of nothing more than a large piece of bark, bent in the middle, and open at both ends, exactly resembling two cards, set up to form an acute angle; sometimes in marks on trees which they had climbed; or in squirrel-traps*; or, which surprised us more, from being new, in decoys for the purpose of ensnaring birds. These are formed of underwood and reeds, long and narrow, shaped like a mound raised over a grave; with a small aperture at one end for admission of the prey; and a grate made of sticks at the other: the bird enters at the aperture, seeing before him the light of the grate, between the bars of which, he vainly endeavours to thrust himself, until taken. Most of these decoys were full of feathers, chiefly those of quails, which shewed their utility. We also met with two old damaged canoes hauled up on the beach, which differed in no wise from those found on the sea coast.

[*A squirrel-trap is a cavity of considerable depth, formed by art, in the body of a tree. When the Indians in their hunting parties set fire to the surrounding country (which is a very common custom) the squirrels, opossums, and other animals, who live in trees, flee for refuge into these holes, whence they are easily dislodged and taken. The natives always pitch on a part of a tree for this purpose, which has been perforated by a worm, which indicates that the wood is in an unsound state, and will readily yield to their efforts. If the rudeness and imperfection of the tools with which they work be considered, it must be confessed to be an operation of great toil and difficulty.]

Having remained out three days, we returned to our quarters at Rose-hill, with the pleasing intelligence of our discovery. The country we had passed through we found tolerably plain, and little encumbered with underwood, except near the river side. It is entirely covered with the same sorts of trees as grow near Sydney; and in some places grass springs up luxuriantly; other places are quite bare of it. The soil is various: in many parts a stiff and clay, covered with small pebbles; in other places, of a soft loamy nature: but invariably, in every part near the river, it is a coarse sterile sand. Our observations on it (particularly mine, from carrying the compass by which we steered) were not so numerous as might have been wished. But, certainly, if the qualities of it be such as to deserve future cultivation, no impediment of surface, but that of cutting down and burning the trees, exists, to prevent its being tilled.

To this river the governor gave the name of Nepean. The distance of the part of the river which we first hit upon from the sea coast, is about 39 miles, in a direct line almost due west.

A survey of Botany Bay took place in September. I was of the party, with several others officers. We continued nine days in the bay, during which time, the relative position of every part of it, to the extent of more than thirty miles, following the windings of the shore, was ascertained, and laid down on paper, by captain Hunter.

So complete an opportunity of forming a judgment, enables me to speak decisively of a place, which has often engaged conversation and excited reflection. Variety of opinions here disappeared. I shall, therefore, transcribe literally what I wrote in my journal, on my return from the expedition. “We were unanimously of opinion, that had not the nautical part of Mr. Cook’s description, in which we include the latitude and longitude of the bay, been so accurately laid down, there would exist the utmost reason to believe, that those who have described the contiguous country, had never seen it. On the sides of the harbour, a line of sea coast more than thirty miles long, we did not find 200 acres which could be cultivated.”

September, 1789. But all our attention was not directed to explore inlets, and toll for discovery. Our internal tranquillity was still more important. To repress the inroads of depredation; and to secure to honest industry the reward of its labour, had become matter of the most serious consideration; hardly a night passing without the commission of robbery. Many expedients were devised; and the governor at length determined to select from the convicts, a certain number of persons, who were meant to be of the fairest character, for the purpose of being formed into a nightly-watch, for the preservation of public and private property, under the following regulations, which, as the first system of police in a colony, so peculiarly constituted as ours, may perhaps prove not uninteresting.

I. A night-watch, consisting of 12 persons, divided into four parties, is appointed, and fully authorized to patrol at all hours in the night; and to visit such places as may be deemed necessary, for the discovery of any felony, trespass, or misdemeanor; and for the apprehending and securing for examination, any person or persons who may appear to them concerned therein, either by entrance into any suspected hut or dwelling, or by such other measure as may seem to them expedient.

