Risdon Cove was the first English settlement in Tasmania, established in September 1803 by Lieutenant John Bowen, RN. In February 1804 David Collins relocated his own settlement from Port Phillip. He chose to settle nearly eight kilometres down the Derwent from Bowen, and on the other (western) shore, at Sullivans Cove. Collins, the Lieutenant Governor, was the senior officer and from June 1804 onwards he progressively closed down Bowen's settlement. But Risdon Cove was not just the first settlement, it possesses the more dubious distinction of being the site of the first conflict between the Tasmanian Aborigines and the newly arrived English. It is a place that is important in understanding the early development of Australia, especially of Tasmania. In recent years the nature of these events and their import has been hotly contested. (1) The renewed interest in the events has not been reflected in the management of the site, which is now run down and neglected. (2)
This article offers a new direction for understanding these events by drawing out evidence implicit in the documentary records and reconsidering the topography of the site. Its focus is upon that first conflict when the Tasmanian Aborigines collided with the English settlement on 3 May 1804, nearly eight months after the settlers' arrival. That event has generally been regarded as of some significance because it was the first of the many conflicts that characterised early Tasmania. As the first conflict it cannot follow, but may set, the participants' expectations of each other. It is then of some interest to examine just what did happen at Risdon Cove.
The broad outline of what happened is well known. A very large number of Aborigines, variously estimated to number three hundred, or as many as five or six hundred, appeared unexpectedly on the fringe of the little settlement, itself numbering perhaps eighty. By chance, this occurred when Bowen was absent, leaving in charge Lieutenant William Moore, commander of the local detachment of the NSW Corps. By the actions of taking a killed kangaroo from one of the settlement's hunters, and reportedly threatening and perhaps using violence against the farmer William Birt and his wife, the Aborigines alarmed Moore. He sent two soldiers to assist Birt, and those soldiers killed two Aborigines. In order to disperse the Aborigines, said Moore, he ordered a carronade to be fired, whereupon the Aborigines retreated up a valley, leaving a two-year-old boy behind. The discharge of the carronade was heard at Sullivans Cove and the disturbance was investigated immediately. That evening, having been called to Sullivans Cove, Moore was interviewed by Collins. But beyond this brief account, little seems to be agreed.
There is not much direct evidence relating to the events. There is a short letter from Jacob Mountgarrett, sometime surgeon to the new settlement but now simply a settler. He had been present and wrote the same day to Reverend Robert Knopwood at Sullivans Cove. The letter and additional comments are in Knopwood's diary. (3) A few...