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Van Diemen’s Land

International context

England of 1803 was suffering the deprivations of a war with France and up to 10% receiving poor relief and living in a state of almost permanent hunger.


Named in 1642 after the Governor of Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies, by an employee of the Dutch East India Company, explorer Abel Tasman who had landed at Blackman Bay on the Forestier Peninsula.

As a convict settlement the island would eventually absorb over 72,000 felons, 42% of the combined total sent to New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land. Nowhere in the world did convicts and their relatives and descendants make up the majority of the population for such a long period.p.2

Sealers and whalers

Official settlement was preceded by sealers on the Bass Strait Islands, commercial sealing beginning in 1798. Banks had been bitterly disappointed that the settlement at Port Jackson had yielded no commercial benefits. But, peaking in 1804 the trade in seal skins, mostly to China, was paying well but at the cost of 107,591 seals.p. 16 Later wool sales did not reach such levels until 1820. Governor King reported that 180 people were on the islands in 1804, some living permanently with small farms and gardens until seal numbers dwindled. One of the reasons, apart from concern about French ambitions, for the settlement party to Van Diemen’s Land in September 1803 was to try and get a hold on the sealing trade – but with little success. South of Van Diemen’s Land whaling, notably by the Enderby company, had been operating since 1775 with provisioning, especially from the south east of the island, occurring long before official settlement. Sealers and whalers acted as a kind of advance party to official settlement as trade spread to the Kangaroo Island in 1806 as well as islands in Spencer’s Gulf, Port Fairy, Portland, Westernport, Phillip Island and islands off the New Holland west coast, communities sometimes consisting of bands of runaway convicts, the trade networks extending to New Zealand, Mauritius, Pacific Islands, India and Europe.

Official settlement
Official settlement of Van Diemen’s Land came in three waves during 1803–1804.

The first two settlements were on the banks of the Derwent River in the south-east at Risdon Cove and Sullivans Cove (Hobart), and later at Port Dalrymple (Launceston). Much of the island had already been mapped its flora and fauna described and its people documented, the comparative peace and shelter of Adventure Bay and environs being a popular sanctuary of the early maritime explorers. Governor King sent the first party of 49 persons (29 convict-prisoners, 8 soldiers, 7 free settlers, 5 or so civil officers) to establish a military outpost under the charge of John Bowen a 23 year-old officer of the New South Wales Corps in the brig HMS Lady Nelson, settling at Risdon Cove on the eastern shore of the Derwent, a site recommended by Bass and Flinders on their 1798 visit. It has rich pasture and the highest of recommendations often used at this time – a likeness to a gentleman’s park in England. From here grasslands, potential pasture, rich in game (grey kangaroo, Tasmanian emu, Red-necked wallaby) extended northwards for 200 km – as far as the shortly-to-be settled Port Dalrymple.

During a pause in the war with France a party of over 400 men and women selected for their appropriate skills were sent from Britain on HMS Calcutta in 1803 under the command of David Collins. After a three month stay and 18 deaths Collins had clashed with the Aborigines found Port Phillip unsatisfactory for settlement so the party had sailed for Van Diemen’s Land. Some of his convicts had run off but those that survived returned, with the exception of William Buckley who stayed with the Aborigines until Melbourne was settled in 1835. Landing at Sullivan’s Cove in February 1804 in the Derwent just after Bowen’s Risdon settlement, setting up on the western shore. Aboriginals in the area were the Nuenonne of Bruny Island and Mouheneener whose territory included Sullivans Cove.

On each side of the Derwent the new settlements followed their own arrangements, Sullivan’s Cove under the command of Collins and the marines, Risdon Cove under Bowen.

Hunting dogs
Timid game could not be easily shot with the guns of the day and hunting dogs were used, wolfhounds crossed with greyhounds, combining strength and speed. This meat was combined with shellfish and swans. In England hunting was restricted to wealthy freeholders and this tradition continued on the island where officers only and their delegated gamekeepers were allowed to hunt. Already in 1804 Collins prohibited killing swans and cutting timber near the camp was also prohibited.
Horses did not arrive in any numbers until the 1820s.

The name Tasmania was not officially adopted until 1856. Lieutenant governor David Collins who settled on the Derwent in September 1803 had been second in command at Port Jackson until 1796.

