On disobeying orders in the new colony

John Harris tells a surprising story of encounter between Aboriginal people and some Christian colonists.



John Harris tells a surprising story of encounter between Aboriginal people and some Christian colonists.


There were not a lot of committed believing Christians, if you like, in the early days of the colony; there were very few clergy, for example, and they were military chaplains. But there were, here and there, Christians among the convicts, and there were Christians among the military. And two that are very, very interesting are Captain Watkin Tench and Lieutenant William Dawes. And Dawes is the Lieutenant after whom Dawes Point, the Observatory, is named.

But Admiral Arthur Phillip as Governor eventually became so frustrated with Aboriginal people in coming over the Hawkesbury, stealing food, spearing animals – of course, Aboriginal people didn’t see that a human being could own an animal, I’m not blaming them – but in the end he felt that he had to do something drastic, and he wanted six of them to be killed as an example. And he asked Watkin Tench and Lieutenant Dawes – Captain Watkin Tench and Lieutenant Dawes – to lead a party.

Now Dawes refused to do that. Tench went and asked Phillip if he had to shoot six, and Phillip said, “Well, four.” And Tench went back to him again another day and said he didn’t want to shoot four, and Phillip said, “Two. And don’t come back anymore because I’ll have your stripes and have you court-marshalled.”

Now, after that time Dawes changed his mind, and I think we can recreate the story here. Tench said to him, “I’m not going to do any of this. I’m not going to kill anybody. We’ll just go out, we won’t kill anybody.” And I think two things then happened.

Firstly, Dawes and Tench told their Aboriginal friends to go and warn everybody off. So that happened. And the second thing, they just made themselves obvious. And I’ve read the diary of Private Eastman who went with this group, who was one of the soldiers, and he said, “Captain Tench led us out with a whole marine band, drums and bugles, all the way to Parramatta” – so they certainly made sure that all Aboriginal people knew they were marching out. And Eastman also wrote in his diary, “Captain Tench marched us up and down in a godforsaken swamp for two weeks.”

Tench never had any intention of killing anybody. But Dawes went back and said to Governor Phillip, “I’ll never obey that order again.” And he was court-marshalled and sent back to England. But as soon as he got there they recognised his worth and sent him to help in the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies. So that’s a very important story, I think.