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Commonwealth of Australia
Historical Records of Australia in 19 volumes


The history of Australia has yet to be written. When the story is unfolded clothed with all the innate vitality and secret force of the life and times of the various epochs; when the actors are brought vividly before one, unvarnished with the sycophancy or the petty malice of the moment; when the events are thrown forcefully on the stage, depicting the life history of a continent’s civilisation stripped of all trivialities and irrelevancies; then will a drama be unfolded to fascinate a whole world of readers, a drama of peaceful evolution from a small community of a little over one thousand souls, dominated by autocratic power, to a nation of the people, in embryo, forcefully combating all the mighty problems that have been created by the civilisation of the nineteenth century.

By the facts and examples of their lives, the actors in this drama will be found to elaborate and substantiate for the benefit of all, who wish to learn, the vital necessity of acquiring in due proportion the main factors, which lead to brilliancy and success in life. These are the possession of adequate intellect and education, the development of constructive and analytical powers, the maintenance of sufficient ballast and stamina in the unceasing battle whether in adversity or in success, together with the inherent power to seize and grasp opportunity when it arrives. To the combination of these factors in varying proportions, it is possible to trace the successes and failures of the men of the past. In a way also, the examples drawn from the lives of these men will be unique amongst the histories of the world. In Australia, there has never been the actual stimulus of the clash of armed forces, of the possibility of great, perhaps world-wide, renown, of the association and competition of kindred spirits, and of other external incentives to action, which are prevalent in the world’s centres of population. Deeds of heroism, evolutionary changes, new procedures and mental processes have been initiated, and enacted in all walks of life from the subconscious element of the human brain with little external provocation.

In order to appreciate this with its fullest import, it is quite unnecessary to wander in the by-paths of history. A studied observance of the life and times of each epoch is all that is requisite to unfold the story and to revel in the true romance of life. An accurate knowledge of the history of one’s own country can in no way be relegated to the province of the bookworm or the litterateur; a delving in the past is by no means a hobby or a pastime of little practical use. Properly undertaken, it should be the mainstay of secondary education, the backbone of those studies to which the youth of the country may trust for support and guidance in the daily routine and work of life.

How often the wish is expressed by men of fifty years of age to re-live the foregoing twenty years of their lives, retaining at the same time the experience they have gained during that period! This qualified desire is only the tacit admission that they have found the value of the teaching obtained in the great university of life, and that the preceptors of their youth had failed in equipping them with the armament of experience to be acquired from the triumphs and failures of their predecessors in similar walks of life. From an accurate knowledge and an intimate study of the causes and effects of any previous series of events, associated with an intuitive perception of the probable conduct in the case of the student himself in similar circumstances, a mental and moral training would be acquired at an earlier age than otherwise, which would enable one to combat the problems of life with a feeling of greater security and greater confidence.

The study of the life and times of the past in one’s own country is certainly the royal road to the acquisition of such means of defence and offence in the battle of life. The study of similar data in other countries is of vast importance, but mainly as correcting or as adding to the first conclusions drawn from the story of one’s own country; for in other lands, conditions alter, reactions differ, in accordance mainly with the temperament of the nation, the conditions of government and the climate of the country.

Although this study is surely a subject of vast import in the life of a nation, yet does the story of Australia present almost a virgin field for research. Civilisation in Australia is not too young to have lacked the time in which to have created a whole host of precedents for successes and failures in all branches of human activity. Even in the nation’s youth, there has been opportunity for public discussions, political procedures and economic changes to be repeated in recurring cycles. Varying only in minor details, similar arguments, similar opposition, similar mistakes and similar results have been repeated again and again, until in some cases a series of papers with names and dates expunged might be read by a student, and it would be almost impossible for him to allocate them to the proper epoch to which they refer, so inevitable is the recurrence of the subject-matter in human energy. Not only in matters of great moment but also in those of minor importance are similar recurrences apparent in history; until it almost appears that the dominant motive in the master minds of each epoch has been identical. Pages might be written of the historical parallels in Australia (including both mistakes and successes) of such problems as advances to settlers, fixation of wages and of hours of labour, hospital accommodation, banking, women’s suffrage, increased cost of living and others innumerable, these few being noted not as representative of the whole, but purely as chance selections from subjects inclusive of the whole range of human activity.

