Parliamentary History Project

Bowen Refuses To Bow Out

September 1803 is the anniversary of the first settlement of Van Diemen's Land by Europeans at Risdon Cove, although it was only used for this purpose by Bowen's original contingent of '49 souls' until abandoned in August 1804. Reluctantly putting aside the contentious issue of the indigenous population, this item recognises the historic significance of this event, especially in Australia's Centenary of Federation year of 2001. Another aim is to describe part of the early history of Tasmania that concerns Risdon but has rarely if ever been included in history books. Last year in 'David Collins; a colonial life' John Currey mentions that the 'relationship between Bowen and Collins was strained and formal', and little more is said. And it is not because the story is a boring one! In 1804 Van Diemen's Land - known as Tasmania from January 1856 -was beset with a clash of wills between two men seeking to govern the island simultaneously.

Some historical background is appropriate. NSW Governor Phillip Gidley King [here after Governor King] picked the River Derwent for a settlement, not least to beat the French in claiming the island. He also told authorities in London "For reasons of utility of [having] a Naval Officer's conducting a Settlement of that kind I was induced to accept Lieut. Bowen's offer" to take on the task. However, Bowen's version of this initial step was that Governor King offered him the job and only then did he "cheerfully give up the appointment at Norfolk Island". Bowen was to have been in charge there but chose to take on the Risdon Cove task because Governor King said that it was sure to be 'ultimately of vast importance to Great Britain". No matter which of these views is more accurate, Governor King gave Bowen instructions to name the new settlement"Hobart", after Lord Robert Hobart, the incumbent Under Secretary of State for War and Colonies.


Navy Lieutenant John Bowen [1780-1827 and hereafter Bowen] was the 23-year-old son of Admiral James Bowen, and was given his original commission on 13 March 1803. At this time his naval superior Captain Colnett also promoted him, and clearly explained that this was done 'unilaterally until the pleasure of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty be known'. To supplement this action Colnett and to impress the French 'granted' Bowen permission to wear a new uniform because he was: "well acquainted with the fact that the higher rank an officer holds. the greater respect and attention is paid [to him] particularly by foreign nations. [therefore] I have taken the liberty of authorising you to wear the uniform of a Commander in the Royal Navy, without pay or addition to your salary

Governor King likewise authorised these steps without prior authority from his masters in London. He told Sir Joseph Banks that he had chosen to annexe VDL hoping that Lord Hobart would eventually approve of the settlement '.for the various reasons of a political as well as of a beneficial nature". In 1798 Bass and Flinders had made favourable remarks about the site, but whether or not it was a good thing to establish a settlement at Risdon Cove, Governor King told Banks: I shall leave it to Mr Bowen to fix a more eligible spot if one presents itself'.

From this statement two questions arise: Was Bowen too young for the job? ; And did he choose the wrong site? Bowen's opinion was made clear shortly after arriving in VDL on 12 September he wrote to Governor King on 20 September 1803 saying that: "There were so many fine spots on the borders of the river that I was a little puzzled to fix upon the best place, but there being a much better stream of fresh water falling into Risdon Cove than into any of the others.

Notwithstanding being a 'little puzzled', the youthful Bowen told Governor King what he thought of the banks of the Derwent. They are " more like a noble man's park in England than an uncultivated country. .I could with ease employ one hundred men upon the land about us; and with that number, some good men among them, we should soon be a flourishing colony". This comment alone suggests that Bowen was looking forward to a future in or on the island although other historians suggest that he was not. This supposition is reinforced because in February 1811 and March 1812 Bowen asked the Colonial Office to be considered for the position of Lieutenant-Governor of VDL. He also sought the position of Secretary to Commissioner John Thomas Bigge who undertook his crucial review of the colonies in the mid-1820s. 

Nevertheless on 7 October 1803 Governor King wrote to Secretary of State for the Colonies Edward Nepean in London, and said that he had: "this instant heard that Lt. Bowen had landed safely at Risdon Cove in the River Derwent on VDL, and that he speaks in high terms of the beneficial settlement. By 27 September 1803 Bowen was even more enthusiastic about his embryonic settlement, which was quickly adorned with 'very comfortable huts' for the soldiers and prisoners. He also noted that 'within a month' Richard Clark, a stonemason, had built a stone storehouse. Consequently, as a further result of Bowen's favourable reports, Governor King sent him more convict 'volunteers', and additional troops under the command of Lieutenant John Moore.