II. Those parts in which the convicts reside are to be divided and numbered, in the following manner. The convict huts on the eastern side of the stream, and the public farm, are to be the first division. Those at the brick-kilns, and the detached parties in the different private farms in that district, are to be the second division. Those on the western side of the stream, as far as the line which separates the district of the women from the men, to be the third division. The huts occupied from that line to the hospital, and from there to the observatory, to be the fourth division.

III. Each of these districts or divisions is to be under the particular inspection of one person, who may be judged qualified to inform himself of the actual residence of each individual in his district; as well as of his business, connections, and acquaintances.

IV. Cognizance is to be taken of such convicts as may sell or barter their slops or provisions; and also of such as are addicted to gaming for either of the aforesaid articles, who are to be reported to the judge advocate.

V. Any soldier or seaman found straggling after the beating of the tattoo; or who may be found in a convict’s hut, is to be detained; and information of him immediately given to the nearest guard.

VI. Any person who may be robbed during the night, is to give immediate information thereof to the watch of his district, who, on the instant of application being made, shall use the most effectual means to trace out the offender, or offenders, so that he, she, or they, may be brought to justice.

VII. The watch of each district is to be under the direction of one person, who will be named for that purpose. All the patrols are placed under the immediate inspection of Herbert Keeling. They are never to receive any fee, gratuity, or reward, from any individual whatever, to engage their exertions in the execution of the above trust. Nor will they receive any stipulated encouragement for the conviction of any offender. But their diligence and good behaviour will be rewarded by the governor. And for this purpose their conduct will be strictly attended to, by those who are placed in authority over them.

VIII. The night-watch is to go out as soon as the tattoo ceases beating: to return to their huts when the working drum beats in the morning: and are to make their report to the judge advocate, through Herbert Keeling, of all robberies and misdemeanors which may have been committed. Any assistance the patrols may require, will be given to them, on applying to the officer commanding the nearest guard; and by the civil power, if necessary; for which last, application is to be made to the provost martial.

IX. Any negligence on the part of those who shall be employed on this duty, will be punished with the utmost rigour of the law.

X. The night-watch is to consist of 12 persons.

Every political code, either from a defect of its constitution, or from the corruptness of those who are entrusted to execute it, will be found less perfect in practice than speculation had promised itself. It were, however, prejudice to deny, that for some time following the institution of this patrol, nightly depredations became less frequent and alarming: the petty villains, at least, were restrained by it. And to keep even a garden unravaged was now become a subject of the deepest concern.

For in October our weekly allowance of provisions, which had hitherto been eight pounds of flour, five pounds of salt pork, three pints of pease, six ounces of butter, was reduced to five pounds five ounces of flour, three pounds five ounces of pork, and two pints of pease.

In order to lessen the consumption from the public stores, the ‘Supply’ was ordered to touch at Lord Howe Island, in her way from Norfolk Island, to try if turtle could be procured, for the purpose of being publicly served in lieu of salt provisions. But she brought back only three turtles, which were distributed in the garrison.

December, 1789. At the request of his excellency, lieutenant Dawes of the marines, accompanied by lieutenant Johnston and Mr. Lowes, about this time undertook the attempt to cross the Nepean river, and to penetrate to Carmarthen mountains. Having discovered a ford in the river, they passed it, and proceeded in a westerly direction. But they found the country so rugged, and the difficulty of walking so excessive, that in three days they were able to penetrate only fifteen miles, and were therefore obliged to relinquish their object. This party, at the time they turned back, were farther inland than any other persons ever were before or since, being fifty-four miles in a direct line from the sea coast when on the summit of mount Twiss, a hill so named by them, and which bounded their peregrination.

Intercourse with the natives, for the purpose of knowing whether or not the country possessed any resources, by which life might be prolonged*, as well as on other accounts, becoming every day more desirable, the governor resolved to make prisoners of two more of them.

[*One of the convicts, a negro, had twice eloped, with an intention of establishing himself in the society of the natives, with a wish to adopt their customs and to live with them: but he was always repulsed by them; and compelled to return to us from hunger and wretchedness.]

