Tag Archives: Port Stephens

Inheritors of the consequences

When the British Government took possession of territory on the continent of Australia, it did so confident in its strength of arms and documentation. These were capabilities which the Aborigines lacked. The battle was very uneven and the outcome predictable. The newcomers, believing that they had the superior and stronger culture and resources, were not minded to negotiate a general agreement with the Aborigines over matters of ownership and government of the land and its peoples.

A notable exception to this attitude was the attempt by John Batman to establish a form of treaty with Aborigines in the Port Phillip area, where he wanted to take up grazing lands. The treaty document survives, with its symbols supposed to represent marks of agreement by Aboriginal chiefs. The treaty was a device designed partly to demonstrate peaceful co-existence with the Aboriginal population, but partly also to assert private rights over land not granted by the Crown.

Batman’s treaty with the Aborigines is dated 6 June 1835. On 26 August His Excellency Major-General Sir Richard Bourke, K. C. B., Commanding His Majesty’s Forces, Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of the Territory of New South Wales and its Dependencies, and Vice-Admiral of the same, &c. &c. &c., issued a Proclamation to make clear that he was having none of John Batman’s stratagems:

Whereas, it has been represented to me, that divers of His Majesty’s Subjects have taken possession of vacant Lands of the Crown, within the limits of this Colony, under the pretence of a treaty, bargain, or contract, for the purchase thereof, with the Aboriginal Natives; Now therefore, I, the Governor, in virtue and in exercise of the power and authority in me vested, do hereby proclaim and notify to all His Majesty’s Subjects, and others whom it may concern, that every such treaty, bargain, and contract with the Aboriginal Natives, as aforesaid, for the possession, title, or claim to any Lands lying and being within the limits of the Government of the Colony of New South Wales, as the same are laid down and defined by His Majesty’s Commission; … is void and of no effect against the rights of the Crown; and that all Persons who shall be found in possession of any such Lands as aforesaid, without the license or authority of His Majesty’s Government, for such purpose, first had and obtained, will be considered as trespassers, and liable to be dealt with in like manner as other intruders upon the vacant Lands of the Crown within the said Colony.

This was a unilateral assertion of rights which took no account of the Aboriginal view of the matter. The concept of ‘vacant lands of the Crown’ ignored the very existence of Aborigines, let alone their needs and rights. In these respects Governor Bourke’s Proclamation arguably had even less moral authority than Batman’s treaty, particularly if Batman had indeed managed to secure a meaningful expression of good-will and co-operation from the Aborigines with whom he sought to deal.

To what extent might Aborigines of that time be amenable to letting the newcomers use the land over which they had roamed for thousands of years? Robert Dawson, in his Present State of Australia (page 12), offers some interesting evidence, which reflects the psychology of the Aboriginal who guided him from Newcastle to Port Stephens and whom he named Ben. He had promised Ben rewards for his efforts and Ben was delighted with the gifts, so much so that, in uplifted and expansive mood, he offered Dawson a great deal in return:

On the following morning I went on board the schooner, and ordered on shore a tomahawk and a suit of slop clothes, which I had promised to my friend Ben, and in which he was immediately dressed. They consisted of a short blue jacket, a checked shirt, and a pair of dark trowsers. He strutted about in them with an air of good-natured importance, declaring that all the harbour and country adjoining belonged to him. “I tumble down pickaninny here,” he said, meaning that he was born there. “Belonging to me all about, massa; pose you tit down here, I gib it to you.” “Very well,” I said: “I shall sit down here.” “Budgeree,” (very good,) he replied, “I gib it to you;” and we shook hands in ratification of the friendly treaty.

Dawson does not represent this as a legal transaction, as Batman might have. He would have been less than honest to do so, given the naïveté of the Aboriginal inhabitants, ignorant as they necessarily were of European habits of mind and techniques of diplomacy. But he was no doubt encouraged by the level of good-will which had been generated.

However, whether there was good-will or ill-will, the fact remained that the newcomers were not going to relinquish their plans for possession and use of the land, whatever the Aborigines might think; and the Aborigines were not equipped to develop the sort of strategies needed to beat the British at their own game.

