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David Collins (1756–1810)

This article was published:

David Collins, portrait minature, watercolour on ivory, c.1797-1803, by John T. Barber

David Collins, portrait minature, watercolour on ivory, c.1797-1803, by John T. Barber

State Library of New South Wales, MIN 538

David Collins (1756-1810), deputy judge advocate and lieutenant-governor, was born on 3 March 1756 in London, the third child of Arthur Tooker Collins, an officer of marines and later major-general commanding the Plymouth Division, and his wife Henrietta Caroline, née Fraser, of Park, King's County, Ireland. His grandfather, Arthur Collins (1684-1760), with Abel Roper, in 1709 issued the first edition of Collins's Peerage of England. David probably attended the Exeter Grammar School under John Marshall, and at 14 joined his father's division as an ensign. He was promoted second lieutenant on 20 February 1771, and next year served in H.M.S. Southhampton when Queen Matilda of Denmark was rescued. About March 1775 he left for North America and was at the battle of Bunker's Hill on 17 June when the British suffered heavy losses, especially of commissioned officers, but occupied the heights of Charlestown. A week later he was promoted first lieutenant and by November 1776 was stationed at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Here at the Church of St Paul on 13 June 1777 he married Mary (Maria Stuart), daughter of Captain Charles Proctor. By that time Collins had become adjutant in the Chatham Division. He was promoted captain-lieutenant in August 1779, captain in July 1780, and in February 1781 joined the Courageux in the Channel Squadron. He hated 'the salt sea ocean' and with relief returned to Chatham in January 1783; in September he was placed on half-pay.

In 1786 with the prospect of a long peace, Collins was influenced by his father to accept appointment to the expedition to Botany Bay. On 24 October he was commissioned deputy judge advocate of the new colony and likewise, by Admiralty warrant, of the marine detachment. His half-pay ended in December and in the new year he received 10s. a day for each legal office and was allowed a year's pay in advance. He sailed without Maria in the Sirius with the First Fleet, arriving at Botany Bay on 20 January 1788. Next day he went with Governor Arthur Phillip's party to examine Port Jackson. Six days later the fleet's transfer to Sydney Cove was completed and the business of settlement began. On 7 February the government was formally inaugurated, Collins reading the relevant Act, commissions and letters patent.

Collins was responsible, under the governor, for the colony's entire legal establishment. He issued all writs, summonses and processes, retained certain fees, and with one other justice of the peace formed the bench of magistrates. His small knowledge of the law was of little import, for at first few cases came before the Civil Court over which he presided, assisted by two nominees. With him in the Criminal Court, over which he also presided, sat six naval or military officers, and it met more frequently. Collins was necessarily involved in the disputes between Phillip and Major Robert Ross, the commanding officer of the marines, especially when they concerned the Criminal Court. Collins always sympathized with the governor. He felt that the officers should not always remain sticklers for their rights, and that if they acted without authorization, they should throw themselves 'with the strong plea of necessity' on the Admiralty to secure indemnification. In March 1790 after Ross had been appointed lieutenant-governor at Norfolk Island, Collins could write to his father, 'Since Major Ross went from here, tranquillity may be said to have been our guest. Oh! that the Sirius when she was lost, had proved his—but no more of that. While here he made me the object of his persecution—if a day will come—a day of retribution'.

Early in 1789, after Captain Shea's death, Ross had invited Collins to take the vacancy. Acceptance would certainly have bettered his advancement in the marines, but he refused, to the great satisfaction of Phillip who in June 1788 had appointed him secretary to the governor, or as Collins preferred, to the colony, at an additional 5s. a day. With his multiple duties he was deeply involved in questions of crime and punishment, convict labour, health, rations and stores. He organized the celebration of each new year and royal birthday, and on occasions accompanied expeditions to outlying areas proposed for new settlements and places of secondary punishment. Like Phillip he had a compassionate interest in the Aboriginals, and deplored each racial clash, tending always to blame the convicts for disobedience of the governor's orders.

The Second Fleet brought news that the New South Wales Corps was to relieve the marines, who were to choose between returning to England or joining the corps. Most of the marines left in the Gorgon in December 1791, Collins watching them go with mixed feelings. Nothing would induce him to sail in the same ship as Ross, but it is clear from his letters that he was eager to escape 'from a country that is nothing better than a Place of Banishment for the Outcasts of Society'. Maria was insisting that he had already stayed too long in 'that Infernal place', and offering to accompany him to some other country where they could live contentedly on his half-pay. His father was urging his return, and reported that, although the Admiralty had passed him over when his turn came to be put on full pay, his presence in England would ensure his advancement. His prospects in the colony were not encouraging. Phillip had twice offered him a company in the New South Wales Corps, but Collins disliked its officers and the thought of serving under men younger than himself. Nevertheless he decided to stay, at least until his father could find him a civil appointment in England.

