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Historical Records of New Zealand

Ex-Governor Hunter to Under-Secretary King

page 227

Ex-Governor Hunter to Under-Secretary King.

No. 40, Cornhill, 22nd March, 1802.

Dear Sir,—

I had the honor of receiving your letter of the 20th, on the subject of the ships intended to be sent out each spring and autumn, with convicts, to New South Wales, a plan which I am glad to find adopted,* as I am sure it will be attended with very considerable accommodation to the inhabitants of that colony.

With respect to such articles as that settlement in its present state can best furnish as a return by those ships to this country, I would recommend the sending back such timber as may be thought fit for naval purposes, of which I think there are several kinds, viz., that called by us stringybark. It is something similar to the teak of India, and is, in general, sound.

The box-tree.—This is a straight, sound, and compact timber, and there was much of it in the neighbourhood of Parramatta and Portland Place. The crooked limbs of most of the gumtrees, when sound, are very fit for ship timbers or ribs, and are uncommonly durable. The fact I proved by the raising the frame of a vessel of 160 tons, which, for want of strength, I could not finish before I left the country, but she stood in frame, exposed to the weather, upwards of two years without the smallest appearance of any decay.

There is also a tree there called cedar, but it is a sort of coarse mahogany. The swamp or she-oak,§ more frequently called beef-wood: This is a beautiful wood, and highly ornamental in cabinet work, much admired in this country. I think that would be a valuable return. I must here observe that as most of the timber in that county is very heavy, and will not swim (the cedar excepted), and as it may be necessary sometimes to carry it some distance by water, crafts for that purpose must be built without loss of time. If the timber happens to be cut at Botany Bay or Broken Bay the ship can go into those harbours and receive it.

If coals—of which there is abundance at Hunter’s River, a small harbour 22 leagues to the northward of Port Jackson—shall be approved as a return, small crafts must be built and kept constantly going, for the purpose of making a deposit at Sydney. When I mention coals I do not mean them as a return to this country, but that an agreement might be made hereafter

* The plan referred to was to send out the convicts in King’s ships at stated periods of the year. The letter to Hunter of the 20th March, 1802, is missing.

Eucalyptus hemiphlora, F. v. M.

Cedrela australis, F. v. M.

§ Casuarina suberosa, and other spp.

page 228 with the Dutch Government at the Cape of Good Hope, where fuel is so very scarce, and so very expensive; and that they should in return send by a ship of their own, if it can be so settled, live cattle to Port Jackson; or, if more approved, they might send sugar from the colony of Batavia, with such other Indian goods as the Government here might consent to have the colony supplied with. This would, no doubt, relieve the expenses of the settlement, and very much add to the comfort of its labouring inhabitants.

If the timber to be sent from New South Wales should not be approved in our dockyards, it would be found a convenient and valuable article for fuel or other purposes at the Cape, which lays so conveniently in the route homeward.

Most of the trees in New South Wales afford a bark which is strongly astringent, and answers well for tanning leather. This I have tried in the colony, and found it succeed well.

Small vessels would be convenient in the proper seasons amongst the islands off the south part of the coast, where they sometimes find many seals; but this kind of business would be better in the hands of private individuals, if permitted to build vessels fit for such purpose.

The native flax—a good sort—grows with considerable luxuriance in its wild state in different parts of the colony, but particularly on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Should the frequent floods there occasion the abandoning of any of those farms, the flax would be cultivated on that ground with much advantage, and the floods would probably be less ruinous to that article than they have to our corn or wheat fields.

The sheep bred in that country produce good wool. Might not the raw material be purchased up there and sent Home to be manufactured for the use of the convicts?

That country produces tobacco very well from the seed which has been carried there. I am the more surprized at the prices paid in the colony for that article, whilst such numbers were employed in farming.

Indigo grows spontaneously in New South Wales, particularly near the eastern farms, and might no doubt be cultivated with advantage. All these things I have mentioned as matters which, in my travels through that country, have fallen under my own observation, and I do it merely to show that in due time much may be done to lessen the expences of that settlement; but at the same time I conceive the timber and coals may be found the only articles by which a part of its expences may be immediately relieved.

