The Extraordinary Watkin Tench: Early in 1787 the First Fleet, eleven ships containing over 1,000 men, women and children, gathered off the coast of England for the voyage to Australia. 1788 is a reissue of Watkin Tench’s published writings on the voyage and subsequent settlement, edited and introduced by Tim Flannery.
According to Flannery, publishers wanting first-hand accounts “flocked to sign up the principals of the venture”. Tench, only a captain in the Marines, was almost an afterthought, but his A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay was the first out, in April 1789 – and probably the most readable. His A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson followed in 1793.
Tench was born in 1758 or ’59, in Chester where his parents ran a dancing academy and boarding school. He entered the marine corps (soldiers attached to the Royal Navy) at age 16 and saw immediate service in the American War of Independence where he was for three months a prisoner of war. After the war he was on half pay which may be why he signed up for a three year tour with the First Fleet and the new settlement. He subsequently returned to England, married, and died in Devonport on 7 May 1833.
Of utmost importance is Tench’s relations with the Indigenous people of the Sydney area. He learned their language, although he did not leave behind a dictionary or grammar as far as I can see, and was “a friend and confidante of the Aborigines who attached themselves to the settlement”.
The following accounts are familiar because so often relied on to form the bases of our histories and historical fictions, notably Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land. But they are also well worth reading in their own right.
A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay: Tench begins
The marines and convicts having been previously embarked in the river at Portsmouth and Plymouth, the whole fleet destined for the expedition rendezvoused at the Mother Bank on the 16th of March 1787 and remained there until the 13th of May following.
Eight weeks doing nothing with 759 convicts, the men in leg irons, confined below deck. “Few complaints or lamentations were to be heard among them”. Eventually, finally, Governor Phillip comes on board and they set off.
The number of convicts was 565 men, 192 women, and eighteen children. The major part of the prisoners were mechanics and husbandmen, selected on purpose by order of government.
Crossing the Atlantic, they called first at Tenerife, then at Rio de Janeiro where they were well looked after, Governor Phillip having been “for many years a captain in their navy, and commanded a ship of war on this station.” We learn that Brazil had only just started growing its own coffee, having previously had to import it from Portugal; and that although their principal crop was sugar, their rum was less than palatable.
James Cook had written (in 1773) that the women would indicate their availability by throwing flowers at the visitors’ feet. Tench regrets that this appeared to be no longer the case:
We were so deplorably unfortunate as to walk every evening before their windows and balconies without being honoured with a single bouquet, though nymphs and flowers were in equal and great abundance.
In many ways this is a ‘Lonely Planet’ account, Tench telling his readers where they might stay, what there is to see, and what currency to use.
Next, and final, stop is Table Bay, Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. They top up their stores – enough for two years – and
on the 12th of November  we weighed anchor and soon left far behind every scene of civilisation and humanised manners to explore a remote and barbarous land and plant in it those happy arts which alone constitute the pre-eminence and dignity of other countries.
Sailing eastward across the Indian Ocean at around 40º of latitude, they sight the southern tip of “Van Diemen” on 7th January 1788 then loop out into the Tasman Sea, not sighting land again until “the 19th at only the distance of seventeen leagues [95 km] from our desired port”. By the morning of the 20th the whole fleet had cast anchor in Botany Bay. Only one marine and 24 convicts had perished en route.
Phillip in the Supply had arrived two days earlier. He found “the natives tolerably numerous” on the south shore “shouting and making many uncouth signs and gestures” so he landed a boat on the north shore where there were only six men “in order to take possession of his new territory and bring about an intercourse between its new and old masters.”
An interview commenced, in which the conduct of both parties pleased each other so much that the strangers returned to their ships with a much better opinion of the natives than they had landed with; and the latter seemed highly entertained with their new acquaintance …”
Botany Bay is too open and lacks potable water but before they can move to neighbouring Port Jackson two more ships arrive, totally unexpectedly, under the command of the French Captain, la Perouse. The French stay some weeks anchored in Botany Bay and relations are amicable.
On 26th January 1788 the fleet moved from Botany Bay and settlement was commenced at Sydney Cove in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour). “Owing to the multiplicity of pressing business … it was found impossible to read the public commissions and take possession of the colony in form until 7th of February” when the military and convicts assembled to hear His Majesty’s commission read, establishing the territory of New South Wales.
Relations between Aborigines and the British are mostly cordial but remote. Tench believes that contrary to Cook’s reports, “That celebrated navigator, we were willing to believe had somehow by his conduct offended them, which prevented the intercourse that would otherwise have taken place.” The following year Cook “offended” some Hawaiians and was killed.
Over the course of 1778, ships depart, the supply ships for China to load tea, others back to England, and a subsidiary settlement is commenced on Norfolk Island. The soldiers and convicts build huts to house themselves; courts are established and convicts are flogged and in a few cases executed; 17 whites are killed or seriously wounded by Aborigines. Existing food supplies are supplemented with fish (not plentiful) and kangaroo. Interestingly ‘kangaroo’ was a word unknown to the locals and they thought that the whites who used it meant any large animal.
This first account ends on the 1st of October with the Sirius set to return to England “by which conveyance the opportunity of writing to you is afforded to me.”
A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson: I have already written too much and Tench too apologises for adding to the already (in 1793) considerable literature on the founding of New South Wales. I’ll be as brief as I can, but urge you to read this for yourselves.
No, on further consideration, I have already said less about first contact than I had planned, so I’ll put up a proper review of A Complete Account in a couple of weeks (here).
Watkin Tench, 1788, first pub. 1789,1793. This edition: Tim Flannery ed., Text, Melbourne, 1996