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Misunderstanding between the Settlers and Natives—Unfortunate occurrences—Death of Dr. Wood—Malay Proas visit the Settlement—Extracts from the Medical Report of Dr. Davis—Observations on Melville Island and Raffles Bay, by Captain Laws, R.N.—Proofs of the healthiness of the Climate.

By the preceding accounts, it appears that hostilities soon commenced. There can be no doubt that the natives, by exercising their pilfering habits, were the aggressors. The whale boat was stolen[1] and broken in pieces for the sake of the iron; and, whenever the Aborigines appeared afterwards, the sentries fired at them without ceremony. This was not the best way to gain their confidence, or to teach them better manners; and that they were capable of being taught, was very evident from the conduct of Wellington in the affair of the Lieutenant's handkerchief. It appears also that they soon became on intimate terms with the sailors,—assisting them in their various occupations,—until, unfortunately, "after having seen and tried its use," one of the natives ran away with an axe. Who, knowing their habits, could be surprised at such an action?

A few days afterwards, Wellington came to the camp, when he was given to understand that the stolen axe must be returned, which was undoubtedly very proper; but, "est modus in rebus," there might have been a milder and more persuasive method of communicating the demand than by holding an axe in one hand, and catching the Chief by the back of the neck with the other. It is not to be wondered at, that Wellington, being thus treated, should have expressed his indignation rather indecorously.

After these occurrences, it is somewhat astonishing that the seaman missed the same evening from H.M.S. Success, was not massacred by the natives in revenge for the insult offered to their Chief, instead of being accompanied by them in safety to the camp.

When the Success quitted the new settlement, Captain Stirling left a party of marines, to add to its security. The natives still continued to commit acts of theft; and it was reported that they attacked men in the woods, without, however, doing them any visible injury. They were very cautious in approaching the settlement,—and well they might,—as they were fired at without distinction. A tribe of them appeared in its vicinity, and were saluted with an eighteen-pounder, loaded with grape-shot; but, owing to the inaccuracy of the gunner, none of them were killed. This occurrence had the effect of preventing their re-appearance for a long time.

A few months afterwards, a soldier of the thirty-ninth was speared at a very short distance from the camp. The wound was dangerous, and the man's life was despaired of He, however, ultimately recovered[2].

This act of cruelty very justly demanded the serious notice of the Commandant, and it was determined that a severe example should be made of the culprits.

A party of the military (and, I believe, also of the prisoners) were dispatched in search of the natives. They came unexpectedly on their camp at Bowen's Straits, and instantly fired at them, killing some, and wounding many more. A woman, and two children, were amongst the slain; another of her children, a female, about six or eight years old[3], was taken, and brought to the camp, and placed under the care of a soldier's wife. After this, the natives kept aloof from the settlement; and it was as well that they did so, as almost all the soldiers were, more or less, affected with scurvy, which prevailed here in as great vigour as it did at Melville Island.

In the midst of the sickness, the settlement was deprived of medical aid for several months,—the surgeon. Dr. Wood, having died three months after his arrival. Thus harassed with disease, and in a state of perpetual alarm, on account of the natives, it need not appear strange, that the accounts, written at this time by the sojourners, were in a tone of gloomy despondency.

On March 28th, several Malay proas being observed passing the bay. Captain Smyth dispatched Mr. Macleod, the storekeeper, to invite them into port, and he was successful in his embassy. A few of them visited the settlement, when the Commandant offered them protection, and assistance in curing their cargo: they were much gratified thereby, and expressed their satisfaction at being, for the future, as they hoped, under British protection. They spoke of the Dutch as acting in a manner most oppressive and unjust towards them. They were also delighted at the prospect of being protected from the natives, who wage war with them, and steal their canoes whenever they can find an opportunity.

Captain Smyth was succeeded in the command by Lieutenant Sleeman, of the same regiment, on the 24th of April, 1828, and, at the same time, Dr. Davis, the assistant-surgeon, arrived, to take the medical charge.

The Doctor having heard very doleful accounts of the settlement, and being called instantly, on his arrival, to visit a person dangerously ill, and having observed the woeful countenances of the settlers, he became convinced of the truth of the sad relations he had previously been made acquainted with, respecting the unhealthiness of the climate.

