THE LADY NELSON ACCOMPANIES H.M.S. TAMAR TO MELVILLE ISLAND.
In the year 1824, the British Government
determined to form a settlement on the north coast
of Australia in the vicinity of Melville Island, with
the object of opening up intercourse between that district
and the Malay coast. On account of the nearness
of the place to Timor, it was believed that some of
the trade of the East Indies would be attracted to
its shores. For some time previously small vessels
from New South Wales had traded regularly with certain
islands of the Indian Archipelago chiefly in pearls,
tortoise-shell and bêche-de-mer.
In order to carry out the intentions
of the Government, Captain James Gordon Bremer left
England in H.M.S. Tamar on February 27th, 1824,
for Sydney, where the establishment was to be raised.
The Tamar brought a number of marines who were to
form part of the garrison for the proposed settlement.
Meanwhile, the authorities at Sydney had chartered
the ship Countess of Harcourt, Captain Bunn, in which
to convey the settlers as well as a detachment of
officers and men, then quartered in the colony, with
their wives to Melville Island. After taking supplies
on board, the following were embarked in the Countess
of Harcourt, Captain Barlow, Lieutenant Everard, and
twenty-four non-commissioned officers and men, all
of the Buffs. Dr. Turner, Royal Artillery; Mr.
George Miller, Commissariat Department; Mr. Wilson
and Mr. George Tollemache, Storekeepers. In all
the Countess of Harcourt carried 110 men, 40 women,
and 25 children.
The colonial brig Lady Nelson, in
command of Captain Johns, also received orders to
accompany the expedition. She had returned from
a voyage to Moreton Bay on August 12th, and, heavily
laden with passengers, soldiers, and stores, sailed
with the Tamar and the Countess of Harcourt on August
The Lady Nelson then left Sydney for the last time.
In reading Captain J. Gordon Bremer’s
logbook, we are reminded of a similar voyage, taken
by the Lady Nelson along this coast twenty-two years
before, in company with H.M.S. Investigator.
Captain Bremer had the same trouble with the brig
as Captain Flinders then experienced, as he was continually
forced to wait for the Lady Nelson. In the Captain’s
log often appear the entries “took the Lady
Nelson in tow,” and “cast off the Lady
Nelson,” showing that the little brig was unable
to keep up with the larger vessels. The fleet
sailed between the Great Barrier Reef and the mainland,
at times only a narrow strip of coral separating it
from the breakers, which rolled against the outer
side of the reef. At other times it was impossible
to see across the great breadth of the coral barrier.
On the 28th of August, Mount Warning was passed and the ships
skirted Moreton Island in remarkably fine weather, which by the 1st of September
turned very hot. The vessels continued to sail near the coast, and steered
between two rocks called Peak and
Flat Island and the main. During the forenoon more rocky islands were observed,
with a few trees growing on the very top their outline having the appearance of
a cocks comb. It was noticed that the water here was streaked for many miles
with a brown scum supposed to be fish-spawn. At evening one of the Cumberland
Islands, named Pure Island, provided an anchorage for the three ships; possibly
the Lady Nelson alone had been in these waters previously, and it will be
remembered, that it was hereabouts she had parted with the Investigator in the
expedition of 1802. On September 6th, Cape Grafton was made, and as the ships
coasted the land, the smoke of the native fires were seen on shore. At 9 oclock
on the 7th the ships passed Snapper Island and then Cape Tribulation, and at 6
P.M. anchored near Turtle Reef opposite to the mouth of Endeavour River. At 10 o’clock next morning Cape Flattery
came into sight. Some of the ships’ company
landed on one of the Turtle Islands, further northwards,
to examine it, and it was found to be formed of coral
and shells. This night, “a fine moonlight
night,” the sailors spent in fishing, and several
fish, marked with beautiful colours, were caught.
Noble Rock or Island was seen next day, when the vessels
came to an anchorage close to an island of the Howick
Group. At evening, a very large native fire,
a mile in extent, was seen on the mainland. On
Saturday, September 11th, Cape Melville and the cluster
of islands known as Flinders Group was passed.
At this time sand banks surrounded the ships on all
sides. They anchored in 14 degrees south latitude
and next day ran through the islands known as Saxe
Coburgs Range, and came to about 6 o’clock off
Cape Direction. A fine run made by the vessels
on the 13th, left Forbes and Sunday Islands behind,
and they were brought to at night under one of the
Bird Islands. At 4 o’clock on the 14th the
Commander first saw Cape York, and at 5 o’clock
anchored under Mount Adolphus. Some of the company
went on shore in the evening, but met none of the
natives, though traces of their visits were observed.
Next day at 9 o’clock, Wednesday and Thursday
Islands as well as numerous other islands lying to
the north-east of the Gulf of Carpentaria were passed.
At 2 oclock on September 17th, the west head of the Gulf of
Carpentaria was seen; on the 19th the vessels reached Crokers Island, and
anchored on the 20th at Port Essington. The Captains log contains this entry on
that day: Took possession of the north coast of New Holland; and Lieutenant Roe
buried a bottle containing a copy of the form of taking possession and several
coins of His Majesty on a low sandy point bearing east from the ship which was
named Point Record."
