Daily Archives: January 26, 2009

‘David Collins’ by John Currey


If my postings here have been a bit erratic lately, it’s because I’ve been going back and forth between home and my little caravan on the Mornington Peninsula.  It’s daggy and unsophisticated but as the sun sets over the bay, it’s a beautiful spot- here’s my view from outside the van, just up the track a bit.

Being in such close proximity to the 1803 settlement at Sorrento has prompted me to read John Currey’s biography of David Collins– the leader of the aborted settlement of a consignment of convicts direct to Port Phillip.  By sending the fleet straight to Port Phillip from England, the Colonial Office intended to both quickly create a British presence and to alleviate the moral corruption of the constant inflow of convict blood into Sydney.  The settlement only stayed in Port Phillip for eight months until it shifted to Risdon Cove (Hobart) in two separate journeys separated by months.

The author, John Currey, describes himself in his preface as “an independent scholar without access to the services and resources normally associated with an academic environment”.  He has written and edited  a number of works of early Australian settlement.  The epigraph that commences his preface is an admonition from Andre Maurois’ Aspects of Biography (1929):

Every biographer should write on the first page of his manuscript: ‘Thou shalt not judge”.

He draws heavily on Collins’ letters to family and patrons, family papers and official correspondence, supplemented by newspaper comments and other peoples’ observations and comments on their relations with Collins.  Currey is scrupulous in his search and documentation, and almost succeeds in following Maurois’ advice.  But even he, at the end of the book raises questions that verge on the edge of judgement:

“Essentially conventional in so many ways, Collins was at the same time a complex and enigmatic man.  His written legacy, despite some tantalising revelations, offers few answers to the questions his life provokes.  How could a man so attentive to minute detail in his public duties be so negligent of his own financial affairs?  By what circuitous route did the man who aspired to ascend the pulpit come to find himself reviled as a lecherer and an adulterer?  Why did a mind so receptive and alive with curiosity become so dulled and inactive?  How could a man so blessed with so many natural charms fail to find enduring love and companionship? Did Collins himself, for all his introspection have any insight into his actions?  The exhumation of  [Collins coffin in ]1925 removed some of the mysteries surrounding Collins’s death.  It offered no explanation of the profound mysteries of his life.” (p. 308)

I find it frustrating when an author raises the very questions you want answered, but draws back from actually risking an answer to them.  Currey’s conception of his role as historian constrains him from venturing his own response, informed by his research, to these questions.  He should not be so cautious.  He has read the documentation: he has spent years with this man; he is qualified to venture a judgement.

In fact, I’d add a couple of other questions.  Why was he so unsuccessful in negotiating the patronage networks that all colonial civil servants had to manage?  How exceptional or commonplace was his relationship with the various convict women he had relationships with over his time in New South Wales?  What was the public response to these relationships?


Inga Clendinnen in her Dancing with Strangers is less squeamish about speculating and judging David Collins as one of her informants.   After reading his published journal about his time with the First Fleet she characterizes its author as ” the Master of Plod” (ouch!).  She describes him as a man “susceptible” to liaisons with convict women.  She notes that Collins is

…a perfect representative of the moral and material economy of European culture.  It was these assumptions he brought to his analysis of the convict condition, and which he initially brought to the encounter with the very different culture and economy of the nomad people of Australia…. But as the slow years pass we watch David Collins ripen into an absorbed observer of native conduct, and a man capable of recognizing, indeed of honouring, a quite different way of being.” (p. 55, 56)

In reading this book, I found myself thinking of James Boyce’s Van Diemen’s Land which, like Clendinnen’s book, carves out a small what-if lacuna of time where the dispossession which certainly, inevitably and inexorably occurred was not yet deepened with violence and bloodshed. I found myself wondering if Collins’ insecurity and unsteadiness in his own authority did not hold the seeds of the 1803 failure in Port Phillip, thus averting an alternative history of Port Phillip as another convict outpost of New South Wales.  Boyce’s book about Van Diemen’s Land describes a benign environment: Collins saw it as hostile.  Boyce sees plenty and food sufficiency: Collins sees starvation and abandonment.

Although Currey doesn’t say so, the  David Collins I drew from his biography was a flawed man, who failed to achieve the hopes he had for himself.  He was impotent in using patronage to his ends; his career sputtered then died out; in an environment where many others prospered financially he ended up almost penniless;  he displayed poor judgement in relation to importing cattle from Bengal at huge expense; he failed to settle an area which just over thirty years later sprang into activity; despite his cheerful exhortations and assessments to some of his correspondents, his world view was essentially pessimistic.

My Australian Citizenship Test


You couldn’t call me un-Orstrayian.

