The Founding of Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land

December 20, 2019 6:22 am94 commentsViews: 237

Tasmania is named for its discoverer Abel Tasman, leader of a Dutch expedition out of Batavia in modern day Indonesia. In August 1642 Tasman’s two ships were in Tasmanian waters, and he named it Van Diemen’s Land without realising it was an island. After planting the Dutch flag, Tasman sailed on to discover New Zealand. As with exploration of New Zealand, it was over a century before the next Europeans sighted Tasmania, Dutch claims long forgotten.

The Founding of Hobart Town, Van Diemen's Land

Britain Takes Control of Van Diemen’s Land

The next visitors to Van Diemen’s Land were Frenchmen. That caused consternation among the British eager to secure colonies in the region and deny France a foothold. In 1802, fearing French occupation, New South Wales Governor Philip Gidley King sought permission from London to establish a new settlement on Van Diemen’s Land. The area around the lower Derwent River, as it had been named in 1793 by the explorer Sir John Hayes, was already identified as a suitable place for occupation.

Anxious for a decision and given that by this time England and France were embroiled in the Naploeonic Wars, King didn’t wait for London’s reply. He took his own action to establish the colony, despatching an assortment of convicts and free settlers overseen by a company of the New South Wales Corps. The party arrived on the Derwent in September 1803, and a Van Diemen’s Land settlement was founded at Risdon Cove.

Tasmania’s First Settlement at Risdon Cove

Life on the Derwent was a struggle for survival. The pioneering settlement’s isolation, a lack of supplies, and the threat from the increasingly hostile indigenous Aborigines combined to affect the morale of the population. Both convicts and the marines who were increasingly needed as part of the manual workforce lacked motivation or incentive for the task of building a community.

The climate was harsh with the heat of summer and winters considerably colder than in New South Wales. There were frequent outbreaks of disease, and conflict inevitably grew. If Van Dienen’s Land was to be a successful British colony, stronger leadership was required.

In February 1804 Lieutenant-Governor David Collins arrived to take charge of the Van Diemen’s Land settlement. Collins had been despatched from Britain to establish a settlement at Port Phillip on Australia’s southeastern coast (near present day Melbourne), but found the site unsuitable. He was sent on to Risdon, where he quickly assessed the situation. Collins began searching for a better location than the tidal cove that was served by an unreliable water supply.

The Move to Hobart

Collins’ surveyors picked a spot down and across the river from Risdon, in a sheltered cove where the watercourses were fed in spring and summer by the melting snow of Mount Wellington. Before the month was over, the tents, supplies and other possessions of the Risdon population were being packed up and moved to Sullivan’s Cove. Hobart Town was born. The immediate task was to build more substantial dwellings before winter arrived.

Development of Hobart Town was slowed by a lack of tools suitable for collecting the timber required to build the town, plus the ongoing shortage of general supplies. The settlers were caught out by the weather, and suffered a miserabe first winter in Hobart. The depredations of Risdon Cove had not been left behind when it was abandoned. Supply ships failed to arrive as expected, and over the next two years serious droughts devastated the meagre crop plantings of the struggling settlement. Its savour was the supply of livestock that had been judiciously maintained, and the abundant fish stocks of the Derwent waters.

Collins made numerous approaches to London for more material support, but the time and distances involved in communication, decision and action plus Britain’s preoccupation with the Napoleonic Wars meant his calls went largely unanswered. In fact Collins’ problems grew. In 1807 he was instructed to take some 400 Norfolk Island convicts, and expected to house and feed them.

Despite the struggle, Hobart Town survived. Orchards were planted and a better understanding of the climate enabled farmers to improve their crop yields. Whaling and sealing brought industry to Hobart Town and it began to grow. While continually plagued by the economic consequences of its isolation, Hobart Town was by 1810 firmly established. It was set to become the base for expanding the penal colonies of Van Diemen’s Land, and an important trading centre and port.

In 1856 Van Diemen’s Land became Tasmania. In 1875 the town, by then a city, became simply ‘Hobart’.

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