The Settlement at Port Jackson, by Watkin Tench


Transactions of the Colony in Part of December, 1790.

On the 9th of the month, a sergeant of marines, with three convicts, among whom was McEntire, the governor’s gamekeeper (the person of whom Baneelon had, on former occasions, shown so much dread and hatred) went out on a shooting party. Having passed the north arm of Botany Bay, they proceeded to a hut formed of boughs, which had been lately erected on this peninsula, for the accommodation of sportsmen who wished to continue by night in the woods; for, as the kangaroos in the day-time, chiefly keep in the cover, it is customary on these parties to sleep until near sunset, and watch for the game during the night, and in the early part of the morning. Accordingly, having lighted a fire, they lay down, without distrust or suspicion.

About one o’clock, the sergeant was awakened by a rustling noise in the bushes near him, and supposing it to proceed from a kangaroo, called to his comrades, who instantly jumped up. On looking about more narrowly, they saw two natives with spears in their hands, creeping towards them, and three others a little farther behind. As this naturally created alarm, McEntire said, “don’t be afraid, I know them,” and immediately laying down his gun, stepped forward, and spoke to them in their own language. The Indians, finding they were discovered, kept slowly retreating, and McEntire accompanied them about a hundred yards, talking familiarly all the while.

One of them now jumped on a fallen tree and, without giving the least warning of his intention, launched his spear at McEntire and lodged it in his left side. The person who committed this wanton act was described as a young man with a speck or blemish on his left eye That he had been lately among us was evident from his being newly shaved.

The wounded man immediately drew back and, joining his party, cried, “I am a dead man”. While one broke off the end of the spear, the other two set out with their guns in pursuit of the natives; but their swiftness of foot soon convinced our people of the impossibility of reaching them. It was now determined to attempt to carry McEntire home, as his death was apprehended to be near, and he expressed a longing desire not to be left to expire in the woods. Being an uncommonly robust muscular man, notwithstanding a great effusion of blood, he was able, with the assistance of his comrades, to creep slowly along, and reached Sydney about two o’clock the next morning. On the wound being examined by the surgeons, it was pronounced mortal. The poor wretch now began to utter the most dreadful exclamations, and to accuse himself of the commission of crimes of the deepest dye, accompanied with such expressions of his despair of God’s mercy, as are too terrible to repeat.

In the course of the day, Colbee, and several more natives came in, and were taken to the bed where the wounded man lay. Their behaviour indicated that they had already heard of the accident, as they repeated twice or thrice the name of the murderer Pimelwi, saying that he lived at Botany Bay. To gain knowledge of their treatment of similar wounds, one of the surgeons made signs of extracting the spear, but this they violently opposed, and said, if it were done, death would instantly follow.

On the 12th, the extraction of the spear was, however, judged practicable, and was accordingly performed. That part of it which had penetrated the body measured seven inches and a half long, having on it a wooden barb, and several smaller ones of stone, fastened on with yellow gum, most of which, owing to the force necessary in extraction, were torn off and lodged in the patient. The spear had passed between two ribs, and had wounded the left lobe of the lungs. He lingered* until the 20th of January, and then expired. On opening the corpse, it was found that the left lung had perished from suppuration, its remains adhering to the ribs. Some pieces of stone, which had dropped from the spear were seen, but no barb of wood.

[*From the aversion uniformly shown by all the natives to this unhappy man, he had long been suspected by us of having in his excursions, shot and injured them. To gain information on this head from him, the moment of contrition was seized. On being questioned with great seriousness, he, however, declared that he had never fired but once on a native, and then had not killed, but severely wounded him and this in his own defence. Notwithstanding this death-bed confession, most people doubted the truth of the relation, from his general character and other circumstances.]

The governor was at Rose-hill when this accident happened. On the day after he returned to Sydney, the following order was issued:

Several tribes of the natives still continuing to throw spears at any man they meet unarmed, by which several have been killed, or dangerously wounded, the governor, in order to deter the natives from such practices in future, has ordered out a party to search for the man who wounded the convict McEntire, in so dangerous a manner on Friday last, though no offence was offered on his part, in order to make a signal example of that tribe. At the same time, the governor strictly forbids, under penalty of the severest punishment, any soldier or other person, not expressly ordered out for that purpose, ever to fire on any native except in his own defence; or to molest him in any shape, or to bring away any spears, or other articles which they may find belonging to those people. The natives will be made severe examples of whenever any man is wounded by them; but this will be done in a manner which may satisfy them that it is a punishment inflicted on them for their own bad conduct, and of which they cannot be made sensible if they are not treated with kindness while they continue peaceable and quiet.

