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Week 41 - Fire!

[ 27th of November 1836 to 3rd of December 1836 ]
[ View related 'school content': Week 41: Literacy Onboard ]

In South Australia

Colonel Light is under increasing pressure to identify the site for the capital and begin his detailed land surveys.  He is acutely aware of the impatience of the emigrants camped at Holdfast Bay and knows that they will soon be joined by hundreds more from the Buffalo. But he has been instructed to examine Port Lincoln as a potential city site and to consult with the governor, who has not yet arrived, before making his final choice. It is an impossible situation.

On 27 November he walks inland with Finniss ‘as far as the third range of hills’ to inspect the area he has been surveying and is once again pleased with what he sees. ‘I was delighted to find the tops of the highest hills composed of excellent soil, and quite moist’, he confides to his diary. He feels he can safely leave the survey to Finniss while he visits Port Lincoln. The next day he makes a first attempt to leave for Port Lincoln, but is frustrated by calm weather. It will be 2 December before he can finally get underway.  The following day he stands off outside the harbour at Port Lincoln, but once again the winds and tides conspire against him. It is a tricky entry point, with a dangerous reef nearby. We leave him on 3 December still standing off Port Lincoln, chafing at still further delay.

At the Holdfast Bay settlement the settlers are in for an exciting week.  They have their first experience of fire in their new home and learn that it is a dangerous and unpredictable tool. Kingston ordered the fires lit to clear away grass and undergrowth and make surveying easier, but the wind fanned the flames in the direction of the settlement and both Gouger and Mary Thomas pass an anxious night, afraid that the fire might engulf their tents. Some of the fires ‘came so close to us that I began to be alarmed’, Mary Thomas records, ‘for the wind drove the flames with amazing rapidity, and the grass being perfectly dry, the fires burnt with such fury as is scarcely credible’. Afterwards, ‘all beyond is black and desert’, Robert Gouger records, but he hopes that the fire might at least have driven the insects away.  Faint hope!

The colonists also make their first acquaintance with two members of the The Indigenous people of the Adelaide Plain Kaurna group, a man and his son, who emigrant William Williams encounters nearby. Although apprehensive, Williams is careful to signal that he means no harm, and manages to persuade the Kaurna to accompany him back to the settlement. Robert Gouger describes what happens next, as both groups try to understand each other.  Williams offers the man and his son food – sugar, biscuit and tobacco – then Gouger presents them with some second hand uniforms, ‘which wonderfully delighted them’.  We have to assume that these things were brought along for just this purpose, since this was also Light’s approach at Rapid Bay. We know how both Gouger and Mary Thomas felt about this first encounter, since we have their separate accounts of the event, but can only guess at the thoughts of the Kaurna man and boy.  It emerged later that the Kaurna had observed the Africaine’s arrival, but had deliberately ‘kept aloof’. They may have known from members of the Rapid Bay tribe that the settlers intended them no immediate harm, but what they thought of the invasion of their lands we cannot know.  These settler accounts suggest that some of the Kaurna welcomed the newcomers and ‘looked at each of the party as if impressed with awe at our superior knowledge’, but others might well have thought the invaders foolish, especially when they observed their misguided experiments with fire. In their comments both Mary Thomas and Robert Gouger reflect the preconceptions of the ‘savage’ they brought with them, although Mary in particular is quick to praise the obvious intelligence of the two Kaurna they meet, and is happy later to learn fire lighting techniques from others who observed her incompetent attempts with great amusement.

In Rapid Bay meanwhile Dr Woodforde celebrates his 26th birthday on a ‘piping hot’ November day. Mrs Lipson kindly makes him a cake, which he shares with the surveying party. But on Kangaroo Island John Brown’s little establishment is faring poorly.  They dig three new wells, but all are salty. The stock is also growing thinner by the day on the poor quality feed and several seem to be struck down after eating poison plants. It will be some years before the culprit can be identified. Faced with the probable loss of all of the company’s stock, Samuel Stephens decides to transfer the survivors to the mainland on the Emma.