He was quite convinced that affairs were even worse than they had been represented, as he saw "visceral disease" strongly depicted on every countenance; and, under these impressions, he made a corresponding report to head-quarters very shortly after his arrival.

However, being gifted with sound sense, and much discrimination, it was not long before experience taught him that he had too hastily (and without sufficient reason) coincided in the generally-received opinion regarding the climate, which he was not ashamed publicly to avow.

He observes:—

"My opinion of this climate has undergone a great change, and it is now different from what I was induced to form from the received intelligence of last year. There is no 'endemic' disease here. The climate of this place surpasses every other as far as I know, which are equally as near the equator; and were it not for the great height of atmospheric temperature, I should consider this climate one of the best in the world."

In another report, he says:—

"This climate has been represented as unfavourable to European constitutions. I am authorized to declare, after a residence of fifteen months, that it is by no means so bad as was imagined. The prevalence of sickness which took place after the formation of the settlement, can be accounted for as arising from more satisfactory causes than that of climate. The people were unavoidably harassed in clearing ground, felling timber, and building huts, at the same time that the salt provisions, with which they were supplied, proved to be of a very inferior quality, and hardly fit for use: these, with annoyances from the natives, and the gloom and despondency which the death of the surgeon excited, quickly operated in producing scurvy, which was the principal disease amongst the men. A liberal supply of medical comforts, and a superior description of food, have been provided for their use; and, as disease now seldom occurs in any serious form at this settlement, it may be fairly stated, that the climate, instead of being unhealthy, is less so than any other place equally near to the equator.

"I was, on my arrival, inclined to consider, that the proximity of the settlement to the Lagoons, with an extensive mud bank in front, (which is occasionally exposed to the influence of the sun,) would tend to make febrile diseases very prevalent, and otherwise operate to the injury of our health; but my conjectures have not been verified. Nothing in the form of epidemic, or contagious disease, has been observed, and the greater proportion of the diseases which have occurred, are to be attributed to the want of a due quantity of vegetable food.

"From the experience of the past year, and from the measures adopted by our present Commandant, Captain Barker, of the thirty-ninth regiment, the settlement will be prepared to meet the effects of the ensuing season. A good supply of vegetables from the Government garden has been afforded to all for the last six months, and encouragement has been given to the people to make gardens, and cultivate vegetables, for themselves.

"From the high temperature of the climate, 81½, an almost constant flow of perspiration is induced; and the people, although generally complaining of not possessing as much bodily strength as heretofore, look more healthy than could at first be imagined. The health of some men, delicate on arrival here, has much improved: this has been particularly noticed among the prisoners of the Crown.

"The rainy season commenced in October, and continued, without intermission, till the end of May. The wettest month has been February, and a greater quantity of rain fell in that month than in the preceding six months together.

"It was during the rainy season, the preceding year, that the settlement was visited with the most sickness; and we naturally looked for its approach with no small share of concern. But the troops possessed better health through that season than at any former part of the year.

"The present season is very healthy; the atmosphere is agreeably warm during the day, and cold in the night, and early part of the morning. The troops occupy themselves in active exercise, and very little illness is to be observed among them. No deaths occurred within the year.

"The temperature of the climate is not liable to quick transitions; and although, in the summer months, the atmosphere is very hot, and at times oppressive, few cases of fever, or other acute disease, at that period prevail, even among those men who are obliged to be much exposed to the sun's influence[4]."

In further corroboration of this opinion regarding the healthiness of the climate, I shall here introduce the observations of that experienced officer Captain Laws, which also afford much other valuable information concerning the settlements on the north coast of New Holland.

"I found both the settlements at Raffles Bay and Melville Island amply supplied with fresh provisions, and perfectly healthy. At the former there were three in hospital, one soldier and two convicts; at the latter, they had not had a man on the sick list for two months before, or during our stay; and neither establishment had had an instance of death since the present officers arrived, which was in April last (1828).

"At Raffles Bay there have been only three deaths since the formation of the settlement, the first of which was the surgeon. This circumstance left them without medical assistance for nearly seven "months, during which period the other two died, an infant and a convict (disease not known).

