16 October 2013



The 16th October 2013 marks the 210th anniversary of the Collins settlement of Port Phillip.


In April 1803 Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins sailed from England with 300 convicts, their military guards and 18 free settlers and landed at Sullivan’s Bay, near modern Sorrento on 16 October 1803.


Despite convincing reports to the government in London that Port Phillip would be a suitable site for a settlement, the Sullivan’s Bay site selected by the commander of this First Fleet to Port Phillip was not.


Collins did not seek a more hospitable site elsewhere – such as the upper part of the Port Phillip harbour which Collins knew about. Instead, within four months of the settlement at Sullivan’s Bay, he and all its inhabitants, except the convict William Buckley, abandoned the site in favour of the site of modern Hobart.


How did this First Fleet to Port Phillip come about, who was Collins and why was the settlement at Port Phillip abandoned?


First, the French ships Geographe and Naturaliste had been active on Australia’s east and south coasts, including Bass Strait, throughout 1802 and 1803. This had caused alarm in both London and Sydney. The government was alive to the strategic value of Bass Strait as a shorter route and essential line of communications to Sydney. This had to be secured by settlements on the north and south of Bass Strait and on Flinders Island.


Secondly, the government intelligence that Port Phillip would be a suitable settlement site was well founded. In January 1802 Murray in the Lady Nelson entered the Port Phillip and reported finding water as “clear as crystal” in what is now known as the Tookgarook wetlands. He described how “the hills and valleys rise and fall with inexpressible elegance”.


Ten weeks later, Flinders landed near Arthurs Seat. He reported the same hills and valleys “were generally well covered with wood; and the soil superior to any upon the borders the salt water.” In February 1803, the surveyor Charles Grimes from Sydney entered the mouth of the Yarra River and found “excellent fresh water” deep enough for a boat and “black rich earth”. It is doubtful that Collins was aware of Grimes report before he sailed for Port Phillip. However, before he abandoned Sullivan’s Bay, he knew he could have settled in the upper part of Port Phillip.


Lieutenant-Colonel Collins was then selected by the government to command “Port Phillip’s First Fleet” – so called by Tim Flannery in his collected historical documents The Birth of Melbourne. Collins had served in the American Wars but he had no recent active naval or military service which might have made him useful in the defence of England in the imminent war with Napoleonic France.


However, he did have some qualifications for the difficult task of settling Port Phillip. He had served with Governors Phillip and later Hunter as Judge Advocate at Sydney from 1788 to 1796. He had no legal training but quickly gained a reputation for fairness and flexibility – a farmer was no use to a starving colony in a debtors’ prison.


He was also ambitious. On his return from New South Wales to England in 1796, he made a public name for himself publishing a two volume Account of the English Colony in New South Wales in 1798 and 1802


However, personal qualities of holding one’s nerve in the face of adversity, force of personality, leadership, and putting others before him would also be required of this pioneer and colonist. In this respect Collins was less well qualified.


Collins loathed his pioneering time in New South Wales as Judge Advocate and secretary to Governor Phillip. In a letter to his father in England in 1792 Collins lamented: “I find that I am spending the Prime of my Life at the farthest part of the World, without Credit, without…Profit, secluded from my Family,…my Connexions, from the World, under constant Apprehensions of being starved…All these Considerations induce me…to embrace the first Opportunity that offers of escaping from a Country that is nothing better than a Place of banishment for the Outcasts of Society.”


Why did Collins line up for all this a second time by accepting the command of this poorly resourced small first fleet to Port Phillip? Perhaps yet again he was troubled by debts and with no other advancement on offer, he accepted the appointment and his fleet of two ships the HMS Calcutta and the transport Ocean sailed from England in April 1803 – just a month before war was declared with Napoleonic France. He was aged 47 and no longer in the prime of his life.


He had specific instructions from London to place a settlement on the north shore of Bass Strait and a small guard and a few convicts on Flinders Island.


Arriving on 10 October 1803, Calcutta stood off in Bass Strait to weather a night when a gale “blew a perfect hurricane between NW and SW. This night of danger and anxiety, was succeeded by a morning beautifully and serene”. Approaching the Heads, the transport Ocean was observed at anchor within Port Phillip and the Calcutta pushed in for the entrance, passing through on a “fair wind and tide”.


First lieutenant James Tuckey observed and later recorded that the nearer shores afforded “the most exquisite scenery”, and recalled the idea of “Nature in the world’s first spring”. Search was made for an eligible place to fix the settlement. This was accomplished on the 16th anchoring and landing at Sullivan’s Bay eight miles from the mouth of the harbor.


