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What does an autograph book reveal about a remote British outpost?

The autograph book belonging to Kate Leslie is one of the QWHA’s most historically significant items. Catherine (Kate) Macarthur Leslie was one of six daughters born to Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur, pastoralist, politician and businessman, and his wife Anna Maria (who was a daughter of former NSW governor Philip Gidley King).

Photo of Kate Leslie, nineteenth century woman holding a bible
Kate Leslie

Kate was born in Parramatta in 1818. The family were members of the colonial aristocracy, so visitors to the family farm ‘The Vineyard’ would have included important members of the military, politicians and businessmen. In 1840, Kate married Darling Downs pioneer Patrick Leslie, who also later built the original Newstead House. The autograph book was probably donated to the QWHA in 1977 by Mrs W.J. Scott, a Hannibal Macarthur descendant.

The book’s entries date from 1835 and include contributions from family members and friends. One of the most interesting entries, which opens a window to a whole different story, is the watercolour of the ill-fated Port Essington settlement, dated 1840. The artist is unknown, but it is assumed it was done by a marine stationed at the settlement and could have been given to Kate by her brother-in-law Captain John Clements Wickham who visited Port Essington with the HMS Beagle in 1839.

Victoria Settlement, Port Essington

Victoria Settlement was a British naval settlement that was established in 1838 at Port Essington on the Coburg peninsula in the Northern Territory. The British were anxious to have a base to protect their interests in the far north of Australia and a trading post. It was to be a ‘second Singapore’ — a trade hub. This was the third time the British had attempted to establish a base in the far north.

The country the British arrived at was home to five different Aboriginal clans. The Aboriginal

peoples were used to visitors from other lands — the Dutch had mapped the area in the eighteenth century, and the Makassans from Sulawesi (modern-day Indonesia) travelled to the area to harvest the sea cucumbers. Thirty-six royal marines, some convicts and a few family members arrived at Port Essington in 1838. According to historian Don Christofersen, relations between the British and the Aboriginal peoples were quite friendly from the beginning.

The Aboriginal peoples helped them to unload, build their settlement and taught them how to

catch the local fish. Journals kept by the British recorded detailed observations of Aboriginal

cultural practices. Although there was no frontier violence because the British did not expand the settlement beyond the coast, they brought European diseases, which devastated the Aboriginal communities, who had no immunity.

Although the Aboriginal peoples at Port Essington lived well, the British did not adapt to the new tropical environment. Disease also ravaged the British community, and many died from malaria and cholera. In 1839 a cyclone flattened the settlement, but they rebuilt and battled on. In 1845, the German explorer Ludwig Leichardt, who had been presumed dead, made it to the settlement. In the same year a Roman Catholic missionary, Father Angelo Confalonieri, arrived to minister to the tiny community and convert the Aboriginal peoples. However, because free settlement was prohibited, the settlement never developed beyond a naval outpost at ‘world’s end’ as Captain John McArthur referred to it.

In 1849, the British declared the settlement a failure and the marines left, destroying the buildings (to prevent any other nation from taking over the settlement) before they left. Now all that remains are ruins and a cemetery.

The autograph book is held in the QWHA’s Library at Miegunyah. It was last displayed in May 2021 as part of the exhibition, ‘Perspectives and Perceptions’.

Article by Linden George


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