Robert Kenny has argued that Batman’s treaty need not be interpreted (as it usually is) as a mere ruse. Batman’s dialogue with the Aborigines raises the question of whether the usurpers of the land could have entered into genuine negotiations with the traditional occupants, as Batman did to an extent, so as to make the outcome fair. What was actually done, Kenny argues (p. 38.10), poses moral problems for all concerned then and now, since we are all ‘inheritors of the consequences.’

State Library of Victoria, Batman’s treaty (including images). National Archives of Australia, Documenting a Democracy, Governor Bourke’s Proclamation 1835 (UK) (including images and transcription). Cf. ‘Government Gazette’, Australian 8/9/1835, p. 3. Robert Dawson, The Present State of Australia, London, 1830, p. 12. Robert Kenny, ‘Tricks or Treats? A Case for Kulin Knowing in Batman’s Treaty’, History Australia 5 (2), 2008, 38.1 to 38.14.

Robert Dawson and Port Stephens

The Australian Agricultural Company was formed in London in 1824 and was to take up a million acres in New South Wales, mainly for sheep farming. The work was to be guided by a local committee, in which the Macarthur family was influential. Robert Dawson (1782-1866) was appointed the Company’s first agent.

The committee was able to choose where to take up land. John Oxley, Surveyor-General and explorer, recommended in order of preference the Liverpool Plains (in northern New South Wales), or alternatively the head of the Hastings River, or the area between Port Stephens and the Manning River. The committee at first declined to follow Oxley’s advice regarding the suitability of the Liverpool Plains, and sent Robert Dawson to examine the area around Port Stephens, which had the advantage of being nearer the coast.

In 1826 Dawson inspected the area and established the Company’s headquarters on the northern shores of Port Stephens, where Carrington and Tahlee stand now. From the Company’s point of view it turned out to be an unfortunate decision, as the area did not prove suitable for sheep farming. In 1830 the Company was able to give up portion of its grant in that area in exchange for a similar acreage at the Liverpool Plains, where as Oxley had predicted the conditions were favourable.

Oxley had explored the Liverpool Plains in 1818 and had discovered the Peel River on 2 September. On the occasion of the centenary of that event, an article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald recalling Oxley’s achievements and the role of the Australian Agricultural Company in opening up the Tamworth area to farming and settlement. The writer commented:

In these days of land hunger and Government resumptions it is hard to look upon any huge land monopoly with feelings of reverence or gratitude; but in those days the outlook was vastly different, and what would to-day be denounced by many people was 90 years ago considered to be a blessing. The colony was then a wilderness. Many parts of it had not been explored. There was no settlement outside the fringe round Sydney. The prospect of opening up the trackless forest and raising “fine wool, and cultivating the vine, olive, flax, and other productions” was too appalling for ordinary settlers to contemplate.

Dawson had to bear some of the blame for directing the Company’s time and resources towards an area that proved unsuitable, and he was recalled. Conscious of having his reputation unjustly blackened, he undertook newspaper publication of some relevant correspondence, and wrote a book, published in London in 1829, explaining matters from his point of view.

In 1830 appeared another book by him on The Present State of Australia. This book is especially interesting in its sensitive insights into the lives and attitudes of Aborigines whom Dawson encountered in the course of his travels and work. Early in the book he gives a detailed narrative of his journey overland from Newcastle to Port Stephens, describing the country and the assistance rendered by local Aborigines. He comments (p. 11) on a meeting between their guide ‘Ben’ and another aboriginal:

I was much amused at this meeting, and above all delighted at the prompt and generous manner in which this wild and untutored man conducted himself towards his wandering brother. If they be savages, thought I, they are very civil ones; and with kind treatment we have not only nothing to fear, but a good deal to gain from them. I felt an ardent desire to cultivate their acquaintance, and also much satisfaction from the idea that my situation would afford me ample opportunities and means for doing so.

