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 was 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.

According to some sources, on the 3rd May 1804 a number of Aborigines, appeared unexpectedly on the fringe of the little settlement. 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. A group 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 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 various historians across the years to sort through the amount of evidence available from the time. There appears to be many inconsistencies in the evidence and as a consequence, there are many differing versions as to what actually happened.

For more detail, information and views on this unfortunate incident, you can check out the following books.

“Risdon Cove – 3rd May 1804” – John Owen
“Tasmanian Aborigines” – Lyndall Ryan
"White Lies - Scott Seymour
Fantastic books!

I recently received an email from someone who wished to express an alternative view. They have asked that I publish their email as written on the condition I dont reveal their names. I, too, have heard of a similar version so in the interest of both versions of events, I include the text of this email below. I recommend that you, the visitor to this page, do your own research and develop your own views as there are so many unanswered questions about this incident so it's worth checking out as much information as you can find. 

“Let me say I served 13.5 years in the Army.  I was qualified as an "Expert Marksman" for both rifle and pistol.  I have been shooting since I was a boy, up until 2001.  More than three decades of shooting experience.  I even made my own ammunition and studied ballistics, during that time.
OK, so let us consider the 3 May 1804 incident from the perspective of a soldier.  Lieutenant William Moore was a very young man, in his early twenties.  Thus, we could conclude he was not very experienced, in life nor military service.  Without any proof, we could easily guess the fifteen soldiers, he commanded, were various ages, various levels of military and weapons training, various levels of discipline, various levels of soldierly experience, various levels of marksmanship ability, various abilities to remain calm in crisis.  No different from soldiers in armies around the world.
Next consider a modern Remington bolt-action .30-06 rifle, versus the typical Brown Bess musket used by anyone of the 15 soldiers.
A modern rifle has an adjustable sight at the rear of the rifle and a front sight.  The modern bolt-action rifle the brass cartridge and bullet can be loaded into the chamber to be fairly reliably discharged.  The modern rifle uses an aerodynamically shaped bullet of a specific weight giving a specific trajectory over a specified distance, that would be reasonably repeatable, the bullet travels down a spirally-fluted barrel (lands and grooves) that causes the bullet to spin to give it stability over a great distance, the gunpowder used is specially formulated and exact weight or amount grains would be contained within each brass cartridge.  It takes about 4 seconds to load and shoot a modern bolt-action rifle.  All of this would make the modern rifle very accurate over a very long distance, maybe 600 yards.  The modern rifle weighs not much more than 3.3kg.
The muskets used by the soldiers posted to Risdon Cove, under young Lieutenant William Moore shared none of the features I have described for a modern rifle, thus not very accurate, certainly not out to 600 yards, and were heavier at 4.8kg and took 20 seconds to load and fire.
The musket was not easy to handle nor carry very far, especially running in uneven, hilly forested terrain, especially with its very long barrel.
Considering all that aforementioned information . . . from about 11:00 to 2:00 p.m. when the carronade was heard at Sullivans cove, assume a three hour long battle, between 300 to 600 Aborigines and fifteen soldiers.  I am guessing based upon the inaccuracy of the musket, two to four shots would have to be fired to hit a target to wound or possibly kill, if lucky.  
Let's consider the mathematics of this.  Fifteen soldiers, shooting every twenty seconds for three hours.  How many musket balls would that be?  Well that would be 10,800 seconds.  Divide that by 20 seconds (reloading and firing time for a musket).  That would equal 540 discharges per soldier.  Multiply that number by 15 soldiers.  That would be 8,100 musket balls all over the Risdon Cove area, embedded in trees, laying in and on the ground to be found today.  Where is any archaeological evidence supporting this?  There is none!
In fact, and in truth, there is no evidence of ten, twenty-five, fifty, one hundred, Aborigines being killed.  The only information that can be found is three, Aboriginals, which hardly constitutes a (gasp) "massacre".
The only testimony revisionists rely upon is from Edward White, who claims he witnessed the events, yet there are absolutely no records of him being sent to Tasmania, as a convict.  Tasmanian convict records are readily available and verifiable.
The very basis of handing back Tasmania's first settlement is based upon a lie that revisionists base their PhDs and scholarly writings upon, mostly referring to each other, without actually doing any real research or independent thinking.
Where is the evidence of a massacre, 3 May 1804?”

(Name Supplied – Anonymity Requested)

I will leave the end result of what did or did not happen on that day for you, the reader, to investigate and research for yourself. 
Updated 16/9/17