Bowen was issued with a second and more detailed Commission on 13 October 1803. He was to take the said settlement [called Hobart] and island into your care but he undermined himself by his next action. Governor King was flabbergasted when in January 1804 Bowen, because he 'judged it fit', travelled to Sydney. He left Lieutenant Moore in charge of his fledgling settlement because he had discovered, Bowen claimed, a 'very dangerous plan' amongst his soldiers to rob 'the public store'. We must note in Bowen's defence that in those days this type of crime was a capital offence, over which Bowen had no legal authority.

In the mean time unknown to Bowen, Governor King, had given Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins - sent from England to settle the Port Phillip District [of Victoria] - a letter to deliver to Bowen. It was written on 26 November 1803, which was just seven months after Bowen had given up a promotion at Norfolk Island to settle Risdon Cove. The letter said that should Collins abandon the troubled settlement of Victoria, and determine on Hobart, you will immediately resign the command of the settlement to him Making this clearer Governor King said if Collins chose Port Dalrymple then Bowen was to 'give up Risdon to Mr Mountgarrett'; Dr Jacob Mountgarrett was surgeon at Risdon. Beset by problems in Port Phillip such as poor access to drinkable water, Collins finally chose the Derwent as an alternative site for the 500 or so people with him at Port Phillip. He had been told by Governor King, thata settlement has already commenced and stocked, al'tho on a very small scale'.This fact alone was a 'strong inducement' said Collins to relocate there.

The ludicrous problem was that Bowen was not in Risdon to receive any communications from Governor King or Collins - he was on his way back there himself! Bowen was absent when Collins landed at Risdon Cove at 6.30pm on 15 February 1804, although George Prideaux Harris, Collins' surveyor, told his mother they landed at 7pm. No matter which is the more accurate, after a rough 16-day trip from Port Phillip - instead of the expected 3-days - Collins, a poor sailor, had previously arrived in the Derwent on the 11 February 1804. His party were onboard the "Ocean" a chartered private vessel but because it was 'blowing very severe' according to Captain John Mertho's log, it stopped them sailing on to Risdon. Nevertheless, Collins' disembarkation was honoured at 10am on the 16 February 1804 by an eleven-gun salute fired from the 'Ocean'

Captain Mertho rather politely says that Collins was simply "not approving" of Risdon Cove. Collins himself found Risdon a very hard place to enter being almost choked with thick mud, which he considered would be futile to dredge repeatedly. Collins also considered Bowen's stone storehouse had been built in a very bad location. It was, Collins thought, too susceptible to flooding, and any attempt to relocate it further up the hill would prove to be too arduous. [Collins subsequent promotion of Richard Clark proves his workmanship was not in question here.] Surveyor Harris too felt that Risdon was 'so unfavourable for the purposes of forming a town, tho [sic] well calculated for farming'. Indeed a future Premier of Tasmania, Thomas George Gregson later had a farm there.

After the cannonade salute at Risdon on 16 February Collins sent Harris, and William Collins [Harbour Master], in search of an alternative site. Mertho writes that, on their advice Collins 'pitched a place five miles lower down the Derwent', where a good stream, Harris said, had a '.run of Capital water and every other conveniency [sic], where we shall shortly lay out the foundations of Hobart Town". Two days earlier Harris, in a letter to his mother, mentioned '.least I should forget it, your address to me will be at "Sullivan Cove River Derwent, VDL". This was almost the same place name Collins had used for his previous settlement at 'Sullivan Bay' Port Phillip, after John Sullivan Under Secretary of State at the Colonial Office in London

On the 17th Collins also examined an area farther up the River Derwent, known today as New Town as a separate location for his group of free settlers. Whilst undertaking this exploration Collins had his tents temporarily erected at Risdon. Two days later these tents were struck and 'possession was taken', says Collins, of VDL, on 19 February at his new "Head-Quarters Camp, Sullivan's Cove". Captain Mertho's ships' log also records that they dropped anchor in the Cove at 4pm, although Collins did not stay on land that night; instead he slept onboard the "Ocean".Next day, the 20th, he had all the remaining tents relocated, and the Reverend Bobby Knopwood, [hereafter Knopwood] the island's first and well-known cleric records that Collins and some of the civil officers went ashore. Therefore it is the 20 February 1804 that is the commonly accepted date for the birth of the settlement of Hobart Town. Keen to get started Collins was, "anxious" he wrote to  Governor King on 28 February 1804, 'to have the honour of establishing a permanent settlement."

