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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Burton, David (?–1792)

by A. J. Gray

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

David Burton (d.1792), botanist, surveyor and professional gardener, arrived at Port Jackson in H.M.S. Gorgon on 22 September 1791 as superintendent of convicts. Sir Joseph Banks, who considered him capable of useful service in New South Wales, had recommended his appointment for three years at £40 a year, and shortly before his departure had privately commissioned him, at £20 a year, to collect seeds and botanical specimens, with the stipulation that he was not to supply 'any vegetable production' directly or indirectly to any other person. When Burton arrived in Sydney, he was sent straightway to Parramatta to survey allotments for settlers, because Surveyor-General Augustus Alt was urgently seeking relief from field duties.

In December 1791 Governor Arthur Phillip, who had already discovered that Burton was 'a very steady man', instructed him to examine the land in the Parramatta district and to report 'with such caution that on any future examination the soil might appear in every part to be to the full as good as it should be represented'. Phillip suspected that very unfavourable opinions about the country were already being expressed in England and he feared that more weight might attach to them than to his own consistent advocacy of its agricultural potential. Burton furnished his report on 24 February 1792, and when Phillip submitted it to Dundas he emphasized that it had been prepared by a man who 'may be supposed to be a much better judge of the good or bad qualities of the ground than any of those persons who have hitherto given their opinions'. In general, Burton found that the soil throughout the area was good.

Meanwhile he collected and classified plants assiduously. On 18 December 1791 he informed Banks that he had put sixty tubs of plants and sundry boxes of seeds and specimens in the Gorgon and that ere long he hoped to enrich his collection with specimens from 'the other two Kingdoms of nature'. Early in March 1792 more boxes of seeds were sent in the Pitt and before the end of the month fifty tubs of plants were ready for dispatch in the Atlantic.

On 13 April 1792 at Parramatta, Burton died of wounds received through mishandling his own gun while on an expedition to the Nepean River. His burial was recorded in the register of St John's, Parramatta. Phillip visited him a few hours before he died, and on 20 May 1792 wrote at length to Banks detailing the circumstances. 'In this man', he said, 'I lost one whom I cannot replace and whom I could ill spare'.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 1
  • J. Hunter, An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island (Lond, 1793)
  • D. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1798-1802)
  • J. H. Maiden, Sir Joseph Banks (Syd, 1909)
  • A. Phillip letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Banks papers, Brabourne collection (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

A. J. Gray, 'Burton, David (?–1792)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 12 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

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