When reading Daniel Southwell's letters home I was puzzled to come across numerous references to a cousin of his on one of other First Fleet ships, HMS Prince of Wales, by the name of Daniel Butler. The various mentions of him, though mostly in passing, combine to give quite a vivid sense of this mysterious young man's character...
Little Dan’s ship is one of the best sailers among the [store?]. She is frequently alongside of us. I nod and wave to him at times, and he seems brisk and hearty. (17th May 1787 to his mother - sent by the Hyena, which was leaving the expedition)
Little D. B___r* is very well, and I have sent to him to come on board. I must however mention only to you, that by one of our gentlemen who came a good part of the voyage in the Prince of Wales, that his situation is not altogether so eligible as had been represented. In short, he is quite the servant, and under the manual discipline of I think the Mate. I propose therefore going on board just to say as much as may appear consistent, if I find it is not wholly my kinsman’s fault, which may indeed be the case, for we are all apt to judge partially where self is concerned; and his being in the most perfect deshabille seems rather to militate against him. The young gentleman I mention has an uncle on board the Prince of Wales, to whom I recommended Dan. B__r most earnestly, and as he is a good character and a principal officer on the Botany Bay Establishment, I promise myself some good may come of my interference. His nephew my brother officer on board the Sirius has pledged himself to give his relation a hint now and then on Dan’s behalf. The gentleman’s name is Alt, and has the appointment of Surveyor General of New Holland, when we get there. (4th June, to his mother - from Santa Cruz)
*Why did they do this underlining business in the 18th century, by the way? I can't see the purpose of it at all. His name is written in full elsewhere.
I have had the pleasure of [Dan's] company several times, and find he likes his Captn. much. He was very ill before he came into port, with a [?] complaint, but good diet and plenty of oranges have wholly restored him. He is a very fine fellow, and what is more, a good lad, and I dare say will do exceedingly well. The Connections he is with have an excellent name; and if I don’t mind and look sharp he’ll be a Captain before me. (14th July, to his mother - from Rio de Janeiro)
Cousin D. Bu___r still continues well,; and tells me that his Captn. is a good man, and behaves kindly; which makes his situation very agreeable. He begs his duty and love to you all. I have had the pleasure to welcome him several times aboard the Sirius since our arrival. He frequently comes alongside in their boat as one of the crew; and is quite a clever little tar. (11th November, to his mother - from Cape of Good Hope)
I have frequently hinted to little Dan, the propriety of writing and this in every port. I must say he stands in need of it, for he is a good-natured, rather careless, something forgetful, worthy lad. I am in hopes of seeing him today, and I propose touching him [?] up under the Lee [?] about it, or in other words jogging his memory. He’ll think it unnecessary, because his own ship goes home herself hereafter. (5th May 1788, to his mother - from Sydney Cove. The Prince of Wales was soon to return to England, with DB aboard.)
We have just had information that the Prince of Wales was 7 weeks ago at Rio de Janeiro, came in there so distressed as to have but 4 men who could [?]ibly stand deck, Capt. Mason dead. The Borrowdale and Friendship came in soon after, and of the rest we can get no account. I had letters for you in the Alexander but that compared with other reasons is a small cause of my wishes for her safety. I was glad to hear that none of the P. of Wales but the Captn were mentioned as dead, because my little Dan is among them. The poor fellow has had a harder time of it no doubt than the other Dan, for they came round C__ Horn in a worse season, and much worse fitted for it than we. (Jan 6th, 1789, to his mother - from Cape of Good Hope, where they had been forced to return to replenish supplies for the colony)
Then recounting the same incident to Weeden on the 21st January:
I am sorry as matters have turned out that I gave my dear Dan B directions to send my principal letters on board the Alexander […] for I think it most likely you see Dan before you will my letters unless he has luckily forgot to send them there – or had not opportunity to do so.
