Narrative of a Voyage Round the World (Wilson)/Chapter 8

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Raffles Bay abandoned—Animals and Vegetables left there—Port Essington—Knocker's Bay—Departure from the North Coast of New Holland—Remarks as to the objects which the British Government had in view, in the formation of the Settlements on the North Coast of New Holland, and the causes of their abandonment.

On Friday, the 28th, about noon, everything that Captain Barker intended to take away being on board the Governor Phillips, we all embarked, and arrangements were made for sailing next morning. On Saturday, the 29th, early in the morning, Captain Barker and myself went on shore to bathe. Afterwards, we walked through the deserted camp, and visited the garden, where everything appeared to our eyes more flourishing than before.

The fort was left undestroyed, for the use of, and under the care of, Wellington, who promised to take charge of it until we returned. The carpenter of the brig nailed the union-jack to the flagstaff; and although it was an old one, and hardly worth the carrying away, yet it may last until replaced by another, which we all hoped might, ere long, be displayed,—if not here, at least on some contiguous part of the coast. The settlement was then abandoned;—Captain Barker being the last to embark.

For the information of future visitants, I may state that the garden contained orange, lime, and lemon trees, bananas in abundance, shaddocks, citrons, pineapples, figs, custard apples, papaws, tamarinds, dates, cocoa nuts, arrow root, sugar cane, peaches, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, turmeric, capsicum, black pepper, and many other useful and ornamental articles, all of which were thriving well, except the figs and peaches: and Captain Barker, with a view to increase the probability of their continuance, made the gardener plant several of them in different convenient places, not far from the settlement,—viz., on the north lagoon, 130 bananas, six cocoa nuts, and four areca ditto; on the grass tree flat, near the small rivulet, at the head of the bay, fifteen bananas; on the flat, near Cook's cliff, fifteen bananas; near the swamp, eighteen papaw trees, eighteen custard apples, and eighteen bananas.

Moreover, that future settlers might not be under the necessity of eating salt-junk; he left, poultry,—a boar and several sows, in a place where it is likely they will thrive and increase, being a swamp, abounding in fern and other roots, of which they are fond;—also a bull and three cows; and (even attentive to the convenience and ease of future sojourners) a Timor horse; and a mare in foal which he purchased from Dr. Davis expressly for this purpose.

Some fears are entertained that the two bush-rangers who have not returned may, from malicious wantonness, destroy both animals and vegetables. Necessity would not compel them to do so, as there is no doubt of their having stowed away plenty of beef, oat-meal, and flour; and there was a sufficiency of pumpkins to supply the wants of 100 men. If they act with prudence towards the natives, there is little doubt of their not only surviving, but living sumptuously, and in idleness (the summum bonum of such people), until the arrival of the proas from Macassar.

All being on board, and the brig ready for sea, we got under weigh about ten, A. M., and coasted along the shore. Being anxious to examine Port Essington, we ran into it, and came to an anchor about seven, P. M., in eleven fathoms water, near Knocker's Bay; and shortly afterwards, we observed numerous signal fires of the natives at Point Smith.

Next morning, at daylight. Captain Barker and myself left the brig, and proceeded in the boat to examine Knocker's Bay. It appeared exceedingly commodious in all respects, excepting the absence of fresh water, which defect might very easily be remedied. Returning on board about nine, A. M., we observed the natives making signals on shore; and shortly afterwards, two canoes, full of men, (seven in one, and eight in the other,) were observed making towards the brig. When the first approached sufficiently near, the natives began calling out, and still continued, though slowly and cautiously, to advance. As soon as they recognized Captain Barker and myself, they gave a loud and joyful shout, calling out "Commandant," "Caraie[1]," when both canoes pulled with all speed, and the men jumped on board without hesitation.

