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Watkin Tench's 1788
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TOP 10 REVIEWERon 30 November 2013
Watkin Tench (1758? -1833) was born in Chester, England, the son of Fisher Tench and his wife Margaritta. On 25 January 1776, Watkin Tench entered the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. He saw service during the war for American independence: serving off the American coast first in the `Nonsuch' and then as first lieutenant in the `Mermaid' When the 'Mermaid' was driven ashore he spent three months as a prisoner of war in Maryland, and then served in the `Unicorn' between October 1778 and March 1779. Watkin Tench was promoted captain-lieutenant in September 1782, but, with the war over, was placed on half pay in May 1786. Later that year he volunteered for a three-year tour of service to Botany Bay, as part of the expedition to establish a convict settlement there. He sailed in the `Charlotte' on 13 May 1787 as one of the two captain-lieutenants of the marine detachment under Major Robert Ross, arriving in Botany Bay on 20 January 1788.

`Ithaca itself was scarcely more longed for by Ulysses than Botany Bay by the adventurers who had traversed so many thousand miles to take possession of it.'

In early 1787, a London publishing house (John Debrett of Picadilly) commissioned Watkin Tench to write an account of both the journey to New Holland and its settlement. Watkin Tench's tour of service lasted almost five years, and during this time he wrote two books about the early settlement. Those books: `A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay' (1789) and `An Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson' (1793) were bestsellers when first published and are both included in this book.

`Extent of empire demands grandeur of design.'

Tench is easy to read, and his books provide a fascinating portrait of the first four years of early European settlement in Australia. There's plenty of drama: a group of escaped convicts seek to travel to China, and many of the encounters with the Aborigines (called Indians by Tench) are tense. For much of the period Tench was in residence, the small colony has periods of uncertainty when food runs short, and supplies are difficult to obtain.

`If a lucky man who had knocked down a dinner with his gun, or caught a fish by angling from the rocks, invited a neighbour to dine with him, the invitation always ran, 'bring your own bread.'
Even at the governor's table this custom was constantly observed. Every man when he sat down pulled his bread out of his pocket and laid it by his plate.'

`On the policy of settling, with convicts only, a country at once so remote and extensive, I shall offer no remarks.'

Tench writes of Arthur Phillip (the founder of the settlement, and first Governor of New South Wales), and Bennelong (one of the most notable of the Aboriginal people living in the area of the early European settlement).

`The tranquil indifference and unenquiring eye with which they surveyed our works of art have often, in my hearing, been stigmatised as proofs of stupidity and want of reflection. But surely we should distinguish between ignorance and defect of understanding. The truth was, they often neither comprehended the design nor conceived the utility of such works, but on subjects in any degree familiarised to their ideas, they generally testified not only acuteness of discernment but a large portion of good sense.'

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in Australia's early European settlement. Watkin Tench's account is both interesting and accessible. He writes of the voyage out from England, with stops in both Tenerife and Rio de Janeiro, and of a range of topics including the enforcement of law and order, of agriculture, the fauna and the weather.

`Here terminates my subject.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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