1788: A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay:
+ A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson

Watkin Tench

Text Publishing 2009
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012 http://dannyreviews.com/
A marine captain with the First Fleet, Watkin Tench's observations are the liveliest first-hand account of the settlement at Port Jackson (now Sydney). His two short works cover the first four years of the colony, in a mix of travel writing, journalism and exploration narrative.

The editor, Tim Flannery, leaves Tench to speak for himself, doing little more than modernising his spelling, but includes a brief introduction with some useful context. The seventy page Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay was commissioned before Tench left Britain and published in 1789. A commercial success, it was followed on his return to Britain in 1793 by the longer Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson. The two works make up "one of the five foundation books of Australia's colonial history".

Tench's accounts include some drama, both in individual incidents — a breakout of convicts seeking China, a boat encounter with a whale, often tense encounters with Aborigines — and more broadly in the uncertain fate of the colony, for some time dependent on ships bringing food and living on short rations.

"If a lucky man who had knocked down a dinner with his gun, or caught a fish by angling from the rocks, invited a neighbour to dine with him, the invitation always ran, 'bring your own bread.' Even at the governor's table this custom was constantly observed. Every man when he sat down pulled his bread out of his pocket and laid it by his plate."

Much of the work deals with the Aborigines ("Indians"), where Tench offers both general observations and character portraits of individuals. He learned enough of the local language for basic communication, was aware of the differences between groups, and was in general open to understanding a radically different culture.

"The tranquil indifference and unenquiring eye with which they surveyed our works of art have often, in my hearing, been stigmatised as proofs of stupidity and want of reflection. But surely we should distinguish between ignorance and defect of understanding. The truth was, they often neither comprehended the design nor conceived the utility of such works, but on subjects in any degree familiarised to their ideas, they generally testified not only acuteness of discernment but a large portion of good sense."

There is also a description of the voyage out from England, with stops in Tenerife and Rio de Janeiro, and of exploratory trips towards the Nepean/Hawkesbury and the Blue Mountains. These latter are illustrated by the one map, "of the hitherto explored country contiguous to Port Jackson".

"let me describe our equipment, and try to convey to those who have rolled along on turnpike roads only, an account of those preparations which are required in traversing the wilderness. Every man carried his own knapsack, which contained provisions for ten days. If to this be added a gun, a blanket and a canteen, the weight will fall nothing short of forty pounds. Slung to the knapsack are the cooking kettle and the hatchet, with which the wood to kindle the nightly fire and build the nightly hut is to be cut down."

A wealth of other topics is touched on, including legal cases and the enforcement of law and order, the development of industries such as brick and tile-making, agriculture, the weather, and the fauna.

"King, with the assistance of sixteen men and two boys, made 11,000 bricks weekly, with two stools. During short [food] allowance did what he could. Resumed his old task when put again on full allowance, and had his number of assistants augmented to twenty men and two boys on account of the increased distance of carrying wood for the kilns. He thinks the bricks made here as good as those made near London, and says that in the year 1784 they would have sold for a guinea per thousand and to have picked the kiln at 30 shillings."

Tench displays some interest in quantitative data, whether in comparing the survival rates for different shipments of convicts or the varying productivity of different tracts of land.

An intelligent, astute, and sensitive observer, with an eye both for detail and the broader picture, Tench's account feels quite "modern" and is entertaining as well as informative. His writing is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the earliest history of Australia as a nation, but should appeal more widely, to anyone curious about exploration, colonialism, travel, or cultural encounters.

January 2012

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Related reviews:
- books about Australia + Australian history
- books about exploration
- books about travel
- books published by Text Publishing
%T 1788: A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay
%S + A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson
%A Tench, Watkin
%E Flannery, Tim
%I Text Publishing
%D 2009 [1789,1793]
%O paperback, introduction, index
%G ISBN-13 9781921520044
%P 280pp