Boats properly provided, under the command of lieutenant Bradley of the ‘Sirius’, were accordingly dispatched on this service; and completely succeeded in trepanning and carrying off, without opposition, two fine young men, who were safely landed among us at Sydney.

Nanbaree and Abaroo welcomed them on shore; calling them immediately by their names, Baneelon (Bennelong), and Colbee. But they seemed little disposed to receive the congratulations, or repose confidence in the assurances of their friends. The same scenes of awkward wonder and impatient constraint, which had attended the introduction of Arabanoo, succeeded. Baneelon we judged to be about twenty-six years old, of good stature, and stoutly made, with a bold intrepid countenance, which bespoke defiance and revenge. Colbee was perhaps near thirty, of a less sullen aspect than his comrade, considerably shorter, and not so robustly framed, though better fitted for purposes of activity. They had both evidently had the smallpox; indeed Colbee’s face was very thickly imprinted with the marks of it.

Positive orders were issued by the governor to treat them indulgently, and guard them strictly; notwithstanding which Colbee contrived to effect his escape in about a week, with a small iron ring round his leg. Had those appointed to watch them been a moment later, his companion would have contrived to accompany him.

But Baneelon, though haughty, knew how to temporize. He quickly threw off all reserve; and pretended, nay, at particular moments, perhaps felt satisfaction in his new state. Unlike poor Arabanoo, he became at once fond of our viands, and would drink the strongest liquors, not simply without reluctance, but with eager marks of delight and enjoyment. He was the only native we ever knew who immediately shewed a fondness for spirits: Colbee would not at first touch them. Nor was the effect of wine or brandy upon him more perceptible than an equal quantity would have produced upon one of us, although fermented liquor was new to him.

In his eating, he was alike compliant. When a turtle was shown to Arabanoo, he would not allow it to be a fish, and could not be induced to eat of it. Baneelon also denied it to be a fish; but no common councilman in Europe could do more justice than he did to a very fine one, that the ‘Supply’ had brought from Lord Howe Island, and which was served up at the governor’s table on Christmas Day.

His powers of mind were certainly far above mediocrity. He acquired knowledge, both of our manners and language, faster than his predecessor had done. He willingly communicated information; sang, danced, and capered, told us all the customs of his country, and all the details of his family economy. Love and war seemed his favourite pursuits; in both of which he had suffered severely. His head was disfigured by several scars; a spear had passed through his arm, and another through his leg. Half of one of his thumbs was carried away; and the mark of a wound appeared on the back of his hand. The cause and attendant circumstances of all these disasters, except one, he related to us.

“But the wound on the back of your hand, Baneelon! How did you get that?”

He laughed, and owned that it was received in carrying off a lady of another tribe by force. “I was dragging her away. She cried aloud, and stuck her teeth in me.”

“And what did you do then?”

“I knocked her down, and beat her till she was insensible, and covered with blood. Then . . . ”

Whenever he recounted his battles, “poised his lance, and showed how fields were won”, the most violent exclamations of rage and vengeance against his competitors in arms, those of the tribe called Cameeragal in particular, would burst from him. And he never failed at such times to solicit the governor to accompany him, with a body of soldiers, in order that he might exterminate this hated name.

Although I call him only Baneelon, he had besides several appellations, and for a while he chose to be distinguished by that of Wolarawaree. Again, as a mark of affection and respect to the governor, he conferred on him the name of Wolarawaree, and sometimes called him ‘Beenena’ (father), adopting to himself the name of governor. This interchange we found is a constant symbol of friendship among them*. In a word, his temper seemed pliant, and his relish of our society so great, that hardly any one judged he would attempt to quit us, were the means of escape put within his reach. Nevertheless it was thought proper to continue a watch over him.

[*It is observable that this custom prevails as a pledge of friendship and kindness all over Asia, and has also been mentioned by Captain Cook to exist among the natives in the South Sea Islands.]

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