May 072012
Map of Van Diemen’s Land, 1852

Visiting Tasmania makes you appreciate how hard it must have been for the early settlers towards the end of the Georgian era. Hobart was founded in 1804 under the control of Governor David Collins. At that stage it was still regarded as being ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ and the fact that the island was separate from the Australian mainland had only been discovered  five years before by Captain Bass (after whom the straits are named).

Getting there from Britain involved a journey of at least two months, sometimes longer. And when the settlers arrived, it must have been extraordinarily difficult carving out a livelihood in a land with no infrastructure – no established communities, no roads, no proper medical facilities. Those arriving were met by the gruesome sight of the gallows, where felons were hanged, and the gibbet where the corpses were left to rot. Some welcome! For Tasmania was a penal colony, and miscreants were sentenced to death for a myriad of minor mis-deeds.

Initially the main  opportunities for employment centred on whaling and fishing. But both were cruel masters. This was brought home to me when I visited the churchyard of Tasmania’s oldest church in Hobart. Here is one – just imagine how Elizabeth, the surviving widow  of Captain Laughton, must have struggled to bring up three children without a breadwinner and no social support! But survive she did, living another 42 years before her death in 1869.

Then there was the infant mortality rate. Look amongst the graves and you will find numerous poignant memorials: Here is one of them:





Those arriving on the island of their own free will had to face one other problem – a drastic shortage of female company! This got so bad that a committee was formed to try and encourage female immigration. Advertisements were placed in British newspapers. Finally, in 1851 The Beaulah docked at Hobart, carrying 169 single women. It must have been quite an eye-opener for the women – most of them were good Catholic girls from Ireland! The eligible bachelors waiting for them were neither good nor, in general, Catholic, but somehow or another the newcomers settled in and helped found the family units which struggled to tame the island in the years which followed.

Time and time again you come across records of people who died as children, or as young adults. These are memorials to people who crossed the world to make a new life, generally without support from older family members. A hard life indeed. The gravestone on the left is for a 27 year old ‘free settler’ (to distinguish him from a deportee) and on the right for a 12 year old ‘native boy’ named George Weston who for five years had been under the protection of Charles Connelly.




  4 Responses to “Colonial settlement in the Georgian Era: Tasmania”


    Did you visit St. David’s Park (site of the first cemetery) and read the gravestones now up along the walls. Some very sad tales to be told there, too. To wander Hobart, indeed to travel about such a beautiful island with its Georgian manors, green undulating farmlands, old growth forests, wonderfully fresh and varied coastline, and the food!, it is hard to believe it was once a grim place full of felons and rotting whale carcasses! I can’t wait to move there! : – )


      Yes, and a thought-provoking visit it was! Some of the pictures in the blog came from there. Mind you, if life was harsh for the early (free) settlers just think what it was like for the convicts…


    No established communities, no roads, no proper medical facilities, no women and dangerous work. But those sorts of difficult conditions must have faced colonial officers wherever they went throughout the growing Empire. As least Hobart Town was cool temperate. Imagine the poor sods who had to tolerate an Indian summer.

    Life must have been nasty, British and short for convicts, but at least free settlers could be helped out by an enthusiastic dream for civilised colonisation eg land grants.


      True. But then, life wasn’t very rosy for the native inhabitants either…. and the penal settlements in Tasmania must have been truly horrific. You get a sense of the barbaric cruelty and harsh conditions when you go there today – but we are looking back at it through rose coloured specs because now it really is a most beautiful island. What I dont understand is why Aussies are so reticent about telling the world what an amazing place Tasmania is – shyness is not normally their by-word!

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