Anniversary Day/ Australia Day/ Invasion Day/Survival Day


So, January 26th- Australia Day.  In the 1840s and indeed for a hundred years after that, 26th January was known as Anniversary Day or Foundation Day.  Different groups in different states made it their own in different ways. In Victoria in the late 1880s and 90s the Australian Natives Association -a group whose membership was restricted to Australian-born men of European descent- championed the choice of 26 January as the national day.  Adelaide always distanced itself from the convict origins of the day and did not celebrate it at all for many years.  In New South Wales, where it was always  (and perhaps still is?) more  prominently celebrated,  the first recorded celebrations were held in 1808, and the first official celebrations marking thirty years of settlement were held in 1818.   The First Anniversary regatta was held on Sydney Harbour in 1836, and the fiftieth anniversary of Phillip’s landing was marked by a public holiday for the first time in 1838.

So, how was Anniversary Day celebrated in Port Phillip between 1841-1843 while Judge Willis was here?   Well, not at all it seems.  There was no mention of it in the Port Phillip Herald, beyond a reference in February 1842 to the Sydney celebrations reported in the Sydney newspapers, but no further details were provided.

We associate Australia Day with 26th January but an earlier ‘Australia Day’ was celebrated on 30 July 1915 as part of a soldier parade to honour soldiers who had served and to stimulate further enlistment.  It was not until 1946 that all states and territories adopted ‘Australia Day’ as the name for the 26th January celebrations, and it was only actually celebrated on the actual day itself, rather than as a long weekend, in 1994.

There is a degree of discomfort over the choice of 26th January as our national day.  Aboriginal groups have increasingly designated it as Invasion Day, or more recently Survival Day and I think that there’s a growing squeamishness over the knowledge that the aboriginal world fractured from that day onward.

So what alternatives are there?  There is the date of Federation, but on 1 January it would be overshadowed by New Years Day (and besides, it’s already a public holiday).   There’s the 9th May for the opening of Parliament in Melbourne in 1901, then the provisional Parliament House in 1927 and finally the new Parliament House in 1988.  But -oh yawn- there’s not much colour and movement there.  There’s the 27 May 1967 referendum that is the popular (but technically incorrect) date given for aboriginal citizenship.  The government tried to whip up enthusiasm for a Battle for Australia Day, but it’s an historically dubious concept based on public panic over a period of months, rather than one particular day. There have been suggestions that there could be a day to celebrate the end of White Australia, but that occurred in a piecemeal fashion over a long period of time.  Likewise the introduction of multiculturalism did not occur on one specific day.

My suggestion?  Well, perhaps we could look at early February to commemorate the drunken free-for-all in a thunderstorm,  once the convicts were unloaded at Sydney Cove about a week after arrival in 1788.  The date has got a lot going for it.  It’s at the height of summer; daylight saving is still in operation; it might get the kids another weeks holiday before the school year starts; it defers the knuckling down for the rest of the year for a couple of days more. It seems particularly apposite- alcohol, sex, beaches- but perhaps the multiple sexual couplings were not so much fun for the women so outnumbered in a complete break-down of order. On second thought perhaps commemorating mass rape on Orgy Day is not the way to go. I suspect that Sorry Day to mark Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations might take on a life of its own, although once we return to coalition government it will no doubt become even more politicized than it already is.

I propose that instead of looking backward, why not plan an Australia Day in the future?  I think we should start planning very carefully for Republic Day, and choose the day to suit the holiday.  The criteria:

1. must be in summer

2. must be a moveable day to ensure that we have a long weekend every time

3. must be irreverent

4. preferably break up the working year somewhat (although Criteria 1 militates against it a bit)

5. must promote at least a little consensus and enthusiasm amongst us all.


In his chapter called ‘The Arrival of the First Fleet and the ‘Foundation of Australia’, in Turning Points in Australian History, David Andrew Roberts picks up on a suggestion by C.H. Currey that perhaps 7th of February should be THE DAY.  Currey, and Roberts later,  argue that it was on 7th February, the day after the orgy, that the judge advocate David Collins opened his leather cases containing the Commissions of the officers of the First Fleet and read them before the entire contingent, with the soldiers in full regalia, and the convicts no doubt feeling rather worse for wear.  The reading aloud of these documents finally proclaimed the extent of Britain’s territorial claim, activated the legal jurisdiction of the colony and revealed the broad scope of the Governor’s powers.  The ceremony ended with ‘God Save the King’, a discharge of muskets, and a dinner for the officers.  Hmmmm….works on several levels, but it is a little reminiscent of being harangued by the Headmaster.

Another update:

Look here.