The Settlement at Port Jackson, by Watkin Tench


Transactions of the Colony in April and May, 1789.

An extraordinary calamity was now observed among the natives. Repeated accounts brought by our boats of finding bodies of the Indians in all the coves and inlets of the harbour, caused the gentlemen of our hospital to procure some of them for the purposes of examination and anatomy. On inspection, it appeared that all the parties had died a natural death: pustules, similar to those occasioned by the small pox, were thickly spread on the bodies; but how a disease, to which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers, could at once have introduced itself, and have spread so widely, seemed inexplicable.* Whatever might be the cause, the existence of the malady could no longer be doubted. Intelligence was brought that an Indian family lay sick in a neighbouring cove: the governor, attended by Arabanoo, and a surgeon, went in a boat immediately to the spot. Here they found an old man stretched before a few lighted sticks, and a boy of nine or ten years old pouring water on his head, from a shell which he held in his hand: near them lay a female child dead, and a little farther off, its unfortunate mother: the body of the woman shewed that famine, superadded to disease, had occasioned her death: eruptions covered the poor boy from head to foot; and the old man was so reduced, that he was with difficulty got into the boat. Their situation rendered them incapable of escape, and they quietly submitted to be led away. Arabanoo, contrary to his usual character, seemed at first unwilling to render them any assistance; but his shyness soon wore off, and he treated them with the kindest attention. Nor would he leave the place until he had buried the corpse of the child: that of the woman he did not see from its situation; and as his countrymen did not point it out, the governor ordered that it should not be shown to him. He scooped a grave in the sand with his hands, of no peculiarity of shape, which he lined completely with grass, and put the body into it, covering it also with grass; and then he filled up the hole, and raised over it a small mound with the earth which had been removed. Here the ceremony ended, unaccompanied by any invocation to a superior being, or any attendant circumstance whence an inference of their religious opinions could be deduced.

[*No solution of this difficulty had been given when I left the country, in December, 1791. I can, therefore, only propose queries for the ingenuity of others to exercise itself upon: is it a disease indigenous to the country? Did the French ships under Monsieur de Peyrouse introduce it? Let it be remembered that they had now been departed more than a year; and we had never heard of its existence on board of them. Had it travelled across the continent from its western shore, where Dampier and other European voyagers had formerly landed? Was it introduced by Mr. Cook? Did we give it birth here? No person among us had been afflicted with the disorder since we had quitted the Cape of Good Hope, seventeen months before. It is true, that our surgeons had brought out variolous matter in bottles; but to infer that it was produced from this cause were a supposition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration.]

An uninhabited house, near the hospital, was allotted for their reception, and a cradle prepared for each of them. By the encouragement of Arabanoo, who assured them of protection, and the soothing behaviour of our medical gentlemen, they became at once reconciled to us, and looked happy and grateful at the change of their situation. Sickness and hunger had, however, so much exhausted the old man, that little hope was entertained of his recovery. As he pointed frequently to his throat, at the instance of Arabanoo, he tried to wash it with a gargle which was given to him; but the obstructed, tender state of the part rendered it impracticable. ‘Bado, bado’ (water), was his cry: when brought to him, he drank largely at intervals of it. He was equally importunate for fire, being seized with shivering fits; and one was kindled. Fish were produced, to tempt him to eat; but he turned away his head, with signs of loathing. Nanbaree (the boy), on the contrary, no sooner saw them than he leaped from his cradle, and eagerly seizing them, began to cook them. A warm bath being prepared, they were immersed in it; and after being thoroughly cleansed, they had clean shirts put on them, and were again laid in bed.

The old man lived but a few hours. He bore the pangs of dissolution with patient composure; and though he was sensible to the last moment, expired almost without a groan. Nanbaree appeared quite unmoved at the event; and surveyed the corpse of his father without emotion, simply exclaiming, ‘boee’ (dead). This surprised us; as the tenderness and anxiety of the old man about the boy had been very moving. Although barely able to raise his head, while so much strength was left to him, he kept looking into his child’s cradle; he patted him gently on the bosom; and, with dying eyes, seemed to recommend him to our humanity and protection. Nanbaree was adopted by Mr. White, surgeon-general of the settlement, and became henceforth one of his family.

Arabanoo had no sooner heard of the death of his countryman, than he hastened to inter him. I was present at the ceremony, in company with the governor, captain Ball, and two or three other persons. It differed, by the accounts of those who were present at the funeral of the girl, in no respect from what had passed there in the morning, except that the grave was dug by a convict. But I was informed, that when intelligence of the death reached Arabanoo, he expressed himself with doubt whether he should bury, or burn the body; and seemed solicitous to ascertain which ceremony would be most gratifying to the governor.

Indeed, Arabanoo’s behaviour, during the whole of the transactions of this day, was so strongly marked by affection to his countryman, and by confidence in us, that the governor resolved to free him from all farther restraint, and at once to trust to his generosity, and the impression which our treatment of him might have made, for his future residence among us: the fetter was accordingly taken off his leg.

In the evening, captain Ball and I crossed the harbour, and buried the corpse of the woman before mentioned.

