Broken Bay First Encounters

Arthur Phillip’s Account

Arthur Phillip

Captain Arthur Phillip, 1786,  oil on canvas by Francis Wheatley. (ML 124). 
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
(Click on the image for larger version)


In October 1786, the British Home Secretary Lord Sydney appointed Arthur Phillip (1738 – 1814) as Captain of HMS Sirius and Governor-to-be of the penal colony proposed for Australia’s east coast. Phillip with his fleet of 11 ships reached Botany Bay in January 1788, realised immediately that it would be an unsuitable location for a settlement of some 1400 convicts and their guards, and relocated the fledgling colony to the large protected harbour to the north which he named Port Jackson.

The early days were challenging. Supplies brought with them were limited and replenishment from Cape Town required a return voyage of several thousand kilometers of dangerous ocean. To become self-sufficient, it was essential to develop an agriculture based on crops and livestock familiar to them from their European farming heritage. Unfortunately, the soils around Port Jackson were poor in nutrients and water holding capacity. Moreover, they had arrived in a season of drought.

So, on 2 March, within six weeks of arrival in Port Jackson, Phillip set out in a party of three small boats to explore the coast to the north in search of better agricultural land and a more dependable water supply. In the course of this preliminary survey, Broken Bay, Brisbane Water and Cowan Creek were located, and the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury River as far as Dangar Island were navigated.

Fifteen months later, in June-July 1789, Phillip launched a more thorough investigation of the same area, looking for the Hawkesbury's source. The survey parties discovered the first and second branches of the river (the Macdonald and Colo Rivers respectively) and travelled up the river to a point beyond modern day Windsor.

The farming potential of the flat fertile banks of the upper Hawkesbury valley was quickly recognised. Soon after the third 1798 expeditions, settlers began to move into the best of the river land and so began the displacement of the Dharug and other Aboriginal peoples who had for millennia past obtained their own traditional foods from the same river valley.

In his capacity as Governor, Arthur Phillip was required to report back to the appropriate authorities in England. During the four years of his administration, before his return in ill-health to England in 1792, Phillip maintained a regular correspondence with the Home Secretary Lord Sydney.

In the following extracts taken from two of the letters, Phillip describes the 1788-89 explorations of Broken Bay and tributaries.  The extracts are presented here, in this Internet setting, without additional interpretative lenses. Now, in the 21st century, the geographical and historical interpretation of such letters requires that we engage in careful detective work based on a reading of all relevant documents from the period and on the study of evidence from the current natural and human landscape. A good starting point for students and teachers planning a history excursion to the area is the modern day interpretation offered by Alan  Nash (1990) in Phillip's Exploration of the Hawkesbury River, Chapter 2, (pages 11-30) of  "Hawkesbury River History: Governor Phillip Exploration and Early Settlement" edited by Jocelyn Powell and Loraine Banks, Southward Press, Marrickville, NSW.


We thank the State Library of NSW for permission given to include on this website an image of Francis Wheatley’s portrait of Arthur Phillip held in the collection of the Mitchell Library which in March 2010 celebrates 100 years of service to people and nation.

The extracts from the letters are based on G.R. Tipping’s 1988 edition of Phillip’s correspondence with the British Home Secretary, Thomas Townshend - Lord Sydney.

Extracts from Arthur Phillip's Letters to Lord Sydney

Source: “The Official Account through Governor Phillip’s Letters to Lord Sydney” Edited by Tipping, G.R. (1988).


First Letter

Sydney Cove New South Wales
May 15th 1788

My Lord,

... The 2d of March, I went with a long Boat, & Cutter to examine the Broken land mentioned by Captain Cook, about eight Miles to the Northward of Port Jackson. We slept in the Boat that Night, within a rocky point in the Northwest part of the Bay (which is very extensive), as the Natives, tho' very friendly, appeared to be numerous: and the next day after passing a Bar, that had only water for small Vessels, entered a very extensive branch from which the Ebb tide came out so strong, that the Boats could not row against it in the stream; and here was deep water. It appeared to end in several small branches, and in a large lagoon that we could not examine, for want of time to search for a Channel for the Boats, amongst the banks of sand and Mud. Most of the land on the upper part of this branch was low and full of Swamps; Pelicans, and variety of Birds were here seen in great numbers. Leaving this branch, which I called the Northwest branch, we proceeded across the Bay, and went into the Southwest branch, which is very extensive, and from which a second branch runs to the Westward, affording Shelter for any number of Ships: and as far as we examined there is water for the largest Ships, having seven fathoms at the entrance and deeper water as you go up. But the almost continual rains prevented any kind of Survey. Here the land is much higher than at Port Jackson, more Rocky, and equally covered with Timber, large Trees growing on the summits of Mountains, that appear to be accessible to Birds only.

