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John WHITE (1757/8-1832)

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European Settlement of Australia

The first authenticated discovery of Austrlia was by William Jansz in 1606. Further contact was made by seafarers including Hartog, Houtman, Carstensz, Tasman, Dampier, and Cook but it was not until 1788, when the ships of the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove with their "cargo" of convicts and began the first white settlement on the continent, that the "European" phase of Australian history really began. (See the Exploration Timeline, together with first hand accounts by some of the explorers themselves).

The convicts were put on board the ships of the First Fleet in March 1787 and arrived at Sydney Cove on 26 January, 1788--the day now commemorated as "Australia Day". There have been a number of first hand accounts of the voyage by men who were on board the ships, including the very readable "A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay" by Watkin Tench, one of the marines. .

Another account, "Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales", by John White, Surgeon-General to the Settlement, was first published in 1790. This publication included 65 magnificent colour plates of "non descript animals, birds, serpents, curious cones of trees and other natural productions".

Of the colour plates, an "advertisement" at the beginning of the publication has this to say:--

"It becomes the duty of the Editor, as much as it is his inclination, to return his public and grateful acknowledgments to the Gentlemen through whose abilities and liberal communications, in the province of Natural History, he has been enabled to surmount those difficulties that necessarily attended the description of so great a variety of animals, presented for the first time to the observation of the Naturalist, and consequently in the class of Non-descripts.

"Among those Gentlemen he has the honour, particularly, to reckon the names of Dr. Shaw; Dr. Smith, the possessor of the celebrated Linnaean Collection; and John Hunter, Esq., who, to a sublime and inventive genius, happily unites a disinterested and generous zeal for the promotion of natural science. The Public may rely, with the most perfect confidence, on the care and accuracy with which the drawings have been copied from nature, by Miss Stone, Mr. Catton, Mr. Nodder, and other artists; and the Editor flatters himself the Engravings are all executed with equal correctness, by, or under the immediate inspection of Mr. Milton. The Birds, etc. from which the drawings were taken are deposited in the Leverian Museum."

Here is White's account of the landing at Sydney Cove on Australia Day, 1788:

"We again descried the French ships standing in for the bay, with a leading wind; upon which Captain Hunter sent his first lieutenant on board the commanding officer's ship, which was distinguished by a broad pendant, to assist them in coming in. Soon after the lieutenants were returned to the Sirius, Captain Clonnard, the French Commodore's captain (who during the late war commanded the Artois, taken by the Bienfaisant, Captain Macbride), waited on Captain Hunter, and informed him that the ships were the Astrolabe and the Boussale, which sailed from France in the year 1786, under the command of Messieurs de la Perouse and De Langle. He further acquainted him that, having touched at Navigator's Isles, they had had the misfortune to lose Captain De Langle, the second in command, with ten other officers and two boats crews, all of whom were cut off by the natives of those islands, who appeared to be numerous and warlike. This accident induced them to put into this port in order to build some boats, which they had in frames. It also had afforded room for the promotion of Monsieur Clonnard, who, on their leaving France, was only the commodore's first lieutenant.

"At ten o'clock the Sirius, with all the ships, weighed, and in the evening anchored in Port Jackson, with a few trifling damages done to some of them, who had run foul of each other in working out of Botany Bay. Port
Jackson I believe to be, without exception, the finest and most extensive harbour in the universe, and at the same time the most secure, being safe from all the winds that blow. It is divided into a great number of coves, to
which his excellency has given different names. That on which the town is to be built, is called Sydney Cove. It is one of the smallest in the harbour, but the most convenient, as ships of the greatest burden can with ease go
into it, and heave out close to the shore. Trincomalé, acknowledged to be one of the best harbours in the world, is by no means to be compared to it. In a word, Port Jackson would afford sufficient and safe anchorage for all
the navies of Europe. The Supply had arrived the day before, and the governor, with every person that could be spared from the ship, were on shore, clearing the ground for the encampment. In the evening, when all
the ships had anchored, the English colours were displayed; and at the foot of the flag-staff his Majesty's health, and success to the settlement, was drank by the governor, many of the principal officers, and private men who
were present upon the occasion."

The publication of his journal with so many colur plates indicates that White took more than a passing interest in the flora and fauna of the new colony. However, it seems that, after the publication of his journal, he became pessimistic about the future of the settlement and, having obtained leave of absence, sailed for England on 17 December, 1794. William Balmain, his assistant, took over White's duties, and was later appointed principal surgeon. History has shown, of course, that White's judgment regarding the future of the colony was incorrect; but his observation about Sydney Harbour, that it was the "finest and most extensive harbour in the universe", has stood the test of time.

The html version of White's Journal includes all 66 colour plates, including the original title page.

Updated 31 January 07