Friday, 3 May 2013

3rd May, 1804


Risdon Cove was the first English settlement in Tasmania, established in Sept 1803 by Lieutenant John Bowen, RN. In Feb 1804, David Collins relocated his own settlement from Port Phillip. He chose to settle nearly eight kms down the Derwent from Bowen, and on the western shore, at Sullivan’s Cove. Collins, the Lieutenant Governor, was the senior officer and from June 1804 onwards, he progressively closed down Bowen's settlement.

But Risdon Cove was not just the first settlement. It possesses the more dubious distinction of being the site of the first conflict between the Tasmanian Aborigines and the newly arrived English. It is a place that is important in understanding the early development of Australia, especially of Tasmania.

The broad outline of what happened is well known to historians. On the 3rd May 1804, a large number of Aborigines, variously estimated to number three hundred, or as many as five or six hundred, appeared unexpectedly on the fringe of the little settlement, itself numbering perhaps eighty. By chance, this occurred when Bowen was absent, leaving in charge Lieutenant William Moore, commander of the local detachment of the NSW Corps. By the actions of taking a killed kangaroo from one of the settlement's hunters, and reportedly threatening and perhaps using violence against the farmer William Birt and his wife, the Aborigines alarmed Moore. He sent two soldiers to assist Birt, and those soldiers killed two Aborigines. In order to disperse the Aborigines, Moore ordered a carronade to be fired, whereupon the Aborigines retreated up a valley, leaving a two-year-old boy behind.

Lieutenant Moore must have had grounds for concern. Hundreds of Aborigines had just arrived at his camp and probably more were still emerging from the timber. Some were evidently upset by the presence and actions of the settlers. He could not ignore them, as, for all he knew, their displeasure may have spread and escalated rapidly and he and his dozen or so soldiers would not be able to protect the settlement from an angry mob of such size but up to that moment there had been no widespread aggression. He had to find a way to assert control in a situation full of uncertainties. According to the report he prepared for Collins, his actions were three-fold.

He wrote:
“I went towards them with five Soldiers, their appearance and numbers I thought very far from friendly. During this time I was informed that a party of them was beating Birt, the Settler, at his farm. I then dispatched Two Soldiers to his assistance. But by this time, a great party was in Camp, and on a proposal from Mr Mountgarrett to fire one of the Carronades to intimidate them, they dispersed.” The key figure in the events was Moore. He had authorized his soldiers to fire, thereby making himself responsible for killing and injuring the Aborigines.

Other reports from contemporaries emerged over the years. Of these, the most important are in the 1831 report “Military Operations against the Aborigines of Van Diemen's Land”, notably the evidence given by Edward White who had been a convict at Risdon Cove. White had been transported to Sydney in 1802 and after sixteen months there had been sent on to Risdon Cove. White was apparently the first to see the approaching Aborigines. He pointed them out to two nearby soldiers who in turn seem to have alerted Moore. In his evidence White said the Aborigines descended upon the settlement between Whites Creek and the soldiers' encampment, perhaps even spilling over towards Bowen's hut. They came out of the timber and were immediately within the English camp. They were apparently heading for the low-lying land alongside Risdon Brook, as White observed that 'they were hunting and came down into a bottom'.

As the Aborigines appear to have been undertaking a seasonal migration, they were most unlikely to have had any prior knowledge of the English or of their settlement. White had mentioned that there were 'a great many of the Natives slaughtered and wounded' but just how many he did not know. The actual numbers of Aboriginals killed and wounded on that day has become a matter for conjecture. Significantly, there is no mention of injured Aborigines being left behind after the shootings. A young child who was left behind is mentioned several times in the records, but there are no reports of severely wounded Aborigines being taken into the settlement for attention.