Centenary of Oxley’s discovery of the Peel: V.T., ‘The old A.A. Company’, Sydney Morning Herald 7/9/1918, p. 11. E. Flowers, ‘Dawson, Robert (1782-1866)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 298-300; and online. Correspondence: ‘The Australian Agricultural Company and Mr. Dawson’, Australian 27/6/1828, p. 4. Robert Dawson, Statement of the Services of Mr Dawson, as Chief Agent of the Australian Agricultural Company, with a Narrative of the Treatment He Has Experienced from the Late Committee at Sydney, and the Board of Directors in London, London, Smith, Elder and Co., 1829; idem, The Present State of Australia: A Description of the Country, Its Advantages and Prospects with Reference to Emigration; and a Particular Account of Its Aboriginal Inhabitants, London, Smith, Elder and Co., 1830.

Nelson Bay or Nelson’s Bay?

Whatever may have been the original form of the name of this bay at Port Stephens, ‘Nelson’s Bay’ seems to have been usual in the late 1820s and 1830s.

In 1829 the Australian newspaper refers to Nelson’s Bay in reporting a near-disaster that overtook the New South Wales Attorney-General Alexander Baxter in the course of an attempted voyage from Newcastle to Sydney on the schooner Samuel. After departure from Newcastle, heavy squalls blew up at night, sails had to be taken in, and by 9 o’clock there were two feet of water in the hold. The pumps were inadequate, and passengers and all hands had to bale with buckets. The ship managed to limp into Port Stephens (spelled Port Stevens in the newspaper account) and came to rest in Nelson’s Bay, with 4 feet 7 inches of water in the hold. Some of the coal on board was taken off, the ship was reprovisioned and the pumps re-rigged, and finally the Samuel was able to make it safely to Sydney; but Mr. Baxter, who had helped with the baling, remained behind. ‘His exertions and fatigues … left him, by the latest accounts, in rather a feverish state.’

A shipboard adventure of quite another type was reported by the Sydney Gazette in 1835. Nine convicts, five of them assigned servants of William Charles Wentworth, escaped from Sydney on Wentworth’s ketch Alice, which had been lying in Vaucluse Bay, taking with them some provisions, wine and plate stolen from a house belonging to him at Vaucluse. One of the convicts was already among Wentworth’s men on the vessel, which was under the command of Hamilton Ross and the Mate John House. The boat sailed past Newcastle and entered Port Stephens, coming to anchor in Nelson’s Bay or Salamander Bay. It was dark by then. The next morning one of the convicts and House, who knew the harbour, were put ashore to get water. The convict came back with an aboriginal who wanted to sell some fish. House remained on shore, and Ross was allowed to go ashore as well after he refused to join the convicts. One of the convicts, Joseph Kay, gave Ross a written discharge and an order on Mr. Wentworth for his pay, which Kay signed as commander of the Alice. (According to evidence, he had a grudge against Mr. Wentworth for punishment dealt out some six weeks before, and was threatening to murder him, a threat Mr. Wentworth took seriously, especially as he discovered some poison hidden away.) Ross and House came across a camp of aborigines and persuaded one of them to guide them to Newcastle. Three days after seizure of the vessel the Revenue Cutter Prince George under Captain Roach went in pursuit. The ketch had been seen passing Newcastle and Roach, proceeding towards Port Stephens, saw a sail at sea and gave chase. The vessel put off a boat and ran into shore itself, the convicts escaping into the bush. The cutter put into a bay and some of the men walked round to the Alice and threw the provisions into the sea to deprive the convicts of them. Roach and six of his men tracked the pirates for four or five miles but then lost the trail. They returned to the Alice and dismasted her, then sailed on the cutter back to Port Stephens, where they alerted the Police Magistrate and joined a party of police in pursuit. Some aborigines were able to point out the location of the escapees, about fifty miles from Port Stephens. Meanwhile the cutter proceeded up the ‘Miaul River’, and the crew took the captured pirates on board for the return trip to Sydney.

Over the next few years we find a number of reports of land sales which refer to Nelson’s Bay. There is also the incident of the Daniel O’Connell, reported ‘high and dry on the beach at Nelson’s Bay’ in 1836. Finally in 1839 we encounter the Sophia Jane on a voyage from Moreton Bay to Sydney, anchoring in Nelson’s Bay for supplies.

Then in January 1840 comes news of another maritime incident and a change in terminology. On 23 December the cutter Water-Witch, putting out from Port Stephens, failed to cross the bar, went broadside to the breakers, and came to grief ‘on the rocks off Nelson Bay.’ Her cargo of maize and cedar was saved; but the possessive ‘s’ and its attendant apostrophe had gone.

