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.