It was a costly decision. When the marines detachment departed, Collins ceased to be its judge-advocate and thereby lost £100 a year, yet he could not reconcile his mind 'to leave Governor Phillip, with whom I have now lived so long, that I am blended in every concern of his'. Certainly Collins was no longer attracted by soldiering and, perhaps unconsciously, his taste of civil authority had whetted his appetite, seasoned by the opiate of being thought, and thinking himself, indispensable. He was also encouraged to stay by Phillip, and did not write to London for permission to leave until the eve of Phillip's departure in December 1792. In his application he pleaded 'some very urgent private and family affairs', but before it was approved next June he had yielded to persuasion and stayed on to help Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose, although he knew that his father was ill, and that he had agreed to hold a general court martial, demanded by Ross, on the misdeeds allegedly committed by Captain Meredith while in the colony. In October 1793 he heard from Maria that his father had died, his last days troubled by a prosecution which the court hearing it thought 'groundless and malicious', and in which 'that Devil Ross … had spoke disrespectfully of your conduct'. She pleaded again for his return, but next year he reported that Grose had asked him to stay to help his successor as acting-governor, William Paterson: 'he put it on such a footing that I could not but comply … he declared that he could not think of going unless I would stay'.

In October 1795, a month after Governor John Hunter's arrival, Collins sought a salary increase for the first time, claiming that his duties had become disproportionate to the reward. Hunter who had 'long been acquainted with his zeal and very great ability' strongly supported the claim which he thought 'but a justice due to his meritorious exertions and diligence'; probably because Collins had been given leave of absence two years before, no reply was sent. When Collins did sail for England in the Britannia in August 1796, Hunter apparently expected him to return and told the Duke of Portland that 'the colony, my Lord, will suffer exceedingly in the department of law during his absence'.

Collins reached London in June 1797, to find Maria 'ill and weakened beyond anything I could have imagined'. At the Admiralty he was told 'to his infinite distress' that he could only return to service in the marines as the youngest captain. Left with his half-pay of 5s. a day, he wrote to his mother, 'is not this charming, are not my employers, just, equitable, delightful rascals?' Interviews with Portland and Sydney were no more fruitful, although on 1 January 1798 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel, without pay or command, in recognition of his services in New South Wales. Since his return people had flocked to his home for information about friends and relations in the colony. From his own records he completed in May 1798 the first volume of An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, illustrated from engravings by Edward Dayes, some of them after drawings by Thomas Watling. It was more complete in detail than earlier works on the colony, and claimed as its object the dissuasion of his countrymen from regarding New South Wales with 'odium and disgust'. Earlier he had told his father that 'nature intended and fashioned me to ascend the pulpit', and now his sombre annals of crime and calamity seemed to have the homiletic aims of promoting tranquillity and preserving conventional decorum. The book received deserved praise and sold reasonably well, and a German edition followed in 1799. After the second volume, which was largely based on Hunter's reports, was published in 1802, Maria helped to abridge and edit his work in a single volume in 1804. She also appears to have written at least one novel of her own.

In 1800 while the colonies were controlled by various departments in London, Collins wrote to the under-secretary of war, John Sullivan, offering to act as liaison officer for New South Wales. Nothing came of it, but his exceptional knowledge of the colony's affairs was recognized and in 1802 he was chosen to form a new settlement in Bass Strait. Although grieved by another separation from Maria, he predicted a bright future and hoped that persecution by his 'evil genius' had ended. On 4 January 1803 he was commissioned lieutenant governor of the proposed new dependency under the governor of New South Wales. His salary was £450 and, to equip himself, he mortgaged his patrimony and ran up a large debt. He sailed in April in H.M.S. Calcutta. When he arrived at Port Phillip Bay on 9 October, two days after the storeship Ocean, Collins was dismayed by the lack of timber and water, but he began unloading his convicts, settlers and stores at Sullivan Bay (near Sorrento), while Lieutenant Tuckey and George Prideaux Harris explored. Their reports were not encouraging, so he wrote to Governor Philip Gidley King suggesting removal of the settlement. King agreed, and Collins decided to move to the Derwent where Lieutenant John Bowen had already established a settlement at Risdon.

After reaching the Derwent, Collins landed at Risdon on 16 February, but he disapproved the place and soon chose and named Sullivan Cove as a better harbour and site for Hobart Town. By July he had his own house built, over 400 people hutted, his stores temporarily covered, timber cleared and a government farm started at Cornelian Bay. In this repetition of his experience at Sydney Cove, Collins's task was not easy. Although his convicts were fewer than those of Phillip, they were not skilled pioneers; his marines were no less troublesome, his free settlers either apathetic or aggressively demanding, and his tools and equipment from England poor in quality, incomplete and often unusable. Although he had brought enough provisions for a year, they were much damaged by many loadings and exposure, and had to be supplemented with kangaroos and other game, and this hunting led to much trouble with absconders and Aboriginals. Supplies came from Sydney irregularly and often had to be condemned; many of the cattle and sheep he asked for died in transit. By carefully husbanding his stores and buying what he could from occasional whalers and trading ships, he struggled along, often reducing rations and never far from starvation. In 1805 his dispatches to London became vehement, and next year he appealed to the commander-in-chief at the Cape of Good Hope, but no relief came. Later he risked his reputation in trying to obtain Bengal cattle for the colony, and his contract for their import was censured by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Foveaux, Paterson and Governor William Bligh.

