John Hunter | State Library of New South Wales

John Hunter (1737 - 1821)

Vice-Admiral John Hunter
Vice-Admiral John Hunter,
c. 1813-15, by William Mineard Bennett
Oil painting DG 394

John Hunter sailed with the First Fleet as second captain on board HMS Sirius. Once at Port Jackson, Hunter undertook surveys in the harbour and around the coast. He records in his journal his surprise at the size of the indigenous population which belied the notion of terra nullius. In October 1788, the Sirius, under Hunter’s command, returned to the Cape of Good Hope to buy emergency supplies for the colony. They arrived back at Sydney Cove in May 1789.

Hunter returned to England on the Waaksamheid in March 1791. In England he was court martialled for the loss of the Sirius, at Norfolk Island in March 1790, and honourably acquitted. In February 1795 he was appointed Governor of New South Wales to succeed Phillip though he did not return to the colony to take up his new position until September. Hunter’s journal was published in 1793. His manuscript journal was bequeathed to the Library by Sir William Dixson in 1952. 

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Transcript: John Hunter, Journal kept on board the Sirius during a voyage to New South Wales, 20 January 1788

(20 January 1788)

[page 60-61]

Along the Coast at that distance, not choosing as the Wind was Easterly to carry the Convoy nearer; At Noon we were abreast of Red point which is well describd by Captain Cook, Observ’d its Lat. to be. 34°..29’So. - this point being only 10 Leags. from Botany Bay, I made sail ahead of the Transports, in order if possible to get sight of its Entrance before night, there being a Number of projecting points herebout, which by being so near in shore deceivd us a good deal, however we discovered from the Mast head before dark, what I had no doubt was the entrance of the Bay, as we were now near its Latitude which is certainly the only true guide by which you can find it, for the Coast has nothing so remarkable in it, as to serve as a direction for finding this Harbr. about 3 Leagues to the Southward of B. Bay there is a range of whitish Colourd Cliffs on the Coast which extend some distance farther South, & over these Cliffs the land is Moderately high and

and level, on this level land, there is a small Clump of trees something like that on Port Downhill near Portsmouth, these I think the only remarkable objects here --- As soon as we had bro’t the Entrance of the Bay to beat NNW, bro’t too & made Sigl. for the Convoy to pass in Succession under the Sirius Stern, When they were informed that I intended, as the wind was Easterly, to keep working off under an easy sail till daylight, and that the entrance of the Harbor bore NNW 7 or 8 Miles, which I suppos’d they cou’d not have been near enough to have seen before dark - the next Morning was fair with a SE wind, we made Sail at daylight for this opening, & by Signal order’d the Ships into the Sirius’s Wake, When the Bay was quite open, we discovered the Supply & the three Transports at Anchor, the former had Arrivd the 18th. & the latter the 19th: - at 8AM of the 20th: Anchord with the whole of the convoy in Botany Bay in 8 fathoms water * the Supply had not gaind more than forty hours of us,

*as the Ships were sailing in, a number of Natives assembled on the South Shore & by their Motions seemd to threaten, they pois’d their Spears & often repeated the Words Wara, Wara,

(January 1788)

[page 74-75]

A few days after my Arrival with the transports in this Harbor, I sett off with a Six oard boat & small boat, intending to make as a good a Survey as circumstance wou’d admit, I took to my assistance Mr. Bradley (1st Lt.) Mr. [indecipherable] the master, & a young Gentleman of the quarter deck. During the time we were Employ’d on this business we had frequent meetings with different parties of the Natives, whom we found at this time very Numerous, which I confess I was a little surprised to find, after what had been said of them in the Voyage of the Endeavour, for I think it is observ’d in the Account of that Voyage, that at Botany Bay they had seen very few of the natives and that they appeard a very Stupid & incurious people. We saw them in very Considerable numbers & they appear’d to us to be a lively & inquisitive Race; They are a Straight, thin, but well made people rather small in their limbs but very active, they Examin’d with the utmost attention & [indecipherable] great astonishment at the different

Coverings we had on, for they certainly consider’d our Cloaths as so many different Skins, and the Hatt a part of the head; they were pleasd with such trifles we had to give them, and always appeard Chearfull & good humour’d, they danced & sung with us, & imitated our Words and Motions as we did them; they generally appeard arm’d with a Lancet & short stick which [indecipherable] in throwing it; this Stick is about three feet long, is flattened on one side, has a hook of Wood at one end, & a flat shell let into a split in the Stick at the other, & fastend with Gum; Upon the flat side of this Stick the lance is laid, in the upper end of which is a small hole into which the point of the hook of the throwing stick is fixd, this [indecipherable] the lance on the flat side of the stick, then [indecipherable] the Lance thus fixd in one hand with the forefinger & thumb over it to prevent its falling off sideways, Holding fast the throwing stick they discharge with considerable force & in a very good direction to the Distance of about sixty and twenty yards * Their Lances are in general about
[*Note in margin - I have seen a strong young fellow throw the lance full ninety yards which till then, I did not believe possible I measurd the distance –]