A party, consisting of two captains, two subalterns, and forty privates, with a proper number of non-commissioned officers from the garrison, with three days provisions, etc. are to be ready to march to-morrow morning at day-light, in order to bring in six of those natives who reside near the head of Botany Bay; or, if that should be found impracticable, to put that number to death.

Just previous to this order being issued, the author of this publication received a direction to attend the governor at head quarters immediately. I went, and his excellency informed me that he had pitched upon me to execute the foregoing command. He added that the two subalterns who were to be drawn from the marine corps, should be chosen by myself; that the sergeant and the two convicts who were with McEntire, should attend as guides; that we were to proceed to the peninsula at the head of Botany Bay; and thence, or from any part of the north arm of the bay, we were, if practicable, to bring away two natives as prisoners; and to put to death ten; that we were to destroy all weapons of war but nothing else; that no hut was to be burned; that all women and children were to remain uninjured, not being comprehended within the scope of the order; that our operations were to be directed either by surprise or open force; that after we had made any prisoners, all communication, even with those natives with whom we were in habits of intercourse, was to be avoided, and none of them suffered to approach us. That we were to cut off and bring in the heads of the slain; for which purpose hatchets and bags would be furnished. And finally, that no signal of amity or invitation should be used in order to allure them to us; or if made on their part, to be answered by us: for that such conduct would be not only present treachery, but give them reason to distrust every future mark of peace and friendship on our part.

His excellency was now pleased to enter into the reasons which had induced him to adopt measures of such severity. He said that since our arrival in the country, no less than seventeen of our people had either been killed or wounded by the natives; that he looked upon the tribe known by the name of Bideegal, living on the beforementioned peninsula, and chiefly on the north arm of Botany Bay, to be the principal aggressors; that against this tribe he was determined to strike a decisive blow, in order, at once to convince them of our superiority and to infuse an universal terror, which might operate to prevent farther mischief. That his observations on the natives had led him to conclude that although they did not fear death individually, yet that the relative weight and importance of the different tribes appeared to be the highest object of their estimation, as each tribe deemed its strength and security to consist wholly in its powers, aggregately considered. That his motive for having so long delayed to use violent measures had arisen from believing, that in every former instance of hostility, they had acted either from having received injury, or from misapprehension.

“To the latter of these causes,” added he, “I attribute my own wound, but in this business of McEntire, I am fully persuaded that they were unprovoked, and the barbarity of their conduct admits of no extenuation; for I have separately examined the sergeant, of whose veracity I have the highest opinion, and the two convicts; and their story is short, simple, and alike. I have in vain tried to stimulate Baneelon, Colbee, and the other natives who live among us, to bring in the aggressor. Yesterday, indeed, they promised me to do it, and actually went away as if bent on such a design; but Baneelon, instead of directing his steps to Botany Bay, crossed the harbour in his canoe, in order to draw the foreteeth of some of the young men; and Colbee, in the room of fulfilling his engagement, is loitering about the lookout house. Nay, so far from wishing even to describe faithfully the person of the man who has thrown the spear, they pretended that he has a distorted foot, which is a palpable falsehood. So that we have our efforts only to depend upon; and I am resolved to execute the prisoners who may be brought in, in the most public and exemplary manner, in the presence of as many of their countrymen as can be collected, after having explained the cause of such a punishment; and my fixed determination to repeat it, whenever any future breach of good conduct on their side shall render it necessary.”

Here the governor stopped, and addressing himself to me, said if I could propose any alteration of the orders under which I was to act, he would patiently listen to me. Encouraged by this condescension, I begged leave to offer for consideration whether, instead of destroying ten persons, the capture of six would not better answer all the purposes for which the expedition was to be undertaken; as out of this number, a part might be set aside for retaliation; and the rest, at a proper time, liberated, after having seen the fate of their comrades and being made sensible of the cause of their own detention.

This scheme, his Excellency was pleased instantly to adopt, adding, “if six cannot be taken, let this number be shot. Should you, however, find it practicable to take so many, I will hang two and send the rest to Norfolk Island for a certain period, which will cause their countrymen to believe that we have dispatched them secretly.” The order was accordingly altered to its present form; and I took my leave to prepare, after being again cautioned not to deceive by holding signals of amity.

