The Background to John Shortland’s Discovery
John Hunter’s Missing List
By Mr Paul Farnill
It is well known that in 1797 John Shortland entered and named the Hunter River whilst in pursuit of a party of escaped convicts. Shortland had entered a then unknown inlet (the mouth of the Hunter), after an unsuccessful search for the escapees at Port Stephens. What is lesser known is why Shortland decided to take a row boat as far as Port Stephens in the first place? Was the discovery of the Hunter River and its coal deposits a purely serendipitous event, or was it a result of a rational plan?
A voyage to Port Stephens in nothing more than an armed row boat was surely a hazardous adventure, even in those days, and in chasing the significantly faster sailing vessel that had been seized by the convicts would seem quite a futile exercise. Before undertaking such a voyage, one would think that Shortland held some expectation of success, and indeed he did! A document that appears to have lain hidden in the British Archives for over 200 years offers some explanation. (1)
The seeds of Shortland’s discovery were sown some seven years earlier in 1790 when a group of five convicts, after suffering the appalling conditions of the second fleet, stole a punt from the settlement at Rose Hill [Parramatta]. At night the convicts escaped undetected down the river to the harbour, where they exchanging their stolen punt for a small boat used by the watch house at Watson Bay.
There is no record of any pursuit of the five escapees. David Collins, writing at the time, said of the escape:-
They no doubt pushed directly out upon that ocean which from the wretched state of their boat wherein they trusted themselves, must have proved their grave. (2)
Collins names the escapees:-
Their names were John Tarwood, a daring and desperate character and principal in the scheme; Joseph Sutton, who was found secreted on board the Neptune and punished; George Lee; George Connoway and John Watson. (3)
Nothing further was heard of the five escapees, until five years later in 1795 when William Broughton in HM Sloop Providence was forced past Sydney Harbour in a storm, and took shelter in Port Stephens. Broughton recorded his surprise at encountering four Europeans living with the natives. These Europeans proved to be the four surviving 1790 escapees (Joseph Sutton having died).
Broughton described the four as “miserable half starved objects” and records that “the man that enticed them to desert [presumably John Tarwood/Turwood] at first refused to board the ship and preparations were made to leave him behind”. Broughton however persuaded him that he would not be ill treated or punished, and Tarwood agreed to return to Sydney. Broughton reflected that “one or two of the men had married but left their wives and children with no regret.” (4)
Two years later in 1797, the vessel Cumberland, a colonially built vessel, engaged in the carrying of supplies between the Hawkesbury and Sydney was seized by a party of convicts. No description of the Cumberland has been located, but it is described as being the “largest and best” boat in the colony. (5) This description suggests that the Cumberland was larger than its contemporary, the other colonially built vessel a 44 ton sailing schooner named the Francis.
The loss of one of the colony’s only two sailing vessels must have been a severe blow to the near starving settlement. There being no suitable vessels available in Sydney Harbour at the time of the escape (The Francis was at Norfolk Island), Governor Hunter dispatched two rowing boats in pursuit.
Not having any fit vessels to pursue [them] on such an occasion, I despatched two row-boats well armed. (6)
One boat turned south and returned after a short time, but one commanded by John Shortland rowed north as far as Port Stephens.
Hunter’s letter of January 1798, in which he describes the taking of the Cumberland, included the statement “I send enclosed No.3 a list of the deserters.”(7) However the Historical Records of NSW, which includes a copy of Hunter’s letter, states “this list is missing.”(8) Similarly the Historical Records of Australia includes the notation: “A copy of the list of deserters has not yet been found.” (9) The ‘missing’ document was however encountered during research for a Master’s thesis in 2009. (10) The list, under the heading “ List of Men Gone off in the Cumberland” (11), includes the names John Tarwood and George Lee, these being two of the convicts taken into custody by William Broughton at Port Stephens only two years earlier. Tarwood is believed to have been the instigator of the initial escape and both men are believed to have taken Aboriginal wives during their five years sojourn at Port Stephens.
Given Tarwood and Lee’s previous association with Port Stephens, it would seem a logical step for Governor Hunter to dispatch a boat to search the area. Thus the “missing list” indicates that John Shortland’s ‘chance’ discovery and exploration of the nearby inlet, that proved to be the mouth of the Hunter River, may not have been as accidental or fortuitous as previously believed.
1. Paul Farnill, “The Beginnings of a European History of Newcastle and Port Stephens” (Research, Maquarie University, 2009).
2. David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in N.S.W. , 2nd ed., vol. 1 (London: T Cadell and W Davies, 1803).
3. Ibid. (surprisingly perusal of the convict indents held at SLNSW, reveals no 2nd fleet convicts by the name of John Tarwood and Joseph Sutton. There was however a John Turwood and Joseph Suttle, it would appear that Collins misspelt the names.)
4. William Robert Broughton, Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean in His Majesty’s Sloop Providence and Her Tender (London: T Cadell & W Davies, 1804).
5. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in N.S.W. .p418
6. John Hunter, “Letter – John Hunter to the Duke of Portland 10 January 1798,” in CO 201/14 (No.30) (Kew England: National Archives, 1798).
7. F.M. Bladen, ed., Historical Records of New South Wales, vol. III, Hunter. 1796-1799 (Sydney: Charles Potter, Government Printer, 1895). p346
9. Fredrick Watson, ed., The Historical Records of Australia, Governor’s Despatches to and from England 1788 to 1848 (Sydney: Government Printer, 1914).
10. Farnill, “The Beginnings of a European History of Newcastle and Port Stephens”.
11. John Hunter and David Collins, “Inclusion No.3 – List of Men Gone Off in the Cumberland and Ramsay’s Boat,” (London: Public Records Office, 1798). Note since discovering the list in the British archives a copy has been located in the NSW SL as part of the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP).
Bladen, F. M., ed. Historical Records of New South Wales. Edited by F. Watson. Vol. III, Hunter. 1796-1799. Sydney: Charles Potter, Government Printer, 1895.
Broughton, W. R. Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean in His Majesty’s Sloop Providence and Her Tender. London: T Cadell & W Davies, 1804.
Collins, D. An Account of the English Colony in N.S.W. . 2nd ed. Vol. 1. London: T Cadell and W Davies, 1803.
Farnill, P. ‘The Beginnings of a European History of Newcastle and Port Stephens’. Research, Maquarie University, 2009.
Hunter, J. ‘Letter – John Hunter to the Duke of Portland 10 January 1798’. In CO 201/14 (No.30). Kew England: National Archives, 1798.
Hunter, J., and D. Collins. ‘Inclusion No.3 – List of Men Gone Off in the Cumberland and Ramsay’s Boat’. CO201/14, Frame 129. London: Public Records Office, 1798.
Watson, F., ed. The Historical Records of Australia, Governor’s Despatches to and from England 1788 to 1848. Sydney: Government Printer, 1914.