Like Rev. Caldwell, the first Europeans to arrive at Port Phillip adored its splendour but were cautious of its dangers and moods, so white settlement came slowly. Also, it took a while for them to find the place.
The British Empire started mapping the southern coast of Australia in the late eighteenth century. By then, the penal settlement of Sydney (Port Jackson) was brimful of convicts; colonial chiefs were starting to worry about the population’s morale and morality. A second settlement was needed.
Among the best explorers at that time was a handsome surgeon called George Bass, who took six volunteers in a banksia- timber boat to explore the theory among seamen that a treacherous passage of water separated the Australian mainland and Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land). He proved it right.
Bass Strait was immediately recognised as a fearful section of the coast but rich with resources, waiting to be exploited; sealers and whalers came in a hurry and started living on small islands and headlands. Sydney sent experienced ship commanders, including Scot Lieutenant James Grant, to scout possible settlement locations. Grant and his party came to a significant bay (Western Port) but knew it could not support a new colony.
It was Grant’s replacement aboard the famous Lady Nelson, Lieutenant John Murray, who later sailed further west and found a gap in the land that hinted at a much larger port.
Murray was hesitant to sail through the break in the coast – later known as The Heads – because of its sharp rocks and swirling tides. He waited outside for a calmer swell, mapping King Island in his spare time. But he had to move soon; the pressure on the officer to find a settlement was increasing. Two French ships, Naturaliste and Geographe, had been seen in southern Australian waters, unnerving Murray’s masters in London. Eventually, he chose not to risk destroying the Lady Nelson. In January 1802, he sent his first mate, William Bowen, upon a launch with five armed men and provisions. With rare skill, Bowen sailed through The Heads and was floored by what appeared to be an inland sea. This ‘noble sheet of water’, as Bowen later described it, would be named Port Phillip after Australia’s first governor.
The bay of Port Phillip is a natural freak in the shape of a giant frying pan. Its size – coastline 260 kilometres – and modest depth – up to 24 metres – make it unique to any country. The rest of the southern hemisphere has nothing that compares. On first impression, it seemed a settlement certainty. Bowen went to the eastern shores and found white beaches and salt- trimmed bluffs and was taken by their beauty. When conditions were right, he sailed back into Bass Strait to report to Murray, who made tentative plans to sail the Lady Nelson through the foreboding channel for a firsthand inspection.
He was right to remain nervous. About four per cent of Port Phillip’s water spills into the ocean every tide, meaning the bay is still emptying even as the tide is coming in. The water moving through at a top speed of eight knots creates an orgy of rips and whirlpools. Only when the bay and Bass Strait are at equal heights is the entrance calm. But that lasts about the time it takes to drink a cup of tea. Then the surge starts again. Murray waited another ten days. Then, blood up, the lieutenant navigated his way into the expanse of water that would one day transform the world’s economy.
Murray anchored in the shallows and rowed to land. He climbed a mountain lookout, naming it Arthur’s Seat, and surveyed the land between Port Phillip and Western Port, a peninsula of hills and valleys that ‘rise and fall with inexpressible elegance . . .’
During his twenty- five- day stay, Murray made contact – and danced – with the local Indigenous people: Boon Wurrung (also spelled Bunurung or Boonoorung), one of five Kulin nation tribes. He wanted to learn where he could find fresh water. The Boon Wurrung men were interested in the white men’s guns and did not believe it when told ‘they were only walking sticks’.
One meeting of ‘friendly intercourse’ turned deadly when tribesmen with spears ambushed Murray’s crew on a beach. Bowen shot his gun as a warning. Murray later wrote in his log, ‘This was found only to create a small Panic and our party were oblidg’d to teach them by fatal experience the effect of our Walking Sticks.’ Three Boon Wurrung men were shot.
The ambush convinced Murray the Boon Wurrung was a savage tribe but it was not. The attack was most likely revenge for the crimes committed on the locals by some of the white- skinned sealers, or ‘cut- throats’ as historians have called them. In truth, the Boon Wurrung was a mostly peaceable, semi- nomadic tribe.