At four o’clock on the morning of the 14th we marched The detachment consisted, besides myself, of Captain Hill of the New South Wales Corps, Lieutenants Poulder and Dawes, of the marines, Mr. Worgan and Mr. Lowes, surgeons, three sergeants, three corporals, and forty private soldiers, provided with three days provisions, ropes to bind our prisoners with, and hatchets and bags to cut off and contain the heads of the slain. By nine o’clock this terrific procession reached the peninsula at the head of Botany Bay, but after having walked in various directions until four o’clock in the afternoon, without seeing a native, we halted for the night.

At daylight on the following morning our search recommenced. We marched in an easterly direction, intending to fall in with the south-west arm of the bay, about three miles above its mouth, which we determined to scour, and thence passing along the head of the peninsula, to proceed to the north arm, and complete our Search. However, by a mistake of our guides, at half past seven o’clock instead of finding ourselves on the south-west arm, we came suddenly upon the sea shore, at the head of the peninsula, about midway between the two arms. Here we saw five Indians on the beach, whom we attempted to surround; but they penetrated our design, and before we could get near enough to effect our purpose, ran off. We pursued; but a contest between heavy-armed Europeans, fettered by ligatures, and naked unencumbered Indians, was too unequal to last long. They darted into the wood and disappeared.

The alarm being given, we were sensible that no hope of success remained, but by a rapid movement to a little village (if five huts deserve the name) which we knew stood on the nearest point of the north arm, where possibly someone unapprised of our approach, might yet be found. Thither we hastened; but before we could reach it three canoes, filled with Indians, were seen paddling over in the utmost hurry and trepidation, to the opposite shore, where universal alarm prevailed. All we could now do was to search the huts for weapons of war: but we found nothing except fish gigs, which we left untouched.

On our return to our baggage (which we had left behind under a small guard near the place where the pursuit had begun) we observed a native fishing in shallow water not higher than his waist, at the distance of 300 yards from the land. In such a situation it would not have been easily practicable either to shoot, or seize him. I therefore determined to pass without noticing him, as he seemed either from consciousness of his own security, or from some other cause, quite unintimidated at our appearance. At length he called to several of us by name, and in spite of our formidable array, drew nearer with unbounded confidence. Surprised at his behaviour I ordered a halt, that he might overtake us, fully resolved, whoever he might be, that he should be suffered to come to us and leave us uninjured. Presently we found it to be our friend Colbee; and he joined us at once with his wonted familiarity and unconcern. We asked him where Pimelwi was, and found that he perfectly comprehended the nature of our errand, for he described him to have fled to the southward; and to be at such a distance, as had we known the account to be true, would have prevented our going in search of him, without a fresh supply of provisions.

When we arrived at our baggage, Colbee sat down, ate, drank, and slept with us, from ten o’clock until past noon. We asked him several questions about Sydney, which he had left on the preceding day*; and he told us he had been present at an operation performed at the hospital, where Mr. White had cut off a woman’s leg. The agony and cries of the poor sufferer he depicted in a most lively manner.

[*He had it seems visited the governor about noon, after having gained information from Nanbaree of our march, and for what purpose it was undertaken. This he did not scruple to tell to the governor; proclaiming at the same time, a resolution of going to Botany Bay, which his excellency endeavoured to dissuade him from by every argument he could devise: a blanket, a hatchet, a jacket, or aught else he would ask for, was offered to him in vain, if he would not go. At last it was determined to try to eat him down, by setting before him his favourite food, of which it was hoped he would feed so voraciously, as to render him incapable of executing his intention. A large dish of fish was accordingly set before him. But after devouring a light horseman, and at least five pounds of beef and bread, even until the sight of food became disgusting to him, he set out on his journey with such lightness and gaiety, as plainly shewed him to be a stranger to the horrors of indigestion.]

At one o’clock we renewed our march, and at three halted near a freshwater swamp, where we resolved to remain until morning: that is, after a day of severe fatigue, to pass a night of restless inquietude, when weariness is denied repose by swarms of mosquitoes and sandflies, which in the summer months bite and sting the traveller, without measure or intermission.

Next morning we bent our steps homeward; and, after wading breast-high through two arms of the sea, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, were glad to find ourselves at Sydney, between one and two o’clock in the afternoon.

The few remarks which I was able to make on the country through which we had passed, were such as will not tempt adventurers to visit it on the score of pleasure or advantage. The soil of every part of the peninsula, which we had traversed, is shallow and sandy, and its productions meagre and wretched. When forced to quit the sand, we were condemned to drag through morasses, or to clamber over rocks, unrefreshed by streams, and unmarked by diversity. Of the soil I brought away several specimens.

Our first expedition having so totally failed, the governor resolved to try the fate of a second; and the ‘painful pre-eminence’ again devolved on me.

