Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales:

a front row view of the natural history of the Eora nation of 1788.

Posted by Karen Myers, Curator, on February 28, 2023

Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales by John White, Surgeon-General to the settlement at Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour), was published in London in 1790 and provides one of the earliest accounts of the 250 day voyage of the First Fleet to Australia, as well as the struggles of the early Port Jackson settlement, covering a period of twenty months in all.

In addition, the appendix describes local botanical and zoological specimens, with 65 engraved plates of the flora and fauna of the land, making it the Instagram of its time. It was illustrated by the remarkable Sarah Stone and others, who completed the drawings having never seen the animals and birds alive, but by studying descriptions and specimens sent back from the Colony.

Responsible for the health of the convicts and crew on the voyage to Port Jackson, White's very readable narrative is that of a competent, caring and diligent doctor. He was particularly successful in managing the conditions on the 250 day voyage, a record that stands out in comparison to subsequent fleet's voyages to the Colony. He was also an enthusiastic naturalist and twice accompanied Governor Phillip on journeys of exploration, one north to the Hawkesbury River and the second to the west of the Parramatta River.

Although White can enjoy discovering the natural history of the land and can admire Port Jackson as 'the finest and most extensive harbour in the universe, and at the same time the most secure, being safe from all the winds that blow', he is soon knee deep in dysentery and scurvy patients at the first tented hospital in the Colony (situated on the west side of Sydney Cove - present day George St. in the Rocks). In order to deal with malnutrition, scurvy, dysentery, and wounds, the search for edible plants and medicines in local flora was urgent, a task White took to readily.

Interactions with the traditional land owners are also described, in what was to become a pattern of contact between colonists and Aboriginal people over the next century in many parts of Australia. Sometimes violent, sometimes mutually beneficial, conflict was almost always over food resources. The unsustainable fishing patterns of the colonists and the increasing numbers to feed after the arrival of the ravaged Second Fleet had devastating consequences for the local inhabitants. (Although it post dates the Journal, White will soon also become aware of the pox epidemic of unrecorded origin in April 1789 and other communicable diseases seen in the local communities that will ravage the people of the Eora nation).

The book does fail, however, to record his involvement in the first duel held between colonists on country. Previously described by White as 'an intelligent young man', Assistant surgeon Balmain and the Surgeon-General duel with pistols on the 12th August 1788, after dining with Governor Phillip. Although he doesn't say why the duel took place, John Esty, a marine, recorded in his diary that: 'This night, Mr Wight [sic], the Surgeon General, and Mr Belmaine,[sic] the 2nd assistant fired their pistols at each other, and slightly wounded each other.' White records nothing of this or his recovery from the wounds.

Tensions were obviously already high from the overwhelming responsibilities of maintaining the health of the settlement.

It is a prelude to the hardships and strain of subsequent years, the scarcity of food and the pressure on resources. By April 1790, White was despondent, understandably depressed with the likely starvation of the settlement. He writes a letter describing the Colony as 'a country and place so forbidding and so hateful as only to merit execration and curses for it has been a source of expense to the mother country and of evil and misfortune to us.' His letter indicates he felt there was no future for the Colony, writing that he 'never saw a place half so unpromising for a settlement as this.' 

White applied for permission to go to England on leave in 1792, but had to wait until 1794 for his request to be granted, arriving home in July 1795. Still resident in England in August 1796, he was informed by the Colonial Office that he must either return to his post immediately or resign it. He chose to resign, despite holding land in the Colony, as well as having fathered a son and 'adopted' an Aboriginal child, Nanbarry (whose parents had died of the pox) there. This illustrates, you would have to assume, unresolved trauma from his time in the antipodes.

His book however was a success. Over 700 copies alone were sold to the subscribers listed in the front pages of the book.

In addition to the original volume, the Library also holds the French translations ' Voyage a la Nouvelle Galles du Sud, a Botany-Bay, au Port Jackson, en 1787, 1788, 1789 ', that followed the successful publication in English.

All volumes can be viewed in the Fellows Room of the College at 145 Macquarie St. Sydney, or the original volume can be viewed online here.