(April 1789)

[page 194-195]

And he might well believe it a Complim.t paid to him, because it was no uncommon thing for him to see several (of the most Worthless of the Convicts who had merited punishment) every day Shackled like him, the cause of which he coud not of course understand – However as He was very soon reconcild to his Situation from the very kind treatment He receivd from every person about him, and the Iron growing uneasy it was taken off and he was allow`d to go where he pleas’d; He very soon learnt the Names of the different Gentlemen Who took Notice of him, & when I was made acquainted with him He got Mine which he never forgot, but expressd great desire to come on board my Nowee, which is their expression for a Boat or other Vessel upon the water & the day after I came in the Governor & family did me the Honor to dine on board

on board when I was also favord with the Company of Ara-ba-noo - whom I thought a very good Naturd tractable fellow, he was about 30 years of Age & tolerably well look`d – I expressd at the Governors much Surprise at not having seen a Single Native on the Shore as we came up with the Ship, the reason of which I could not comprehend untill I was inform`d “that the Small Pox had made its appearance a few Months ago amongst these poor unfortunate Creatures, and that it was truly Shocking to go round the Coves of this Harbor which were formerly so much frequented by the Natives, where in the Caves of the Rocks which us`d to shelter whole familys in bad Weather, were now to be seen, Men, Women, & Children laying dead; as we have never yet seen any of these People who have been in the Smallest degree

(25 November 1789)

[Page 264-265]

One of which struck the Hatt of one of the Seamen, & as no fire Arm had appear’d, the Natives shew’d themselves to the Number of between twenty & thirty; The Midshipman & Boats Crew return’d to the Boat and brought up a Musquet loaded with Ball, which the Natives observ’d, & all but two disappear’d, the Ball was fir’d at them, but whether with or without Effect we know not, they also disappear’d immediately. These Hostile appearances, I think may have been the Effect of their Success in having lately Murder’d some of our people, for as we have had Several such Accidents here, we have had an opportunity of remarking, that they have generally shewn immediately after them, a more then ordinary degree of Hostility -
The want of one of the people of this Country, who from a habit of living amongst us, might have been the Means of preventing much of this Hostile disposition in them towards us, is much to be lamented. If poor Ara-ba-noo had liv’d, He wou’d by this time have acquir’d enough of our Language to have

have understood whatever we wish’d him to communicate to his Countrymen, He cou’d have made them perfectly understand that we wish’d to live with them on the most kindly footing, and that we wish’d to promote as much as might be in our power, their Comfort & happiness. The two Children mention’d formerly, and who are very happy amongst us, are yet too Young to be of use in reconciling the Natives to us, they now understand almost everything we say, & can make themselves very well understood; But the Governor is desirous of having a Man or two in our possession to whom we might teach enough of our Language without the danger of losing any part of their own, to render them usefull to their Countrymen; it has therefore for some time past been in agitation to endeavour by force to secure one or two.
For this purpose on the 25:th of Nov.r last Lieut. Bradley with some other officers and a party, were sent down the Harbour in an Arm’d

[Page 266-267]

Arm’d Boat - they went to the North part of the Harb.r where upon one of the Sandy Beaches they Observ’d two Native men Walking; they immediately form’d a Scheme to intice them to a conversation, for that purpose a few large fish were held up when they were call’d to, which had the desir’d Effect, the Men with much Confidence came forward un Arm’d & with much Chearfulness receiv’d the fish & held a Conversation with those who presented them;
At this time there were about five of our people upon the Beach, & the Boat laying afloat with her stern close to the shore & the people laying on their Oars, Mr. Bradley who was in the Stern of the Boat seeing the Opportunity good, gave the Signal for Securing them, and in a Moment their Heels were knock’d up and they were tumbled into the Boat, follow’d by those who Secur’d them and the Boat pull’d immediately off - they Call’d out to their friends the Moment they were taken

taken hold of, but altho’ a considerable Number appear’d in the Skirt of the Wood, seeing Arms in the hands of those in the Boat who stood up, they did not venture an Attack - The Men were lashd to the thwarts of the Boat on first being taken into her, but after having got to such a distance from the Shore as to prevent the possibility of an escape, their Hands were loos’d & they were secur’d only by one leg; untill they were thus much liberated their terror was considerable - As soon as they were landed in Sydney Cove, they were immediately taken up to the Governors House where they were very kindly treated, But to prevent any attempt to escape being at all probable they each had an Iron Shackle put on one of their Legs, to which a peice of Rope was Splic’d, a Man was order’d for Each, who was to be answerable for their Security; wherever they went this Man accompany’d, holding one End of the Rope - When these two Strangers landed in Sydney Cove, Many people prompted by Curiosity, came to see them, amongst that Number were the