Agriculture - Romney Marsh Sheep & Neapolitan Boar & Sow, 1853

At sea

The Buffalo is now in the middle of the Indian Ocean, on a straight course for southern Australia.  As far as George Stevenson is concerned, Captain (Governor) Hindmarsh can do nothing right and he implies that this view is held by most on board. Resident Commissioner Fisher is said to be of a like mind, but Fisher has problems of his own.  He has another epileptic fit this week, his condition perhaps exacerbated by the general tension Hindmarsh seems to generate on board.

Stevenson is still busily drafting legislation.  This week he proposes a law ‘for preventing unnecessary litigation & for the amicable settlement of all disputes by arbitration’, imitating a practice in use in Denmark.  A court of arbitration would have been a far sighted innovation.  Below decks meanwhile another little emigrant is born, to Mrs Walker.  She has a son.


Journals from settlers in South Australia:

Sunday 27 November 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

Novr 27th The “Africaine”, “Rapid”, & “Cygnit” left us this morning; the first to Van Dieman’s Land for supplies, the “Rapid” up the Gulf, & the “Cygnit” to Port Lincoln to await the arrival of the Governor.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Sunday 27 November 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

27 November-Employed landing bread, and I took the opportunity of accompanying Mr Finniss as far as the third range of hills, to examine that part of the country he was then surveying; I was delighted to find the tops of the highest hills composed of excellent rich soil, and quite moist.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Sunday 27 November 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

My birthday. Piping hot. Most of the “Rapid’s” on shore. I accompanied Captain Light and Mr. Finnis on a walk up to the hills after dinner and finished the evening at the hut of the Surveyors with which I was invited to take tea and cake – the latter made and sent by Mrs. Lisson [Lipson?].

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Tuesday 29 November 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

This evening several fires were lighted for the purpose of burning the grass, and some of them came so near to us that I began to be alarmed, for the wind drove the flames with amazing rapidity, and the grass being perfectly dry, the fires burnt with such fury as is scarcely credible.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Wednesday 30 November 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

Novr 30th I have now seen what I have so heard & read of – a country on fire! Perhaps some imaginations might realise it from the American novels; mine never could. The fire was lighted by order of Mr Kingston that he might with greater readiness survey to the N. & E. The wind blowing strongly the fire rapidly spread in the direction of the wind, being chiefly supported by dry grass of a most luxurious growth, but occasionally lighting upon an old gum-tree; a fallen branch of which acted as conductor to its parent stock. When this happened the fire, which at other times remained of a height nearly equable, burst up in a thick volume, & looked like a blazing town, until its branches fell away with a loud crack. The next day the fire was lighted to the S. and came up to us. I had however had a trench dug about 20 yds around me, which in case of fire, would I hoped effectively stop its march. This precautions have kept me & my enclosure safe, while all beyond is black & desert. One decided advantage has been gained by this conflagration – viz. the destruction of myriads of insects, etc.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Wednesday 30 November 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

This evening the fires again began in different directions on the farther side of the lagoon, but the wind suddenly shifting, which is frequently the case, they advanced on us so rapidly on all sides that I could not retire to rest till they were extinguished, which was not till 3 o’clock in the morning. One fire ran along on the opposite side of the lagoon, destroying everything in its way with the utmost fury. I walked down to the lagoon alone (for everyone else had retired to bed), and saw the fire ascend a tree, which made me apprehensive lest it might be communicated to the trees on our side, as they nearly met. If such had been the case the consequences might have been dreadful, as the fire in all probability would have advanced to our tents in a few minutes. Thank God, it burnt to the water’s edge and then went out.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Thursday 1 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

This day we saw two of the natives, a man and a boy, for the first time in this part – the mainland… I showed them several things which greatly astonished them, particularly a telescope, which they took to be a gun. They thought it would make a noise, but when I drew it out and with some difficulty induced them to look through it, for they seemed to be afraid of it, they exclaimed, “Mawny! Mawny!” which is their word for anything wonderful. But a A Friction match – a kind of match tipped with a compound that ignites by friction. lucifer match surprised them still more, for they could not imagine how fire could be so instantaneously produced, while they were at considerable trouble to obtain it by rubbing two sticks together. When they move from one place to another they carry lighted sticks with them, and with dry leaves and by blowing with their breath they generally succeed in soon having a good fire.