Collins had brought two years supply of food from London, mostly flour, sugar and salted meats. However, they had arrived in a benevolent physical environment without the depredations associated with the agriculturally difficult land at Port Jackson which did not provide relief for the settlement until the difficult crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813 and the discovery of arable grasslands beyond. A temperate climate provided regular rainfall and fresh water, the arable grasslands were rich in game and the coast in shellfish and fish. Herbivores wallaby and kangaroo were not used to predators other than the relatively sluggish thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) and were easy prey for hunting dogs, guaranteeing a supply of fresh meat. Swan, seal and emu, even wattle bird and echidna. Sheep were quickly multiplied and by 1810 there was fresh mutton and beef. By 1817 there were more than twice as many as in New South Wales, sufficient numbers for export.1 The mutton bird was now gaining favour. Conditions here were, indeed an improvement on the homeland where recession had resulted in overty.. Any misery here was a consequence of human interaction rather than environmental.

In 1820 mutton was the major meat eaten both salted (salt from Kangaroo Island or in the plains) and fresh and almost unlimited until 1830. Supplements were mostly wheat and potatoes making damper and breads with few dairy foods before 1830. Native potato Gastrodia sessamoides was also eaten.p.114-115 tea and sugar used in huge quantities.p.117

Main settlements still had London clothing but outside animal skins, mostly kangaroo, were warmer and more water resistant.

Horses wwere uncommon until the 1820s and were not generally available in he convict ers. Thongs, kangaroo skin fixed with sinew. By the 1820s wattle and daub with thatch was replaced by log huts with shingles. In 1820Hobart consisted of 15-20 substantial dwellings and another 250 simple huts and houses.p.124.

Absolute private property rights so pivotal in the relationship to land in Britain in the early 19th century smallholders, labourers and farm servants were still reliant on common land and communal rights to grazing and the gathering of food and fuel. They had come to the land and exiles with pre-industrial assumptions.p.6. In Van Diemen’s land for the first 20 years game was hunted and sheep grazed on the grasslands minded by stockmen on land that was unowned under British law.p.7 It was only with the arrival of free settlers in the 1820s that modern private property claims were made along with the eviction of both blacks and whites as land titles were taken up in a free-settler land grab.

Settlers in the new colony waited in vain for supply ships and additional convicts from London. Collins faithfully sent letters pleading for clothing and supplies until his death in 1810, seemingly completely ignored by the Colonial Office as were the plants, animals and letters to Banks. War with France had resumed in 1804 and Van Diemen’s Land really the administrative responsibility of New South Wales. Only one more convict ship and a few free settlers were to arrive before 1816.

By late 1804 conflict had broken out with the Aboriginals of Oyster Bay. In June 1804 the community on the western side of the Derwent numbered 433. In spite of there being a legally assigned ration it was so poor in nutrient that scurvy had not been totally eliminated and in September Collins ordered the government purchase of kangaroo meat laying the foundations of a kangaroo economy in which dog ownership was restricted and convict hunters had to be gamekeepers assigned to freeholders, essentially the officers. At Port Dalrymple supplies were not forthcoming from NSW and Paterson had to purchase fresh meat. Kangaroo skins were replacing imported cloth clothes. In 1805 the monopoly on dog ownership ceased. This meant convicts could survive adequately in the bush and grasslands throughout the year and in the absence of a prison until 1820, convicts simply tool refuge away from the settlements. Convicts who made up almost all the population, were given the status of “servants” or workers, prisoners being essentially second offenders. During 1806 kangaroo began to run out (more than 100 roos had been taken a week to keep the southern settlement going). In late 1805 Norfolk Island had been evacuated to Van Diemens Land and this doubled the demand. In june 1806 there were 475 people in the south (pasture animals provided little. At this time there were 96 cows, 127 ewes and one breeding sow allacting as breeding stock). Food had to be hunted further afield in bushman territory and there was occasional trad with whalers. When a supply ship arrived in November 1807 the need for kangaroo lapsed and an amnesty was offered for bush rangers to return. In the north armed bushman were also a threat but in the meantime in 1806 Aboriginals had started to resist white access to the hunting grounds remote from the settlements. Convicts were given guns and complete freedom outside the settlents on he condition they return with meat for the 1000 or sotatal residents.