They proved to be some of our old friends; among whom, were Marambal, Iacama, Luga, and Mimaloo, bringing with them a quantity of tortoise-shell, for the purpose of barter. They were kindly received on board, and regaled with plenty of biscuit and rice. Marambal using the freedom of an old acquaintance, took the oil out of the binnacle lamp to mix with his rice. After their refreshment, some presents were distributed among them: they inquired very particularly after Riveral, some of whose relatives were present, whom I had not previously seen. I was much struck with the mild and unassuming manners of one of them, hitherto unknown to me, named A-rain-boo; but feeling that old acquaintances ought always to have the preference, I dressed Mimaloo in a pair of white trowsers; a red handkerchief was put round his neck, and a piece of calico on his shoulders, over which two bits of spun-yarn supported his trowsers; and, to complete his dress, a soldier's wife very gallantly put a cap on his head, which, although it was not particularly clean, he received with a bow and a smile.

This finery completely turned his brain, and he jumped about the deck, cutting a variety of capers, all indicative of the most extravagant joy: then he would stand still, silently contemplating his figure, with all the self-admiring complacency of a thorough-bred dandy; and again, unable to suppress his satisfaction, he would burst afresh into movements of unrestrained delight, to the astonishment of all on board, both savage and civilized;—although his pleasure was somewhat damped by one of the soldiers calling him a Manburgē. I thought that A-rain-boo viewed his gestures with pity, and seemed to despise him for thus compromising his dignity in our presence.

Captain Barker gave Luga (the native who had been flogged) a mambrual, and also remembered Marambal, who had behaved so attentively the first time he had trusted himself among them. Shortly afterwards, the natives left us, promising, that should Captain Barker and I come on shore, we should have a sight of the yalcuhéé; but they, unlike their civilized sisters, showed no disposition, either to form an acquaintance with, or to be admired by, strangers.

Shortly after the natives left the ship, those in the first canoe called to us to observe their mode of killing turtle, one of which they had discovered resting on the water. Luga stood in the bow, and threw the spear, but missed his aim. Those in the second canoe having seen another turtle, requested us to witness their superior skill, but they proved equally unsuccessful, to their great chagrin and mortification. Their feelings, no doubt, were much of the same kind with those experienced by a "white fellow," who, with the intention of impressing the wandering savages with a favourable idea of his prowess, fires a musket among a numerous flock of cockatoos, without doing any damage.

As the brig could not get under weigh, in consequence of the wind setting in to blow from the W.N. W., we embraced the opportunity of taking a further view of Port Essington (where, had the settlement been originally formed, it is probable that it might have now been in a flourishing state); and accordingly, about three, P. M., Captain Barker and myself proceeded on our expedition. We passed Point Record, and continued our course to the western branch of the bay; near the head of which. Captain Barker had, some time previously, found a fine stream of fresh water, and he now wished to see if it still continued to run.

We landed at a point near the south-west side of this inner bay, and walked in a westerly direction, where, at about one mile and a half distance, we expected to fall in with the stream. Having walked, however, twice that distance, without meeting with it, we began to suspect, from the nature of the ground, that no stream of water existed. Captain Barker was now convinced that we had landed at the wrong spot; the place he had previously landed at, being situated one mile farther to the southward. This we very much regretted, as, from the day being spent, we could not strike across the country to endeavour to fall in with it. It being now quite dark, we thought we might have some difficulty in retracing our steps to the place where the boat lay waiting for us; but, knowing that we had taken a westernly direction, we reversed the course, and, guided by the stars, (after several tumbles over fallen trees,) we got safely to the boat, where we found the men anxiously expecting us. We arrived on board about three o'clock in the morning, after a long and very tiresome pull.

When Captain Barker visited Port Essington, on a former occasion, he found the stream in question of considerable magnitude, and, from appearances, he was induced to believe it to be permanent; but, as his visit was shortly after the conclusion of the rainy season, this was by no means certain. Had it been running now, at the termination of the dry season, the matter would have been placed beyond a doubt. It was, therefore, to be regretted, that we did not succeed in deciding the question.

On Saturday morning, the 31st of August, the brig was got under weigh, and we left the north coast of New Holland exactly six years after the date of Mr. Barnes's letter to Lord Bathurst.