However, these Arcadian observations soon fell away to privations of “total want of fresh water and we found a soil so light and sandy as to deny all hopes of successful cultivation”. These were words written following Collins’ abandonment of the settlement after less than four months occupation and perhaps written with an eye to justify doing so.


Collins knew of the better waters and soils and better settlement places, and perhaps chose not to look beyond his immediate privations “to settle in the upper part of the harbour” because he did not want to do so.


The serenity of spring at Sullivan’s Cove soon turned to summer. Collins recorded temperatures of 102 degrees inside his tent and 132 degrees outside in the sun. Three varieties of venomous snakes were identified along with “stinking water” and “foul swamps inhabited by myriads of mosquitoes of an extraordinary size.”


Then came the season of the march fly “which swarms almost beyond belief, possess all the offensive powers of the mosquito, its sting creating an equal degree of pain and inflammation.” A “barbarous country” wrote surveyor George Prideaux to his brother in January 1804 at the height of summer.


Perhaps this was the last straw for Collins. He did not know what to do with the free settlers and their families. The ironmongery provided by London was totally unfit for use. The medical instruments supplied were found to have been in use before and Collins never had less than 30 under medical treatment.


Discipline fell away and desertions increased. Collins dealt with this by chaining one recaptured convict to another and placing them on reduced rations. Insubordinate privates were savagely flogged, one with 700 lashes.


Unlike the pacific encounters of Murray, Flinders and Grimes with the indigenous people, Collins encounters with the Wathaurong people were marked by hostility, the firing of muskets and death. Writing after his abandonment of the settlement, he explained that “…were I to settle in the upper part of the harbour, which is full of natives, I should require four times the force I have now to guard not only the convicts, but perhaps myself, from their attacks.”


Collins had lost his nerve. He abandoned the Port Phillip settlement and Bass Strait after less than four months and departed with the remaining convicts, military and free settlers for Hobart. He left the escaped convict William Buckley as the sole remnant of the settlement. The Calcutta passed Flinders Island and ignoring his instructions, Collins left no small guard and a few convicts there but proceeded directly to the site of modern Hobart, arriving on 15 February 1804.


He left Bass Strait unsecured against French exploration and possible settlement and delayed by 30 years the foundation of Melbourne and the wealth which would be brought by the inevitable discovery of gold beyond.


What then is the measure of the Collins the colonist and pioneer? As a marine officer experienced in the practical administration of the law and the convict system under Governor Phillip, Collins chose to ignore his instructions as to the strategic importance of Bass Strait as a shorter route to Sydney. He knew enough of the favorable and hospitable Arthurs Seat hinterland and what he later referred to as “the upper part of the harbor” of Port Phillip but, with declining discipline and preferring his own safety, chose not to look further for a permanent more hospitable settlement for Port Phillips First Fleet.


Collins’ settlement at Hobart fared better but not before, now for the third time, he experienced isolation and semi starvation. However, his settlement at Hobart did not meet the strategic objectives of his instructions to secure Bass Strait as a shorter route to Sydney.

As Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land his authority was problematic. When the Rum Rebellion displaced Governor Bligh from Sydney to Hobart in 1808, Bligh was Collins’ unwelcome guest. Bligh had Collins’ son tied up and flogged with two dozen lashes for insubordination.

Although Governor Bligh was now only nominally senior to Lieutenant-Governor Collins, this was an extraordinary occurrence Collins allowed to happen in his own jurisdiction – both as Lieutenant Governor and as a parent. Collins later remarked of his unwelcome guest – perhaps less elliptically than he intended – “I know him now, and I shall ever think he merited what befell him, and much more than even suspension, unless that was from the end of a strong halter.”

Collins died of a heart attack in Hobart two years later in 1810 aged 54. According to Robert Hughes in Fatal Shore, Collins was “worn out by the strain of keeping his precious little colony alive”. His deceased estate was insolvent.



Hugh Fraser is a councillor for Nepean Ward, Mornington Peninsula Shire. The views expressed are his own. References: Geoffrey Blainey The Tyranny of Distance (1966), Manning Clark’s History of Australia (1993), Clune and Turner (eds) The Governors of New South Wales 1788-2010 (2009), Tim Flannery (ed) The Birth of Melbourne (2002), Robert Hughes Fatal Shore (1988),  Bruce Kercher The Birth of Civil Law in Convict New South Wales (1996), The Australian Alamanac (1988).                                                                                                       _______________________


The Friends of the Collins Settlement 210th Anniversary Ceremony will held at The Collins Settlement Centre, Leggett Way Sorrento Melway ref 157 G10 Sunday 13 October between 2pm and 4pm.