Tasmania’s Early History

When you see the beauty of Tasmania – the mountains, rivers, hills, villages, vineyards and valleys with sheep dotting the farms across the land, it is hard to imagine the savagery and brutality that forms part of the history of Tasmania.
Tasmania’s aboriginal clans lived in the main island of Tasmania and the islands off its coast for thousands of years, with the first European explorer to reach Tasmania being the Dutch explorer, Able Janzsoon Tasman (1603-1659) and his crew who arrived on the south coast of Tasmania on the 24th of November in 1642, naming the land Anthony Van Diemenslandt, before landing east to discover a new land mass that he named ‘Staten Landt’ – later to become known as New Zealand. He saw smoke from fires and other signs of local inhabitants but apparently made no direct contact with the local inhabitants.
There would be a gap of 130 years before other European explorers would return…
Captain James Cook (1728-1779) in 1770 sailed up the East Coast of Australia charting the coastline, having sailed from New Zealand where he had charted the coastline, and Tahiti where they had initially sailed to observe the sun eclipse. On this voyage he did not make land contact with Van Diemen’s Land (as it came to be known), but on his third voyage in 1777 he sailed into Adventure Bay in the Furneaux Islands. (See below). Cook was also accompanied by William Bligh too (See below)
In 1772 a French Explorer, Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne (1724-1772) sailed from Mauritius looking for ‘Terra Australis’ and he sailed to the west coast, before heading to ‘Straten Landt’ where he and a number of his crew were to die in conflict that year with the Maoris. Du Fresne was just 48 years old.
He and some of his crew had landed on the west coast of Tasmania, where they were attacked by the local aboriginal tribesmen carrying spears. They retaliated and an aboriginal was killed by French gunfire.
A year later (1773) Tobias Furneaux (1735-1781) sailing the ship named “Adventure” charted some of the west coast of Tasmania and took anchor in a group of islands, now named the Furneaux Islands in his honour and Adventure Bay in honour of his ship, before sailing on to Queen Charlottes Sound in New Zealand, to meet up with James Cook’s ship and then on to Tahiti before returning to England.
In 1777 Captain William Bligh (1754-1814) sailing with Captain James Cook on the ship “Resolution” had reached ‘Adventure Bay’, and then a year later (1788) he returned on the ship “HMS Bounty”, planting Tasmania’s first apple trees. A year later he would be set adrift with some of his crew in a longboat, when most of the crew mutinied and took over ‘The Bounty’. He returned again to Adventure Bay in 1792, and later became Governor of New South Wales in 1806.
Bruni d-Entrecasteaux (1739-1793) a French Rear Admiral and Explorer made charts of Western Australia before also landing in Van Diemen’s Land naming their landing spot, Recherche Bay in 1792 and also finding the Huon River and in 1793 they also found and charted the Derwent River, naming it the Riviere du Nord, the name changed to the Derwent River the following year by the English Explorer, Sir John Hayes. The channel in which his ship dropped anchor is still named d’Entrecastreaux channel in his honour.
At the time it was still felt that Van Diemens Land was still attached to the mainland of Terra Australis, and it was two English explorers who would prove otherwise. George Bass (1771- 1803) and Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) sailed through Bass Straight in 1798 and around the whole coastline of Van Diemen’s Land. Flinders would also circumnavigate and chart the whole continent of Terra Australis/New Holland on a lengthy voyage he undertook between 1801 and 1803.
By this time the settlement at Sydney Cove first set up in 1788 was well established, but the English were also very aware that the French were also seeking to establish colonies too. They had established Norfolk Island as a settlement in 1788 too on that basis, and it was in 1803 that a settlement was made at Risdon Cove under the command of Lieutenant John Bowen, accompanied by 22 NSW Corps soldiers, 29 male convicts, 3 female convicts and a small number of free settlers and 5 or so children.
This first settlement at Risdon Cove came under attack from aboriginal clansmen, and in 1804 the settlement was moved across the river under a new Governor, Lieutenant Colonel, David Collins (1756-1810) to Sullivans Cove where Hobart is now located. He also brought with him two ships, ‘Lady Nelson’ and ‘Albion’ and on board more than 262 convicts, soldier guards and the ship’s crew. Conflict between aborigines and the settlers was almost immediate.
