The Settlement at Port Jackson, by Watkin Tench


Transactions of the Colony to the end of November, 1791.

The extreme dryness of the preceding summer has been noticed. It had operated so far in the beginning of June that we dreaded a want of water for common consumption most of the little reservoirs in the neighbourhood of Sydney being dried up. The small stream near the town was so nearly exhausted (being only the drain of a morass) that a ship could not have watered at it, and the ‘Supply’ was preparing to sink casks in a swamp when rain fell and banished our apprehensions.

June, 1791. On the second instant, the name of the settlement, at the head of the harbour (Rose Hill) was changed, by order of the governor, to that of Parramatta, the native name of it. As Rose Hill has, however, occurred so often in this book, I beg leave, to avoid confusion, still to continue the appellation in all future mention of it.

Our travelling friend Boladeree, who makes so conspicuous a figure in the last chapter, about this time committed an offence which we were obliged to notice. He threw a spear at a convict in the woods, and wounded him. The truth was, some mischievous person belonging to us had wantonly destroyed his canoe, and he revenged the injury on the first of our people whom he met unarmed. He now seemed to think the matter adjusted; and probably such is the custom they observe in their own society in similar cases. Hearing, however, that an order was issued to seize him, or in case that could not be effected, to shoot him, he prudently dropped all connection with us and was for a long time not seen.

But if they sometimes injured us, to compensate they were often of signal benefit to those who needed their assistance: two instances of which had recently occurred. A boat was overset in the harbour Baneelon and some other natives, who saw the accident happen, immediately plunged in, and saved all the people. When they had brought them on shore, they undressed them, kindled a fire and dried their clothes, gave them fish to eat and conducted them to Sydney.

The other instance was of a soldier lost in the woods, when he met a party of natives. He at first knew not whether to flee from them, or to implore their assistance. Seeing among them one whom he knew, he determined to communicate his distress to him and to rely on his generosity. The Indian told him that he had wandered a long way from home, but that he would conduct him thither, on the single condition of his delivering up a gun which he held in his hand, promising to carry it for him and to restore it to him at parting. The soldier felt little inclination to surrender his arms, by which he would be put entirely in their power. But seeing no alternative, he at last consented; on which the whole party laid down their spears and faithfully escorted him to the nearest part of the settlement, where the gun was given up, and they took their leave without asking for any remuneration, or even seeming to expect it.

The distressful state of the colony for provisions continued gradually to augment until the 9th of July, when the Mary Anne transport arrived from England. This ship had sailed from the Downs so lately as the 25th of February, having been only four months and twelve days on her passage. She brought out convicts, by contract, at a specific sum for each person. But to demonstrate the effect of humanity and justice, of 144 female convicts embarked on board only three had died, and the rest were landed in perfect health, all loud in praise of their conductor. The master’s name was Munro; and his ship, after fulfilling her engagement with government, was bound on the southern fishery. The reader must not conclude that I sacrifice to dull detail, when he finds such benevolent conduct minutely narrated. The advocates of humanity are not yet become too numerous: but those who practise its divine precepts, however humble and unnoticed be their station, ought not to sink into obscurity, unrecorded and unpraised, with the vile monsters who deride misery and fatten on calamity.

July, 1791. If, however, the good people of this ship delighted us with their benevolence, here gratification ended. I was of a party who had rowed in a boat six miles out to sea, beyond the harbour’s mouth, to meet them; and what was our disappointment, on getting aboard, to find that they had not brought a letter (a few official ones for the governor excepted) to any person in the colony! Nor had they a single newspaper or magazine in their possession; nor could they conceive that any person wished to hear news; being as ignorant of everything which had passed in Europe for the last two years as ourselves, at the distance of half the circle. “No war — the fleet’s dismantled,” was the whole that we could learn. When I asked whether a new parliament had been called, they stared at me in stupid wonder, not seeming to comprehend that such a body either suffered renovation or needed it.

“Have the French settled their government?”

“As to that matter I can’t say; I never heard; but, damn them, they were ready enough to join the Spaniards against us.”

“Are Russia and Turkey at peace?”

“That you see does not lie in my way; I have heard talk about it, but don’t remember what passed.”

“For heaven’s sake, why did you not bring out a bundle of newspapers? You might have procured a file at any coffee house, which would have amused you, and instructed us?”

“Why, really, I never thought about the matter until we were off the Cape of Good Hope, when we spoke a man of war, who asked us the same question, and then I wished I had.”

To have prosecuted inquiry farther would have only served to increase disappointment and chagrin. We therefore quitted the ship, wondering and lamenting that so large a portion of plain undisguised honesty should be so totally unconnected with a common share of intelligence, and acquaintance with the feelings and habits of other men.

By the governor’s letters we learned that a large fleet of transports, with convicts on board, and His Majesty’s ship Gorgon, (Captain Parker) might soon be expected to arrive. The following intelligence which they contained, was also made public.

