But today I’ve been chasing up Daniel Southwell, nephew of my great*5 grandfather Weeden. We last met Daniel a while ago, taking part in the battle of the Glorious First of June, 1794. What I hadn’t realised then, and what a brief entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography informs me (courtesy of my correspondent) is that, prior to that, Daniel had been to Australia with the First Fleet and played a part in the founding of the colony. Throughout that time he described his experiences in letters to Weeden, giving us some of the earliest first-hand accounts of life in and around Sydney (as they called it, rejecting a popular move to name it Albion – according to Daniel - and wouldn't that have been nicer?). All this brushing-with-history makes Daniel's movements quite easy to trace.
In case you don't know, the eleven ships of the First Fleet consisted mostly of convict ships, with some supply vessels and two naval escorts. On one of these, the flagship Sirius, Daniel was a midshipman (though he was promoted to Mate en route). They left Portsmouth in May 1787, and arrived at Port Jackson the following January, travelling by way of Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope - quite a journey. On 26th of January, 1788, they came into the natural harbour that Captain Cook had named Port Jackson when he arrived there eight years before. Daniel records:
We weighed for Port Jackson and came to there the same evening in as snug a place as London River. Nothing could be more picturesque than the appearance of the country while running up this extraordinary harbour. The land on all sides . . . is covered with trees. . . . Towards the water's edge craggy rocks and wonderful declivities are everywhere to be seen. A number of small islands are interspersed . . . some lying in the middle of the stream . . . and although extremely rocky are covered with trees, most of which are evergreen. The white sides of the eminences with very little help from fancy have at a distance the appearance of grand seats and superb palaces. . . . The natives too formed a part in the landscape, for some had posted themselves on the overhanging cliffs and brandished their lances. . . . We ran two leagues . . . and came to a place called Sydney Cove.
And that, my friends, was the origin of Australia Day.
Daniel was fascinated by the Aboriginal languages, and makes numerous records of their vocabulary in his letters to Uncle Weeden. However, prepare to have your sensibilities grated as you read of this encounter with some of the natives of Manly Cove ("so named by the Governour at our first coming, from the people being numerous, more hale and robust than the generality"). Daniel and his men are in canoes some way off shore, conversing as best they can with a crowd of some 200 Aboriginal people, who are by turns friendly and edgy, especially when catching a glimpse of the British muskets.
A good while was spent in telling them the names of a variety of things, many of which, it is no less true than remarkable, they pronounced with as much ease and propriety as ourselves, and were mightily well pleased to see us so completely foiled, as we often were, in attempting to master some of their ‘throttlers’ or gutturals. They wanted us much to come on shore, which was impracticable. Indeed, so intent seemed they on persuading us to it that after several waggish intimations from our people that a sight of their ladies would be very agreeable, they caused about twenty of them to pass close by us, to which, indeed, they seemed not at all averse. They were preceded by [an] ill-favoured old Beldam of so disagreeable an aspect that we could not determine whether a short harangue she made on the occasion was a kind invitation to land, or a sarcastick volley of abuse, for what she might take it into her head to deem our idle curiosity. Some of the young damsels looked well enough, all things considered. They were quite facetious, and so far as our slender knowledge of their dialect extended, kept up a very warm, animated, and amorous discourse. However, they did not forget now and then to give a side glance at their countrymen, with whose grand foible they were no doubt well acquainted; and when they retired seemed to do it rather from a fear of giving them offence than from any inclination of their own.
After this, when all had been some time quiet and still, sitting quite hush[ed] in the grass, we were not a little surprized to hear a great tumult which proceeded from some who sate farther back among the trees. At first the noise was simply that of men’s voices wrangling with the most barbarous dissonance and savage agitation; but now that the clashing of spears and the strokes of the lances against the target was very distinctly heard. Looking that way, therefore, we saw several of them engaged in warm combat, darting at each other with true savage fierceness. All now ran and seized their weapons, which, by the way, must have been deposited in the grass, as till now they had kept them out of our sight, and a scene of great noise and confusion ensued on all sides.