In speaking of the timber of New South Wales, and of its ability for naval purposes, I confine myself to what experience page 229 I had of it in His Majesty’s ship Reliance whilst under my command.

In 1797, on a passage from the Cape of Good Hope to New South Wales in a calm, three heavy seas broke on board the ship, smashed the jolly boat (over the stern) to pieces, stove the cabin dead-light in, &c., &c., which, together with gales of wind, afterwards shook the ship so much, and put her in so leaky a state that it was necessary to give her a very considerable repair, to do which the carpenter thought it necessary to put eight riders in of a side, from the gunwale down to the kelson, each in one piece, which was done, together with relaying the decks, repairing the top sides, and new waterways, from the wood of the country, and from trees fallen near where the ship lay. I afterwards made several voyages to and from Norfolk Island, and made a winter’s passage round Cape Horn to St. Helena, and from thence to England, during which time, though the ship encountered many heavy gales and laboured much, not one of the riders either shrunk, rent, or, when I left the ship in 1801, were in the least decayed. The ship is now lying at Sheerness (a receiving ship), where those riders may be seen, as well as the plank sheers, waterways, &c., which were put in her from the wood of that Country.

I must here remark that we had not any paint in the ship, or anything that could tend to preserve the wood in a warm and afterwards in a very cold climate. It is therefore in the same state as when cut down in the woods, and was not seasoned as ship timber in general is. It will be necessary to observe that there is so much resinous gum in the wood that it appears to be impervious to water, for many logs, in the first forming the settlement in 1788, were cut down and rolled into the water (salt), to clear the land, which logs, when taken up again in 1798, were as sound as when cut down—not the smallest appearance of decay. The stumps of which trees were blown with gunpowder, bored with holes, and filled with mud and water, and of course constantly exposed to the weather; after remaining in this state more than eleven years, no appearance of decay showed itself. I am therefore induced to think the wood of New South Wales more durable than oak or the teak. Masts have been made of it, and very fully approved of by the commanders of the different vessels in which they were put. In His Majesty’s ship Buffalo, which returned from New South Wales, there is a mizenmast and bowsprit made of the wood of New South Wales. The commander of her so much approved of the bowsprit that he solicited the officers of the yard not to replace it, and has sailed again for New South Wales with it in. On being got out for the purpose of being examined, it floated. page 230 The mizenmast was kept by the officers of Portsmouth yard, and is now there for inspection.

When this wood has been used for planking a ship, it has been found of so hard a nature that a scraper would hardly touch it, and a nail drove in, the carpenter of the Reliance said, they could not get out again. The bolts now in the riders of the Reliance will most probably confirm the assertion.

The carpenters, when in getting the timber for the repairs of the Reliance, stated that the timber necessary was in great abundance, but they were sometimes obliged to go for the crooked timbers that exactly suited their purpose some distance, but the ship was then lying alongside the rocks in the town of Sydney. Any quantity of strait or crooked timber was to be got close to the water’s edge (I mean fit for naval purposes) through the whole harbour of Port Jackson, which is nearly seventeen miles in length, with almost numberless coves on each side, the parts cleared for cultivation being in general some distance inland. Rough timber may be fashioned where the tree is fallen, and in the heaviest gale of wind a small boat can go to any part of the harbour, it being in general considerably less than a quarter of a mile wide; consequently, water carriage is always certain.

If plank was necessary for the wales, or any other part of a ship, the pit could be made under the tree where fallen, and the plank cut out and shaded till seasoned. It is customary to do so in that country, the land being unoccupied, and for more than twelve miles a ship of 500 tons can be moored where most convenient for receiving spars, timber, or plank. Made masts could be finished in the woods, and be brought down in separate pieces to the water side. Anchor stocks, or yard-arm pieces could be furnished in the same way, and capstans, cross-trees, and billheads, with a certainty of their answering the purpose for which they were intended. Such timbers, from the growth of the trees, might be selected here as would more effectually secure the planks to the stern and stern posts of a ship.