In the north of Van Diemen’s Land, another settlement was established in 1804 at the mouth of the Tamar River at Georgetown and then on the other side of the river at York Town. In 1806 this was then moved up river to where Launceston is located.
With convict labour and new free settlers arriving, the first land grants were made in 1805, and whaling ships began their hunt for whales for their whale oil and bones, and for fur seals also for their fur and oil – the oil being sent to Britain for street lighting and making soap. The Ralph’s Bay Whaling Station began operation in 1805, and by the 1820’s there were around 20 whaling stations set up along Tasmania’s coastline . It is thought to be over 3000 Southern Right Whales killed in the ten years between 1828 and 1838, and in 1849 there were 34 whaling boats operating out of Hobart, and the whaling industry led on to ship building, but by 1900 the industry had all but closed down.
Norfolk Island off the coast of Sydney had struggled to survive as a colony, and so it was that the free settlers who lived there, were enticed to move to Van Diemen’s Land with 544 free settlers, convicts and soldiers arrived in 1810, with around 30% of them establishing a new settlement up the Derwent River at a place later to be called New Norfolk.
The NSW Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, credited with the town planning of Sydney and often referred to as the “Building Governor” also came to New Norfolk in 1811, setting out a plan for the Hobart town and New Norfolk with New Norfolk becoming the 3rd settlement in Van Diemen’s Land after Hobart Town and the Georgetown/ Launceston on the Tamar River. He later made plans for a number of other towns, including Ross, Oatlands, Brighton, Campbell Town and Perth.
Free land grants to new settlers became the means of attracting new settlers to Van Diemen’s Land, and these continued until 1831, when the land became saleable, but not to aboriginals.
During the early 1800’s Hobart Town developed with Government House, a Post Office, St David’s church, flour mill and even newspapers being published, and the wharf area became a hive of activity as ships arrived with both goods and convicts, and wheat and whale oil began to be shipped out of the Port.
John Macarthur’s NSW merino sheep also were brought to Hobart and the wool industry began to grow too. The Botanic Gardens was also established in Hobart in 1818, and in 1824 the Cascade Brewery began operations, with Van Diemen’s Land becoming a separate independent colony from NSW in 1825.
In 1824 in England a new company was formed, called the Van Diemen’s Land Company, set up under Royal Charter granted by King George IV, with a Court of Directors and a Governor rather than Chairman. Under the Charter, the company was granted 500,000 acres of land, and while this seems to be an amazing gift, making a profit from the land it took ownership over was not as easy. As a ‘charter company’ it was not as generous as the land grant given to the Hudson Bay Company in Canada (also a Charter Company) who in an earlier age (1670) was granted all of the land west of the Hudson River in Canada. The history of both companies is very interesting.
What is apparent in both situations was that the local Canadian Indian tribes and the Tasmanian Aboriginal people were simply dis-possessed of their land, and while they could fight the new settlers, they would be overpowered by guns, cunning and the white man’s rule of law. To the British Colonial Powers and the French, Dutch and French colonists, they had the right of a Christian God on their side, and Indians, natives, tribal groups, aboriginals, islanders were all considered heathens and savages.
The colonists also brought with them, not just their guns, but they also brought with them diseases to which local indigenous people has little if any immunity, and this in many cases decimated the local populations, including the Aboriginal Clans in Tasmania.
While today we would see aboriginal resistance at the time being as ‘guerrilla fighters’, at the time they were seen more as criminals when they raided supplies, burnt huts, destroyed crops and carried out attacks on settlers.
In 1828 Martial Law had been declared to stop aboriginal attacks on settlers and in 1830 the Hobart Governor Arthur set about creating a “black line” – with 3000 armed men spread out across the island to chase down and catch aboriginals, and although this failed, they then set about placing a bounty on catching aboriginals using “roving parties” to catch them.