The following account of the proceedings
was published in the Sydney Gazette:
“The north coast of New Holland,
or Australia, contained between the meridian of 129
and 135 degrees East of Greenwich with all the bays,
rivers, harbours, creeks, therein and all the islands
laying off were taken possession of in the name and
right of His most Excellent Majesty, George the IV,
King of Great Britain and Ireland, and His Majesty’s
colours hoisted at Port Essington, on 20th September,
1824, and at Melville and Bathurst Islands on 26th
September, 1824, by James John Gordon Bremer, Commander
of the most Honourable Military order of the Bath,
Captain of H.M.S. Tamar and Commanding Officer
of His Majesty’s Forces employed on the said
“His Majesty’s colonial
brig, Lady Nelson, and the British ship Countess of
Harcourt in company.
“September 26th, 1824.”
During the stay of the ships at Port
Essington, Captain Bremer sent boats in every direction
to search for fresh water, knowing that, unless it
were found, it would be impossible for the people to
remain there permanently. On the 21st of September
at daylight four boats went to examine the eastern
shores. The soil on this side proved to be sandy
and interspersed with red sandstone rock, which, it
was thought, contained particles of iron. The
trees were not very tall, and resembled those of New
South Wales. But no water was found. Next
day the boats went westward, and the search was still
unsuccessful. On this side the country was superior
to that to the eastward; it was more open, and the
trees were of magnificent height.
To discover water now became the chief object of everybody.
On Point Record, a water-hole fenced round with bamboos was at last found. In it
was some thick water, which had a brackish taste, and it was thought that this
water-hole was the work of Malays, and not of the Australian aborigines, of whom
traces were observed in various places, though, as yet, none had been seen.
Captain Bremer described Port Essington as being one of the most noble and
beautiful pieces of water that can be imagined, having a moderate depth and a
capability of containing a whole navy in perfect security. The lack of fresh
water was its drawback.
As the season was far advanced, the Commander decided
to leave this beautiful bay and sail to Apsley Strait,
which divides Melville and Bathurst Islands.
On the 23rd the ships left Port Essington,
and after making Cape Van Diemen of the old charts
entered the strait and on the 26th anchored off Luxmore
Head. On this day Captain Bremer went on shore
and took formal possession of Melville and Bathurst
Islands on behalf of Great Britain. On the 30th,
Captain Bremer discovered a running stream on Melville
Island in a cove to the southward of the ships.
The water fortunately was fresh. The south-east
point of the cove was pleasantly situated on a slight
rise, and was tolerably clear of timber and suitable
for a settlement. Captain Bremer therefore took
the ships into it, and he gave the cove the name of
King’s Cove, in honour of its discoverer, Captain
Phillip Parker King.
The point chosen as the settlement
was called Point Barlow, after Captain Barlow; and
the part of the strait between Harris Island and Luxmore
Head where the ships anchored was named Point Cockburn,
after Sir George Cockburn, one of the Lords Commissioners
of the Admiralty. The harbour was not equal to
Port Essington, as the entrance was intricate, and
a dangerous shoal, rendered perilous by the rapid
tides, extended some miles distant from the land.
It was formed by the shores of Bathurst Island, as
well as of Melville Island. To the northernmost
point of Bathurst Island Captain Bremer gave the name
of Cape Brace.
On October 1st, parties were landed
on Point Barlow to clear the ground and to lay the
foundation of a fort, for it was believed that the
Malays, who fished annually in these waters, would
soon come in great numbers, and hostility was also
expected from the aborigines. A fort, therefore,
was constructed so as to command the whole anchorage,
and when finished it was possible to fire a shot from
it on to Bathurst Island. In its building, timber
of great solidity was used. On it were mounted
two 9-pounder guns and four 18-pounder carronades,
with a 12-pounder boatgun, which could be shifted
as the occasion required. These were supplied
by H.M.S. Tamar.
The boat-gun was fitted so that it
could be placed on board the Lady Nelson, whenever
it should be necessary to detach her to the neighbouring
islands. Round the fort there were soon built
comfortable cottages for the settlers, and, when completed,
they gave the place the air of a village. The
fort was rectangular, and within the square were erected
barracks for the soldiers, and houses, the frames of
which had been brought from New South Wales.
The climate was found to be “one of the best
between the tropics,” particularly at dawn, “when,”
says Captain Bremer, “nothing can be more delightful
than this part of the twenty-four hours.”
In spite of many mangrove swamps that existed there,
much of the soil on Melville Island was excellent,
and in it the plants brought in the ships flourished
luxuriantly; they included the orange, lemon, lime,
and banana. Melons and pumpkins sprang up immediately,
and maize was “upon ground” on the fourth
day after it was sown. The native forests were
almost inexhaustible, producing most, if not all, the
tropical fruits and shrubs of the Eastern Islands,
chief among them a sort of cotton tree, a species
of “lignum vitae,” and the bastard nutmeg.
While Captain Bremer explored the
country, the work at the settlement was carried out
without loss of time. On the 8th of October a
pier, for the purpose of landing provisions and guns,
was begun, next a Commissariat store; and by the 20th
the pier, bastion, and sea face of the fort were completed.
Captain Bremer writes, “I had the satisfaction
of hoisting His Majesty’s colours under a royal
salute from the guns mounted on Fort Dundas, which
I named in honour of the noble Lord and the Head of