1788 (2), Watkin Tench

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1788 (1996) is a book in three parts: I reviewed previously the first two, Tim Flannery’s, The Extraordinary Watkin Tench,  and Tench’s account of the voyage out (here). Herewith a review of Tench’s –

A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson: According to this web site for visitors, “the Eora, Cadigal, Guringai, Wangal, Gammeraigal and Wallumedegal people … were the original inhabitants of Sydney’s harbour foreshore.” Governor Phillip had hoped that his new settlement and the local Aboriginals would live side by side, though I think he was planning on the Aboriginals doing most of the compromising. Tench writes early on:

With the natives we were very little more acquainted than on our arrival in the country. Our intercourse with them was neither frequent or cordial. They seemed studiously to avoid us, either from fear, jealousy or hatred… I was inclined to attribute this conduct to a spirit of malignant levity. But a further acquaintance with them, founded on several instances of their humanity and generosity … has entirely reversed my opinion and led me to conclude that the unprovoked outrages committed upon them by unprincipled individuals among us caused the evils we had experienced.

At the end of 1788 with the locals showing signs of armed resistance Phillip determined to capture some both as hostages and hopefully to provide a link between the white and black communities. In the event, they captured one man, naming him ‘Manly’ as it was some time before he allowed his captors to call him by his Aboriginal name Arabanoo. He was taken to tell his people what had happened to him but that did not result in any further contact.

In March 1789 a party of convicts left their work and attacked some Aboriginals at Botany Bay. They were repulsed, one convict was killed and a number were severely wounded. Arabanoo witnessed the flogging of the survivors, unhappily despite understanding its cause, and the later hanging of six marines for the theft of stores.

In April and May the bodies of Aboriginals were found who had obviously died of smallpox. This mystifies Tench as the last smallpox case amongst the whites had been 18 months earlier in South Africa. Some sufferers come into the settlement to be nursed, a couple of the younger ones survive and are fostered. The dead are interred by Arabanoo who is infected in turn and dies on 18 May.

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.

At this time an inlet between the cliffs of Broken Bay (in the northern part of the maps below) is discovered to be the mouth of a freshwater river which they name Hawkesbury, and farming is commenced on its banks, at Richmond Hill. The locals, bearing signs of smallpox, “showed every sign of welcome and friendship.” Tench who has his own small outpost at Rose Hill, upstream from Sydney Harbour was inspired to conduct his own explorations inland, towards the Blue Mountains. On the second day “we found ourselves on the banks of a river nearly as broad as the Thames at Putney”. It was given the name Nepean though as they later discovered, it is actually an upstream extension of the Hawkesbury.

Traces of the natives appeared at every step; sometimes in their hunting huts …; sometimes in marks on trees …; or in squirrel traps; or … in decoys for the purpose of ensnaring birds.

By the end of 1789 supplies of food were running out and thievery had become rife. Our first ‘police force’ consisted of 12 night watchmen selected from the most reliable of the convicts. Access to the locals’ knowledge of resources becoming daily more desirable, two more men were captured, Baneelon (Benelong) and Colbee, who soon escaped.

[Baneelon’s] powers of mind were certainly far above mediocrity. He acquired knowledge, both of our manners and language, faster than his predecessor had done. He willingly communicated information, sang, danced and capered, told us all the customs of his country and all the details of his family economy.

By mid 1790 the food (and clothing) situation was getting desperate. The salt pork and rice was now three years old and crawling. Rations were reduced. Baneelon couldn’t stand it and took off. More than 200 convicts and marines were offloaded to Norfolk Island (where they could presumably live off the land) but there, the colony’s larger ship, Sirius, was lost leaving them only with the little Supply. Finally, the Second Fleet began to dribble in, first the Juliana with a cargo of convict women, then the Justinian carrying supplies, then three more ships with convicts. Tench is (rightly) indignant as the death rate, approaching 40%, amongst convicts this time was almost entirely due to private contractors withholding rations, some of which they were able to sell at enormous prices on arrival.

