Christmas Day dawns fine and hot in the settlements, with the colonists in pensive mood. Inevitably their thoughts turn to friends and family in England as they reflect on the very different circumstances of this first Christmas in South Australia. As usual Mary Thomas is the optimist. She attends a makeshift church service in the morning, and manages to contrive a plum pudding for dinner, along with a less conventional ham and parrot pie! Some lucky settlers are able to roast a joint of beef, but the Thomas family is not amongst them. Mary’s account of the church service is interesting, since apparently only some 25 of the several hundred at Holdfast Bay attend. Whether this reflects doctrinal differences or simple indifference we cannot tell, but it might prompt us to question the assumed piety of these early South Australians. Most historical sources reflect the views of the privileged few, and leave us to guess what the rest think and feel.
In Rapid Bay Dr Woodforde is depressed. He finds the heat very wearing and to make it worse he is ‘nearly blind’ with An infectious inflammation of the eye. Also called Trachoma or Egyptian Ophthalmia. opthalmia. Like the settlers in Holdfast Bay he is also tormented by the flies, ants and mosquitoes that he cannot keep out of his hut, and is particularly repelled by the blowflies, which actually deposit live maggots on his plate as he is eating. Not a nice Christmas present! All in all it is a gloomy Dr Woodforde who concludes: ‘and all I have to say is that I sincerely hope my dear friends at home are spending a Merrier Christmas than we are here. If not I pity them.’
The Buffalo meanwhile is between Wedge and Thistle Islands on Christmas Day. Captain Lipson and family come on board to dine with the Governor, but George Stevenson is once again disgusted by Hindmarsh’s behaviour. ‘Such violence and ruffianism are without parallel, & his profane and abominable oaths have driven all but his own and Mr Howard’s family from the deck to seek refuge from the outrageous profanity in their own cabins.’ We are left wondering what on earth has happened. Over the dinner table that evening Stevenson and Hindmarsh hear more of Samuel Stephens’ doings, and what they hear is not good. He is ‘said to drink to excess’ and his marriage to the sister of ‘a servant under his control’ is also judged ‘injudicious’. ‘[I]f he turns out a drunkard’, Stevenson comments, ‘all is over with him’. Stevenson decides that he should withhold Stephens’ name from the ‘Commission of Peace …till the truth is known.’ This is a very small community and there is no room for indiscretions!
Early on 28 December the Buffalo finally arrives in Holdfast Bay. Arrangements are swiftly made to administer the necessary oaths of office and the first meeting of the Council is held in Robert Gouger’s tent ‘for the purpose of agreeing upon a Proclamation requiring all to obey the laws and declaring the Aborigines to have equal rights & an equal claim upon the protection of the Government with the white Colonists’. Shortly afterwards, before the assembled settlers, (the ‘largest company we had yet seen in the colony’ Mary Thomas writes,) George Stevenson reads out the commissions and then the Proclamation ‘under a huge gum tree’. The Proclamation is duly printed by Robert Thomas on the The Stanhope Press, held in History SA's collection press brought out on the Africaine. After the raising of the British flag, the marines from the Buffalo fire a ceremonial A rifle salute. In French means “fire of joy”. ‘feu-de-joie’ , followed by ‘loud hurrahs’ and the assembled ladies and gentlemen partake of a ‘cold collation’ in the open air. There are enthusiastic toasts all round and these loyal subjects of King William sing the national anthem, followed by Rule Britannia with great fervour. It is all very satisfactory, although as usual Stevenson adds a tart note. ‘[A]ll might have gone off very well’, he records, ‘had not our Treasurer got brutishly drunk and conducted himself in his usual disgraceful fashion towards every lady & gentleman with whom he came in contact.’ He is not the only one. The party goes on long after the Governor retires to the Buffalo, with singing and shouting echoing throughout the still night. All in all, it is a night to remember. In a moment of rare good humour, though tinged with irony given what is to come, Governor Hindmarsh leaves the party proclaiming: ‘May the present unanimity continue as long as South Australia exists’. Mary Thomas records that this ‘made the plain ring with acclamations’. We can imagine George Stevenson smirking in disbelief.
Not all of our protagonists are present for the festivities. None of the local Aboriginal people seem to have been invited to attend. Whether they felt their exclusion we cannot know, but later that night they apparently fired the bush all around. It ‘burnt grandly’ according to Young Bingham Hutchinson.
Strangely Colonel Light also stays away, recording only: ‘I heard of the Governor’s arrival, but having much to do, had not time to go to Holdfast Bay to meet him.’ It is a curious note and leaves us wondering whether there was more behind it. But perhaps that thought comes with the benefit of hindsight. For now there seems to be general agreement with the choice of settlement. ‘We were all delighted with the aspect of the country & the rich soil of Holdfast Plains’, George Stevenson records and we are reminded that Light and Hindmarsh are long-time friends.
Harriet Gouger is also absent. At the very moment that the Council meets in one section of her tent, she lies in the other in the early stages of labour. Her son is born at 6 am the following morning. At first everything seems to go well, but two days later Robert Gouger notes in alarm that his wife has been ‘taken seriously ill with symptoms of fever.’ This is an ominous development and we take leave of this little family at a moment of great crisis. How sad if she has travelled to the other side of the world only to die in childbed within two months of arrival.
But there we must leave these little settlements. Our weekly ‘journey’ is at an end and all nine ships are now safely in Australian waters. As to our correspondents – we have come to know them intimately during their voyages and it will be hard to say goodbye. We know that some will prosper while others will fall by the wayside. We know also that the unanimity and good cheer of the 28 December will soon degenerate into unseemly wrangling and discord. The good intentions of the Proclamation will be forgotten. But for now let us leave them in a moment of optimism and rare idealism as they begin the next phase of their ‘journey of a lifetime’.