Samuel: Australian 16/9/1829, p. 3. Alice: Sydney Herald 2/11/1835, p. 2. Daniel O’Connell: Australian 17/6/1836, p. 3. Sophia Jane: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 23/5/1839, p. 2. Water-Witch: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 4/1/1840, p. 2. ‘Baxter, Alexander Macduff (1798-1836?)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 74-75, and online.

Port Stephens and an island in the Pacific

On 6 May 1770 James Cook in the Endeavour left Sting Ray Harbour, which he subsequently decided to call Botany Bay, and sailed further north along the coast. On 11 May at four in the afternoon he sailed past, at a distance of one mile, ‘a low rocky point’ to which he gave the name Point Stephens. On the north side of this:

… is an inlet which I calld Port Stephens … that appear’d to me from the mast head to be shelterd from all winds, at the entrance lay 3 small Islands two of which are of a tolerable height and on the Main near the shore are some high round hills that make at a distance like Islands, in passing this bay at the distance of 2 or 3 miles from the shore our soundings were from 33 to 27 fathoms from which I conjector’d that there must be a sufficient depth of water for shipping in the Bay.

Twenty-five years later, on 16 December 1795, Commander William Robert Broughton, sailing across the Pacific in the Providence, saw an island on the weather-beam and tacked towards it. At a distance of five or six leagues it appeared to be a low island covered in trees, probably coconuts, perhaps five miles long in a north–south direction.

I named it Carolina Island in compliment to the daughter of Sir P. Stephens of the Admiralty.

The island is now part of Kiribati and has been renamed Millennium Island. Through a shifting of the date line, it was one of the first places to see in the new ‘millennium’ in the year 2000.

Philip Stephens (1723-1809) was Secretary to the Admiralty from 1763 to 1795. He was created a baronet in 1795 and was a Lord of the Admiralty from 1795 to 1806. His daughter, Carolina (or Caroline) Elizabeth Stephens, was born out of wedlock. She married Thomas Jones, 6th Viscount of Ranelagh, an army major, in August 1804, thus becoming Viscountess of Ranelagh. In June 1805 she died giving birth to a baby daughter, who also died. Lord Stephen’s son Thomas Stephens had died in a duel in 1790, and there were no descendants.

Stephens, while Secretary to the Admiralty, somehow acquired one of the three copies of Cook’s journals, the one which Cook sent to the Admiralty while staying in Batavia for repairs. The journal seems to have been passed on to Caroline’s husband Lord Ranelagh, whose son sold it in 1885 (or 1868?). The purchaser, F.W. Cosens, sold it in 1890 to John Corner, an admirer of Cook, and hence it is known as the ‘Corner Journal’. After Corner’s death it was sold by his executors in 1895 to F.H. Dangar, who presented it to the Australian Museum. From there in 1935 it was transferred to the Mitchell Library, now part of the State Library of New South Wales.

Corner was hoping to arrange for publication of the journal but died before he could carry out his plan, and his son completed the task. The Corner Journal was published in 1893, with insertions from the later Admiralty copy where necessary. A distinctive feature of the Corner Journal is that New South Wales is called New Wales, the longer name apparently being a later decision.

In Captain Wharton’s Preface to his edition of the Corner Journal (1893), Sir Philip Stephens is described as ‘a personal friend and appreciator of Cook.’ Cook was also highly esteemed by William Broughton, who in the Preface to his Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean speaks of the ‘persevering researches and unwearying activity of our immortal Cooke.’

South Seas Project, Cook’s Journal, Transcription of National Library of Australia, Manuscript 1, 11/5/1770. Comparison with readings in the other journals is needed. William Robert Broughton, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean … in the Years 1795, 1796, 1797, 1798, London, Cadell and Davies, 1804, pp. 28-29; cf. Andrew David (ed.), William Robert Broughton’s Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific 1795-1798 (Hakluyt Society, 3rd Series, No. 22), London, Ashgate, 2010. Corner Journal, (1) manuscript: James Cook – A Journal of the proceedings of His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour on a voyage round the world, by Lieutenant James Cook, Commander, commencing the 25th of May 1768 – 23 Oct. 1770 (Call No. Safe 1/71), Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW; (2) edition: Captain W.J.L. Wharton, R.N., F.R.S. [Hydrographer of the Admiralty] (ed.), Captain Cook’s Journal during his First Voyage round the World Made in H.M. Bark “Endeavour” 1768-71. A Literal Transcription of the Original Mss. with Notes and Introduction, illustrated by Maps and Facsimiles, London, 1893.

