Chapter 8 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter VIII

The extension of settlement

Baudin’s expedition — Effect of French operations — Settlement at Risdon Cove — First Port Phillip Settlement — Foundation of Hobart — Settlement of Port Dalrymple — Napoleon’s order to ‘take Port Jackson’ — Sea power and the security of Australia — The Astrolabe at Westernport — Governor Darling’s commission — Alteration of boundaries of New South Wales — Westernport and King George’s Sound settlements — Whole of Australia claimed as British territory.

While Flinders was pursuing his explorations on the southern coasts of Australia in the Investigator, he met in Encounter Bay a French vessel, the Géographe, under the command of Captain Nicholas Baudin. It was known to him that a French discovery expedition had been despatched to Australasian waters, because, before he left England, a passport for its protection had been requested by the Government of the Republic and had been granted by the Admiralty. Nevertheless, the English navigator was much surprised to meet a foreign ship in these uncharted seas, and, being uncertain as to what her disposition might be, cleared the ship for action in case he should be attacked.

But Baudin was engaged in a perfectly peaceful, scientific mission, and no man less likely than he to lead an expedition with aggressive intentions ever commanded a vessel. Neither by training nor temperament was he the kind of officer whom the French Government would have selected had their designs been such as has sometimes been supposed. His ships were assigned to this service at the request of the Institute of France, the chief French organization concerned with scientific research. They carried a large staff of skilled naturalists and experts in hydrography. The Institute had requested the Government to send out the expedition because it was considered that there was more fresh and valuable scientific work to be done in the South Seas than anywhere else in the world at that period.

The two commanders met in the late afternoon of April 8, 1802. Flinders boarded the Géographe then, and again on the following morning, when he breakfasted with Baudin and had amiable conversations with him concerning their respective voyages. The French had left Europe nine months before the Investigator sailed, and, had it not been that Baudin was singularly dilatory he might have forestalled Flinders in the most important of his discoveries. As one of the French officers said to him when they met again at Port Jackson, ‘Ah, captain, if we had not been kept so long picking up shells and collecting butterflies at Van Diemen’s Land, you would not have discovered the south coast before us.’ As it was, the extent of fresh discovery made by the French was not more than about a hundred and fifty miles, from the mouth of the river Murray to Cape Banks, where Grant had come upon the coast in the Lady Nelson.

When the French expedition returned to Europe, the history of the voyage published at Paris was accompanied by an atlas containing a map upon which the whole coastline from Wilson’s Promontory to the head of the Great Australian Bight was named Napoleon’s Land (‘Terre Napoléon’). French names were also given to all the principal geographical features of this great stretch of territory. Thus, Spencer’s Gulf was named Golfe Bonaparte, St. Vincent’s Gulf was named Golfe Joséphine, and Kangaroo Island, which Flinders had discovered, was named, after the French Minister of Marine, Île Decrès. Flinders, at the time of the publication of this atlas, was held a prisoner in Mauritius by General Decaen, in the circumstances which have already been related, but the French officers knew that he had made these discoveries, and that his detention prevented the publication of his own work in advance of theirs.

In view of the bitter animosity and the jealousy existing between the English and the French during the Napoleonic wars, it was not unnatural that the appearance of Baudin’s expedition in Australasian waters and the publication of a map with the name ‘Terre Napoléon’ upon it, should have given rise to the belief that the French Government intended to seize some portion of the continent for colonizing purposes. But such an inference is not warranted by the evidence. The reason for placing Napoleon’s name on the map is not far to seek. Inasmuch as every other stretch of the coastline bore a name upon current maps, it was not unnatural that the French should desire to honour the ruler of their country by inscribing his name upon a portion hitherto without one, and the fact that they did so by no means implies that they entertained an intention of appropriating that region for colonizing purposes. It was a piece of courtiership, in recognition of the assistance which Napoleon had given in the equipment of the expedition.

