A pas­sion for free­dom in­flamed first coal find

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - History - MAREA DONNELLY HIS­TORY WRITER

The pas­sion for free­dom burned as hot as camp­fire flames for the first Euro­peans likely to have cooked over coal at New­cas­tle. The coal­fire was lit in March 1791, when des­per­ate con­vict es­capees Wil­liam and Mary Bryant, their young daugh­ter, in­fant son and seven others had rowed for two days in a fish­ing boat af­ter flee­ing Syd­ney Cove.

The group would row more than 4800km north for 69 days, to even­tu­ally land at Ti­mor.

A log kept by their fel­low es­capee James Martin de­scribed find­ing “sev­eral large pieces of Coal ... and search­ing about a lit­tle, we found a place where we picked up with an ax as good Coals as any in Eng­land — took some to the fire and they burned ex­ceed­ingly well”.

By the time Bri­tish re­searcher Charles Blount found Martin’s Mem­o­ran­dum in 1937 in the archive of 1800s English philoso­pher and prison re­form cam­paigner Jeremy Ben­tham, of­fi­cial credit for find­ing coal at New­cas­tle had gone to Naval Lt John Short­land.

Short­land was pur­su­ing an­other group of es­capees, but as a report of a coal find north of Port Jack­son had been made the year be­fore, the rea­son Short­land was given credit for the dis­cov­ery is un­clear, even 120 years later.

Colo­nial Judge Ad­vo­cate David Collins wrote in June 1796 of a party of fish­er­man who had vis­ited “a bay near Port Stephens”, and had brought back sam­ples of coal to Syd­ney.

De­tails of Short­land’s find are also scant, although his de­scrip­tion af­ter land­ing on Septem­ber 9, 1797, of “a very fine river” which he named af­ter Gov­er­nor John Hunter, has been taken as the found­ing date for New­cas­tle.

Short­land was sent from Syd­ney in pur­suit of more pas­sion­ate es­capees, who were mak­ing their sec­ond, and in one case third, bid for free­dom.

Seven years ear­lier, on Septem­ber 26, 1790, John Tar­wood, Joseph Sut­ton or Sut­tle, Ge­orge Lee, Ge­orge Can­noway and John Wat­son, based at Par­ra­matta, had “seized a small punt, and pro­ceeded in it to the South Head, whence they seized and car­ried off a boat” from South Head sig­nal house.

They were found at Port Stephens four years and 11 months later, on Au­gust 23, 1795, when bad weather forced Cap­tain Wil­liam Broughton, on the HMS Prov­i­dence, past Syd­ney Cove.

Broughton re­ported that the ab­scon­ders were “mis­er­able, dirty, and smoke-dried men, hav­ing lived ... among the na­tives”, mem­bers of the Awabakal and Worimi abo­rig­i­nal tribes who oc­cu­pied the area.

Broughton re­turned the men to Port Jack­son, where they ex­plained Port Stephens abo­rig­ines, had “re­ceived them kindly, and of­fered them fish, opos­sums, and other kinds of food”. Dur­ing their time at Port Stephens, the men made “many tours in­land, and were well ac­quainted with the coun­try for miles around” and “spoke in high terms of the pa­cific dis­po­si­tion and gen­tle man­ners of the na­tives.”

Sut­ton had pre­vi­ously at­tempted to es­cape as a stow­away on the ves­sel Nep­tune. Found hid­den among fire­wood, a marine took him ashore, where he was “sev­eral flogged” on the or­ders of Gov­er­nor Arthur Phillip, along with “a free man who had also at­tempted to es­cape from the colony as a stow­away”.

On Septem­ber 5, 1797, a group of con­victs seized the colo­nially built ves­sel Cum­ber­land, de­scribed as the “largest and best” boat in the colony, then car­ry­ing sup­plies be­tween the Hawkes­bury and Syd­ney.

In a let­ter to Eng­land in Jan­uary 1798, Hunter re­ported the Cum­ber­land theft, and on a “List of Men Gone off in the Cum­ber­land” dis­cov­ered in 2009, he named Tar­wood and Lee.

“Not hav­ing any fit ves­sels to pur­sue (them) on such an oc­ca­sion, I dis­patched two row­boats well armed,” Hunter re­ported. “One boat turned south and re­turned af­ter a short time, but one com­manded by John Short­land rowed north as far as Port Stephens.”

Although he did not catch up with the ab­scon­ders, Short­land noted that on Septem­ber 9, 1797, his party had slept near an abo­rig­i­nal tribal camp on a river, which “I judge this river lays N. N. W true 63 or 65 miles from Port Jack­son.” Short­land likely came in three places around the area that is now Stock­ton.

Hunter also noted Short­land’s report of a har­bour and “a very con­sid­er­able quan­tity of coal of a very good sort, and ly­ing so near the water side as to be con­ve­niently shipped; ... Some spec­i­mens of this coal were brought up in the boat.”

The next year ships be­gan col­lect­ing coal from the Hunter banks, also known as Coal River, to sell in Syd­ney. In 1799 the first ship­ment of lo­cal coal, sent to Ben­gal, was likely Aus­tralia’s first ex­port.

The first per­ma­nent coal mine in Aus­tralia opened at New­cas­tle in 1804.

New­cas­tle Coal Min­ing Com­pany coal min­ers at ‘A’ Pit in Glebe, 1899, and (left) Naval Lt John Short­land.

1797

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