This article is the first of six by Chris Murray chronicling the early history of Lord Howe Island. It was originally published in the Lord Howe Island Signal on March 4, 2016.
Having just enjoyed our usual Discovery Day celebrations on February 17th, I was prompted to write something about the discovery (then settlement) of our Island. “Blackburn’s Isle”, a book by English historian, Derek Neville, mentions the serendipitous fact that 1788, the year of Lord Howe’s discovery, like our current year 2016, was a leap year with 29 days in February. In fact, the British First Fleet ship “Supply”, which had the honour of discovering Lord Howe Island on the 17th February 1788, was on its way to Norfolk Island where landfall was made on Leap Year Day – the 29th February.
The Sirius and the Supply were the only two naval ships in the First Fleet. The other vessels comprised six transports and three store ships, all privately chartered via an English ship-broker. The First Fleet departed from Portsmouth, England, on 13th May 1787, and sailed for over 7 months via Teneriffe, Rio de Janeiro and Capetown and did not reach Botany Bay until the 18-20th January, 1788. The Supply, which had Governor Phillip aboard, was the first vessel to arrive, but less than a month later – 14th February – it sailed to Norfolk Island on the orders of the Governor.
The Supply was an armed ‘tender’ of 174 tons, a mere 24.2 metres long and 6.9 metres wide. When it left Port Jackson it must have looked like a miniature Noah’s ark, as live sheep, pigs, poultry, plants and seeds were all jammed on board, plus 15 convicts, two marines and an assortment of farm tools. Historian David Hill (author of the book “1778”) commented that it was “perhaps the smallest party to establish a colony in the British Empire.”
Cook had ‘discovered’ Norfolk on the 10th October, 1774, though recent archaeological evidence proves that Polynesians had previously settled the island, but may have departed around 1450 AD. Owing to Cook’s observation of large pine trees and native flax plants growing on Norfolk, a proposal was made in 1785 that the British East India Company should start a trading post there. Flax was used to make canvas and sails, and timber was needed in large quantities to build or repair sailing ships. Nothing had come of the East India Company proposal but when the Supply departed Sydney, it had two free men on board – Roger Morley, a master weaver and William Westbrook, a sawyer – who were equipped to exploit these natural resources, and both men were later commended in despatches to Governor Phillip. Interestingly, however, the flax plant proved elusive, taking a full twelve months to find and “it in no manner resembles the flax in Europe.” Despite the inducement it had offered, it never became a significant crop on Norfolk Island.
The new Norfolk ‘Commandant and Superintendent’ was Lieutenant Gidley King, who hastened to assure the nine male and six female convicts aboard the Supply that they would be well treated if they behaved themselves. One of the convicts was certainly very well treated: Ann Innett became King’s housekeeper and mistress, and bore him two sons, named ‘Norfolk’ and ‘Sydney’. However, marriage to Ann was out-of-the question for a Lieutenant Governor, as she had been condemned to death by a Worcester court before having her sentence commuted to seven years transportation. (Her heinous crime had been thefts totalling less than a pound: a petticoat, two aprons, a pair of shoes, five handkerchiefs, and some other clothing!)
Some two years later, King married Anna Coombe during a visit to England, and Ann Innett in turn married a convict, Richard Robinson. As King was Governor Phillip’s adjutant on the voyage to Australia (and a protégé of Phillip’s on previous naval commands) it was no surprise that Phillip granted Ann Innett’s new husband a pardon just eleven days after their marriage – no doubt relieving King of a considerable social liability in the form of his old mistress. However, King continued to care for his first two children, educating them in England, where both eventually became naval officers. (Indeed Norfolk King was the British Navy’s first Australian-born officer.)
The Supply’s Captain was Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, and its crew comprised 6 mariners including navigator and ‘master’, David Blackburn. Ball and Blackburn (like Phillip and King) had both served together in the British navy prior to joining the First Fleet. Shortly after leaving Port Jackson on February 14th, the Supply was battered by a gale which King described as a “perfect hurricane with a most tremendous sea” and he “often thought the vessell was in a critical situation” but fortunately the gale abated at 2.00am on the 16th. At this point, Ball’s entries in the ships’ log book are cryptic: February 17th – “At a quarter past 5pm, saw two islands bearing E.S.E at 13 or 18 miles distant….the largest was named Lord Howe’s Island, and the small one Lidgbird Island”; February 18th – “Found the land seen on the 17th to be only one island.” Apart from Ball’s log, we have two eye-witness accounts of this first encounter with Lord Howe: King’s journal and Blackburn’s letters. However, as King remained to superintend the new colony on Norfolk, we only have Blackburn’s account of the first landing which took place about three and a half weeks later when the Supply returned to Lord Howe.