Baudin’s voyage was not political in origin, and he himself was not a naval officer. It was promoted for the study of a region of the earth in which French savants had for about half a century manifested much interest. There had been previous French expeditions commanded by Bougainville, Marion du Fresne, Lapérouse, and Dentrecasteaux; and the purpose of Baudin’s did not differ from that of his predecessors. Napoleon Bonaparte had been elevated to the head of the French Republic in 1799, after ten years of revolutionary strife, and he was, as he said, anxious to make his era illustrious not only for efficient government and brilliant feats of arms, but also for high achievements in science, art, and literature. When the Institute of France laid before him plans for a discovery voyage to the South Seas in continuation of other French voyages to the same region, he readily gave his assent and assistance. But neither the published history of the voyage nor the private papers connected with it which have since come to light justify the conclusion that he had any intention of settling a French colony in Australia, or that Captain Baudin made investigations with such an object in view.

But the effect of the visit of Baudin’s expedition was to create the fear that if the British did not occupy other parts of the continent the French would, and it therefore acted as a stimulus to the expansion of settlement. There never was any better foundation for the fear than suspicion, but that was quite sufficient. The Government did not desire to have another penal colony, or another foreign colony of any kind, in the vicinity of Port Jackson; and the British East India Company was also concerned lest the French, whom they had ousted from India, should set up a fresh menace to their security in addition to that already existing at Mauritius. Governor King in 1803 came to the conclusion that Van Diemen’s Land might be occupied by the French if he did not forestall them; so, without waiting for instructions from England, he sent the Lady Nelson to choose a place for a settlement on the River Derwent. Amongst the reasons which he gave in his despatch to the Secretary of State explaining his plans, the first was ‘the necessity there appears of preventing the French gaining a foothold on the east side of these islands.’ In these circumstances a settlement was made in the island which now bears the name of Tasmania.

The first attempt was at Risdon Cove, where in September 1803 a small party of fifty people was landed under the direction of Lieutenant John Bowen. But this place was afterwards found to be inconvenient, and was abandoned when in 1804 Lieutenant-Colonel Collins selected the site of the city of Hobart.

It was also suspicion of French designs which induced the first attempt to form a settlement at Port Phillip. Since Murray discovered the harbour in 1802, a fairly complete survey had been made of it by Charles Grimes in 1803 in the Cumberland. Grimes and his survey party discovered the River Yarra, which they penetrated to a distance above the site of the present city of Melbourne; and if there had been any real sincerity behind the settlement scheme, the colonization of the state of Victoria would have been anticipated by over thirty years. But in fact there was no positive need for expansion at this period. There was ample room for the convicts and free settlers at Sydney. The reports of Murray and Flinders as to the quality of the soil of Port Phillip were highly encouraging, and it was of course desirable to keep a hold upon such a fine harbour with a view to future requirements; but the immediate reason why it was considered desirable to occupy the port was frankly stated by Governor King to be ‘from the probability of the French having it in contemplation to make a settlement, which I cannot help thinking is a principal object of their researches.’

In October 1803, therefore, Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins arrived in Port Phillip from England with two vessels, the Calcutta and the Ocean, and a company of nearly three hundred convicts, a guard of marines, and a civil staff. He made no attempt to find the best site for a colony; he did not even send a boat to examine the banks of the Yarra; he was simply content to unship his company on the sandy peninsula which divides the eastern lobe of Port Phillip from the ocean. Collins approached his task in a bad humour for forming a permanent settlement, and almost from the hour of his arrival commenced to write despatches deprecating the fitness of the port. It is curious to observe that in one of these Collins expressed the confident opinion, concerning the country around Port Phillip, that ‘every day’s experience convinces me that it cannot nor ever will be resorted to by speculative men.’ It so happened that in the course of time Collins Street, Melbourne, was named after the commandant, and that that thoroughfare is very much ‘resorted to by speculative men.’

One of his officers, Lieutenant Tuckey, was of a more optimistic temperament, and in a small book which he afterwards wrote about the experiment, delivered himself of a rhetorical rhapsody on the probable future of Port Phillip: ‘I beheld a second Rome arising from a coalition of banditti. I beheld it giving laws to the world, and, superlative in laws and in arts, looking down with proud superiority upon the barbarous nations of the northern hemisphere. Thus running over the airy visions of Empire, wealth and glory, I wandered amidst the delusions of imagination.’ A convict named Buckley, who escaped at this time, lived among the Port Phillip aboriginals for thirty-three years.