Bowen's absence and Collins' 'anxiousness' are the root cause of the constitutional clash that occurred at the birth of government in VDL. Bowen was clearly instructed to resign when he made contact with Collins. This fact was also made clear to Collins in the conclusion of Governor King's letter to him that said in the event of your fixing on Hobart, I enclose a letter for the Commandant, requiring him to give that command up to you"

Whilst attempting to return to VDL Bowen was however delayed on Cape Barren Island by a crippled vessel, and only arrived in the Derwent on 10 March 1804 on board the "Pilgrim', a vessel 'hired' by him at great cost to Governor King. 19Century local historian J.B. Walker suggests that Bowen must have been "considerably mortified' to find Collins at the Derwent. However, in reality Bowen would have already known this because he had called in at Port Phillip to 'catch up with him'. He had been directed to do this by  Governor King only to learn that Collins had left. When Bowen arrived in Tasmania, Collins had been in the Derwent for almost a month, and in that time he had moved his camp from Risdon to Sullivan's Cove. For Bowen this may have been the greater 'mortification'!

Nevertheless, a clash of wills arose between Bowen and  Governor King and between Bowen and Collins. This was underpinned by the fact that Bowen claimed that by being forced to visit Collins at Port Phillip, he had missed his chance to rejoin the navy. When Bowen had sailed to Sydney in January 1804 he initially claimed he did so after discovering a planned robbery. But when he wrote to Governor King, on 21 August 1804 he admitted that he had heard that England and France were again at war. Therefore he planned to resign as "Commandant' and rejoin the navy, no doubt hoping for rapid promotion under fire.

Governor King rejected suggestions that Bowen missed his chance to sail to England saying that whilst he 'applauded the motives' for the resignation, it was Bowen's own delaying tactics in Tasmania that cost him four opportunities to join in the war. Governor King, no doubt unknown to Bowen, had also asked Collins to 'send Mr Bowen back by the [ship] "Calcutta", so "that he may be in the way of that promotion in the Navy that I conceive his exertions warrant him expecting" Collins whilst still at Port Phillip replied to Governor King on 27 January 1803 saying that he would readily give Bowen the opportunity to "quit the Colony".

Reluctantly forced to return to Hobart, Bowen refused to resign his 'Instructions' and 'deliver up' the public stores to Collins! Bowen said he would continue to 'consider myself fully as respectable while I commanded the settlement at Risdon Cove." Bowen held firmly to the view that his second commission or Warrant as Commandant, dated 13 October 1803, named him ruler of the whole 'Island of VDL'. He also claimed that he was of "no inconvenience to him [Collins], as he had settled on the opposite side of the river, nearer the sea".

Bowen did make a half-hearted offer to Collins to give up the public stores but not his commission. Collins, however, was understandably unhappy about this proposal, and Bowen using great understatement described Collins reactions as having no particular delicacy in his conduct". But Collins, with the rank of Lieutenant- Colonel in the Royal Marines was commissioned as Lieutenant Governor [of Port Phillip], and would not accept the stores from Bowen without the command. In his view he outranked Bowen who was only a yet to be confirmed naval Lieutenant and at most was commissioned as a "Commandant". Fundamentally, both Collins and  Governor King believed that Lord Hobart's authority based on His Majesty King George III's signature indisputably established Collins' superiority, whether at Port Phillip or elsewhere.

