The Settlement at Port Jackson, by Watkin Tench


The Transactions of the Colony continued to the End of May, 1791.

December, 1790. The Dutch snow from Batavia arrived on the 17th of the month, after a passage of twelve weeks, in which she had lost sixteen of her people. But death, to a man who has resided at Batavia, is too familiar an object to excite either terror or regret. All the people of the ‘Supply’ who were left there sick, except one midshipman, had also perished in that fatal climate.

The cargo of the snow consisted chiefly of rice, with a small quantity of beef, pork, and flour.

A letter was received by this vessel, written by the Shebander at Batavia, to governor Phillip, acquainting him that war had commenced between England and Spain. As this letter was written in the Dutch language we did not find it easy of translation. It filled us, however, with anxious perturbation, and with wishes as impotent, as they were eager, in the cause of our country. Though far beyond the din of arms, we longed to contribute to her glory, and to share in her triumphs.

Placed out of the reach of attack, both by remoteness and insignificancy, our only dread lay lest those supplies intended for our consumption should be captured. Not, however, to be found totally unprovided in case an enemy should appear, a battery was planned near the entrance of Sydney Cove, and other formidable preparations set on foot.

The commencement of the year 1791, though marked by no circumstances particularly favourable, beamed far less inauspicious than that of 1790 had done.

January, 1791. No circumstance, however apparently trivial, which can tend to throw light on a new country, either in respect of its present situation, or its future promise, should pass unregarded. On the 24th of January, two bunches of grapes were cut in the governor’s garden, from cuttings of vines brought three years before from the Cape of Good Hope. The bunches were handsome, the fruit of a moderate size, but well filled out and the flavour high and delicious.

The first step after unloading the Dutch snow was to dispatch the ‘Supply’ to Norfolk Island for captain Hunter, and the crew of the ‘Sirius’ who had remained there ever since the loss of that ship. It had always been the governor’s wish to hire the Dutchman, for the purpose of transporting them to England. But the frantic extravagant behaviour of the master of her, for a long time frustrated the conclusion of a contract. He was so totally lost to a sense of reason and propriety, as to ask eleven pounds per ton, monthly, for her use, until she should arrive from England, at Batavia. This was treated with proper contempt; and he was at last induced to accept twenty shillings a ton, per month (rating her at three hundred tons) until she should arrive in England — being about the twenty-fifth part of his original demand. And even at this price she was, perhaps, the dearest vessel ever hired on a similar service, being totally destitute of every accommodation and every good quality which could promise to render so long a voyage either comfortable or expeditious.

February, 1791. On the 26th, Captain Hunter, his officers and ship’s company joined us; and on the 28th of March the snow sailed with them for England, intending to make a northern passage by Timor and Batavia, the season being too far advanced to render the southern route by Cape Horn practicable*.

[*They did not arrive in England until April, 1792.]

Six days previous to the departure of captain Hunter, the indefatigable ‘Supply’ again sailed for Norfolk Island, carrying thither captain Hill and a detachment of the New South Wales corps. A little native boy named Bondel, who had long particularly attached himself to captain Hill, accompanied him, at his own earnest request. His father had been killed in battle and his mother bitten in two by a shark: so that he was an orphan, dependant on the humanity of his tribe for protection*. His disappearance seemed to make no impression on the rest of his countrymen, who were apprized of his resolution to go. On the return of the ‘Supply’ they inquired eagerly for him, and on being told that the place he was gone to afforded plenty of birds and other good fare, innumerable volunteers presented themselves to follow him, so great was their confidence in us and so little hold of them had the amor patriae.

[*I am of opinion that such protection is always extended to children who may be left destitute.]

March, 1791. The snow had but just sailed, when a very daring manoeuvre was carried into execution, with complete success, by a set of convicts, eleven in number, including a woman, wife of one of the party, and two little children. They seized the governor’s cutter and putting into her a seine, fishing-lines, and hooks, firearms, a quadrant, compass, and some provisions, boldly pushed out to sea, determined to brave every danger and combat every hardship, rather than remain longer in a captive state. Most of these people had been brought out in the first fleet, and the terms of transportation of some of them were expired. Among them were a fisherman, a carpenter, and some competent navigators, so that little doubt was entertained that a scheme so admirably planned would be adequately executed*. When their elopement was discovered, a pursuit was ordered by the governor. But the fugitives had made too good an use of the intermediate time to be even seen by their pursuers. After the escape of Captain Bligh, which was well known to us, no length of passage or hazard of navigation seemed above human accomplishment. However to prevent future attempts of a like nature, the governor directed that boats only of stated dimensions should be built. Indeed an order of this sort had been issued on the escape of the first party, and it was now repeated with additional restrictions.

[*It was my fate to fall in again with part of this little band of adventurers. In March 1792, when I arrived in the Gorgon, at the Cape of Good Hope, six of these people, including the woman and one child, were put on board of us to be carried to England. four had died, and one had jumped overboard at Batavia. The particulars of their voyage were briefly as follows. They coasted the shore of New Holland, putting occasionally into different harbours which they found in going along. One of these harbours, in the latitude of 30 degrees south, they described to be of superior excellence and capacity. Here they hauled their bark ashore, paid her seams with tallow, and repaired her. But it was with difficulty they could keep off the attacks of the Indians. These people continued to harras them so much that they quitted the mainland and retreated to a small island in the harbour, where they completed their design. Between the latitude of 26 degrees and 27 degrees, they were driven by a current 30 leagues from the shore, among some islands, where they found plenty of large turtles. Soon after they closed again with the continent, when the boat got entangled in the surf and was driven on shore, and they had all well nigh perished. They passed rough the straits of Endeavour and, beyond the gulf of Carpentaria, found a large freshwater river, which they entered, and filled from it their empty casks.

