David Collins


David Collins (AOT, PH30/1/294A)

David Collins (17561810), founder of Hobart, was well equipped as a colonial administrator when he arrived in the Derwent in February 1804, having spent almost nine years in New South Wales as judge-advocate and secretary to the colony.

Late in 1802, as a result of his persistent lobbying of Lord Hobart and Sir Joseph Banks, Collins was appointed lieutenant-governor of a new British penal colony to be established in Bass Strait. After an unsuccessful attempt to settle at Port Phillip, Victoria, with 300 convicts, he began moving his party to the Derwent, intending to join John Bowen's camp at Risdon Cove.

On arrival Collins made three significant decisions: he selected Sullivan's Cove as the site for his settlement; he had John Bowen's troublesome party at Risdon recalled to Sydney; and he persuaded Governor King not to use the Derwent as a dumping place for hardened recidivist convicts. However, a policy he adopted at the outset to avoid hostility with the Aboriginal people by having as little contact with them as possible was to prove impractical and ineffective.

Although Collins had left England well supplied, Hobart Town made little material progress during his six-year administration. A change of government in Britain which deprived him of Hobart's protection and its preoccupation with the war against Napoleon, caused him to be neglected. None of the first 23 despatches he sent to England was answered, and his attempt to promote the whaling industry met with no response. No further shipments of convicts arrived, and the settlement often faced starvation. Collins was forced to obtain food from the government stores at Sydney, and to purchase supplies from visiting traders. A scheme he organised to kill kangaroos for meat antagonised the Aboriginal people.

Collins' situation was exacerbated in 1807 when the government ordered him to receive some 400 settlers (almost equal to the population of Hobart Town) from Norfolk Island, and provide them with houses, farms and convict labourers. At the same time he was admonished for his expenditure of public money, told to stop writing to England, and to apply to Sydney for all his needs.

Collins faced a further difficulty when Governor Bligh arrived in Hobart Town in March 1809 and began to undermine Collins' authority. Hostility between the two ended only with Bligh's departure in December. By this time Collins was ill and disheartened. He died of a heart attack three months later.

Although Collins scandalised some by his open liaisons with convict women, he was generally popular and regarded as lenient, tolerant and personally honest. Collins was also a thoughtful, well-read man, who understood the power of the written word. He left behind little in the way of public buildings but he made an important cultural bequest in the form of Tasmania's first printing press and its first newspaper, the fortnightly Derwent Star and Van Diemen's Land Intelligencer.

Further reading: J Currey, David Collins: A Colonial Life, Melbourne, 2000; Historical Records of Australia, series III, vol I; Collins papers, Mitchell Library, Sydney.

John Currey