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David Blackburn (1753–1795)

by Warwick Hirst

This article was published:

David Blackburn, silhouette, n.d.

David Blackburn, silhouette, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 110314436

David Blackburn (1753-1795), naval officer, was born on 1 January 1753 at Newbury, Berkshire, England, eldest son of Rev. John Blackburn and his wife Elizabeth, née Martineau. After John's death in 1762 the family moved to Norwich. On 5 May 1779 David entered the navy, joining H.M.S. Victory. Promoted midshipman on 14 July he transferred to H.M.S. Rattlesnake on 7 October and ten days later returned to the Victory as acting quartermaster.

By April 1785 Blackburn was serving as master of H.M.S. Flora in the West Indies. A period of unemployment followed until April 1787 when, at short notice, he was appointed master of the armed tender Supply bound for Botany Bay with the First Fleet. His captain was Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball with whom he had served in the Victory. Initially Blackburn was reluctant to take up the posting as he had hoped to be appointed to the sloop Bulldog, but as refusal would have adversely affected his career he accepted. On 19 April he wrote to his sister 'my dislike to the voyage begins gradually to wear off'.

The Supply arrived in Botany Bay on 18 January 1788, two days ahead of most of the fleet. On 21 January Blackburn accompanied Governor Arthur Phillip and a small party to explore Port Jackson, which proved to be a far superior site for settlement. Blackburn sailed in the Supply on 14 February to set up another colony on Norfolk Island. During the return voyage Ball charted Lord Howe Island, which had been sighted on the journey out, and named a small offshore island Blackburn Isle. Blackburn returned to Norfolk Island in September 1788 in command of the transport Golden Grove with provisions and additional convicts.

In March 1790 he sailed again for Norfolk Island on the Supply in company with H.M.S. Sirius. The Sirius was wrecked while attempting to land supplies and, on arriving back at Port Jackson, the Supply was ordered to Batavia for provisions in her place. While there Ball fell ill with fever and, on returning to Port Jackson, Blackburn was given command of the Supply for two further voyages to Norfolk Island. In a dispatch to England Phillip commended him for his 'very officer-like conduct'.

Ball resumed command in November 1791 when the Supply sailed for England. During his four years in New South Wales Blackburn had formed an unflattering opinion of the place. 'It certainly is a very poor country', he wrote to his sister. 'The best that can be said of the country is the healthiness of the climate and the excellent harbours it affords.' He dismissed the indigenous inhabitants as 'certainly the lowest class of human beings'.

Reaching England in May 1792, Blackburn was discharged from the Supply and received no appointment until September the next year when he joined H.M.S. Dictator. He died in Haslar Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, on 10 January 1795, probably of a consumptive complaint. His letters, especially those to his family and sister Margaret, reveal him to have been an uncomplicated, conscientious man, and throw light on early European life at Port Jackson.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 1, part 2
  • D. Neville, Blackburn’s Isle (Lavenham, UK, 1975)
  • M. Gillen, The Founders of Australia (Syd, 1989)
  • Blackburn letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Warwick Hirst, 'Blackburn, David (1753–1795)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

David Blackburn, silhouette, n.d.

David Blackburn, silhouette, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 110314436

Life Summary [details]


1 January, 1753
Newbury, Berkshire, England


10 January, 1795 (aged 42)
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

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