Baneelon was later discovered, though not recaptured, with Colbee and a large number of their fellows at Manly beach, cutting up and eating a whale carcass. He expressed a wish to speak to the governor, who came a day or so later. For his trouble Phillip copped a spear in the shoulder, apparently from a man from a tribe further north.

Soon after, the colonists began a more regular intercourse with Baneelon in particular and with the locals in general. Baneelon introduced them to his wife, Barangaroo, and with a number of other men visited the settlement, no longer fearing that he would be detained.

In November 1790 the Supply returned from Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies) with fresh supplies having completed the first circumnavigation of the continent (then New Holland, now Australia). Tench reports that attempts at cultivation in Sydney have been abandoned,  and that “necessary public buildings advance fast”. At Rose Hill, 200 acres have been cleared of which about 90 are given over to crops of wheat, barley, maize etc. They have fowls and hogs, but no cows or sheep.

With the natives we are now hand and glove. They throng the camp every day, and sometimes by their clamour and importunity for bread and meat (which they now all eat greedily) are become very troublesome.

James Ruse, a former convict turned farmer reports, “The greatest check on me is the dishonesty of the convicts who, in spite of all my vigilance, rob me almost every night.”

A “brick house of twelve feet square” was built for Baneelon at a site chosen by him (Bennelong Point, the site of the Sydney Opera House). There is an episode at the house where Baneelon attempts to cut off the head of a young Botany Bay woman he has taken prisoner. He is subdued and the woman is hospitalized but it is two days before his rage subsides. Tench remarks he saw no other instance of hostages being sacrificed.

In December a sergeant who was greatly disliked by the locals is speared and dies. He is the seventeenth colonist to die in this way and the Governor dispatches Tench with 50 men to exact retribution from the Bideegal people on Botany Bay. Phillip initially asked for ten men to be killed, though on Tench’s suggestion this was watered down to two to be hung and six to be sent to Norfolk Island. In the event, Tench’s party was bogged down in the swamps around the bay and no one was taken.

At about the same time a party of convicts including a woman (Mary Bryant, not named by Tench) seize the governor’s cutter and succeed in making their way up the coast and around the top of Australia to Timor. The Dutch there send them on to London but they are only required to see out the one or two years remaining on their sentences before being released.

Tench points out that the white convicts working in Sydney often put up with much hotter conditions than those prevailing in the West Indies and that the arguments of apologists for slavery are nonsense. ” 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!”

The greater part of this account is about relations between the colonists and the locals. Every effort is made to call each person they meet by his or her proper name and as many other words as possible are learned and recorded; even Rose Hill is in 1791 given its local name, Parramatta. Where convicts are caught stealing from Aborigines they are flogged, a process which incidentally the Aborigines did not enjoy having to observe.

Tench is a good writer and has a wry humour, as when, discussing a desolate lookout point in the bush, he writes “His Excellency was pleased to give [it] the name Tench’s Prospect Mount.” Or when he notes of 20 convicts who set out to walk overland to China. “I trust no man would feel more reluctant than myself to cast an illiberal national reflection… But … all these people were Irish.” Prior to his departure at the end of 1791 he makes a tour of all the farms around Rose Hill/Parramatta, which are producing tobacco and grapes as well as grain. Then of Sydney he writes, “This place had long been considered only as a depot for stores. It exhibited nothing but a few old scattered huts and some sterile gardens.” There is absolutely no reason for this account not to be more widely read.

 

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Tench’s map of the Port Jackson area, 1793
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Sydney today

 

Watkin Tench, 1788, first pub. 1789,1793. This edition: Tim Flannery ed., Text, Melbourne, 1996

see also:

The Resident Judge on Grace Karskens’ The Colony (here).

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10 thoughts on “1788 (2), Watkin Tench

  1. You know, I meant to read this when Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers came out because she referenced it extensively, and I meant to read it when Marcia Langton (!) said she admired it, and now I mean to read it again. I’ll get to it one day, I will, I will…

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