Collins had just cause to complain of neglect. Although he wrote frequently to London and to Sydney, no dispatch reached him direct from Downing Street while he was in Van Diemen's Land; even rebukes for excessive demands came through the governor in Sydney. According to the Colonial Office, he seemed 'desirous of withdrawing himself upon every occasion from the superintendence of the government of New South Wales'. He was also thought 'inattentive in the article of expenditure' and warned that he would be held responsible for all accounts not sanctioned in Sydney. Disheartened by this censure, he confided in his brother: 'my gratification will be, when I resign my office, to lay my hand on my heart and say I never misappropriated a sixpence of the Government money to my own use'.

In April 1808 Collins was given brevet rank of colonel in the army, but this did nothing to dispel his loneliness. Maria had spoken of joining him, but could not leave her ailing mother. He had little intellectual company and few of his officers were reliable. They quarrelled among themselves, ignored regulations that prohibited them to trade, and often paid more for kangaroo meat and grain than the prices fixed by Collins. His deputy judge advocate had no patent for a criminal court, so those accused of crimes too serious to be tried by the magistrates had to be escorted to Sydney for trial. He was not consulted when the British government decided to send most of the settlers on Norfolk Island to Van Diemen's Land. By October 1808 more than 550 had arrived, doubling the population. Some were able and energetic, others listless, and nearly all had to be clothed and fed from scanty resources. Also to compensate for their removal, the settlers had been promised cleared land, convict servants, buildings and livestock. Collins placed many of them at New Norfolk, but his inability to fulfil all the promises created a large discontented group in the colony. On the other hand he achieved some success in the measures he took to promote and encourage whale fishing based on the Derwent.

More trouble came when Bligh arrived at Hobart in the Porpoise on 30 March 1809. Collins received him with courtesy and vacated Government House. Bligh assured Collins that he would not interfere with his administration, but he did. After learning that Bligh had pledged himself to go direct to England, Collins decided to recognize Paterson's government in Sydney. Bligh then moved the Porpoise into midstream and later to Storm Bay passage, where he levied toll on incoming ships and fired on boats that refused to come within hail. This virtual blockade lasted until 4 January 1810 when Bligh sailed to seek news of Governor Lachlan Macquarie's arrival in Sydney.

Bligh was not alone in his unkind criticism of Collins's morals and administration. Joseph Foveaux, who acted as lieutenant governor at Sydney before Paterson and coveted Collins's post, had reported to London that at the Derwent 'a system of the most unexampled profusion, waste and fraud, with respect to money, and stores, had been carried on, almost without the affectation of concealment and sense of shame'. Many of Collins's difficulties were due to neglect in London and Sydney and to his subordinates' incompetence, but he seems to have shown some lack of energy in his management of affairs. For all that, Joseph Holt testified that he 'had the good wishes and good word of everyone in the settlement. His conduct was exemplary and his disposition most humane'. A generation later John West added that 'to a cultivated understanding' he 'joined a most cheerful and social disposition'.

Collins died suddenly on 24 March 1810. He was buried with full military honours on the spot intended for a church, and St David's Cathedral in Hobart now bears his name.

By Maria, Collins had a daughter who died in infancy. In Sydney he had a daughter and a son, George (b.1794) by Ann Yeates, and in Hobart two children by Margaret Eddington in 1808-09. George became a midshipman in the navy and had served five years by March 1812 when he petitioned the Colonial Office for a free passage to Hobart to rejoin his family and adjust his father's affairs. According to Maria, Collins died insolvent, leaving her with only £36, the pension of a captain's widow. Again and again she appealed to the Colonial Office, until a letter was found from Lord Hobart, dated 4 February 1803, promising to support her application for aid should any accident happen to her husband while in public service. In 1813 she was granted an allowance of £120 a year, retrospective to January 1812 in 'Consideration of her husband's services in superintending the Commencement of the Settlement at Hobart's Town'. She died at Plymouth on 13 April 1830, but her name and pension appeared yearly on Tasmanian estimates until 1842.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 1-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 2-7, series 3, vol 1
  • C. R. Collins, Saga of Settlement (Perth, 1956)
  • R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol 1 (Lond, 1928) and vol 2 (Melb, 1939)
  • David Collins letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

'Collins, David (1756–1810)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

David Collins, portrait minature, watercolour on ivory, c.1797-1803, by John T. Barber

David Collins, portrait minature, watercolour on ivory, c.1797-1803, by John T. Barber

State Library of New South Wales, MIN 538

Life Summary [details]


3 March, 1756
London, Middlesex, England


24 March, 1810 (aged 54)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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