Digression on the English Settlement of Port Jackson[1]

José Espinosa y Tello

trans. Robert J. King

         The English settlement of Port Jackson was founded in 1788 with the object of banishing to it outlaw criminals and other serious offenders, and such a remote spot was chosen, say the English, because of no suitable situation for a settlement of this kind having been found on the coast of Africa. 

         At the beginning the settlement consisted of 780 convicts or outlaws, and of some troops and other individuals amounting in total to 1,030 persons; but at the time of the visit of the corvettes the total of inhabitants was estimated to be 7800, including the troops and their dependents. All individuals enjoy a daily ration, provided weekly by the Government, and the troops and officials receive as well a certain portion of grog according to circumstances; and those who by their industry gain their own livelihood without recourse to the ration, take 38 shillings per month. Annually up to 2,500,000 rations are consumed, the cost of which is valued at 450,000 pesos, which quantity, united with that of the salaries that the Government pays, results in a total expense of 466,000 pesos per year for that relating solely to New Holland. 

         The quality of the ground in the neighbourhood of Sydney Cove, and generally all the low ground, is sandy and little susceptible to cultivation; it is observed that several plants produce an acrid, piquant and bitter resin resulting, it is said, from all the salt in the soil. To this defect is attributed the early rotting experienced by the insides of the trees, especially the thickest, whose heart is found to have become mould before the tree has reached its natural size. This class of trees, the only kind suitable for masts, looks like the dragons of the kingdom of Mexico: the rest are either too small or have many knots; and that called the red tree, although big and straight, is knotty, heavy, difficult to work, and its grain forms a spine towards the centre. 

         In the neighbourhood of Toongabbie and the flats of the Parramatta River maize, beans &ca. are cultivated with success, and even wheat but this, though large and fine-looking, has concrete or smut in the ear, and besides is small in quantity. In the opinion of Don Tadeo Haenke (the expedition’s naturalist), who visited those parts, it is probable that similar defects in the plants and trees are much less in the neighbourhood of the mountains. The chain or range of these is medium as regards its elevation, which diminishes further toward the South West, being its direction from the North East along this line. It appears covered in all parts with  a thick wood; and although several English officers have made several attempts to reach them, they have not been able to achieve this because of the difficulty of being able to subsist for a long time without bringing provisions, the intensity of the cold at night, the heat during the day, and above all because of the inaccessible crags with which they have been confronted before nearing the foothills. 

Up to now no other mineral has been met with but iron, although some believe that to the East of a mountain they call Prospect Hill are found ores of silver. Animals, whether winged or quadruped, are scarce, and the kangaroo, the only animal useful as food, is not plentiful: waterfowl are also scarce, and there is only one kind of duck that can be called palatable; the land birds, though having beautiful plumage, are so scarce that it was barely possible to gather specimens for our natural history collection; and as to fish, we have been assured their number is not enough to supply the daily necessities of the colony. The Government, and even individuals, have been vigorous to procure livestock, preferably the larger horned cattle; but their number is at present inconsiderable, and according to appearances cannot answer for many years to the requirements of the Colony.[2] According to what Captain Bampton told us, the livestock of Bengal is very delicate and is subject to various ills, especially at sea; so that it was certain that they would all be lost in a few days if they were embarked at the departure, and only by putting them on board two or three months before, maintaining them with rice and giving them plenty of water, could any be preserved; even though in spite of these and other precautions, the greater part were commonly lost, and the prices consequently increased in proportion: the Captain sold a consignment he brought at the following prices: One horse, 120 pesos. Five cows 350. Thirty-two ewes 270. Forty goats 200. Seventy hogs 420. Eighty geese 240. Thirty ducks 120. Although there has been an attempt to bring livestock from the Cape of Good Hope, the cost is much greater than that from Bengal, both because their original prices are greater and because it is necessary to charge for the entire costs of the ship, and the livestock that can be carried are relatively very few.  

         For the development of agriculture the Government has conceded to both the civil and military officers the proprietorship of set portions of land, which they cultivate and may sell on their return to England, and has assigned to each one several convicts for this benefit, who must have three free hours per day for their personal advancement in addition to the customary ones for sleep and rest. There are 240 free colonists, who possess and cultivate a portion of ground sufficient to occupy and maintain them in abundance if the soil responds to their toil; the greater part are composed of Marines and miserable Germans who came to improve their fortunes. Every convict who has completed the term of his sentence is deserving of the ownership of a certain number of acres[3] of land if his conduct does not deprive him of these rights, and if he is married the concession is extended by a third.        

         The climate of this colony, according to what we observed, is variable in the greatest degree and the dews experienced are equal in quantity to common showers. Dr. White, the Surgeon-General of the settlement, assured us that if one is exposed to these dews frequently they produce putrid fevers, rheumatism and violent dysenteries. 