That same year, answering a Government call for someone to take charge of an Aboriginal Mission to be set up on Bruny Island George Augustus Robinson took up the role, becoming what was called “The Conciliator”. The Bruny Island mission failed, but Robinson aided by an aboriginal woman, Truganini, set out to entice aboriginals to come with them to a great new hunting ground… a promised land, and so it was that large numbers were taken to Flinders Island only to find it did not live up to the glowing reports he had given them. By 1844 the numbers of aboriginals on Flinders Island had fallen to just 44, many having died, and in 1848 the last of the Flinders Island people were re-located back to Oyster Cove, near to the original Bruny Island Mission.
For many years it was thought that the Aboriginal Race in Tasmania had been exterminated, but they survived and today the descendants of the Palawa Aboriginal people now number around 20,000.
The early years of the settlement were certainly harsh times for aboriginal people, but also for the new settlers, the soldiers and the convicts who were brought on ships to be imprisoned here.
Finding and also growing food, securing supplies they had brought with them and simply staying alive meant that only the tough survived, and this is apparent when you see that the first cemetery was established in 1804, the same year that Governor David Collins had moved the settlement from Risdon Cove to Sullivans Cove. (The Cemetery was where today’s St David’s Park is located).
In 1806 the first public execution also took place, when Thomas England of the NSW Corps was hanged, and public executions continued until 1856. During this period a number of Bushrangers were also caught and hung, most being ex-convicts, but also military deserters and aboriginals with the first women convict hung in 1830, her crime being to give birth to a baby which died with her being accused of its murder. The last non-public execution took place in 1946, with capital punishment in Australia abolished in 1968.
Between 1803, when the first convicts arrived, until 1853 more than 70,000 English and Irish convicts were sent to Van Diemen’s Land from the Sydney colony, Norfolk Island but also directly from England. Two years later on the 26th November 1855 the name Van Diemen’s Land was changed to Tasmania, in honour of Abel Tasman, the Dutch Explorer.
Not all the convicts made it to Van Diemen’s Land or Tasmania. Many died on the way, including in ship wrecks. King Island in Bass Straight in the years up to 1871 gained a reputation for ship wrecks with more than 60 ships wrecked there with the loss of 2000 lives, 215 convicts on the Neva in 1835, 406 immigrants on the Cataraqui in 1845 and many others. Others were also saved including 406 immigrants on the Netherby in 1866.
While the first settlement was set up using the canvas tents they had brought with them, the first task was to build places to house the soldiers, convicts and settlers. They were lucky to find Huon Pine logs washed ashore on the banks of the Huon River, and Huon Pine growing upstream. This timber proved invaluable in building not just buildings, but also later whaling boats too. The other natural resource was sandstone, and this also proved to be a tremendous asset for building new structures.
There are two stone masonry trade skill names – Quarrymen and Stonemasons.
Quarrymen work the quarry where the stone is found – possibly a cliff side or part of a mountain, or just underfoot, with the stone varying in colour, texture and hardness depending on its source. They may also work in an area set aside for roughly cutting the stone into blocks. A stone mason then dresses the rough quarryman’s stone blocks to create the final shape and then lays the stone in position in a structure. The stone may be cut into rectangular blocks, or random cut or shaped to suit a particular purpose with cement made from lime creating a mortar to hold it in position, with the surface given a texture of different patterns – with names such as Sparrow Pecked, Rock Faced or other descriptions used. A skilled stonemason also may carve special pieces such as a keystone, gargoyle, crocket, column or other special pieces of stone, depending on its application – be that for a church, a bridge, home or civic building. Stonemasons who did the carving were also called Ornamental Stonemasons, often carvings special works for the headstones on notable people who died. Working with stone is all very hard work, and with large numbers of convicts available, they became the work horses to quarry and build the stone buildings that you see throughout Tasmania.
John Lee Archer (1791-1852) was an Irish born Architect and Engineer who spent eight years working in London with the renowned British architects, Charles Beazley and then John Rennie, who designed the three great London Bridges over the Thames – London Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and Southwark Bridge. He also worked on the Royal Canal in Dublin, before taking up a position in 1826 as the Colonial Architect and Civil Engineer in Van Diemen’s Land.
Many of Tasmania’s best recognized buildings were designed by John Lee Archer, including St John’s Church and the orphanage at New Town, Anglesea Barracks, the nave of St George’s Church at Battery Point, the Old Trinity Penitentiary Chapel, St Luke’s Church in Richmond and the gaol and gaoler’s house there as well as some other buildings and the Ross Bridge over the Macquarie River.