That such convicts as had served their period of transportation, were not to be compelled to remain in the colony; but that no temptation should be offered to induce them to quit it, as there existed but too much reason to believe, that they would return to former practices; that those who might choose to settle in the country should have portions of land, subject to stipulated restrictions, and a portion of provisions assigned to them on signifying their inclinations; and that it was expected, that those convicts who might be possessed of means to transport themselves from the country, would leave it free of all incumbrances of a public nature.

The rest of the fleet continued to drop in, in this and the two succeeding months. The state of the convicts whom they brought out, though infinitely preferable to what the fleet of last year had landed, was not unexceptionable. Three of the ships had naval agents on board to control them. Consequently, if complaint had existed there, it would have been immediately redressed. Exclusive of these, the ‘Salamander’, (Captain Nichols) who, of 155 men lost only five; and the ‘William and Anne’ (Captain Buncker) who of 187 men lost only seven, I find most worthy of honourable mention. In the list of convicts brought out was Barrington, of famous memory.

Two of these ships also added to our geographic knowledge of the country. The ‘Atlantic’, under the direction of Lieutenant Bowen, a naval agent, ran into a harbour between Van Diemen’s land, and Port Jackson, in latitude 35 degrees 12 minutes south, longitude 151 degrees east, to which, in honour of Sir John Jervis, Knight of the Bath, Mr. Bowen gave the name of Port Jervis. Here was found good anchoring ground with a fine depth of water, within a harbour about a mile and a quarter broad at its entrance, which afterwards opens into a basin five miles wide and of considerable length. They found no fresh water, but as their want of this article was not urgent, they did not make sufficient researches to pronounce that none existed there.* They saw, during the short time they stayed, two kangaroos and many traces of inhabitants. The country at a little distance to the southward of the harbour is hilly, but that contiguous to the sea is flat. On comparing what they had found here afterwards, with the native produce of Port Jackson, they saw no reason to think that they differed in any respect.

[*Just before I left the country, word was brought by a ship which had put into Port Jervis, that a large fresh water brook was found there.]

The second discovery was made by Captain Wetherhead, of the ‘Matilda’ transport, which was obligingly described to me, as follows, by that gentleman, on my putting to him the underwritten questions.

“When did you make your discovery?”

“On the 27th of July, 1791.”

“In what latitude and longitude does it lie?”

“In 42 degrees 15 minutes south by observation, and in 148 1/2 east by reckoning”

“Is it on the mainland or is it an island?”

“It is an island, distant from the mainland about eight miles.”

“Did you anchor?”

“Yes; and found good anchorage in a bay open about six points.”

“Did you see any other harbour or bay in the island?”


“Does the channel between the island and the main appear to afford good shelter for shipping?”

“Yes, like Spithead.”

“Did you find any water on the island?”

“Yes, in plenty.”

“Of what size does the island appear to be?”

“It is narrow and long; I cannot say how long. Its breadth is inconsiderable.”

“Did you make any observations on the soil?”

“It is sandy; and many places are full of craggy rocks.”

“Do you judge the productions which you saw on the island to be similar to those around Port Jackson?”

“I do not think they differ in any respect.”

“Did you see any animals?”

“I saw three kangaroos.”

“Did you see any natives, or any marks of them?”

“I saw no natives, but I saw a fire, and several huts like those at Port Jackson, in one of which lay a spear.”

“What name did you give to your discovery?”

“I called it, in honour of my ship, Matilda Bay.”

November, 1791. A very extraordinary instance of folly stimulated to desperation occurred in the beginning of this month among the convicts at Rose Hill. Twenty men and a pregnant woman, part of those who had arrived in the last fleet, suddenly disappeared with their clothes, working tools, bedding, and their provisions, for the ensuing week, which had been just issued to them. The first intelligence heard of them, was from some convict settlers, who said they had seen them pass, and had enquired whither they were bound. To which they had received for answer, “to China.” The extravagance and infatuation of such an attempt was explained to them by the settlers; but neither derision, nor demonstration could avert them from pursuing their purpose. It was observed by those who brought in the account that they had general idea enough of the point of the compass in which China lies from Port Jackson, to keep in a northerly direction.

An officer with a detachment of troops, was sent in pursuit of them; but after a harassing march returned without success. In the course of a week the greatest part of them were either brought back by different parties who had fallen in with them, or were driven in by famine. Upon being questioned about the cause of their elopement, those whom hunger had forced back, did not hesitate to confess that they had been so grossly deceived as to believe that China might easily be reached, being not more than 100 miles distant, and separated only by a river. The others, however, ashamed of the merriment excited at their expense, said that their reason for running away was on account of being overworked and harshly treated, and that they preferred a solitary and precarious existence in the woods to a return to the misery they were compelled to undergo. One or two of the party had certainly perished by the hands of the natives, who had also wounded several others.

I trust that no man would feel more reluctant than myself to cast an illiberal national reflection, particularly on a people whom I regard in an aggregate sense as brethren and fellow-citizens; and among whom, I have the honour to number many of the most cordial and endearing intimacies which a life passed on service could generate. But it is certain that all these people were Irish.

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