Recall that  Governor King had sent Bowen to VDL before he had official instructions from Lord Hobart to do so, and the letter to Sir Joseph Banks' noted above confirms this. Governor King also mentioned this 'interim' status in his General Order of 29 March 1803 which described Bowen's appointment as Commandant over an 'expedient' settlement. Governor King had issued these Orders only 'until the King's pleasure be known'. Captain Colnett too had said Bowen's promotion was subject to Admiralty approval, but the outcome for Bowen was hardly likely to be a 'pleasure' because he would lose his new status. He especially complained that when taking on the job to rule VDL he did "not know of any chance there was of my being superseded'. Governor King at the time of appointing Bowen was, in his defence, completely unaware that Collins had even left England.

Bowen's refusal to resign meant he remained as 'Commandant' of the tiny settlement at Risdon Cove. This was not least a constitutional stupidity, and was very far from the 'no inconvenience' Bowen suggests. Governor King knew this and in another letter to Collins, said in his view 'there was no necessity for two Governors being within six miles of each other'! This constitutional clash of wills dragged on for weeks until partially resolved three days after a dramatic and well-documented clash with Aborigines at Risdon Cove. This tragic massacre has been well documented elsewhere. Prior to this sorry event as early as March 1804 Collins had issued rules controlling the shuttling of small boats between the two settlements in order to forestall any escapes. Collins learnt of the Risdon incident at the time he received fresh 'instructions' from  Governor King establishing his superior status. These arrived on 6 May and Collins in his own words 'lost no time taking command of Risdon'. He proclaimed his "authority of every person or place in the Derwent River' on 8 May 1804. Collins made it clear that Bowen had no jurisdiction other than over the unruly convicts and troops within the tiny Risdon settlement, but Bowen still refused to bow out.

Therefore, Collins started to tell Bowen what to do at Risdon. For example, Bowen was to give two ewes to each settler, and instructed him to post a guard on his - Collins'- stores. To help solve this 'strained relationship' or constitutional clash Collins decided to abandon Bowen's embryonic settlement. He wrote to Governor King on 15 May 1804 saying that in his view, 'there certainly can be no longer any advantage in maintaining an Establishment at Risdon Creek, as I am in a much more eligible situation'. Still Bowen continued to linger on in Hobart, and apparently rather enjoyed his last weeks there. In fact Knopwood, says that Bowen spent his time exploring, hunting and staying overnight with Martha Hayes his mistress at her farm at New Town.

Weeks transpired before Collins finally issued a General Order on the 29 June 1804 pointing out the 'removal from Risdon was very shortly to take place". He also instructed Bowen 'not to suffer any buildings either public or private to be injured or taken down'. This was because Collins wanted none of the huts built at Risdon dismantled. He wanted to and did in fact use some of them at his own settlement, which he began to call Hobart Town, appropriating the name from Bowen's tiny settlement.

After delaying for five months Bowen finally handed over his commission to Collins and left VDL on 9 August 1804, and with him went the majority of his small contingent of soldiers, convicts and settlers. Collins was glad to see the back of these troops because of their 'unsoldierlike service', and they were also of a 'mutinous design". He was equally happy to be rid of the 'daring, flagitious and desperate' prisoners', because he found most of them 'quite atrocious'. Not least Collins did not want the 'trouble that might attend bringing the convicts and troops to discipline'.

By his departure Bowen ended this constitutional clash and left VDL never to return, leaving Martha his pregnant mistress behind. Her children went on to play various roles in VDL history, whilst we have seen that Bowen did make some attempts to return. Bowen also left behind a mare for which he claimed £100 from Governor King, who was unable to pay this amount although to placate Bowen gave him four cows instead! When Bowen left Sydney on 31 January 1805  Governor King also paid £100 for his passage home.

In conclusion, in his own words Bowen felt that he had 'executed his service with zeal and integrity', but it still seems hard to believe that this constitutional clash is a true story with Tasmania having two governments simultaneously less than five miles apart. It also shows that David Collins' term of office as it appears in most standard lists of Tasmanian Governors did not automatically start on 16th , 19th nor even the 20 February 1804. What Collins thought of Bowen's actions has not survived!

Written By Terry Newman
Project Manager, 
Parliamentary History Project
For a shorter version of this item: 
Hobart Mercury newspaper 
Saturday 15 September, 2001