Collins, much to his satisfaction, was permitted in June 1804 to withdraw his whole company from Port Phillip and take them to the River Derwent in Van Diemen’s Land, where, as already stated, he changed the site of the settlement from Risdon Cove to the beautiful position under the shadow of Mount Wellington, then called Table Mountain.

A third settlement which was made lest the French should intervene was at Port Dalrymple, on the north coast of Van Diemen’s Land. The Secretary of State was much impressed by the despatches received from King concerning the operations of Baudin’s expedition, and was especially anxious that a foreign colony should not be planted in Bass Strait, the importance of which as a trade route was now thoroughly appreciated. It was to prevent such a contingency that the Port Phillip experiment was authorized; and now again the Government considered that it was ‘in a political sense peculiarly necessary’ that Port Dalrymple should be occupied. Lieutenant-Colonel Paterson was chosen to command, and he arrived there with a company of about one hundred and fifty persons in November 1804. As at the Derwent, so at this new settlement, the site originally chosen was not retained. York Town, Paterson’s settlement, was some miles from the present city of Launceston, and was abandoned within a year and a half of its foundation.

Though there is no warrant in historical evidence for the old suspicion that Napoleon’s Government ever contemplated the founding of a colony in Australia, and though Baudin’s discovery expedition was not connected with any such designs as were suspected at the time, it cannot be asserted that the infant colony at Sydney was free from danger during the Napoleonic wars. The Emperor himself was fully informed as to its military weakness, and the French Governor at Mauritius, General Decaen, was equally well advised. Péron, one of the naturalists on Baudin’s staff, on the homeward voyage supplied Decaen with a memorandum full of information about the colony. He pointed out how inadequate was the military force available to defend it, and emphasized the special element of weakness arising from the presence of a number of political prisoners. ‘If ever the Government of our country,’ he said, ‘should form the project of taking or destroying this colony, at the mere mention of the French name every Irish arm would be raised.’ Napoleon was even supplied with precise information as to how an attack upon Sydney could be made with excellent prospects of success. It would be ‘easy to accomplish,’ by a descent through Broken Bay, to the north; and Péron was of opinion that the new colony ‘should be destroyed as soon as possible.’ ‘Today we could destroy it easily; we shall not be able to do so in twenty-five years’ time.’ If the conditions had been favourable the attempt would undoubtedly have been made. In 1810, when the French colony at Mauritius was languishing for lack of supplies, Napoleon wrote a despatch to the Governor expressly directing him to ‘take the English colony at Port Jackson, where considerable resources will be found.’ But in 1810 Great Britain held the command of the sea with so vigorous a grip that no French act of aggression against a British colony anywhere was possible. So far from General Decaen being able to send an expedition against Port Jackson, he could not even hold his own in Mauritius, which was then being closely blockaded by a British squadron. Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, by shattering French naval power, made the oversea possessions of his country as secure as Manchester or London.

Sea power, indeed, as it guaranteed the security of Port Jackson and the few tiny settlements which had sprung from it, also ensured the integrity of Australia as a field for exclusively British colonizing effort during the nineteenth century. After the downfall of Napoleon at Waterloo there were several renewals of the suspicion that the French intended to colonize somewhere on the continent. It was natural that this feeling should recur when the French began again to turn their attention to such opportunities as might be open for replacing the colonial empire which they had lost during the Napoleonic wars. Australia, at the beginning of the second quarter of the century, was still a great empty continent, with one growing colony and a few sporadic offshoots on its eastern seaboard and two insignificant settlements in Van Diemen’s Land. Not a rood of ground was occupied anywhere else. A few sealers had huts for occasional use in Westernport and on King Island; a whaling crew might sometimes land in bays which were frequented by their prey. But there was no settlement. Tribes of black aboriginals roamed over vast tracts of fertile country which had never rung under the hoof of a horse and where the bleat of sheep had never been heard. This enormous area of habitable territory, in a mild and healthy climate, was a standing temptation to any European Government which cast a glance upon the map with a view to securing oversea dominion. At this time the only possible colonizing rival to Great Britain was France. Spain was in process of rapid disintegration as a colonial power; Portugal clung to what she had, but nourished no hope of reviving her former glories; Holland remained at Java, but was neither eager nor able to expand. No other European nation gave a serious thought to colonial development.