It may not be out of place now to make a few remarks as to the formation of these settlements, and also as to the events which unfortunately led to their abandonment.

The principal object in forming a settlement on the north coast of New Holland was, to establish a commercial intercourse with the natives of various islands in the Indian Archipelago; and which, it was imagined, might be brought about through the means of the Malays, who annually frequent these shores in considerable numbers, for the purpose of procuring trepang.

The British government, therefore, (chiefly induced, I believe, by the representation of Mr. Barnes, who painted in glowing colours, the vast and manifold advantages thence to be derived,) determined to form an establishment somewhere on the northern coast of New Holland; and, to carry this resolution into effect, Captain Bremer, of H. M. S. Tamar, sailed from Sydney on the 24th of August, 1824, taking in company the ship Countess of Harcourt, laden with stores, provisions, and other articles necessary in the formation of a new settlement. A party of the 3d regiment, under the command of Captain Barlow and Lieutenant Everett, and a party of prisoners, chiefly mechanics, (who obtained the name of volunteers,) were also embarked in the Countess of Harcourt.

They proceeded through Torres' Straits, by the inner passage, and arrived safely at Port Essington on the 20th of September; when, after going through the ceremonies usual on such an occasion, formal possession was taken of the north coast, between the meridians 129° and 135° east longitude; and, after making some ineffectual search for water, they left this beautiful bay, and proceeded farther west.

On the 30th of September, they arrived at Melville Island, where they formed the settlement. Thus was an error committed in the very beginning. Had the examination for water at Port Essington been more extended and minute, plenty, of good quality, would have been discovered; and the port is, in every point of view, decidedly preferable to that of Apsley Straits, than which, indeed, a worse place could not have been selected: first, because the entrance to it is exceedingly intricate, on account of a dangerous shoal extending several miles' distance from the land; and which is rendered more perilous by the rapidity of the tides. And, lastly, but chiefly, by this part of the coast not being frequented by the Malays; although this fact could not have been known at the time.

On the 13th of November, H. M. S. Tamar left for India, having rendered every assistance to the settlement. Previous to her departure, the natives had visited the new comers, (whom, I have no doubt, they considered unwelcome intruders,) and some slight differences had occurred. The settlement, however, got on pretty well for some time; but, at length, hostilities commenced between the natives and Europeans, and proceeded, from bad to worse, until the hatred of both parties became thoroughly rooted.

From all the accounts I could collect, and I had them from various and authentic sources, I have no hesitation in stating, that the civilized party was far from being blameless.

It is well known to every person who has had the slightest intercourse with savages, that they are invariably addicted to thieving. It is, therefore, not to be denied, that the natives committed many petty thefts; but the policy of being unnecessarily annoyed thereat, and the humanity of putting them to death for such offences, may be safely called in question.

If I am rightly informed by those who were actors in the business, many of the natives were put to death in a very unwarrantable manner; and I think I may assert, that, had mild and conciliatory conduct been adopted, and uniformly continued towards these ignorant creatures while their depredations were unattended with violence, several valuable lives might have been saved, and many inconveniences and privations prevented.

Latterly, it was unsafe to venture out of the camp unarmed;—a melancholy instance of this insecurity occurred in the massacre of the surgeon and the commissariat-officer, who, while taking a walk a few yards from the settlement, fell victims to the vengeance of these irritated and undiscerning savages.

Shortly after the formation of the settlement, sickness made its appearance. I was in Sydney when alarming accounts of the unhealthiness of Melville Island arrived there; and, as the surgeon of the settlement wished to be relieved, a young man who had just arrived in the colony, surgeon of a trading vessel, was appointed to succeed him, who, owing to the desperate nature of the service he was to be employed in, received a salary of one guinea per diem. Both before and after this period, the accounts were greatly exaggerated, and, in some respects, incorrect; the unhealthiness of the settlement being generally, but very erroneously, ascribed to the insalubrity of the climate.