What actually happened on that day and how many Aboriginals were killed by Moore, his soldiers and the settlers we will never know and it has become a matter of conjecture for historians across the years to sort through the very small amount of evidence available from the time. However, what cannot be disputed is the fact that this incident was the first between the settlers and the indigenous population in Tasmania and ultimately led to the so called “Black War” where the indigenous inhabitants were systematically driven out of their traditional lands and bought to the edge of extinction in Tasmania. The start of a truly regrettable period in Tasmania’s colonial history! As an act of reconciliation by the Tasmanian Government, the Risdon Cove area was returned to indigenous ownership in 1995.

To find more detail and information on this unfortunate incident, check out the following books. The links for the books are in my list of favorite books on the right hand side of the blog.

“Risdon Cove – 3rd May 1804” – John Owen
“Tasmanian Aborigines” – Lyndall Ryan
Both fantastic books!

6 comments:

  1. The committee Edward White appeared before was in 1830. One of the most interesting pieces of information coming to light very soon, is that there exists no record of White being in VDL in either 1803 or 1804. Change is on the way for this part of Tasmania's history.

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    Replies
    1. Is his evidence available on line or do you know where I could get a copy.

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    2. Hi,
      No I havent seen the new evidence as yet or where it can be accessed from. I, too, am interested to see what the new evidence is.
      Cheers

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  2. Wow, a very interesting development indeed! Thanks for sharing. We'll wait to see the new information.

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  3. Here's an update for you from a paper written by Prof. Michael Asten (Monash Uni) - (Find the complete paper in Volume 18, Tasmanian Historical Studies) You can also find a lot of new information (including the Risdon skeleton, first convict deaths and burials) at my site, Risdon Cove 1803 to1804, on facebook.

    'The key eye-witness providing evidence for ‘a great many of the
    Natives slaughtered and wounded’ was convict Edward White. Authors
    such as Tardif and Ryan give his evidence a high profile in their respective
    analyses of events, as do recent popular accounts. It is necessary to review
    this important evidence further, as its credibility plays a major role in defining
    the number killed, and hence the nature of the reconciliation process to be
    built around the history of this site'.

    'Tardif includes Edward White on his list of residents of Risdon Cove
    and Hobart 1803-4, and he lists him as being assigned to stone-mason freesettler Richard Clark. White is missing from all convict records of 1803-04
    and there is no record of Clark being assigned a servant. White’s evidence
    to the 1830 Committee for the Affairs of the Aboriginals claims he was at
    Risdon Cove 27 years earlier. However, independent compilations by the
    Hobart Town (1804) First Settlers Association and by the Founders and
    Survivors project do not show him as present. The key eye-witness providing evidence for ‘a great many of the Natives slaughtered and wounded’ was convict Edward White'.

    'Authors such as Tardif and Ryan give his evidence a high profile in their respective analyses of events, as do recent popular accounts. It is necessary to review this important evidence further, as its credibility plays a major role in defining the number killed, and hence the nature of the reconciliation process to be built around the history of this site'.

    'Tardif includes Edward White on his list of residents of Risdon Cove
    and Hobart 1803-4, and he lists him as being assigned to stone-mason freesettler Richard Clark. White is missing from all convict records of 1803-04
    and there is no record of Clark being assigned a servant. White’s evidence
    to the 1830 Committee for the Affairs of the Aboriginals claims he was at
    Risdon Cove 27 years earlier. However, independent compilations by the
    Hobart Town (1804) First Settlers Association and by the Founders and
    Survivors project do not show him as present'.

    'A list of convicts transferred from Risdon Cove to Hobart is given in a letter from Lieutenant-Governor Collins to (NSW) Governor King dated 1 September 1804 (a month after abandonment of the Risdon Cove settlement).It contains twelve names but does not include Edward White'.

    'Irene Schaffer has compiled a series of lists of soldiers, settlers and convicts
    in Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1822, which likewise provide no evidence for
    White being in the colony in 1803-4. White does not appear in the list of
    convicts victualled from October 1803 to December 1804. Richard Clark
    (Superintendent), listed by Tardif as White’s employer, does appear in that
    list, which contains the note ‘victualling commenced 2 June 1804’, that is,
    after the Risdon Cove Aboriginal deaths'.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow. Thank you so much for all this information, Very interesting indeed.

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