If, at sunrise, you chance to stroll

A number of waterways enter Port Stephens, on the coast of New South Wales above Newcastle. One of these is the Myall River, which winds its way in from the north, flowing today between the suburbs of Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest.

A 1936 article in the Sydney Morning Herald notes three suggested explanations for the name Tea Gardens: (i) fishermen made tea there in their billies on the foreshores; (ii) wicker baskets of tea were brought ashore from a ship that foundered on the ocean beach; and (iii) Lady Parry, wife of Sir Edward Parry, who was associated with the Australian Agricultural Company, suggested that it would be a good place for the company to grow tea. None of these explanations sounds very adequate, though a connection with the Australian Agricultural Company sounds not impossible as they were influential in the area.

The article contrasts the unprepossessing appearance of Tea Gardens, on the north of the harbour, with Nelson Bay on the southern shores, ‘with its mathematically arranged camping sections fringing the bay, its park and pleasant outlook.’ Tea Gardens has a ‘picturesquely untidy’ riverbank against a background of swamp lands and ‘uninviting scrub’. And yet (says the author) Tea Gardens has its own ‘unassuming attractiveness.’ It is significant for its role in timber, trading and fishing. In particular, it serves as a transit point for timber from upstream, the logs then being shipped from wharves or transferred by barge to a sawmill on the Hawk’s Nest side, in a locality known as ‘Windy-wappa’ (a corruption of an aboriginal word).

Among notable pioneers in the area were the Engel family. There was hardly any non-aboriginal there in the 1870s. In 1888 the Engel brothers took up grazing land further upriver, but the venture was unsuccessful owing to the tendency of the area to flood. They then began to supply provisions to people in the area and across to Nelson Bay. This service was still going in the 1930s. For example, the following advertisement appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1932: ‘Tea Gardens, Port Stephens, business centre, G. A. Engel and Sons, Universal Providers, Supply Bread, Meat, Mail, and Papers to all parts.’

One of the islands in the Myall River is Slip Island, so called because of a slipway built there by Henry Engel, who leased the island in 1913 for boat-building. The name Slip Island is used in the 1936 article. Later it was replaced by the name Witts Island. A local historian, the late Rex Hill, agitated to have the old name restored in recognition of its earlier usage and connection with the Engel boat-building enterprise. He did not live to see his proposal come to fruition, but in 2007 the name was officially changed from Witts Island to Slip Island.

An enormous amount of red cedar and other timber was felled and shipped off to various places. According to the 1936 article, the sawmill, built during the Great War, had been in continuous operation since that time, and puts out 1,000 super feet of timber an hour, for total annual purchases of 3 million super feet of logs. In its boom period ‘it produced more timber than any other mill on the North Coast.’ It is difficult to imagine the effect of this on the landscape and ecology of the area.

Despite all this activity, the writer finds specially attractive the scene at daybreak, before the birdlife is frightened away by human encroachment on its domain:

If, at sunrise, you chance to stroll along Tea Gardens’ extensive “promenade,” you will see a heterogeneous group of waterfowl stationed in the shallows between the mangroves of Slip Island and the mainland—black and white shags, drying their wings in the wind; fragile, motionless snow-white cranes, stealthily eyeing the flow about their stick-like legs; and dignified old pelicans, the last to take flight at your approach.

W. Gilmour, ‘Port Stephens. Story of the Tea Gardens’, Sydney Morning Herald 18/4/1936, p. 13. Universal Providers: Sydney Morning Herald 17/12/1932, p. 5. Rex Hill, Slip Island, Tea Gardens, NSW, Rex Hill, 2006. Name change: New South Wales Government Gazette 72, 1 June 2007, pp. 3114, 3115; cf. the Geographical Names Board entry for Slip Island.