At the end of 1804 a small contingent from Port Jackson led by William Paterson, senior officer of the New South Wales Corps, landed at Port Dalrymple in the north of the island on 5 November, like Collins sending potentially commercially interesting items like samples of iron and copper ores as well as reports on good timber, a starchy potato-like root (Gastrodia sesamoides) and animal specimens. Setting up initially at a site near present-day George Town he moved to York Town in 1805 and then, in 1806, nearer to present-day Launceston where there were excellent kangaroo hunting grounds in the area around the North and south Esk Rivers. Pp. 41-43 Whalers would visit the southern settlements

A hike through the 200 km of fine game-rich grassland hunting grounds between the south and north settlements took about 10 days. Between 1808 and 1810 this land was overtaken by the kangaroo hunters and any concern about food evaporated as the price of kangaroo dropped from 1s 6d lb to 4d a lb. Relatively peaceful coexistence was maintained with the Aboriginals whose resistance was greatest from 1807–1808; they acquired the hunting dogs, sometimes traded for land rights pp.65-66. Release of pasture allowed Australia’s first pastoral industry to develop and thrive as between 1808 and 1820 stock numbers rocketed in an industry that preceded that in New South Wales by a decade. A muster in Derwent in May 1809 showed 489 cattle and 1091 sheep which increased to 3,894 cattle and 24,691 sheep in 1813 so it was no longer necessary for the government to buy kangaroo meat. Cattle numbers increased to 11,000 in 1817 and by 1820 sheep had increased to 182,000, more than double that of New South Wales. P.68. Cattle were Bengal-cross and along with the sheep they wandered without fencing as there was little threat from predators and this fitted Aboriginal land management and the old farm common management method. Meat as live stock was exported to NSW, whalers and elsewhere.p.69

In 1817 the pastoral industry amounted to 39.8% GDP in VDL and 22.1% in NSW. Loss by sheep and cattle stealers was reduced by offering a worker one third of the natural increase of the flock or herd he managed. This gave the worker economic independence and social freedom in return for free labour and guaranteed returns for the stock owner. Workers would do deals with the bushrangers and Aboriginals who would otherwise steal the stock. Kangaroo skins could be sold for tea, sugar, flour, tobacco and rum.

However, by 1819 the centre of this no-man’s land, York Plains was producing disputes about grazing rights.

Bushrangers were always a problem but this reached an extreme in 1813 when the possibility of defection to their ranks raised the possibility of government effectively passing to them, mostly in the form of Michael Howe who controlled access to the most valuable resources of the colony with a gang of around 100 men. Eventually under Sorell terms of surrender were organised with individual bushrangers and “tickets of occupation” for grazing lands were prepared for a small annual fee and erection of a stockyard giving the government power to refuse renewal. By 181 rebellion was quelled, but theft continued and it would be many years before these grasslands were fully controlled.

In the 1818 census Aboriginals were estimated at 7000 (possibly and underestimate) and the white population 3240 p.99
“Lucifer” matches were not invented until 1835, flint and imported tinder were the mens used to start fire. Controlled burns were used for hunting and farming on he grasslands.p.103

By 1810 convicts with 7-year sentences were free. Before 1820 former onvicts wer permitted land grants and were free to do as they pleased rovide they remained on he island. Norfolk Islanders were given small land grants. The only convict ship before 1816 was the Idefatigable in 1812 carrying 149 male prisoners. In 1817 serving convicts made up about 18% of the population.105 but from 1818 to the 1850s it never fell below 30%.

The population increased slowly 1810—1320, 1815-1933.

By 1810 Port Dalrymple had ample supplies of wheat which was the main cash crop and in 1815 25,000 bushels (bushel =c.27 kg) were sent to the drought-stricken Port Jackson.p.106 Agricutural improvements in the homeland were not being followed in VDL and land remained open with fire and trampling of crops by stock always a hazard. Livings were earned by supplying the government store but monopolies were developing and with good supplies prices would fall, farmers using land and stock as credit to obtain goods with large merchant farmers taking over the small runs. Most farmers were attempting to be self-sufficient but for any extra income they were dependent on the bush as were the hunters and shepherds.

Other trade
By 1823 there was a shipping trade in kangaroo skins, wattle bark (used for tanning), possum fir, animal skins including swans (especially that of seals), whale bone and whale oil, huon pine, “cedar”.p.109 Home industries of brewing, tanning, baking, milking, inn-keeping etc were also established and raw materials used included shells, charcoal, meat, cerealsbrick earth, stone and bark. Before 1820s resources could be taken from the land and traded with no financial investment.p.110 This was an economy of agriculture, pastoralism and small trade all based on resources obtained from the land and bush.


John Bowen –  9-1803 – 2-1804
David Collins – 2-1804 – 3-1810
Edward Lord – 3-1810 – 7-1810
John Murray – 7-1810 – 2-1812
Andrew Geils – 2-1812 – 2-1813
Thomas Davey – 2-1813 – 4-1817
William Sorell – 4-1817 – 5-1824

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