Books have been written and stories have been told, purporting to treat of epochs or of the whole of Australian history; but it is impossible to exalt one into the unique position of a truthful and unbiassed exposition of facts, nor has anyone more than attempted to touch on a critical analysis of the life and times. For more than one hundred years, the early story of Australia has been spoken of with bated breath, as though the details of it could not be tolerated in the limelight of public criticism. In the words of Captain Collins, published in 1798, “an odium was, from the first, illiberally thrown upon the settlement; and the word ‘Botany Bay’ became a term of reproach that was indiscriminately cast on every one who resided in New South Wales. But let the reproach light on those who have used it as such.” A feeling somewhat akin to this has influenced authors for more than a century, and facts, which in themselves form only a meagre portion of the life story, have been magnified until they are regarded as a huge skeleton in the nation’s cupboard.

From the earliest printed chronicles, those of Tench, Phillip-, White, Hunter and Collins (in order of historical priority), down to those of modern times, including those of intermediate date, such as the histories of Wentworth, Lang, Flanagan, and Bennett, not one can be accepted as a final authority. Each and every one exhibits errors, not only in points of judgment and criticism, but in points of fact; and these seem almost inconceivable when viewed in the light of modern research. Errors have occurred also in many official tables, as for example, the table of succession of the Governors in New South Wales, which is inaccurate in respect to some dates and some ranks of the administrators.

The corruptions which occur in the printed histories may be traced to various causes.

Pre-eminent amongst these in the histories of intermediate and more recent date is the acceptance of a statement by a single early author without comparison of the statements of his contemporaries on the same subject. In this way a superstructure of history has been built on an insecure foundation and the reliability of the subsequent conclusions naturally falls short of what is necessary.

Of the first five chronicles, two, the Voyage of Governor Phillip and the Historical Journal of Hunter, were semi-official in character, and the compiler had access to the despatches and journals which had been transmitted from the settlement; but unfortunately both of these are unreliable in many respects, and especially the first edition of Phillip’s Voyage. The first account published was Tench’s Narrative, which appeared in April, 1789, and was followed by Phillip’s Voyage (first edition) on 1st May following. The material for both these volumes had been received per the store-ship Borrowdale in the previous March, so the publications were of necessity hurried. White’s Journal, Hunter’s Journal, and Collins’ Account first appeared in the years 1790,. 1793, and 1798 respectively. These five volumes, and the subsequent editions of them, collectively give a good general account of the transactions during the early years of the settlement; but when the student desires finality on minor points many difficulties are encountered, and when he searches for the underlying motive of many official acts he finds a barren field.

With regard to the minor points confusion occurs from many causes. Statements of fact are made which are clearly impossible, returns of convicts or of settlers are made some of which are manifestly incorrect, nautical and legal times are quoted in the same volume without commentary, and proper names are misprinted or misquoted indiscriminately.

In the search for the motives underlying the official life, the student finds little or no information. Surgeon White gives no medical data, Captain-Lieutenant Tench, in his Complete Account, omits to give the story of the troubles with the marines and of his arrest by orders of Major Ross, and Captain Collins passes by virtually unnoticed the quarrels in which Major Ross was involved, the abolition of the civil power by Major Grose, the gradual intrusion of the military into the general life of the settlement, and the legal difficulties with which he himself had to contend. No record is given of these and many other problems; and it almost appears that the facts, of which each individual author was most cognizant, were deliberately suppressed either from official or personal reticence. In consequence if an historian had to draw his material from these works alone, the clue required for the solution of such problems as the liquor traffic or the Bligh insurrection, would remain unknown.

Subsequent authors have built on these volumes, and have added mistakes of their own. A few of these may be noted. Lang and Wentworth have presented a partisan view of most problems, and in addition Lang makes such errors as neglecting to distinguish between currency and sterling in quoting sums of money. Flanagan in his history records speeches of Captain Cook and Phillip which are clearly fictitious. Heaton’s Dictionary of Dates is compiled from insufficient material, and in many cases reliance is placed on irresponsible newspaper references.

These examples are quoted merely to illustrate the dangers and pitfalls which await the unwary student. In consequence of these faults the exact student of Australian history has no work of reference on which he can place implicit reliance.

History in its truest form can be founded only on a careful and studied examination of the actual records themselves. Fortunately for the history of the continent of Australia, the major portion of the official records are still extant, and the actual state papers giving the documentary life and actions of each and every epoch may be examined and digested. With proper and careful grouping, these papers have not yet become too voluminous to make the task prohibitive to the modern man, involved in a busy and strenuous career, of making a careful study of such as relate to any subject in which he is immediately interested. One reservation, however, must be thoroughly appreciated by the student in his examination, namely, that the official papers are only the outward and visible expression of the inward and secret feeling of the public men of the times, the things which were really vital and essential being sometimes almost lost in matters irrelevant thereto, the passing necessities of the moment.

The Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament has undertaken the collection and the publication of copies of all the Australian official papers, which can be obtained. It has been decided to commence the issue of the records with the papers, dated in 1788, the year of the foundation of the settlement at Port Jackson; and therefore many of the papers, which have been already published by the Government of New South Wales, will be republished. This course has been rendered necessary owing to many grave errors which have been found to occur in the seven volumes of the Historical Records of New South Wales already issued.

These errors may be traced to certain definite causes. One of these was the method adopted for the collection and compilation of the papers. The major proportion of the documents were printed from copies made in England; and those volumes which have been issued are the product of the selection of one man and of the editing of a second, but before the editor received them they had passed the ordeal of the censorship, and consequent deletion of portions, by a third. No matter how diligent, brilliant or careful, any one of the trio might be, the collective labour of three brains working under such conditions, and one, the censor’s, most certainly not working with the same large objective in view, must sooner or later fall far short of the accuracy, completeness and precision, which are required in history. This has occurred and serious omissions of important papers have been made.

The omissions were due to four causes :—

(1) The action of the censor, which was unavoidable;

(2) The neglect to make a proper search prior to publication for the documents that were extant. It is stated in a preface re-printed in each of the seven volumes that all the original papers, which could be found in New South Wales of a date prior to the year 1800, consisted of ten papers and one volume, whereas reasonable inquiry would have disclosed the existence of many hundreds;

(3) Editorial omissions, that is to say, the omission of known papers as unimportant. It is only by the careful examination and assimilation of all statements, however divergent in substance, with reference to any one period that the fundamental basis of truth may be conceived in its true proportions. No matter how omniscient an editor may be, it is impossible to foretell the consequences of and to give the correct value to any human act, and some minor act of human energy may often be the prelude to a series of consequences little dreamt of at the time of the initial action. Such omissions have led also to the distortion of the perspective of a period, when the population was small and scattered, in cases where a romantic character has been glorified by the inclusion of all references to him, and in the same period the papers with reference to another, whose life story did not possess the same fascination, have been excluded;

(4) The fourth cause of omission is one which must occur in most collections of records. This is unavoidable in nature, for documents, of which the existence has been unknown, or of which the destruction has been considered certain, will from time to time be found hidden in the most unlikely places. Fortunately, however, for Australian history, this factor of error can with care be reduced to almost vanishing point.

The papers, omitted from volumes Ib to Vli and belonging to the period 1788-1811, would alone fill about six large volumes.

Apart from the faults due to omissions, there are numerous errors due to distortions and mutilations.

Distortion has been caused by the change of the original text to suit the convenience of the compositor or to make the text more in accordance with the modern usages of grammar, by the making or the saving of a paragraph. In the early despatches, this was a matter of no importance, but after the administration of Governor Hunter, it became customary to refer to a particular paragraph by number. The result is that the student, all unaware of the procedure that has been adopted, is unable to follow the references in such cases where paragraphs have been made or saved, for a despatch, which in the original contained, for example, sixteen paragraphs, might in the published text contain twelve or nineteen if it was an extreme case.

Mutilation has occurred both in the despatches and enclosures. In the despatches, there has been minor mutilation^ in the publication of a small portion of a despatch, or major mutilation in the conversion of a single despatch into two separate despatches of different dates. The dates and the names of the authors and recipients of the despatches have been corrupted also.

In the case of the enclosures mutilation has occurred in various ways, which are best explained by the examination of a few examples given in the footnote.

In consequence of these various faults, papers, which were destined to be the final authority of the historical student, lay themselves open in their very appearance and form to grave doubts and stringent criticism which are banal factors in all accurate research.

The Library Committee has decided further to issue the records in seven distinct groups or series, maintaining a strict chronological order in each series or its sub-section. By the adoption of this method, the papers, which were originated in any sphere of activity or which refer to the growth of settlement in any one of the States which now form the Commonwealth of Australia, will fall naturally together. This grouping will make the papers more readily available to the student. The different series are :—

Series I.—The despatches of the Governors to and from England.

Series II.—Papers belonging to the general administration in sub-sections.

Series III.—Papers which refer to settlements in the different States.

Series IV.—Legal papers.

Series V.—Exploration papers.

Series VI.—Scientific papers.

Series VII.—Ecclesiastical, naval, and military papers.