But in 1824 it became known that the French Government was sending another exploring vessel, the Astrolabe, to the South Seas, under the command of Dumont D’Urville. Purely scientific purposes were professed; and a few years later the British Government came to the conclusion that the professions were genuine, the Secretary of State then describing the suspicions as ‘certain false rumours which had reached the Government as to the intentions of a foreign power to establish a colony.’ But, as in 1802-4, so in 1824-7, the very existence of the rumours and suspicions, and the proximity of the French vessel, had the effect of galvanizing the administration into activity. Moreover, just as in 1802-4 three strategic posts were occupied, at Port Phillip, the Derwent, and Port Dalrymple, so again in 1824-7 three strategic posts were selected — one on the south, at Westernport, a second on the west at Albany, and a third on the north at Melville Island.

So anxious, indeed, was Governor Darling in regard to claims which he thought the French might make, that he wrote to the Imperial Government directing attention to the fact that his commission as Governor did not give him command over the whole continent, and suggesting that a change in that respect should forthwith be made. The commissions of all the Governors until after Brisbane’s time (1821-5) defined their jurisdiction as extending westward as far as the 135th parallel, because, as already pointed out, it was not definitely known in the beginning that New Holland and New South Wales were the western and the eastern sides of one great island. But the voyages of Flinders had demonstrated that it was so; and the further researches of Captain Phillip King in 1818-22 had shown that Melville and Bathurst Islands, on the extreme north of the continent, would be valuable possessions. But they were not within the area bounded on the west by the 135th parallel; they were just outside it. In 1824 both islands were formally annexed in the name of the British sovereign by Captain Gordon Bremer of H.M.S. Tamar, who established a small convict settlement on Melville Island. When, therefore, Darling was appointed Governor of New South Wales in 1825, his commission shifted the western boundary from the 135th to the 129th parallel so as to embrace these two islands. But still the western coasts of Australia were not included; and when the French once more appeared upon the scene Darling considered that it would not be easy to satisfy them that the British had prior claims, if they desired to establish themselves on the west of the continent. He therefore made the audacious suggestion that the Government should send out to him a fresh commission ante-dated from the time of his appointment, wherein he should be described as Governor of the whole of Australia. If this ingenious plan were adopted it would, he said, ‘prevent any appearance of an arrangement to answer a particular purpose.’ Fortunately it was not found necessary to resort to such an act of diplomatic deceit, for the French captain, Dumont D’Urville, when he visited various parts of Australia in 1826, showed no intention of laying claim to territory anywhere.

The Westernport settlement (November 1826), commanded by Captain Wright, consisted of about fifty persons, half of them convicts. It did not endure for much more than a year. By the end of 1828 it had become certain that the French were not to be feared, and, the post having served its purpose, it was abandoned. The Melville Island settlement was in 1827 transferred to Raffles Bay on the mainland. The Albany settlement at King George’s Sound was more important, because Major Edmund Lockyer, who was appointed to the command there, was instructed by the Governor that if the French appeared he was to inform them that the whole of Australia was ‘subject to his Brittanic Majesty’s Government.’ This amounted to an official claim to the whole continent, now for the first time asserted. Lockyer formally annexed the territory on January 21, 1827. Further, the Albany settlement became permanent, and was brought within the jurisdiction of the colony of Western Australia in 1831.

The action of Governor Darling in instructing Lockyer to assert the British claim to the possession of all Australia — though the French never appeared to give him the opportunity of making it to them — was confirmed in 1829. In that year Captain Fremantle of the Challenger, acting under instructions from England, took possession of the Swan River — where, as will hereafter be related, it was then proposed to found a new colony — and formally laid claim to ‘all that part of New Holland which is not included within the territory of New South Wales.’ Lord John Russell, who was Secretary of State for the Colonies ten years after this date (1839-41), related in his Recollections that one day a gentleman attached to the French Government called to see him and asked him how much of Australia was claimed as the dominion of Great Britain. Lord John answered ‘The whole,’ and with that the official had to be content. At that time there were settlements on every coast of the continent, so that the British claim had been made substantially good by occupation. But it was the pre-eminence in sea power won by Great Britain during the Napoleonic wars, and maintained during the years when Australia was in its infancy, that enabled this great and salutary assertion to be sustained.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 87-99

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