(19 March 1790)

[page 278-279]

as was safe, put the Ship in the Stays, She came up almost head to wind, but the Wind Just at that Critical Juncture baffled her & she fell off again, nothing coud now be done, but to Ware her round in as little room as possible, which was done and the Wind hauld upon the other tack with every thing set as before, but still perceiving that the Ship settled into the Bay, & that we shoald the Water, Hands were placed by one of the Bowes Anchors; in 5 fathom Water the helm was again put down. She had now some additional after sail, which I had no doubt woud ensure her coming about, but she came up almost head to Wind & there hung sometime, but by her sails being all aback had fresh stern way, the Anchor was therefore Cutt away, and all the haulyards sheets and tacks let go, but before the Cable coud be brought to Check her, she struck upon a reef of Coral rock which lays parallel to the Shore & in a few Strokes was bulg’d, when the Carpenter reported to me, that the Water flow’d fast into the hold, I orderd the Masts to be Cutt away, which was immediately done, there was some Chance when the Ship was lighten’d of their Weight, that by the

by the Surges of the Sea which were very heavy she might be thrown so far in upon the Reef as to afford some prospect of Saving the lives of those on board if she shou’d prove Strong enough to bear the Shocks she receiv’d from every Sea -
It was now about 11 oClock in the forenoon. We Employd ourselves after the Masts were gone in getting out of the hold such provision as coud be come at, & securing it upon the Gun deck, that it might be at hand in case any opportunity offerd of floating it onshore. In the Evening the Wind freshend still more and the Surf was considerably increas’d, it was in consequence Strongly recommend’d by the Gent.n on shore Who knew the place much better then we cou’d, that every body shou’d quit the Ship, for this purpose the end of the small Rope was floated thro’ the Surf & over the Reef to the Shore by an Empty Cask, & by that Rope a seven inch Hawser was hauld on shore, with a Wooden head upon it for a traveler & the End was made fast to a tree, by this traveler I corresponded with those on shore & receiv’d their opinion, & to this traveler three or four people at a time were made

[page 280-281]

Made fast, and were hauld by the people on Shore thro’ the Surf over a Ragged Coral Reef to the Land, part this Evening & the remainder the next day, the whole were intended to have been landed that night, but when it became dark the Hauling rope of the Traveler got often foul of the Rocks, which might have occasiond the drowning of those who were at such time on the traveler, for the long scope of hawser (near two hawsers) by the weight of three or four people, was more then two thirds of the way in the Surf - The 2nd day after the landing of the People, the Weather being more Moderate and the Surf less dangerous a few of the Seamen who coud depend in case of Accident upon their good Swimming, were got on board by the Hawser, & the utmost Exertions us’d to get some part of the provis.n sent on shore - We were now in all upon this little Miserable Island 506 souls, upon half Allowances and that coud with our present Number last but a very short time, for the Supply intended for the Island was yet on board the Sirius, and consequently its Safety uncertain; Providence was kind, We

We had for several days the Weather fine & the Surf uncommonly smooth for this place, for altho there was a continual Surf breaking on the Ship & all the way between her & the Shore, yet it was consider’d here as uncommonly fine, We got on shore each of those fine days from twenty to thirty Casks of provision, with Various other Articles of both Public & private property, Such articles as wou’d Swim, were entrusted to the Chance of being thrown on shore by the Surf, all that I or any other Officer sav’d was found Washing upon the Beach, but as the Shore was lin’d with Marines to prevent the Convicts from Committing depradations, it was much, tho not wholly prevented, everything which came ashore by the Sea was placd under the Care of Centinals, until Claim’d by the proprietor before certain 0fficers; but that Success which for a time attended those things which were committed to the Sea, prov’d at last a Misfortune, for it occasion’d their trusting every thing promiscuously of private Articles to the Surf, by which many Valuable Articles of Mine & some of the officers were lost, being too heavy to float