Immediately round the head land that forms the Southern entrance into the Bay, there is a third Branch, which I think the finest piece of Water I ever saw, and which I honoured with the name of Pitt Water, it is as well as the Southwest branch, of sufficient extent to contain all the Navy of Great Britain, but has only eighteen feet at low water, on a narrow bar, which runs across the entrance. Within the bar there are from seven to fifteen fathom water. The land here is not so high as in the Southwest branch, and there are some good situations where the land might be cultivated. We found small springs of Water in most of the Coves, and saw three Cascades falling from a height, which the rains then rendered inaccessible. I returned to Port Jackson, after being absent eight days in the Boats; some of the People feeling the effects of the Rain, which had been almost constant, prevented my returning by land as I intended in order to examine a part of the Country which appeared open, and free from Timber. ...

… When the South branch of Broken bay was first visited, we had some difficulty in getting round the head land that separates the two branches, having very heavy Squalls of Wind, and Rain, and where we attempted to land, there was not sufficient water for the Boat to approach the Rocks, on which were standing an Old Man and a Youth. They had seen us labour hard to get under the land, and after pointing out the deepest water for the Boats, brought us fire, and going with two of the Officers to a Cave at some distance, the Old Man made use of every means in his power to make them go in with him, but which they declined, and this was rather unfortunate, for it rained hard, and the Cave, was the next day, found to be sufficiently large to have contained us all, and which we certainly took great pains to make them understand. When this Old Man saw us prepare for sleeping on the ground and clearing away the Bushes he assisted, and was the next Morning rewarded for his friendly behaviour: here we saw a Woman big with Child that had not lost the joints of the little finger. When we returned two days afterwards to the spot where the Old Man had been so friendly, he met us with a Dance, and a Song of joy, his Son was with him, a hatchet and several presents were made them, and as I intended to return to Port Jackson the next day, every possible means were taken to secure his friendship. But when it was dark, he stole a Spade, and was caught in the fact. I thought it necessary to shew that I was displeased with him, & therefore when he came to me, pushed him away, and gave him two or three slight slaps on the Shoulder with the open hand, at the same pointing to the Spade; this destroyed our friendship in a moment, and seizing a Spear, he came close up to me, poized it, and appeared determined to strike, but whether from seeing that his threats were not regarded, for I chose rather to risk the spear than fire on him, or from any thing the other Natives said who surrounded him, after a few moments he dropt the Spear and left us. This circumstance is mentioned to shew that they do not want personal Courage, for several Officers and Men were then near me. He returned the next Morning with several others, and seemed desirous of being taken notice of, but he was neglected, whilst hatchets, and several other articles were given to the others. The Men hang in their hair, the teeth of Dogs, and other Animals, Lobsters claws, and several small bones which they secure by Gum, but I never saw the Women do this; their food is chiefly fish, the Shark I believe they never eat. The fern root, wild fig, and the kernels of a large fruit that is not unlike a Pine Apple, but which when eaten by the French Seamen, occasioned violent retchings. Their hooks, are made from Shells, and their Lines, and Nets I believe from the Flax Plant, but I have some that were made from the Fur of some Animal, and others that appeared to be made of Cotton. The Craw fish, and lobsters they catch in small hoop nets the making of which shews some art. Yet they have no kind of Cloathing, at the same time they appear to be sensible of the Cold and to dislike the rain very much, putting on their heads when it rains a piece of Bark, under which I have seen them shiver. Their Huts are generally surrounded by Oyster, and Muscle Shells and their bodies smell of Oil, they cannot be called a very cleanly People, yet I have seen one of them, after having in his hand a piece of Pork, hold out his fingers for others to smell to, with strong marks of disgust, and tho' they seldom refused bread, or Meat if offered them, I have never been able to make them eat with us, and when they left us, they generally threw away the bread and Meat, but fish they always accepted, and would broil and eat it.

The Ground having been seen raised in several places, as is common in England, where poor People are Buried, I had one of these Graves opened, and from the Ashes had no doubt but that they burn their dead: from the appearance of the Ashes the body must be laid at length only a few inches below the surface, and is with the wood Ashes made by burning the body, covered lightly over with Mould, fern and a few Stones. A Grave was opened by Captain Hunter, in which part of a jaw bone was found, not consumed by the Fire, but we have seen very few of these Graves, and none near their Huts. It is not possible to determine with any accuracy the number of Natives, but I think that in Botany Bay, Port Jackson, Broken Bay, and the intermediate Coast, they cannot be less than one Thousand five Hundred. ...