"At Melville Island I could not learn the number of deaths, there being no records on the island. At different times four or five had been killed by the natives, in consequence of coercive measures adopted towards them; since which they have quite estranged themselves from both settlements.

"Since the formation of these settlements, they have been under the immediate military government of an officer of one of the regiments at Sydney, 'whose turn it was for detached duty,' without reference to his habits, interest, or inclination; indeed, so far from the latter, that a Commandant at Melville Island told me that he hesitated whether he would not give up the army rather than go to that station; and since his arrival he has never been half a mile from the house he occupies; the consequence is, that what they have seen has been with jaundiced eyes, and their representations made accordingly, describing the climate to be such as to preclude the possibility of keeping the settlement, and the soil incapable of producing any thing fit for the sustenance of man.

Now, looking at the number of deaths, and considering that every individual at both settlements are natives of Great Britain or Ireland; and that none of the officers, and not more than six of the men, had ever resided within the Tropics before, a tolerable estimate may be formed of the climate, which I do not hesitate to say is one of the best within the torrid zone,—indeed the difference we felt between it and India, was surprising. We had no instance of sickness during our stay in these seas, though I am convinced, had our people been as much exposed in wooding and watering in any part of either the East or West Indies, we should have had many cases of fever, if not of death. The principal disease appears to have been scurvy, the presence of which may be attributed to a want of the most ordinary precaution, owing to the inexperience of the individuals themselves, there being many indigenous roots and vegetables, among which are yams, arrow-root, and a kind of parsnip, together with a pea or calavance, and an abundance of the Palmyra cabbage, so invaluable to all the natives of Hindoostan. To obtain these, it is required to climb the tree, which they did not attempt, but procured a scanty supply by cutting it down to get a single cabbage; and none of the other vegetables have been used, except by two or three individuals, although the natives appear to almost live on the roasted yam.

"The whole of the coast that we saw, from Cape Helvitius to Croker's Island, is well wooded; and, as far as the settlers have penetrated (about four miles), they have met with a variety of valuable timber—amongst which is the lignum-vitae, two kinds of teak, a native oak, a species of sandal- wood, and lance-wood, with several others well known and much used in India, from their not being obnoxious to the worm or white ant, which none of the above are, according to the experience of the settlers, who found these insects wherever they have been, and the largest forest trees, of particular kinds, completely destroyed by them.

"A singular characteristic of the country is, that, except just above high water mark, (where in most places it is overrun with mangroves,) there is no underwood; even in the thickest part of the forest the trees are a considerable distance apart, and between them the ground is covered with high grass, on which all the stock, whether brought from Sydney or Timor, appear to thrive very well.

"During the dry season, by setting fire to the grass, a road is made sufficient to enable them, with the assistance of draft oxen, (which they have at Melville Island,) to choose their timber, and bring it in any quantities to the settlement.

"I have landed, at the Colonial Dock-yard here[5], specimens of the timber at Melville Island, with the intention of sending it by the first transport to one of the dock-yards in England for the inspection of the Commissioners of the Navy. I selected a common sized tree of the teak, oak, lignum-vitae, and blood- wood; the latter I was obliged to abandon, it being too large and heavy to carry on our decks through a boisterous latitude, I therefore only brought an arm of that tree, which, with the teak, would be very valuable at Calcutta or Madras, as well as in England.

"With respect to the soil, every thing that has been managed with the smallest knowledge of its properties, grows very well; but it would appear incredible, were I to attempt a description of the inconvenience they have experienced from not having any one familiar with the productions of a tropical climate.

"On asking if they had attempted to grow rice, I was told that they had, but little of it came up; and on further inquiry, I found they had sown the clean rice, instead of the grain in its natural state of paddy,—this will give an idea of the clumsy way things have been done in these settlements.

"At present all works are suspended under an impression that the two establishments are to be concentrated at Port Essington, which is certainly the most eligible port at present known for a principal settlement on the north coast of New Holland, being about four miles by land from Raffles Bay, and 170 by sea from Melville Island, and all three in the same degree of latitude.