He also designed the Cascades Female Factory and the Launceston Female Factory too.
The Ross Bridge, constructed between 1835 and 1836 is said to be one of his most notable works, with the stonemasons who worked on it led by two convict stonemasons, Daniel Herbert and James Colbeck. The bridge has 186 keystones in its constructions and a number of carved heads too.
Perhaps more famous is the Richmond Bridge over the Coal River at Richmond, which was built earlier between 1823 and 1825 with its six arches. It is said to be modelled on the Palladian Bridge in Stourhead in Wiltshire, England, which has five arches with the Richmond Bridge commissioned by Major Thomas Bell, the Inspector of Public Works and built by convicts under the direction of the Superintendent of Stonemasons, William Wilson.
It should be remembered that Van Diemen’s Land was not just a colony, it was a penal colony, and convicts were sent here as sentences for their crimes, with each convict’s name, description and details of their crimes recorded. While there was fear of floggings and deprivation of food, the terror being sent to Van Diemen’s Land was no doubt uppermost in many convict’s minds. 1825 also saw Richmond Court House and also Gaol both being built in sandstone, in 1826 “The Jolly Farmer’s Inn” (now a private house) and in 1830 Oak Lodge, now owned by the National Trust.
The authorities were also conscious of convicts escaping and much of the reason for establishing the Colonies in Van Diemen’s Land was their isolation from Sydney, and also England. Being sent to Van Dieman’s Land was in almost all cases a one way ticket.
Even so, the authorities, not content with having Convicts in Hobart town, decided to set up new prisons in even other isolated locations – the first of these being on the west coast at Macquarie Harbour on Sarah Island. Coal and timber had been found there in 1815, and in 1822 under the command of Lieutenant Cuthbertson and his soldiers, some 66 males and 8 female convicts made the journey to Sarah Island and Grummet Island nearby. They initially built timber structures, and by 1826 the brick gaol was constructed and an even bigger gaol built in 1828 in stone. The ruins of the Gaol can still be seen today. Sarah Island timber and coal were sent over the years that followed to Hobart, and the Island also became a shipyard too building a number of boats including schooners, brigs, sloops and even a 226 tonne barque.
An equally infamous gaol was also constructed in sandstone in 1825 at Darlington on Maria Island, which had been a seal and whalers outpost since about 1805, and set up as Whaling station in Whalers Bay. The convict settlement started with building bark and tents, but soon a Commissariat Store was built in 1825 and a Gaol Penitentiary in 1830. It was then abandoned in 1832 and the convicts sent to Port Arthur, but then it was reopened in 1842 and operated until 1850.
The island in 1884 was taken under lease by an Italian Immigrant, Diego Bernacchi who set about building a home, worker’s cottages, a school ,starting a cement business, raising sheep, crayfishing and growing wheat.
The island is now under the management of Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service, and many of the old convict buildings are still standing, built from sandstone taken from the sea cliffs on the island.
Port Arthur is the most infamous of all the penal settlements in Tasmania, and building started in 1830 with the whole prison completed in 1853. The prison is located on an isolated isthmus that juts out from the mainland peninsula, and is roughly 60 kilometres from Hobart. Access to the prison was only by water, and by crossing over a 30 metre wide section of land called Eaglehawk Neck, where a fence line and guards were placed along with their dogs ready to stop any convicts who thought of escaping. Opposite the main prison was Point Puer – a prison for boys aged from 9 years and older, and nearby also was “The island of the dead” – where there are 1646 graves, with only 180 of those marked, these being the graves of prison staff and officers.
The Prison closed in 1877 and today there are still eleven of the sandstone buildings built by the convicts still standing, along with a number of sandstone walls, the surrounds of the port itself and the convict built church.
While the Port Arthur Prison was built on the basis of it being a “Model Prison” this meant taking on both physical torture being flogged with a lash and mental torture where they could be kept in isolation and a hood was placed over their head so that they could not see, and then kept in silence – no light, no sound until they reformed. To add to their misery, an asylum was build next to the Prison too.