Before returning to Sydney to file a report on what he had seen, Murray held a flag- raising ceremony, a declaration this port and peninsula now belonged to His Sacred Majesty, King George III.
The next commander to arrive at Port Phillip was the outstanding Matthew Flinders. He came three months after Murray and sailed the Investigator through The Heads, passing its test. Flinders followed Murray’s route up the eastern beaches, giving a five- star review of the land.
Then the explorer went further north. A few miles away he found an exquisite stretch of rock inlets overseen by rich ochre cliffs. One small harbour was the prettiest, spectacular from a dozen different angles. He stopped nearby and scaled a bluff that protected a horseshoe beach. It was midday, 29 April 1802, temperature cool. The bay shone in the autumn light.
Flinders had found the spot for a town that would one day be called Mornington, where you can look across Port Phillip every twilight at the sun sinking beneath rainbow clouds and imagine you are staring at a blue expanse no less impressive than the majestic Indian Ocean.
After Flinders’ visit and subsequent recommendation it was clear to colonial chiefs they had located the best port for a new colony. But where should they set up camp?
In the summer of 1803, Sydney- based Governor Philip King sent to Port Phillip a surveying party, which found a broad waterway at the bay’s northern tip. They called it both the ‘Great River’ and the ‘Freshwater River’ (later the Yarra River), home to swans, pelicans and ducks. But the ‘most eligible place for a settlement’ was not to be used for another thirty- three years. The British Government had already moved to create a penal settlement near The Heads. Colonel David Collins, a sociable but strict officer with the Royal Marines, was given the task of relocating convicts, free settlers and soldiers to Port Phillip; he selected property near the place Murray had raised his flag and called it Sullivan Bay.
The settlement of 307 convicts arrived on two ships and lasted only months. Clearing the land was easy enough but cultivating wheat was tricky. Digging for water was also difficult. Chagrin led to prison breaks.
Most absconders were captured by soldiers and punished.
But one runaway remained free: William Buckley. Buckley thrived in the bush by living with the Wada wurrung (or Wathaurung) tribe, friends of the Boon Wurrung.
There were some moments of joy in the first Port Phillip settlement. A baby was born. A free woman married a convict. Collins’ officers fished for stingrays, hunted kangaroos, and smoked their pipes watching summer storms come at them from Bass Strait. But Collins was convinced the colony would never succeed. He wrote to Governor King, ‘The sooner we are enabled to leave this unpromising and unproductive country, the sooner we shall be able to reap the advantages of a more fertile spot.’ On 23 January 1804, he ordered all his charges back onto the ships and took them to Van Diemen’s Land, where he founded and ruled Hobart Town.
It was another thirty- one years before Europeans returned to Port Phillip with intentions to settle. In 1835, a band of rich pastoralists, led by ambitious John Batman, created the ‘Port Phillip Association’, which aimed to compel the Kulin nation elders to sign an illegal treaty for settlement of land surrounding Port Phillip. Batman wanted to live along the banks of the same ‘Freshwater River’ the surveying party had recommended decades earlier. Of the Yarra, Batman wrote, ‘I am glad to state, about six miles up found the river all good water and very deep. This will be the place for a village.’
One of the first people to greet Batman in Port Phillip was the runaway William Buckley, wearing a kangaroo- skin rug. Buckley was recruited as a go- between, helping Batman with his deal: the transfer of hundreds of thousands of acres for ‘one hundred pair of blankets one hundred knives one hundred tomahawks fifty suits of clothing fifty looking glasses fifty pair scissors and five tons flour.’
So Melbourne was born.
For the next two decades settlers came to Port Phillip and spread out like sheep in a paddock. Some chose to stay in the new city; others rode into the country to farm.
When gold fever overcame the population and drew fortune hunters from around the world, diggers started living in the burgeoning towns of Ballarat, Beechworth and Bendigo, or in tiny tent villages with strange names like ‘Slaughter Yard Hill’ or ‘New Chum Gully’.
There was no gold in the southern peninsula that Matthew Flinders had found so admirable. That coastline remained relatively unpopulated by Europeans until the middle of the 1850s.
The mothers and fathers of The Point arrived soon after.