The orders under which I was commanded to act differing in no respect from the last, I resolved to try once more to surprise the village beforementioned. And in order to deceive the natives, and prevent them from again frustrating our design by promulgating it, we feigned that our preparations were directed against Broken Bay; and that the man who had wounded the governor was the object of punishment. It was now also determined, being full moon, that our operations should be carried on in the night, both for the sake of secrecy, and for avoiding the extreme heat of the day.

A little before sun-set on the evening of the 22nd, we marched. Lieutenant Abbot, and ensign Prentice, of the New South Wales corps, were the two officers under my command, and with three sergeants, three corporals, and thirty privates, completed the detachment.

We proceeded directly to the fords of the north arm of Botany Bay, which we had crossed in our last expedition, on the banks of which we were compelled to wait until a quarter past two in the morning, for the ebb of the tide. As these passing-places consist only of narrow slips of ground, on each side of which are dangerous holes; and as fording rivers in the night is at all times an unpleasant task, I determined before we entered the water, to disburthen the men as much as possible; that in case of stepping wrong every one might be as ready, as circumstances would admit, to recover himself. The firelock and cartouche-box were all that we carried, the latter tied fast on the top of the head, to prevent it from being wetted. The knapsacks, etc. I left in charge of a sergeant and six men, who from their low stature and other causes, were most likely to impede our march, the success of which I knew hinged on our ability, by a rapid movement, to surprise the village before daybreak.

The two rivers were crossed without any material accident: and in pursuit of my resolution, I ordered the guides to conduct us by the nearest route, without heeding difficulty, or impediment of road. Having continued to push along the river-bank very briskly for three quarters of an hour, we were suddenly stopped by a creek, about sixty yards wide, which extended to our right, and appeared dry from the tide being out: I asked if it could be passed, or whether it would be better to wheel round the head of it. Our guides answered that it was bad to cross, but might be got over, which would save us more than a quarter of a mile. Knowing the value of time, I directly bade them to push through, and every one began to follow as well as he could. They who were foremost had not, however, got above half over when the difficulty of progress was sensibly experienced. We were immersed, nearly to the waist in mud, so thick and tenacious, that it was not without the most vigorous exertion of every muscle of the body, that the legs could be disengaged. When we had reached the middle, our distress became not only more pressing, but serious, and each succeeding step, buried us deeper. At length a sergeant of grenadiers stuck fast, and declared himself incapable of moving either forward or backward; and just after, Ensign Prentice and I felt ourselves in a similar predicament, close together. ‘I find it impossible to move; I am sinking;’ resounded on every side. What to do I knew not: every moment brought increase of perplexity, and augmented danger, as those who could not proceed kept gradually subsiding. From our misfortunes, however, those in the rear profited. Warned by what they saw and heard, they inclined to the right towards the head of the creek, and thereby contrived to pass over.

Our distress would have terminated fatally, had not a soldier cried out to those on shore to cut boughs of trees*, and throw them to us — a lucky thought, which certainly saved many of us from perishing miserably; and even with this assistance, had we been burdened by our knapsacks, we could not have emerged; for it employed us near half an hour to disentangle some of our number. The sergeant of grenadiers in particular, was sunk to his breast-bone, and so firmly fixed in that the efforts of many men were required to extricate him, which was effected in the moment after I had ordered one of the ropes, destined to bind the captive Indians, to be fastened under his arms.

[*I had often read of this contrivance to facilitate the passage of a morass. But I confess, that in my confusion I had entirely forgotten it, and probably should have continued to do so until too late to be of use.]

Having congratulated each other on our escape from this ‘Serbonian Bog,’ and wiped our arms (half of which were rendered unserviceable by the mud) we once more pushed forward to our object, within a few hundred yards of which we found ourselves about half an hour before sunrise. Here I formed the detachment into three divisions, and having enjoined the most perfect silence, in order, if possible, to deceive Indian vigilance, each division was directed to take a different route, so as to meet at the village at the same moment.

We rushed rapidly on, and nothing could succeed more exactly than the arrival of the several detachments. To our astonishment, however, we found not a single native at the huts; nor was a canoe to be seen on any part of the bay. I was at first inclined to attribute this to our arriving half an hour too late, from the numberless impediments we had encountered. But on closer examination, there appeared room to believe, that many days had elapsed since an Indian had been on the spot, as no mark of fresh fires, or fish bones, was to be found.