The inhabitants of the country are, according to the information gathered, very small in number, and more inclined to obtain their living by fishing than the chase; and the English attribute to the scarcity of food the absolute lack of strength which they have noted for even the mildest labour. Their bodily frame is odd and of small proportions, principally in their inferior size: their character is treacherous; and in spite of the measures taken for their civilization, they progress little in this regard, and many of them, fed and looked after with the greatest care in the town, have suddenly abandoned it, preferring their primitive wandering life to the benefits of social life.  

We would like to be able to give an idea of the Civil Code formulated for this colony, in which there may be noted judiciously combined the rights of the English citizen with the nature of the settlement; but we must not omit to say that these measures have been so appropriate that we admired the footing of policing and subordination in which it was found, there being a very small number of crimes and punishments in respect with what might be expected in a settlement of this kind. We would add, however, as a circumstance that has to be presumed, that there has been another object beyond that supposed for the foundation of the colony, for in the patent conceded to the Governor and Captain-General of New South Wales the limits assigned to his authority extend over all the area comprehended between latitude 43º49’ and 10º37’ South and from the meridian of 135º E. of Greenwich, comprehending in the same direction eastward all the islands of the Pacific which are found between the latitudes mentioned. Here are the exact words in which they are explained by Captain Tench: “In the Governor’s commission the extent of this authority is defined to reach from the latitude of 43º49’ south, to the latitude of 10º37’ south, being the northern and southern extremities of the continent of New Holland. It commences again at 135th degree of longitude east of Greenwich, and proceeding in an easterly direction, includes all islands within the limits of the above specified latitudes in the Pacific ocean. By this partition it may be fairly presumed, that every source of future litigation the Dutch and us will be for ever cut off, as the discoveries of English navigators alone are comprised in this territory.”[4]  

The colony of Norfolk, settled shortly after that at Port Jackson, merits little attention both because of the small size of that island and because of the hilly nature of its terrain, and the particular circumstance of its lacking entirely an anchorage or a place where longboats can be drawn up with any security. Despite this, there some 1,500 persons live there, and its fertile soil produces copiously all kinds of grains, although the difficulty of clearing the ground covered with trees and undergrowth retards the large harvests which the fertility of the land would yield without that obstacle. The pines are of a prodigious height, straight, thick and of the finest grain, and several have been felled of above 7 feet in diameter at the foot, six at 17 and five at 37 yards, having 147 feet of height in total and 120 to the first branches. The flax brought there from New Zealand bears a good aspect, but no great hopes are rested on its cultivation, and it seems that the second trials of this plant made in London have not achieved the happy outcome of the first. 

Such was the state in which these colonies were to be found at the time we visited them: afterwards some notes which covered up to 1803 were published by Lieutenant-Colonel Collins[5]; and from them it appears that the population had by that time climbed to 7,097 persons, of whom 2,904 were  receiving rations from the public stores, and the rest maintained themselves; that there were in cultivation 5,324 acres of wheat, and 3864 of maize belonging to the Government and to individuals: and that the livestock had increased to the following numbers:

                                        Livestock              Idem to
                                                                  belonging to       

                                                                 the Government    individuals


Livestock cattle……. 1723          573 head
            Idem Horse ………...    39         305
            Idem sheep and goats 1051      10481
            Idem hogs ………….                6278

Wild livestock are more than 1,000 head 

As well, it is said that a school for orphans has been set up; that all possible measures have been taken for encouraging the production of cotton, from which already some shawls have been manufactured; that Lieutenant King has opened a communication with the islands of Otaheiti to supply the colony with pork; and finally, that in the vicinity of the Hunter River an abundance of coal of excellent quality has been found, and much timber suitable for ships’ masts.


1.          Josef Espinosa y Tello, Memorias sobre las Obervaciones Astronomicas, hechas por los Navegantes Españoles en Distintos Lugares del Globo, Madrid, Imprenta Real, 1809, Tomo II, tercera memoria, pp.69-75.

2.          There existed in Parramatta at the time of our visit 15 cows, 3 bulls, 3 bullocks, 3 heifers, 87 ewes and rams, 2 buffaloes, 2 mares and one stallion; all of which comprised what was called the Common Stock or public property. Major Grose on his own property had another 4 or 5 cows and a bull. To each settler had been distributed a goat, and if he was married a ewe as well, and these inferior classes of livestock were already producing a moderate increase. As well as a very good abundance of pigs and chickens.

3.          This measurement contains 4840 square varas of land.

4.          A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay &c. by Capt. Watkin Tench, London, 1789, p.67.

5.          An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales &c. London, 1804.


Updated: December 23, 2005