Despite the briefness of this first brush with the Island, it appeared to make a memorable impression. King noted “two immense high rocky mountains, on ye South point of an Island” and “a deep bay in which appeared to be good Shelter”. He also marvelled at a “singular rock [rising] perpendicularly from ye Sea in the form of a Pyramid, to a very great height” The Supply headed on to Norfolk, sailing between Lord Howe and the Pyramid. Coincidentally, our very first image of the Island, painted in 1790 by Supply mid-shipman, George Raper, captures this scene perfectly. Blackburn’s account is enumerated in two letters – one to his favourite sister, Margaret, and second to a good friend, Richard Knight, both of whom lived in England. In his letter to Margaret. Blackburn recalled that “as the wind continued fair we put off an examination of the island until our return.”
The Supply sailed on to Norfolk where it remained until the 9th March unloading passengers and stores. After seeing “the colony settled in their tents on the 9th in the evening” Blackburn wrote, we “took leave of them and now steered for our new discovered island which we made on the 12th”. Again Ball’s cryptic log records that the Supply anchored at 2.00pm off the south-west of the Island, but Blackburn provides all the detail: “..at 4 in the afternoon [we] displayed the English colours on shore and took formal possession of the island in the name of his Brittanic Majesty.” Blackburn carefully described the geography of the Island “in the form of a crescent. It is about six miles long and one mile broad. At the south end stand two very high mountains covered at the top with cabbage tree [palms] and shrubs”. He also recorded the various beaches and bays and the naming of prominent landforms including Mt Lidgbird, Mt Gower and Erskine’s Valley; “The island is uninhabited, but we found plenty of the finest turtle I ever saw…some of them weighing upwards of 500lbs…The bays abound with excellent fish and the island with pigeons, a kind of quail and some other birds peculiar to the place”.
In his longer letter to Richard Knight, Blackburn gave the first detailed description of Lord Howe’s rarer birds: “a land fowl of a dusky brown about the size of a parrot a bill four inches long legs and feet like a chicken” (Woodhen); “remarkably fat and good plenty of pigeons” (the Lord Howe Pigeon – now extinct); and a “white fowl something like a guinea hen with a very strong thick and sharp pointed bill of a red colour stout legs and claws” (the White Gallinule – also extinct). Blackburn was particularly intrigued by a “web-footed fowl….its bill two inches long straight but suddenly bent downwards at the end very sharp and strong its tail three inches long” which the sailors caught “burrowing in holes like rabbits”. (Likely, the Wedge-tailed shearwater.) By the time the Supply set sail for Port Jackson, it had taken “on board eighteen turtle of near 500 pounds weight each” and Blackburn was also struck by the “beautiful pyramidal rock” which was “About thirteen miles in the south east direction from Howe Island” which had earlier been named Ball’s Pyramid. Ever the navigator, he noted the precise location of Lord Howe at 31˚36’S and 159˚.04’E longitude, and estimated its distance from Port Jackson at 389 miles (actually about 484 miles).
The crew arrived back at Port Jackson on the 20th March, but the Supply returned to Norfolk Island on ten subsequent occasions and to Lord Howe on six, becoming the main link between the Port Jackson and Norfolk convict settlements. After the ‘Sirius’ was wrecked at Norfolk Island on March 19, 1790, the Supply became the only link between the two convict settlements and the outside world, sailing to Dutch-held Batavia for emergency supplies in April, 1790. Whilst there, Ball fell ill with a fever, and Blackburn took command of the Supply, a post he kept for a further two voyages to Norfolk Island. (On a separate occasion, he also captained another vessel, the Golden Grove, to Norfolk.)
After some four years of sailing tirelessly at the behest of the colonies at Port Jackson and Norfolk, the Supply had become quite dilapidated (at least according to the reports of the carpenters who maintained her) so she was despatched on a return voyage to England in November, 1791, arriving in April the following year. Of those involved with the discovery of Lord Howe, Philip Gidley King became third Governor of NSW (1800 to 1806), Henry Lidgbird Ball served with distinction against the French navy in the Napoleonic wars and was made a “rear admiral of the blue” in 1814; but sadly David Blackburn died of consumption (turberculosis) at the Haslar Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, on January, 10, 1795, about three years after returning from Australia. His death devastated his sister, Margaret, to whom most of his letters had been written – including the one dated 12th July, 1788, which superbly described the discovery of and first landing at Lord Howe Island.
The next article in this six part series is available on the Thornleigh Farm blog: Blackburn’s Isle