COLLINS, David (1754-1810)

COLLINS, David (1754-1810)
first governor of Tasmania
was born on 3 March 1754. He was the eldest son of General Collins and his wife, Harriet Fraser, and grandson of Arthur Collins the antiquary. He was educated at the Exeter Grammar School, became a lieutenant of marines in February 1771, and in 1776 adjutant of the Chatham division. If the generally given year of his birth, 1756, were correct that would mean that he was a lieutenant at 14 and an adjutant at 20. His monument at Hobart states that he was "aged 56 years" when he died, and that appears more likely to be correct. He was fighting in America in 1775, in 1779 was promoted captain, and in 1782 took part in the action when Lord Howe relieved Gibraltar. He was on half pay for about five years, but in October 1786 received the appointment of judge-advocate of New South Wales and sailed with Phillip (q.v.) in 1787. After his arrival he became colonial secretary to the colony, and as his duties as judge-advocate were not heavy, found no difficulty in doing the work and in being a much valued officer. He was a well-educated man but had had no training in law, yet practically he was the chief justice of the colony. In 1791 he suffered some loss of salary on account of the withdrawal of the marines to England, and in December 1792 applied for permission to return to England. This was given but he did, not actually leave Sydney until 1796. He was then judge-advocate and secretary to governor Hunter (q.v.). It is clear from a letter of Hunter's to the Duke of Portland, that he valued Collins's services very highly. In 1798 Collins resigned his position of judge-advocate, and published An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, the best of the early accounts of the new settlement. It is clear from a statement on page 501 that the book was actually written in Australia before Collins left, and it has great value as a contemporary account of the early days to the end of September 1796. In 1802 the second volume was published which carried on the story for another four years. G. B. Barton in his History of New South Wales says that this volume was not written by Collins but by Hunter. The evidence for this statement appears to be insufficient, but it was of course impossible for Collins to write this volume from personal knowledge, and it is quite likely that Hunter may have supplied him with the necessary facts on which it is based. The last paragraph of the book ends on a despondent note. He speaks of the "country in whose service I spent the first nine years of its infancy, during all the difficulties and hardship— without other reward—than the consciousness of having been a faithful and zealous servant of my employers". Probably this reached the notice of the authorities, for in February 1803 he received his commission as lieutenant-governor of a settlement to be formed "in Bass's Streights". He sailed in the Calcutta with about 330 convicts and arrived in Port Phillip on 9 October 1803. He chose a bad spot for the settlement on the south shore and found the soil poor, and that there was little water. Better water was found on the east shore near the present site of Frankston, but Collins decided that the country was of a too inhospitable nature, and on 30 January he sailed for Tasmania and arrived in the Derwent on 15 February 1804. Collins's decision to leave Port Phillip suggests some lack of courage or initiative, though it is possible that he may have had reasons for thinking that he would find better land in Tasmania. Governor King (q.v.), in a dispatch dated 1 March 1804, spoke of the good accounts Lieutenant Bowen had given of Van Diemen's land. On 18 February Collins selected for the settlement the present site of Hobart. It is generally agreed no better choice could have been made, and three days later Collins stepped ashore and began his reign as lieutenant-governor.
Though the land at Hobart was better than that surrounding Sydney, it was some time before much food could be grown, and several times the settlement was on the verge of starvation. Gradually huts were built, mostly of a primitive kind, and regulations were issued fixing the weekly rations for all hands, hours of labour, and the issuing of clothes and utensils. The small band of free settlers with the party, they numbered fewer than a dozen, were given grants of 100 acres each, and every one set to work to make the best of the conditions. But too many of the convicts were old and worn out men, few had had any experience on the land, and, a crowning misfortune, much of the seed brought out failed to germinate. In May there was an unfortunate affray with the aborigines at the settlement at Risdon, which had been formed under Lieutenant Bowen before Collins's arrival, and having received fresh instructions from King, Collins took over the command of the Risdon settlement, placing Bowen in charge for the time being. In August Bowen left for Sydney taking with him most of the Risdon convicts and his small force of soldiers. This was the end of the Risdon settlement, but much exploring needed to be done, and Collins was fortunate in receiving the help of Robert Brown (q.v.), the famous botanist, who by his explorations during the first year much extended the knowledge of the country. There were the usual currency difficulties which Collins got over to some extent by introducing a system of promissory notes. But of necessity most transactions were carried out by barter, in which spirits formed an important item. A supply of cattle, horses and pigs was sent from Sydney, but in the starvation years which followed it was difficult to feed the stock properly, or prevent it from being stolen and killed for food. Knopwood (q.v.) in 1807 records that three prisoners were sentenced to 500 lashes each for killing a goat. In spite of the brutality of these punishments it was most difficult to keep law and order. Another problem was the prevention of communication between free settlers and convicts who had become bushrangers. Collins wanted a supply of food sufficient to last two years to be always on the island, but stores continued to be sent from Sydney which had similar troubles even at this date. The population at and near Hobart was gradually increased by transfers of settlers from Norfolk Island. By October 1808 a total of 554 persons had been received from this source, of whom 109 were women and 220 children. In 1809 Collins was placed in a difficult position when Governor Bligh (q.v.) sailed to Hobart after his deposition. He treated Bligh with courtesy, but after receiving dispatches from Sydney, forbad any intercourse with him. Nine months later Bligh sailed away, and a great anxiety was removed from Collins, whose health had been feeling the strain of his position for some time. He died suddenly on 24 March 1810 and was buried at Hobart, where a monument to his memory was unveiled in 1838. This states that he died on 28 March, the date of the funeral having been given in error. Collins married an American woman who signed the preface and prepared the 1804 edition of his book. The Gentleman's Magazine says that his wife survived him without issue, but Knopwood's diary refers to George and Mary Collins, the son and daughter of the governor. The entry for 14 February 1805, says: "At eight, the governor's son and self went up to Risdon in my boat". Two years after Collins's death Mrs Collins was given a pension of £120 a year.
Collins had a good presence and was affable and friendly with his subordinates. In a brutal age, though sometimes obliged to punish the convicts he often showed great clemency, and he did his best to protect the aborigines. As an official and administrator, he gets little commendation and some blame from Rusden (q.v.) in his History of Australia, and generally the value of his work has not been sufficiently appreciated. He was an able lieutenant to both Phillip and Hunter in New South Wales, and as governor of Tasmania he earned the love and admiration of his contemporaries. Cut off by distance from any immediate help, he faced famine fully and met bravely and resourcefully the many difficulties that arose in the first six years of Tasmanian history.
The Gentleman's Magazine, 1810, pt. II, p. 489; Mabel Hookey, Bobby Knopwood and His Times; J. Collier, Introduction to Collins's An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, 1910 ed.; R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol. II; The Derwent Star and Van Diemen's Land Intelligence, 3 April 1810; Memoirs of Joseph Holt, vol. II, pp. 250-6; Journal and Proceedings, The Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. III, p. 122; Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. I, II, IV to VII, ser. III, vol. I; W. R. Barrett, History of Tasmania to the Death of Lieut.-Governor Collins in 1810.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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