The women, who hitherto had all huddled together a little way from our boats’ station, came running down with every appearance of terror, and calling to us repeatedly. Some staid behind, anxiously looking out from between the trees as if to observe the event and wait the decision, and the children everywhere were clinging to them and squalling pitiably. What those females meant who thus precipitately came down to us I am at a loss to conclude, but they seemed to supplicate our assistance. The battle continu’d long, and was now and then interrupted with noisy expostulations, in the midst of which the contending parties would, however, frequently launch a spear at each other with all the rage of madmen. They are dexterous to a degree in the use of the target, and during the affray, which lasted an hour, I did not see one of them completely disabled, tho’ frequently forced to quit the field. I mean not by this to say there was really no execution done, but the thickness of the trees greatly impeded our view. Four of our people affirmed that they saw one man carried off the field with a lance fast in his side. It is hard indeed to suppose that during so long a contest some must be wounded, and in fact we see few of these people anywhere, or of any age, but have many scars and marks of weapons on their bodies.
‘Tis odd that the warriors in question would frequently all at once desist from the attack, and talk together as though nothing at all had happened, and some others of the multitude would come down and gaze at us just as before. The women were less discomposed, and many of the men, though a part of their corps were still as warmly engaged as ever, came down on the shore to discourse with us in the usual way, and apparently regardless of what was going on among the rest.
I must not omit that in one of their expostulations, in which the women now and then endeavoured to assist, our old jezebel, the matron, to use a homely sea phrase, ‘got herself capsized heels over head’, a sign, perhaps, that they pay no great respect to the decisions of the ladies, at least on such occasions; and I rather took it as a rude mode of suggesting a hint that they deemed the business she had engaged in as impertinent and officious – in short, no concern of hers.
But, in truth, the whole proceedings of this afternoon were so equivocal as to leave me, I must confess, incapable of giving any positive opinion concerning the variety of their manoeuvres. It strikes me, however, that one of the following conjectures may be right:-1. It is possible, when any of these uncivilized beings happens to fall out, that instead of deciding the matter by fisticuffs, as with us boxing Britons, they instantly obey the first dictates of passionate resentment, aiming for the time at nothing less than the life of their immediate antagonist;
2. As they seem much to dread our decisive superiority to them in arms, they might perhaps hope to impress us with formidable sentiments of their native savage bravery by thus making a fierie display of prowess in a sharp engagement, acted to the very life, in which, therefore, the most bitter animosity and every corroborating appearance of cruelty was most artfully managed, as I have above attempted to show; or
3. Lastly, the whole exploit might be a stratagem to draw us on shore at any rate, whether by the supposed invincible attraction of female blandishments, or by the repeated shew of terror and distress so naturally exhibited, as I have observed, by the women and children.
I have only to add that, when seemingly tired either with the reality or the strong semblance of fighting with each other, they took it into their heads to begin with us by throwing several spears from behind the trees that fell little short of our boats. I was unwilling to exert the power we had over these poor wretches, and finding they still continued to lurk behind the trees with every appearance of hostility, I thought proper, the sun being just on the horizon, to haul farther out from the beach, contenting myself with now and then presenting a musket when I perceived any of them preparing to aim from behind the thicket. This never failed to strike them with a panick, and sent them off with all the heel they had. But still, so depraved are their sentiments (if I may thus hazard that respectable word), or so little do they reflect on motives or effects, that forbearance, instead of having the use intended, only led them to despise our seeming imbecility. On going away they came down and hooted, as, I presume, in contempt of our menaces. Whenever their spears were thrown a barbarous yell was raised in applause, as I concluded, of the warrior; and in this horrid exclamation the voice of the sooty sirens was very distinguishable, who not long before had endeavor’d to allure us to their inhospitable beach in vain.
Here is Manly Cove today. Were the Aboriginals justified in being a wee bit apprehensive?
When the Sirius set sail back to England Daniel was, much to his vexation, left behind to take charge of the South Head Signal Station. (As it turned out, this was a good thing, as the Sirius broke up on shoals off Norfolk Island, and the crew had to be rescued.) It wasn’t until March 1791 that he was relieved, and able to make his way back to Europe aboard the Waaksamheyd, eventually reaching Portsmouth in April 1792, almost five years after he had left the same port. Two years later he was made Lieutenant, and fought in the Glorious Battle; but just three years after that he was wounded off Portugal - I assume at the ill-fated Battle of Santa Cruz, where Nelson took one in the arm.
Daniel Southwell died at Lisbon Hospital on 21st August, 1797. He was 33 years old.