The disease which, either by itself, or aggravating other maladies, naturally mild, caused such alarm, was scurvy, which, it is well known, is not endemial; indeed, it is more prevalent, caeteris paribus, in a cold, than in a warm climate. Its rise and progress is, therefore, to be attributed to the operation of the usual causes; several of which, in this instance, conspired to produce it.

This disease, therefore, not caused by climate, might have been checked, if not entirely prevented, by means within the reach of the sufferers; and, by a prophylactic attention to dietetics, without requiring much aid from medicine.

It is admitted, that the supply of salt provisions was bad; but, then, the fowls of the air, and the fish of the sea, might have been obtained in abundance, by very moderate exertions: and, until the various vegetables (with the seeds and roots of which they were amply supplied from Sydney) grew fit for use, they had, within their reach, plenty of native roots and vegetables, which, either from ignorance or carelessness, they failed to profit by.

But as the climate was reported unhealthy, so was the soil accused of sterility; and with what degree of justice may be learned from the statement of Captain Laws, who visited the settlement a few months previous to its abandonment[2]

With respect to the policy of the line of conduct pursued in the pubic administration of the settlement, I am not capable of forming a correct judgment; yet I may mention, that the instructions given in the first instance to the Commandant were liberal; and had other circumstances been favourable, were likely to promote, in some degree, the ultimate object for which the settlement was formed: but the orders of the 22d of April, 1826, (which, I am informed, were of a conditional nature,) being strictly acted on, put a complete stop to the slender mercantile intercourse that had begun, though slowly, to take place.

To add to the misfortunes attending on Melville Island, the colonial brig Lady Nelson, which was stationed there, sailed to Timor for refreshments, and was never afterwards heard of. Whether she fell into the hands of pirates, or whether she was wrecked on some reef or sand-bank, (many of which abound in the Timor Sea,) is still, and may, perhaps, for ever remain, a matter of uncertainty.

At length, after a period of nearly four years, in consequence of the continued unfavourable reports transmitted to the Home Government, orders were given to abandon the settlement; and, in willing obedience to these orders, it was abandoned on the 31st of March, 1829; the live animals, stores, plants, &c., being transferred to Raffles Bay. The Commandant, with the soldiers and volunteers, (i. e. prisoners) sailed in the barque Lucy Anne[3] for Sydney, and arrived there in safety on the 10th of June.

Although there are different opinions as to the policy of this proceeding, yet, on the whole, it may be considered judicious; as the settlement was attended with considerable expense, and unlikely to become of much importance, being, as before mentioned, entirely out of the track of the Malay proas, not one of whom had ever visited it. But it might have made some return to the mother country, especially as it abounds in various kinds of trees fit for every purpose of domestic economy, and also for ship-building, according to the opinion of Captain Laws, whose judgment on such subjects cannot be called in question.

Having made these few general observations, relative to Melville Island, I shall proceed to give a slight sketch of Raffles Bay (the second-formed British settlement on the north coast of New Holland); and as, during my sojourn there, I had much intercourse with the Aborigines, and embraced every opportunity of acquiring information concerning them, my remarks may, perhaps, not be deemed altogether devoid of interest.

  1. This is their name for doctor. I have no doubt it is their manner of pronouncing Caradgē, which they may have heard from Dr. Davis, who, however, never would coincide in this opinion.
  2. Vide page 152.
  3. A few days after their departure, they had a narrow escape from ship-wreck, as may be evident from the following extract of a letter from the commander of the Lucy Anne:—"On the 11th, expecting next morning to make Carter's Island, and the night being fine, with a light air, we continued under easy sail, going from one to two knots, with orders to call me, if any soundings at midnight; when, about half-past one in the morning, we ran ashore on a sandy part of a reef. It being fortunately smooth bottom, and little or no swell, so that she seldom beat, and that pretty easy, we had her afloat and at anchor in four and a half fathoms, and a second out in six fathoms, before daylight; at which period, a slight breeze rising, we cast with a spring, and stood off north-east, and at daybreak saw an Island with little shrubs, about five or six miles, apparently the centre of the reef."