Ships were sent from India to New Zealand, when they left people while they disposed of their cargo at Port Jackson, who, during the time they were there, cut as many spars as they wanted, and in two instances built schooners of 50 tons, one of which was at Port Jackson when I left it; the other was, I believe, taken to Batavia.

The boats of the Reliance—which, I believe, are now at Deptford—were built by the crew of the Reliance, many of which, under the superintendence of the carpenter of the ship, with a like encouragement, fellers, sawyers, and carpenters, sufficient for any rough work.

page 231

The coast on each side Port Jackson is almost a mass of coal. In Hunter’s River, to the north of Port Jackson, the boats frequently went to load with coal for the purpose of supplying the ships in Port Jackson going to India as an article for sale. They usually broke it from the cliffs with a pickaxe into the boat, or got it from an island mostly composed of coal, lying at the mouth of the river. There are so many specimens of this coal in England that its qualities are known, and, I believe, considered very fine. If the coal-tar is considered any object, any quantity might be provided from this coal, and I apprehend the cinders, after the tar is extracted, would answer every purpose of an iron foundry, which might be carried on to any extent Government wished, the country abounding with so much of that ore.

On Norfolk Island the pine tree exudes a great quantity of turpentine from its bark, quantities of which might be collected at the proper season by scarifying the bark as well as spars. I am not sufficiently informed to what extent the flax plant of that island may be made useful. There is a great quantity of it, and I have seen some canvas made from it used as ships’ light sails.

I should suppose a ship going direct to New South Wales with convicts, and to return with a cargo of timber (if timely information had been given that it might be ready for them) could perform the voyage in twelve months. The constant prevailing westerly wind will always insure a passage; or if necessary to send timber to the West Indies, the passage would be much shortened.

In times of war those ships could bring many men for the service of His Majesty’s fleet from the emancipated convicts. Most of those I found it necessary to enter on board His Majesty’s ship Reliance turned out useful men. How many may be got I cannot say, but I should suppose some hundreds, and as the colony increases their number must increase. The East India Company did send officers there to recruit their army, but I believe were prevented.*

The sassafras wood is there in great plenty, which is, I understood, not only for medicinal purposes, but for other uses, an object of commerce.

* Hunter was in charge at Sydney when these officers arrived, and it was he who refused to allow them to enlist recruits until the decision of the Secretary of State was known. He was subsequently informed by the Duke of Portland that he was right in this action, and that permission could not be granted, as it was “conceived that, upon the whole, the inconveniences of such a plan would more than balance its advantages.“

page 232

I should suppose the wood of New South Wales would have a superiority over what I have generally seen in use for gun carriages, as the constant friction during the time of action, exercising the guns, washing the decks, and the various occasions there are for running guns in and out, wears the trucks and axle trees very much, which is more particularly experienced on foreign voyages, not being able to replace them. The wood of New South Wales, when used as cogs to wheels in various mills used here, do not suffer from friction. Gun carriages, from their being so frequently washed, I believe, tends to their decay, which, together with the friction, tho’ not rendering them useless, it still prevents their being worked with facility, easily painted, or rendered of that general utility they might, had not the wood been worn away, which so much impedes their traversings.

I have understood in times of peace, when gun carriages are laid up in the different gun wharfs, that with all the precaution of painting them, &c., it is not found sufficient to prevent many becoming useless. The wood of New South Wales will certainly bear friction and stand the weather. I should suppose slides for carronades made from that wood would more fully answer the purpose.

In machines used in dockyards, where a great deal of friction takes place, I think that wood would be found highly serviceable. It sometimes happens in a ship that a block is obliged to be so placed that the rope leading through lays against the check of it. That wood would not be so liable to be chafed in wet weather.

Magazines, if lined with that wood, would be less damp than sometimes it is found to be; and I apprehend it would have similar advantages if the bread-rooms of ships were built of that wood.

Convicts who from their crimes have forfeited their labour to Government might be employed in preparing any quantity of those articles.

I have, &c.,

John Hunter.