The first series containing the despatches of the Governors will form the papers from which the backbone of history will be made. Until the introduction of responsible governments, the Governors being in charge of Crown colonies transmitted full and detailed reports on all matters of major or minor importance to the authorities in England. The early Governors all forwarded general despatches giving detailed reports on many subjects, but about the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century the practice was adopted of confining each despatch to a separate subject. Duplicates and triplicates of all public despatches were forwarded, and these were made in long-hand either by the Governor himself, by his secretary, or by a convict clerk. In the writing of these, many minor variations occurred in the text and even in the dates, and where these are of importance attention will be drawn to them. Many of the despatches were accompanied by enclosures. Prior to the administration of Governor King, a register of these enclosures was not kept; and when they were received, some of the enclosures were not filed with the despatches, and it is now impossible to tell in some cases which were the enclosures, for instance, Lord Grenville’s despatch, dated 19th February, 1791, was accompanied by twenty-two enclosures, of which only seven can be defined.

I have to acknowledge my great indebtedness to Professor G. Arnold Wood for reading my proofs and for many valuable suggestions made thereon, which have been incorporated.

A series of notes is added at the conclusion of the text in each volume.

May, 1914. FREDK. WATSON.

Series I. Governors' Dispatches' to and from England
Volume 1 - 1788-1796, Governor Phillip
Volume 2 - 1797-1800, Governor Hunter
Volume 3 - 1801-1802, Governor King
Volume 4 - 1803—June, 1804
Volume 5 - July, 1804—August, 1806
Volume 6 - August, 1806—December, 1808
Volume 7 - January, 1809—June, 1813
Volume 8 - July, 1813—December, 1815
A colonial autocracy
New South Wales under Governor MacQuarie 1810-1821 by Marion Phillips (1909) (pdf)
Volume 9 - January, 1816—December, 1818
Volume 10 - January, 1819—December, 1822
Volume 11 - January, 1823—November, 1825 Sir Thomas Brisbane.
Volume 12 - June, 1825—December, 1826 William Stewart, Lieutenant-general Ralph Darling
Volume 13 - January, 1827—February, 1828, Governor Ralph Darling
Volume 14 - March, 1828—May, 1829
Volume 15 - June, 1829—December, 1830
Volume 16 - 1831—1832, Governor Bourke
Volume 17 - 1833—June, 1835
Volume 18 - July, 1835—June, 1837
Volume 19 - July, 1837 — January, 1839

The Commonwealth of Australia
By B. R. Wise (1909) (pdf)


There are many histories of Australia and many descriptions of its scenery and customs; but no one has presented a general view of the Commonwealth, both as a country and a nation, as Mr. Bryce, for instance, has done for the United States.

Yet Australia, from her geographical position,—if for no other and more sentimental reason,—must always be of interest to the Empire. Dominating the Pacific, and placed astride of the trade-route between America and China, she is not only the outlying frontier of England towards the Far East—which is the Empire’s most vulnerable side—but she is also the ultimate heir of Java, Sumatra, and the Celebes, in the event of the absorption by Germany of Holland. In one set of contingencies, when promptitude might make the difference between salvation and destruction, she could anticipate by a fortnight the landing of troops in either India or China in another she would be mistress of the richest tropical possessions in the world, at a time when commercial supremacy largely depends upon control of the tropics.

Nor is Australia less worthy of attention if we regard her internal development and material wealth. She has been and is a laboratory of political experiments; and is facing the problems of Democracy in a spirit and by methods which are in striking contrast to the spirit and the methods of the American Democracy upon the other side of the Pacific. In mere wealth and productive power her handful of people,—four millions scattered over a country as large as the United States, if we exclude the ice-bound portion of Alaska, and larger than Europe without Spain,—excels every civilised community. And yet no one, who knows the country, can doubt that even Australia’s immense output will be increased, as more good land comes under cultivation, and engineers solve the problems of water conservation and cheap transport.

Thirdly, Australia is the most British country out of Great Britain. Canada has its French province, the Dutch are in South Africa, the United States are a medley of races; but 97 per cent, of the population of Australia is of pure British descent. For the first time in history, as Sir Edmund Barton pointed out with apt terseness during the campaign for Federation, there is " A Continent for a Nation and a Nation for a Continent.” Englishmen in England cannot be indifferent to the destiny of such a people, so situated and with such resources.

This little book is, of necessity, a sketch in outline, and must conform to the series in which it appears. But, although it cannot cover the ground of Mr. Bryce’s classic, it can at least explain some of the special features of Australian policy, and the ideas, temper and conduct of its people. The plentiful lack of knowledge about Australia justifies such an attempt.

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