Distress continued to drive them in upon us. Two more natives, one of them a young man, and the other his sister, a girl of fourteen years old, were brought in by the governor’s boat, in a most deplorable state of wretchedness from the smallpox. The sympathy and affection of Arabanoo, which had appeared languid in the instance of Nanbaree and his father, here manifested themselves immediately. We conjectured that a difference of the tribes to which they belonged might cause the preference; but nothing afterwards happened to strengthen or confirm such a supposition. The young man died at the end of three days: the girl recovered, and was received as an inmate, with great kindness, in the family of Mrs Johnson, the clergyman’s wife. Her name was Booron; but from our mistake of pronunciation she acquired that of Abaroo, by which she was generally known, and by which she will always be called in this work. She shewed, at the death of her brother more feeling than Nanbaree had witnessed for the loss of his father. When she found him dying, she crept to his side, and lay by him until forced by the cold to retire. No exclamation, or other sign of grief, however, escaped her for what had happened.

May 1789. At sunset, on the evening of the 2d instant, the arrival the ‘Sirius’, Captain Hunter, from the Cape of Good Hope, was proclaimed, and diffused universal joy and congratulation. The day of famine was at least procrastinated by the supply of flour and salt provisions she brought us.

The ‘Sirius’ had made her passage to the Cape of Good Hope, by the route of Cape Horn, in exactly thirteen weeks. Her highest latitude was 57 degrees 10 minutes south, where the weather proved intolerably cold. Ice, in great quantity, was seen for many days; and in the middle of December (which is correspondent to the middle of June, in our hemisphere), water froze in open casks upon deck, in the moderate latitude of 44 degrees.

They were very kindly treated by the Dutch governor, and amply supplied by the merchants at the Cape, where they remained seven weeks. Their passage back was effected by Van Diemen’s Land, near which, and close under Tasman’s Head, they were in the utmost peril of being wrecked.

In this long run, which had extended round the circle, they had always determined their longitude, to the greatest nicety, by distances taken between the sun and moon, or between the moon and a star. But it falls to the lot of very few ships to possess such indefatigable and accurate observers as Captain Hunter, and Mr. (now Captain) Bradley, the first lieutenant of the ‘Sirius’.

I feel assured, that I have no reader who will not join in regretting the premature loss of Arabanoo, who died of the smallpox on the 18th instant, after languishing in it six days. From some imperfect marks and indents on his face, we were inclined to believe that he had passed this dreaded disorder. Even when the first symptoms of sickness seized him, we continued willing to hope that they proceeded from a different cause. But at length the disease burst forth with irresistible fury. It were superfluous to say, that nothing which medical skill and unremitting attention could perform, were left unexerted to mitigate his sufferings, and prolong a life, which humanity and affectionate concern towards his sick compatriots, unfortunately shortened.

During his sickness he reposed entire confidence in us. Although a stranger to medicine, and nauseating the taste of it, he swallowed with patient submission innumerable drugs,* which the hope of relief induced us to administer to him. The governor, who particularly regarded him**, caused him to be buried in his own garden, and attended the funeral in person.

[*Very different had been his conduct on a former occasion of a similar kind. Soon after he was brought among us he was seized with a diarrhoea, for which he could by no persuasion be induced to swallow any of our prescriptions. After many ineffectual trials to deceive, or overcome him, it was at length determined to let him pursue his own course, and to watch if he should apply for relief to any of the productions of the country. He was in consequence observed to dig fern-root, and to chew it. Whether the disorder had passed its crisis, or whether the fern-root effected a cure, I know not; but it is certain that he became speedily well.]

[**The regard was reciprocal. His excellency had been ill but a short time before, when Arabanoo had testified the utmost solicitude for his case and recovery. It is probable that he acquired, on this occasion, just notions of the benefit to be derived from medical assistance. A doctor is, among them, a person of consequence. It is certain that he latterly estimated our professional gentlemen very highly.]

The character of Arabanoo, as far as we had developed it, was distinguished by a portion of gravity and steadiness, which our subsequent acquaintance with his countrymen by no means led us to conclude a national characteristic. In that daring, enterprising frame of mind, which, when combined with genius, constitutes the leader of a horde of savages, or the ruler of a people, boasting the power of discrimination and the resistance of ambition, he was certainly surpassed by some of his successors, who afterwards lived among us. His countenance was thoughtful, but not animated: his fidelity and gratitude, particularly to his friend the governor, were constant and undeviating, and deserve to be recorded. Although of a gentle and placable temper, we early discovered that he was impatient of indignity, and allowed of no superiority on our part. He knew that he was in our power; but the independence of his mind never forsook him. If the slightest insult were offered to him, he would return it with interest. At retaliation of merriment he was often happy; and frequently turned the laugh against his antagonist. He did not want docility; but either from the difficulty of acquiring our language, from the unskillfulness of his teachers, or from some natural defect, his progress in learning it was not equal to what we had expected. For the last three or four weeks of his life, hardly any restraint was laid upon his inclinations: so that had he meditated escape, he might easily have effected it. He was, perhaps, the only native who was ever attached to us from choice; and who did not prefer a precarious subsistence among wilds and precipices, to the comforts of a civilized system.

By his death, the scheme which had invited his capture was utterly defeated. Of five natives who had been brought among us, three had perished from a cause which, though unavoidable, it was impossible to explain to a people, who would condescend to enter into no intercourse with us. The same suspicious dread of our approach, and the same scenes of vengeance acted on unfortunate stragglers, continued to prevail.

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