Disappointed and fatigued, we would willingly have profited by the advantage of being near water, and have halted to refresh. But on consultation, it was found, that unless we reached in an hour the rivers we had so lately passed, it would be impossible, on account of the tide, to cross to our baggage, in which case we should be without food until evening. We therefore pushed back, and by dint of alternately running and walking, arrived at the fords, time enough to pass with ease and safety. So excessive, however, had been our efforts, and so laborious our progress, that several of the soldiers, in the course of the last two miles, gave up, and confessed themselves unable to proceed farther. All that I could do for these poor fellows, was to order their comrades to carry their muskets, and to leave with them a small party of those men who were least exhausted, to assist them and hurry them on. In three quarters of an hour after we had crossed the water, they arrived at it, just time enough to effect a passage.

The necessity of repose, joined to the succeeding heat of the day, induced us to prolong our halt until four o’clock in the afternoon, when we recommenced our operations on the opposite side of the north arm to that we had acted upon in the morning. Our march ended at sunset, without our seeing a single native. We had passed through the country which the discoverers of Botany Bay extol as ‘some of the finest meadows in the world*.’ These meadows, instead of grass, are covered with high coarse rushes, growing in a rotten spongy bog, into which we were plunged knee-deep at every step.

[*The words which are quoted may be found in Mr. Cook’s first voyage, and form part of his description of Botany Bay. It has often fallen to my lot to traverse these fabled plains; and many a bitter execration have I heard poured on those travellers, who could so faithlessly relate what they saw.]

Our final effort was made at half past one o’clock next morning; and after four hours toil, ended as those preceding it had done, in disappointment and vexation. At nine o’clock we returned to Sydney, to report our fruitless peregrination.

But if we could not retaliate on the murderer of M’Entire, we found no difficulty in punishing offences committed within our own observation. Two natives, about this time, were detected in robbing a potato garden. When seen, they ran away, and a sergeant and a party of soldiers were dispatched in pursuit of them. Unluckily it was dark when they overtook them, with some women at a fire; and the ardour of the soldiers transported them so far that, instead of capturing the offenders, they fired in among them. The women were taken, but the two men escaped.

On the following day, blood was traced from the fireplace to the sea-side, where it seemed probable that those who had lost it, had embarked. The natives were observed to become immediately shy; but an exact knowledge of the mischief which had been committed, was not gained until the end of two days, when they said that a man of the name of Bangai (who was known to be one of the pilferers) was wounded and dead. Imeerawanyee, however, whispered that though he was wounded, he was not dead. A hope now existed that his life might be saved; and Mr. White, taking Imeerawanyee, Nanbaree, and a woman with him, set out for the spot where he was reported to be. But on their reaching it, they were told by some people who were there that the man was dead, and that the corpse was deposited in a bay about a mile off. Thither they accordingly repaired, and found it as described, covered — except one leg, which seemed to be designedly left bare — with green boughs and a fire burning near it. Those who had performed the funeral obsequies seemed to have been particularly solicitous for the protection of the face, which was covered with a thick branch, interwoven with grass and fern so as to form a complete screen. Around the neck was a strip of the bark of which they make fishing lines, and a young strait stick growing near was stripped of its bark and bent down so as to form an arch over the body, in which position it was confined by a forked branch stuck into the earth.

On examining the corpse, it was found to be warm. Through the shoulder had passed a musquet ball, which had divided the subclavian artery and caused death by loss of blood. No mark of any remedy having been applied could be discovered. Possibly the nature of the wound, which even among us would baffle cure without amputation of the arm at the shoulder, was deemed so fatal, that they despaired of success, and therefore left it to itself. Had Mr. White found the man alive, there is little room to think that he could have been of any use to him; for that an Indian would submit to so formidable and alarming an operation seems hardly probable.

None of the natives who had come in the boat would touch the body, or even go near it, saying, the mawn would come; that is literally, ‘the spirit of the deceased would seize them’. Of the people who died among us, they had expressed no such apprehension. But how far the difference of a natural death, and one effected by violence, may operate on their fears to induce superstition; and why those who had performed the rites of sepulture should not experience similar fears and reluctance, I leave to be determined. Certain it is (as I shall insist upon more hereafter), that they believe the spirit of the dead not to be extinct with the body.

Baneelon took an odd method of revenging the death of his countryman. At the head of several of his tribe, he robbed one of the private boats of fish, threatening the people, who were unarmed, that in case they resisted he would spear them. On being taxed by the governor with this outrage, he at first stoutly denied it; but on being confronted with the people who were in the boat, he changed his language, and, without deigning even to palliate his offence, burst into fury and demanded who had killed Bangai.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01