The brutality of Port Arthur became legendary, but this reputation was added to when in 1996 a crazed gunman began a shooting spree, murdering 35 tourist visitors and wounding 25 others. With this shooting, Port Arthur became the site of Australia’s worst mass murder.
While Port Arthur housed male convicts and boys at Point Puer, female convicts and girls were housed in the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart below Mount Wellington. Female factories had also been established in other penal colonies, including in Sydney at Parramatta, and these factories were designed to provide for female Convicts.
In Van Diemen’s Land, there were over a period of time, five Female Factories (work houses) established in the north at George Town (1804-1834) and then Launceston(1834-1855) and Ross(1848-1855), and in the south at Hobart Town (1821-1828) then The Cascades (1828-1856). In the period 1844 to 1849 old ship ‘hulks’ moored in the River also became female probation stations for female convicts due to the overcrowding.
Females were under a Government policy consigned to work for settlers who sought their services, but later this policy changed to a probation system, where the female convicts were first put on probation to establish their “quietness, regularity, submission and industry”. The Cascades Female Factory was expanded over a number of years with new yards built in 1832, 1845, 1850 and 1853. Each yard was for a different level of prisoner and punishment levels, with the women given a Classification according to their Probation level, and punishments ranging from solitary confinement to floggings, head shaving and metal collars being placed around the neck of the convict for a week, and being placed in the stocks – where their head and hands would poke through a wooden frame so that they couldn’t move or protect themselves from others who might taunt them or throw things at them.
Overcrowding, deprivation of food, and a high infant mortality rate added to the misery of life in the Female Factories with riots, breakouts, bullying and other problems occurring. Today it is possible to visit the Cascades Female Factory and see and hear about the conditions and stories of the women who lived there. (The Female Factory is located at 16 Degraves Street in Hobart.) The overseer’s residence is all that remains of the Female Factory in Ross in the midlands.
The post convict era in the later part of the 1800’s saw Tasmania evolve into a thriving farming economy – with wool, timber and fruit growing and gold, tin, lead and copper mining becoming substantial industries. The cool climate, good soil and excellent rainfall enabled Tasmania to become known as “The Apple Isle” producing apples for Australia and also exporting apples to Britain and elsewhere.
Convict labour had enabled roads, gaols, warehouses, wharves and bridges to be constructed, churches built, timber cut, coal mines established and farms to be established, and much of what is now seen as Tasmania’s great Heritage architecture is drawn from the work of the convicts and their masters of that time.
Tasmania also like the rest of the world evolved from an age of sailing ships, horses, wagons and carriages, to steam trains and ships, and onwards to cars, trucks and aircraft, with communication following suit from letters and telegraphs to mobile telephones, laptops and tablets.
In turn, trades moved from saddlers, blacksmiths, tanners, tailors and tinkers, to mechanics, miners, teachers and bankers, and onwards to today’s apps developers and designers.
Tasmania was originally developed on the basis of its isolation, the furthest outpost of the British Empire, with only the Antarctic further away from the streets of London.
This isolation has been both a blessing and a worse. A blessing being that it enjoys some of the freshness water and air in the world, with great wilderness areas, rivers and mountains, and a curse that this distance too has meant higher costs of transport to get its products, minerals and timber to markets, which also has a flow on effect to employment opportunities and a lack of jobs.
In 2013 more people left Tasmania than emigrated here, mostly young people and with a total population of a little over 500,000 people, this has a big impact.
Over the past few decades, Tasmania has also become an island of conflicts – a battle between miners, forest workers, loggers, dam builders wanting to continue to develop and exploit the natural resources of the island, and those who see these industries being destructive of the environment.
While today the mining, aquaculture, manufacturing, retail, fishing, education, health, IT and forestry industries all continue to be the backbone of the economy, tourism is also playing a significant role too, with around 800,000 to 1 million tourists arriving in Tasmania each year, almost two tourists for every resident that lives here.
What brings tourists to Tasmania is the Heritage, Arts, Culture, walks, wilderness, the clean air and great scenery and in an age where world cities have become beehives of millions of people, traffic jams and high rise apartments – Tasmania becomes a haven for tranquillity and the beauty of nature.
We hope that you have a great time in Tasmania.
Happy Travelling!

Geoff Stuart

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