Of course, these natives did not understand English any more than we did their dialect, but they pronounced our language by repeating whatever was said to them with an accuracy that was surprising and with a far superior accent to that of many Europeans not English, though they may have studied it for years. Afterwards we found that we were comparatively no strangers to them, though they were to us, for they had seen and observed our landing, but kept aloof. Subsequently they paid us several visits, but never annoyed us. On more than one occasion they proved very serviceable by helping to extinguish the fires, which sometimes came so near to us as to be extremely dangerous, beating them out with boughs from the trees or treading them out with their naked feet.

Likewise, on one occasion I could not get my fire to burn, for not having been accustomed to cook out of doors I did not understand exactly how to place the wood. Two or three of them, who were standing near, laughed at my deficiency in such useful knowledge, and, taking it to pieces, reconstructed it after their own fashion. The fire then burned brightly, verifying a saying I had often heard when a girl, that “None are so ignorant but you may learn something of them.”

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Friday 2 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

2 December-Calm; at eight fresh breezes and fine; got under way and proceeded for Port Lincoln, at five p.m.; at eight p.m. ditto and cold; at eleven passed Althorpe Islands; at midnight hove to.

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Friday 2 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

…Today I am again at work at my hut which progresses slowly, having lost the services of the native men who have taken it into their heads to leave us for a while, leaving their women behind. I enlisted three of the latter on Wednesday and found them very useful in carrying reeds for my thatch. The first dish of green pease was gathered yesterday from our garden. They relished exceedingly with a brace of wild fowl (red-bills) I killed the evening before. The temperature has been very moderate since my last notes on the thermometer.

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Saturday 3 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

3 December-At four a.m. made sail; at eight passed Wedge Island, with moderate breezes and fine weather, but a very great swell from the southward; at noon nearly calm, off Thistle Island; at three p.m. light baffling airs, and a very unpleasant swell; at five a breeze again from the eastward, which gave us hopes of getting in before dark, as the entrance to Port Lincoln was now quite apparent, and we were drawing the land At or towards the stern or rear of a ship. aft very fast, the bearings were Point Donington N .W., and the dangerous reef N.E. by E.; at six we were again baffled, and soon after the breeze died away; at seven we found we were going To be any distance behind a vessel. astern ; at eight the flood began to make, and we made a little progress; very light and variable winds all night.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Saturday 3 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

The Men were employ’d the beginning of
this Week, in diging 3 Wells of 6 or 7 Feet each in depth
but got nothing except salt Water in all of them —
On Wednesday I recd orders from Sml Stephens Esqr
C.M. to get the Stock together in readyness for departing
to the Main Land, by the Brig Emma, Capt Nelson,
who would take them on board the following Day or Friday
at latest. We therefore on Thursday drove all the Ewes
and a Ram lamb of the So Down breed, but which was exceed-
-ingly ill, and died within an Hour after being brought Home
the cause of his Death in my opinion, is from being for a length of time
obliged to live upon very unwholesome Food, and brackh Water, as seve-
-ral of the full grown Sheep have likewise been very unwell during
the last Week, and all of them are greatly falling off in condition
for the Grass is so dry and burnt by the Sun that they will
not eat it, but prefer the green Leaves & Twigs of the same
kinds of Trees & Shrubs, which are growing in the Woods about this
place, and have no doubt that many of them are of a poison-
-ous Nature. …
We have all the Pigs, except a little Boar which has been mis-
-sing for the last Fortnight, and a large black Sow that stops
almost continually at North Cape  _________
There has been very little Fodder at this Station for a
Week past, and we are now without any whatever, so that
the poor Sheep have nothing to subsist upon while confined
(waiting for the Boats coming from Kingscote, to take them
away) except the poor dried Grass that can be collected
about the place, which is miserable fare indeed.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Journals from passengers at sea:

Sunday 27 November 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

The Captain out of dignified spite to Mr Howard because
he demonstrated to the satisfaction of every body on board that we had passed
the “Slot van Capelle” before we Ships could not sail directly into the wind, but they could sail across it at an angle. So, to move forward in the direction of the wind they set a zigzag course, sailing across the wind at alternating angles. That procedure was called tacking. tacked to avoid it, and with whose
prerogatives therefore he is as determined to interfere as Mr Howard is to
resist him, again deprived the Sailors of the benefit of Clergy & we had
Service in the ward-room. Mr H’s preaching is not improving certainly,
… The Sunday School is now
totally neglected abandoned, & the poor children are left to shift for themselves.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Monday 28 November 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

Drew up this morning the first sketch of a law for
preventing unnecessary litigation & for the amicable settlement of all
disputes by arbitration. I mentioned the subject to the Governor in London,
& stated my opinion if we could find means to support a court of
arbitration that it would be well to adopt it in Australia. He had never
heard of the Danish practice; but said he liked the suggestion very much
– so much indeed it appears to have taken his fancy that on my reading
the act to him this forenoon, I had the pleasure of being told that he
had determined to introduce the Danish law into the province
long before he knew me!! He said also that he had consulted Lord
Glenelg & Mr Stephen on the subject – both of whom approved of his
intention – the latter especially was “in extasy” at his being “no lawyer”,
& therefore more fitted to make laws without any regard to form
or legality. Mr Stephen, I suspect, must have amused himself with
slyly quizzing the Governor, but I am quite certain that if either
Lord Glenelg or he had ever seriously listened to him for half an
hour they would have pronounced him wholly unfit for the great
trust confided to his hands, The facts I record here however prove the
quality & the moral honesty of the man.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Thursday 1 December 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

To-day we are by reckoning 1460 miles from Cape Chatham;
but we have not had a glimpse of the sun since the 27th. Poor Mr Fisher
had another epileptic fit, the second public one since he came on board.
He cut himself very severely over the right eye brow by his fall, & in
fact his escape appears to have been a very narrow one. This is a most
melancholy affection, & from the state of constant excitement in which he
is kept by the brutality of the Governors’s conduct & proceedings it may
turn out serious. I hope sincerely he will be able to weather the voyage.
He passed the evening in our cabin & was a good deal more cheerful
than we expected. His view & expressed opinions of the Capt. are altogether
in unison with & quite as strong as our own.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Saturday 3 December 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

Saturday, Decr 3. Fresh breezes & cloudy. Head E.S.E. Wind W.N.W.
Set Studding sails were set outside the square sails in fine weather and with a fair wind. Their head was fastened to a short yard hoisted to the end of the upper yard and their foot extended by a boom slid out from the lower yard. They took their name, such as main topmast studding sail, from the adjacent sail. studg sails sails. Noon. Miles run, 149 + 13731 =
13880. Latitude is the distance of a point north or south of the equator as measured in degrees. The poles are at 90 degrees north and south. Late 39E16′ So. Longitude is the distance, measured in degrees, of the meridian on which a point lies to the meridian of Greenwich. On the other side of the earth to Greenwich is a point with a longitude of both 180 degrees east and 180 degrees west. Longe 91E14′ Et. Water remg 55 tuns.
P.M. Mode & fine. Head E.b S. Wind Westly. 12. Light winds.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Next week

Colonel Light examines Port Lincoln and confirms his preference for the Adelaide Plains, while on the Buffalo, the Governor is displeased to learn that the authority to choose the site of the capital rests with Light.

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