You say so little of hardships, in comparison to what little Dan has said, that I know not which more to approve, your Fortitude or your Prudence. ... Daniel Butler has now been transferred to another master, I hope will now succeed more to his satisfaction. He is certainly improved, and I dare say will work his way very well. (Weeden Butler to Daniel Southwell, 25th May 1789)
So, it appears I have not one but two ancestors in the First Fleet, but what do we know about young Daniel Butler? He's a kinsman of Southwell and well known both to his mother and to Uncle Weeden. He does not, however, appear on my family tree! The Australian historians have been busy, though, and are able to add a bit more. According to this site, he was born in 1772 and served as a ship's boy, both of which sound right from Southwell's references. On the other hand, they also claim that he was a clergyman's son, which I don't think can be true. I suspect that they're assuming he's Weeden's son, but a) I know all of Weeden's children, and he isn't one of them, and b) the way Weeden refers to him is affectionate rather than paternal ("Daniel Butler has now been transferred to another master"). There were no other clergymen among Weeden's brothers.
Drawing offers another line of enquiry. It seems that Surveyor General Alt was a good choice to keep an eye out for Dan Butler, because the boy was something of an artist, albeit not a very good one. Dan seems to have been a text-book example of being in the right place at the right time, however, and the fact that he was just about the first European to draw any indigenous Australian fish has earned him a place in the Dictionary of Australian Artists, and given unfortunate scholars the task of figuring out what on earth he was looking at. Here's an example of his work, complete with signature:
Actually they're fairly confident this one is a leatherjacket, but Dan's other efforts have left historians of ichthyic art scratching their heads. I think it's fair to say that this isn't bad for a 15/16 year old, and it's certainly better than I could do even now, but it's not really that good either. On the other hand, remember Cousin Southwell and the banana in the last entry: when you don't have the relevant schema to hand, your drawing will go awry, so let's cut Dan some slack.
I have two main theories about who Daniel Butler was...
The first is that he was the son of Weeden's brother Daniel, also a sailor, whose exploits in slivering up Frenchmen in the Seven Years War are recounted in his own words here. I know that Daniel had at least two children, though I know nothing more, and it seems likely enough that he'd have called a son after himself (and/or his own father, also Daniel). Moreover, the epithet "Little Dan" may have started as a way of distinguishing pere from fils, rather than (as I originally assumed) Butler from Southwell. I don't have a death date for the older Daniel Butler, who if he was still alive would have been about 56 by the time of this voyage, but it's perhaps significant that at no time does Southwell (or anyone else) refer to Little Dan's parents. [ETA: For more on the solution to this mystery, see here.]
The second theory, which I find increasingly attractive, is that Daniel Butler was actually a time traveller from the twentieth century, taking part in some kind of time-slip fantasy adventure. Look at the evidence: he's scruffy ("in the most perfect deshabille"), he's too lazy to write home, he whines about the hardships of the trip, and he forgets - or seems likely to forget - to do what he is asked. This, I put it to you, is a teenager - a type of person who, as we know, did not exist until the 1950s.
What became of Dan? From 1793 he disappears from history, as far as I can see, and by this point the Australian historians have lost interest because he's no longer there. Probably he was magicked back to 1980 none the worse for his adventure, but another possibility is raised by Daniel Southwell's final letter to Weeden. When I was running out of time at the BL I skipped to the end of the volume, and the very last one, written after Southwell's return to England, ends with this bleak but tantalizing PS:
Does my enquiry about Dan. B. slip your memory or has any thing particular come to hand? I have left off to ask my mother, as possibly she might not like to inform me of any mishap but you Uncle need not be sway’d by any such reasons. We know “we’re born to die”. I was going to say particularly soldiers and sailors, and you yourself once did tell me or ask me, if “Botany Bay would not sound as well at the Day as Nicholas Lane or Chelsea.”* So also I imagine Africa, or the sea between it and us. (June 30th 1793, to Weeden - from Portsmouth)
* St Nicholas Lane off Cannon St was where Southwell's parents lived; Weeden lived in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.
So perhaps to find Daniel Butler's mortal remains we must look to Africa. Or to the sea between it and us.