"I cannot help thinking it would be a great sacrifice to abandon those settlements, now the principal privations and difficulties, necessarily attending the formation of any new colony, are surmounted. It would be better to form another at Port Essington, it being the annual rendezvous of the Malays of Macassar and Arroe Islands, who come over with the end of the easterly monsoon, to collect and cure trepang for the China market; though last year finding there was an European settlement at Raffles Bay, three proas, with about thirty men in each, took their quarters up at the fort, and collected and cured what they could, so as to sail with the end of the monsoon. The natives are particularly hostile to the Malays, which made them very glad to have the protection of the fort.

I understand that one of the objects in forming these settlements was to open a trade with the Eastern Islands and China, which would be very easy from the great number of proas (ten or twelve per day having been seen from the fort) that annually visit the coast, from Macassar and the islands eastward, to collect and cure trepang for the Canton market; most of which bartered with the Dutch residents among the different islands, sent thence from Amboyna and Batavia, and from thence to China.

"But, as a tropical climate must be uncongenial to the manual exertions of Europeans, I conceive it would be a much more efficient and less expensive plan to colonize New Holland principally from India.

"Port Essington should be the penal settlement for the British possessions in the Indian seas; and every encouragement should be given to emigration from Calcutta and Madras, (in the miserable avenues of which hundreds are dying daily,) and at once a garrison should be formed, with two companies of the Ceylon regiment, with all their attendants; any of whom, by walking half a mile from the camp, would find plenty of the vegetables they had been accustomed to eat all their lives, which vegetables the English soldier (who thinks of no other resource than the commissariat) looked upon as poison.

"I had an instance of this in my own servant, (a native of Trincomalee, and of the Gentoo cast,) who, in a quarter of an hour, collected vegetables to make a curry, and therefore to him a dinner.

"At Timor as at Java, Malacca, and Penang, all the artisans are China men, who only require to know we have settlements on New Holland, to come over in great numbers, and their usefulness can only be truly estimated by those who have visited any of the above colonies."

As far as my own observations and experience go, I perfectly coincide in opinion, as to the healthiness of the climate; I was accustomed to use a great deal of exercise, even in the middle of the day, which would have been extremely hazardous in India. When Captain Laws, Captain Barker, and myself, took an excursion to Croker's Island, we were occasionally up to the middle in water, and exposed for hours to the influence of an unclouded tropical sun. We rested during the night in an open boat, subjected to the nocturnal dew; and the greatest part of next day we were again exposed to the sun; yet none of us felt the slightest ill effects from the expedition. Had we acted in the same manner in some of the other tropical climates, we should not, in all probability, have lived forty-eight hours longer[6].

On my arrival in Raffles Bay, I found every person, not only in good health, but in good condition; and during my residence there, I observed no complaint amongst the people, (I omit those who came in the Amity from Coupang) excepting ophthalmia, which occasionally prevails, but generally in a mild form.

Every man, woman, and child left the settlement in perfect health; and, notwithstanding the melancholy accounts related of it, only three deaths occurred during the entire period of its occupation, viz., Dr. Wood, and, after his decease, (and before another medical man arrived,) a prisoner and an infant died. It may be observed, that three deaths occurred shortly after my arrival; but then it is also evident, that these casualties were not occasioned by the climate of Raffles Bay.

  1. This may appear very culpable. It is far more excusable, however, in these untutored beings, than the same crime when committed by those calling themselves civilized. Several instances of civilized delinquency are within my knowledge, one of which I may cite:—The master of a government colonial brig, picked up a canoe belonging to the natives, and without hesitation took it on board, and rigged it for his own use; thereby robbing a whole family of the principal means of gaining their subsistence. Yet this action was never imagined to be in the slightest degree dishonest; and the mate, from whom I heard the anecdote, seemed surprised that any one should consider the captain's conduct reprehensible, more particularly as the natives stole all the canoes they had from the Malays.
  2. This appears to have been the first act of aggression on the part of the natives. I omit their various endeavours to possess themselves of iron, &c.
  3. Riveral, or Mary Raffles.
  4. Annual Medical Report, from June 21st, 1828, to June 20th, 1829, by R. M. Davis, M.D.
  5. Port Jackson.
  6. While at Coupang, I once walked a few miles into the interior during the heat of the day; hardly was I returned, when I felt very unequivocal symptoms of fever. By prompt measures, I averted the attack; but thus admonished, I was, in future, more careful in my pedestrian excursions.