… In Botany Bay, Port Jackson & Broken Bay, we frequently saw the figures of Men, Shields, and Fish roughly cut on the Rocks, and on the top of a Mountain, I saw the figure of a Man in the attitude they put themselves in, when they are going to Dance, which was much better done, than I had seen before, and the figure of a large Lizard was sufficiently well executed to satisfy every one, what Annimal was meant. In all the Country thro' which I have passed I have seldom gone a quarter of a Mile without seeing Trees which appear to have been destroyed by Fire. We have seen very heavy Thunder Storms, and I believe the Gum Tree strongly attracts the Lightning, but the Natives always make their Fire, if not before their own Huts, at the root of a Gum Tree, which burns very freely, and they never put a fire out when they leave the place. Near some water we saw the dung of an Annimal that fed on Grass and which I thought could not be less than a Horse. Kanguroo's were frequently seen, but very shy and it is a little extraordinary, that more of these Annimals are seen near the Camp, than in other part of the Country, notwithstanding they are fired at almost daily. Black Swans are found on most of the lakes, and a Bird as large as the Ostrich was killed while I was at Broken Bay, it differs both from the Ostrich and the Emu; several have been seen, but they are very shy, and much swifter than the Greyhounds. Here are Wild Ducks, Teal, & Quails, with a great variety of small Birds. On my return from this excursion, I had the mortification to find that five Ewes, and a Lamb, had been killed in the middle of the day, and very near the Camp, I apprehend by some of the Native Dogs.  …

... Your Lordship will I hope excuse the confused manner in which I have in this letter given an account of what has past, since I left the Cape of Good Hope, it has been written at different times, and my situation at present does not permit me to begin so long a letter again, the Canvas House I am under, being neither Wind, nor water proof.

I have the honor to be with the greatest respect

My Lord

Your Lordships,

Most Obedient

Humble Servant

A. Phillip

Second Letter

Government House, Sydney Cove.
February 13th 1790

My Lord,

In the Charts of Botany-Bay, Port-Jackson, and Broken-Bay, with the Entrance of the Harbours on a larger Scale, which I have the Honor of sending your Lordship, such Parts of those Harbours which have not been surveyed, are from Eye-draughts, made in the different Excursions, & sufficiently correct to give a pretty just Idea of their different Branches. …

… After having been several Times with the Boats to Broken-Bay, in order to examine the different Branches in that Harbour, a River was found; but the Want of Provisions obliged us to return without being able to trace it to its Source, which has since been done; & in the sixteen Days we were then out, all those Branches, which had any Depth of Water, were traced as far as the Boats could proceed.

The River, which I named, Hawkesbury, after the Lord Hawkesbury, is laid down in the Chart, from an Eye-sketch made by Captain Hunter, as we rowed up it. The Breadth of this River is from 300 to 800 feet, and it appears, from the Soundings we had, to be navigable for the largest Merchant Ships, to the foot of Richmond Hill; but as the Water near the Head of the River, sometimes rises after very heavy Rains, thirty feet above its common Level, it would not be safe for Ships to go so far up; but fifteen or twenty Miles below Richmond-Hill, they would lay in fresh Water, & perfectly safe. I speak of Richmond-Hill as being the Head of the River, it there growing very shallow, & dividing into two Branches.

The high, rocky Country which forms Broken-Bay, is lost as you proceed up the Hawkesbury, & the Banks of the River are then covered with Timber, the Soil a rich light Mould, & judging from the little we saw of the Country, I should suppose it good Land to a very considerable Extent - the other Branches of fresh Water are shoal, but probably run many Miles further into the Country than we could trace them with our Boats. On these Rivers we saw great Numbers of Wild Ducks, & some black Swans: and on the Banks of the Hawkesbury, several Decoys made by the Natives for to catch the Quail.

Richmond-Hill, (near the foot of which a Fall of Water prevented our proceeding further with the Boats), is the Southern Extremity of a Range of Hills, which, running to the Northward, most probably join the Mountains which lay nearly parallel to the Coast, from fifty to sixty Miles inland. The Soil of Richmond-Hill is good & it lays well for Cultivation. Our Prospect form the Hill was very extensive to• the Southward & Eastward; the Country appearing, from the Height at which we were, to be a Level, covered with Timber: there is a Flat of six or seven Miles between Richmond-Hill, & a Break in the Mountains, which separates Lansdown & Carmarthen Hills, & in this Flat I suppose the Hawkesbury continues its Course; but which could not be seen for the Timber that, with very few Exceptions, covers the Country wherever the Soil is good.

The great Advantages of so noble a River, when a Settlement can be made on its Banks, will be obvious to your Lordship. 
Broken-Bay has been described in my former Letters - Pitt Water as having eighteen feet at low Water over a Bank which lays across its Entrance; & the South West Branch, as well as the Western Branch, which runs off from it, (and leads to the Hawkesbury) as having Water for the largest Ships, & affording perfect Security for a thousand Sail: the North West Branch has only Water for very small Vessels.

There is no Danger going into the Harbour, but what is pointed out in the Chart. …

I have the honor to be with the greatest respect

My Lord

Your Lordships,

Most Obedient

Humble Servant

A. Phillip