Watkin Tench & John Nicol

Watkin Tench & John Nicol

Featured Image: Watkin Tench

Professor Tim Flannery did an excellent job in editing and introducing two original seminal digests dedicated to our earliest colonial settlement and history. Without them our collective ignorance would have been even more profound. Alan Moorehead in ‘The Fatal Impact’ wrote ‘about the terrible legacy of European exploration of the Pacific; a classic study of the impact of European arrival in Tahiti, Australia and to a lesser extent the Antarctic is a tale of death, destruction and ecological distortion.


Watkin Tench stepped ashore at Botany Bay with the First Fleet in January 1788. He was in his late twenties, a captain in the marines, and on the adventure of his life. Insatiably curious, with a natural genius for storytelling, Tench wrote two enthralling accounts of the infant colony: A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay and A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson. Tench brings to life the legendary figures of Bennelong, Arabanoo and Governor Phillip, and records the voices of convicts trying to make new lives in their new country. Although not immediate the devastating ‘fatal impact’ of the Small Pox pandemic on the Camerigal and Gadigal tribes in the vicinity of Port Jackson was profound; bordering on genocide. Tench describes in detail the epicurean delight of the ‘light-horseman’; the local fish we know today as the snapper.

Highly esteemed critic and eminent historian Robert Hughes writes: “Not to have read Watkin Tench is not to know early Australia. An eye that noticed everything, a young man’s verve, a sly wit, and elegant prose style; all brought to bear on an unimagined place and very strange micro-society. This is the most readable classic of early Australian History”.

“….. a thrilling account of the preparation, the voyage, but especially the first months of settlement in Australia…. Tim Flannery has edited the two texts Tench wrote at the time into absorbing reads, and added a lip-smacking introduction. Extraordinary details abound, especially contacts between the races.” Terry Smith, Sunday Age

“….. a remarkably balanced, graphic account…. Tench will always remain the classic contemporary witness of our beginnings.” Les Murray, Age

John Nicol circled the globe twice in the late eighteenth century from below decks. “The first wish I ever formed was to wander”. He partied with African slaves in the West Indies and was on the first ship into Hawaii after the murder of Cook. Wampoa (Canton), China was a favourite destination many times. In 1790 he visited Port Jackson as the steward on board the Lady Juliana with its cargo of female convicts in the second fleet. He falls in love with a young convict on board named Sarah Whitlam and tells a moving story of their affair, the birth of their son at sea and how they came to be separated forever. Sarah was not as naïve or guiltless as believed to be by Nicol! It is a classic tale of the savagery and tenderness of life at the edge of empire when the modern age was in its infancy.