Until they reached the gulf of Carpentaria, they saw no natives or canoes differing from those about Port Jackson. But now they were chased by large canoes, jitted with sails and fighting stages, and capable of holding thirty men each. They escaped by dint of rowing to windward. On the 5th of June 1791 they reached Timor, and pretended that they had belonged to a ship which, on her passage from Port Jackson to India, had foundered; and that they only had escaped. The Dutch received them with kindness and treated them with hospitality. But their behaviour giving rise to suspicion, they were watched; and one of them at last, in a moment of intoxication, betrayed the secret. They were immediately secured and committed to prison. Soon after Captain Edwards of the Pandora, who had been wrecked near Endeavour straits, arrived at Timor, and they were delivered up to him, by which means they became passengers in the Gorgon.

I confess that I never looked at these people without pity and astonishment. They had miscarried in a heroic struggle for liberty after having combated every hardship and conquered every difficulty.

The woman, and one of the men, had gone out to Port Jackson in the ship which had transported me thither. They had both of them been always distinguished for good behaviour. And I could not but reflect with admiration at the strange combination of circumstances which had again brought us together, to baffle human foresight and confound human speculation.]

April, 1791. Notwithstanding the supplies which had recently arrived from Batavia, short allowance was again proclaimed on the 2nd of April, on which day we were reduced to the following ration:

Three pounds of rice, three pounds of flour and three pounds of pork per week.

It was singularly unfortunate that these retrenchments should always happen when the gardens were most destitute of vegetables. A long drought had nearly exhausted them. The hardships which we in consequence suffered were great, but not comparable to what had been formerly experienced. Besides, now we made sure of ships arriving soon to dispel our distress. Whereas, heretofore, from having never heard from England, the hearts of men sunk and many had begun to doubt whether it had not been resolved to try how long misery might be endured with resignation.

Notwithstanding the incompetency of so diminished a pittance, the daily task of the soldier and convict continued unaltered. I never contemplated the labours of these men without finding abundant cause of reflection on the miseries which our nature can overcome. Let me for a moment quit the cold track of narrative. Let me not fritter away by servile adaptation those reflections and the feelings they gave birth to. Let me transcribe them fresh as they arose, ardent and generous, though hopeless and romantic. I every day see wretches pale with disease and wasted with famine, struggle against the horror’s of their situation. How striking is the effect of subordination; how dreadful is the fear of punishment! The allotted task is still performed, even on the present reduced subsistence. The blacksmith sweats at the sultry forge, the sawyer labours pent-up in his pit and the husbandman turns up the sterile glebe. Shall I again hear arguments multiplied to violate truth, and insult humanity! Shall I again be told that the sufferings of the wretched Africans are indispensable for the culture of our sugar colonies; that white men are incapable of sustaining the heat of the climate! I have been in the West Indies. I have lived there. I know that it is a rare instance for the mercury in the thermometer to mount there above 90 degrees; and here I scarcely pass a week in summer without seeing it rise to 100 degrees; sometimes to 105; nay, beyond even that burning altitude.

But toil cannot be long supported without adequate refreshment. The first step in every community which wishes to preserve honesty should be to set the people above want. The throes of hunger will ever prove too powerful for integrity to withstand. Hence arose a repetition of petty delinquencies, which no vigilance could detect, and no justice reach. Gardens were plundered, provisions pilfered, and the Indian corn stolen from the fields where it grew for public use. Various were the measures adopted to check this depredatory spirit. Criminal courts, either from the tediousness of their process, or from the frequent escape of culprits from their decision, were seldomer convened than formerly. The governor ordered convict offenders either to be chained together or to wear singly a large iron collar with two spikes projecting from it, which effectually hindered the party from concealing it under his shirt; and thus shackled, they were compelled to perform their quota of work.

May, 1791. Had their marauding career terminated here, humanity would have been anxious to plead in their defence; but the natives continued to complain of being robbed of spears and fishing tackle. A convict was at length taken in the fact of stealing fishing-tackle from Daringa, the wife of Colbee. The governor ordered that he should be severely flogged in the presence of as many natives as could be assembled, to whom the cause of punishment should be explained. Many of them, of both sexes, accordingly attended. Arabanoo’s aversion to a similar sight has been noticed; and if the behaviour of those now collected be found to correspond with it, it is, I think, fair to conclude that these people are not of a sanguinary and implacable temper. Quick indeed of resentment, but not unforgiving of injury. There was not one of them that did not testify strong abhorrence of the punishment and equal sympathy with the sufferer. The women were particularly affected; Daringa shed tears, and Barangaroo, kindling into anger, snatched a stick and menaced the executioner. The conduct of these women, on this occasion, was exactly descriptive of their characters. The former was ever meek and feminine, the latter fierce and unsubmissive.

On the first of May, many allotments of ground were parcelled out by the governor to convicts whose periods of transportation were expired, and who voluntarily offered to become settlers in the country. The terms on which they settled, and their progress in agriculture, will be hereafter set forth.

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