Shipping and ports


Undated postcard of Devonport's wharves (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

As islanders, Tasmanians identify strongly with their maritime heritage. Barques and brigantines, whaling, Antarctic exploration and memories of the many trading ketches, small craft and steamers which sailed in and out of the harbours and coves, and of a vigorous interstate passenger trade live in the romantic imagination. Shipping difficulties, however, have been described as Tasmania's Achilles heel.

As a great island continent, Australia is heavily dependent on overseas shipping, but Tasmania has additional disadvantages. Isolated from the mainland, its dependence on interstate shipping is two and a half times greater than that of any other Australian state. Tasmania's smaller islands such as King and Flinders are dependent in turn. Geography has also affected the island's intrastate organisation of shipping services. The south, with its splendid deepwater harbour and safe approaches from the open sea, has suffered from its distance from Bass Strait and hence from the Australian mainland.

Another feature of Tasmania which has distinguished it from mainland patterns, has been the relative strength of its minor ports in relation to the capital port of Hobart. They have achieved an importance far greater than that of their mainland counterparts where one port is unassailably dominant, and Tasmanian ports are historically in rivalry with one another.

It was not always so. In the early days of European settlement, Hobart was on the favoured route to Sydney and ships could sail down on the westerlies. Second only in importance to Sydney, Hobart became a pre-eminent whaling port in the southern seas. Merchant captains brought convicts and cargo, and then went whaling and trading. The export of oil to Britain underpinned the colony's economy, while it also supplied wheat, timber, sheep and produce to the burgeoning settlements of Port Phillip and South Australia. An important wooden shipbuilding industry reached its height by 1853, aided by the rush to send vessels to the goldfields.

But the relentless logic of geographical location impinged on southern trade. The importance of settlements in the north of the colony, first at George Town, then at Launceston at the head of the Tamar, was sufficient to outweigh the muddy and treacherous stretches of the river, constantly needing leadsmen and dredges. In the 1850s Launceston trade was well established, exporting wool and cereals to the mainland colonies.

Large areas of Tasmania were still either unexplored or inaccessible by land transport. Development of their port outlets depended on the stimulation of significant land settlement and, later, industrial development. In the northwest, settlement expanded in the 1850s as rich resources of timber and farming land were opened up, although at Emu Bay and at Stanley the Van Diemen's Land Company acquired land which for many years impeded the development of the later port of Burnie. The area of the port of Devonport likewise expanded with settlement along the river banks of the Mersey, Leven and Forth rivers, initially in response to the timber which could be conveniently felled near the river banks, later enriched by the export of agricultural produce. The wild west coast, where a penal colony had been established on the edge of impenetrable rainforests, had its outlet at Macquarie Harbour: its treacherous approach was aptly named Hells Gates. Development here had to await the rich mining discoveries of the 1890s and the growth of the port of Strahan, whose copper exports by 1900 equalled the exports of all the other ports combined.

In the 1870s Launceston benefited from the mining boom, becoming the hub of the railway system and effectively the commercial capital of the island. In 1881, Launceston's exports even exceeded those of the principal port, Hobart. Hobart exported fruit, timber and hops, attracting the overseas mail ships that came for fruit and brought many interstate passengers until the introduction of the Commonwealth's Navigation Act. As the port of the capital city, Hobart had a status and prestige justified by the safety and beauty of the deepwater port and its approaches.

Economic depression and two world wars affected shipping trade, but the advent of cheap hydro-electric power attracted to the southern port large industries such as Cadbury's chocolate factory, the Australian Newsprint Mills and the Electrolytic Zinc refinery, while in the north-west the Australian Pulp and Paper Mills dominated the port of Burnie. An aluminium industry was sited at Launceston's ancillary port of Bell Bay, and a graving dock was constructed.

The changing complexities of services to Tasmania by different major shipping companies cannot be explored here, but major local companies were the Tasmanian Steam Navigation Company, from the 1850s to the 1890s when it was taken over by the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand; the firm of Holymans, which served Tasmanian shipping for a century from the 1870s; and a 1920s venture into a state shipping service which failed.

Before the advent of self-government in 1856, the ports of Hobart and Launceston were administered by colonial officials, the Port Officers, who struggled with smugglers, escaped convicts, and a lack of resources. In 1858 Tasmania adopted a guild system for the management of these ports, to be run by boards elected by shippers and owners of vessels. The two boards covered the island's coastline, but Hobart had the additional responsibility of controlling all the lighthouses until Federation. Rapid growth in the north-west led to the additions of the Marine Boards of Mersey (Devonport) Table Cape (Emu Bay) and Circular Head (Stanley), and in 1896 the west coast mining boom created the new port of Strahan which, unlike the others, had an open franchise.

After a complex history, four major ports have survived Hobart, Launceston, Devonport and Burnie. In the 1970s technological change brought about huge changes in shipping practices all over the world, with the advent of roll-on roll off vessels and the development of containerisation. This required new and different port facilities, a rapid turnaround and a drastic reduction of waterside workers. North-western ports considered amalgamation, and federal and state governments began to agitate for waterfront 'reform'.

Then began a number of enquiries into the Tasmanian port system, extending from the 1970s into the 1990s. Ports essentially at rivalry with one another united in opposition to government initiatives to establish greater central control. The ports were determined to maintain separate identities, and in this they were victorious, reflecting strong regional loyalties. The government's stated intention was to let market forces operate, but it favoured the northward drift of shipping.

In 1997, new Acts abolished the old system of marine boards altogether. They became companies under corporation law with the Ministers for Finance and Transport the sole shareholders. Their maritime functions devolved onto a new Marine and Safety Authority, and the government now exercised undisputed control.

Tasmania's ports have always had to adjust to the vagaries of shipping companies and the perennial drifts of capital and plant to the mainland, and the Bass Strait islands in particular have retained their vulnerability. There has been some recognition at federal level of Tasmania's shipping disadvantages, and since 1976, a Freight Equalisation scheme has subsidised shipping traffic, while favouring northern trade. A popular ferry service operates from Devonport, while Burnie has the bulk of shipping trade, now outstripping that of the capital port with its magnificent waterway.

Further reading: John Bach, A maritime history of Australia, Melbourne, 1976; A Hudspeth & L Scripps, Capital port: a history of the Marine Board of Hobart 18581997, Hobart, 2000; Kerry Pink and Gill Vowles, Against the tide, a maritime history of Circular Head, Hobart, 1998; RA Ferrall, The story of the port of Launceston, Launceston, 1983; Peter Mercer, Gateway to progress: a centenary history of the Marine Board of Burnie, Burnie, 1969; Maureen Bennett, The quiet achievers: the history of the port of Devonport, Launceston, 1995; David Day, Smugglers and Sailors: the customs history of Australia, 17881901, Canberra, c 1992.

Audrey Hudspeth