Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Shortland (1739–1803)

by Arthur McMartin

This article was published:

John Shortland (1739-1803), naval officer, was born near Plymouth, son of John Shortland, the senior member of a remarkable west of England family, six members of whom were associated with the colonization of Australia and New Zealand. In 1755 he entered the navy as a midshipman and served under Boscawen off Newfoundland, under Byng off Minorca and under Rodney in the West Indies, being present at the reduction of several islands. On his promotion to lieutenant in 1763 he was engaged in the transport service between England and America. In 1782 he was in command of the transports taking reinforcements to the relief of Gibraltar and in 1786, after returning with troops from Halifax, was appointed naval agent to the transports of the First Fleet. This was an important and responsible post because he was charged with the oversight and proper fulfilment of the contracts for transport. The masters of all the transports were under his command, and he directed the provision of bulkheads and cabins for the accommodation of the soldiers and convicts. As Governor Arthur Phillip was detained in London until 11 May 1787, two days before the fleet sailed, attending to the other manifold details connected with the welfare of the projected colony, a large part of the credit for the success of this voyage was due to the vigilance and efficiency with which Shortland discharged his responsibilities. He had also procured appointments on the expedition for his sons, John and Thomas George (1771-1827).

After leaving the Cape of Good Hope Phillip transferred to the Supply and in company with three of the fastest transports in charge of Shortland sailed ahead of the rest of the fleet as an advance party. Shortland's squadron, the first to reach Botany Bay, arrived on 17 January 1788. Shortland remained at Port Jackson until 14 July, when he sailed for England in the Alexander, carrying the first dispatches of Governor Phillip to the secretary of state. The Alexander was accompanied by the Borrowdale, Prince of Wales and Friendship, the last being later abandoned. On the voyage by way of Batavia Shortland discovered and charted many islands and reefs, including the dangerous Middleton Shoal, sighted but did not identify the Solomon Islands, and after a most adventurous voyage arrived back in England in May 1789. During his absence he had kept a full journal of transactions which was highly valued by the authorities. He strongly urged the Admiralty to have the eastern coast of Australia properly charted and was thus, to some extent, responsible for the subsequent dispatch of Matthew Flinders in the Investigator. He was promoted commander in 1790 and after further active service finally retired to Lille in France where he died in 1803. He was survived by his widow, two sons and two daughters.

Shortland, a fine seaman, a capable and experienced officer and an affectionate father, has on two important occasions been confused with his more famous son, John: first on the celebration of the son's discovery of the Hunter River, and second, on the 150th anniversary of the same event, when the postal department issued a stamp which showed the face of the father instead of the son.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 1-4
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-2
  • J. Hunter, An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island (Lond, 1793)
  • W. Tench, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay (Lond, 1789)
  • 'Memoir of the Public Services of the Late Captain John Shortland, of the Royal Navy', Naval Chronicle, vol 24, 1810, pp 1-21
  • Bonwick transcripts, biography (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Arthur McMartin, 'Shortland, John (1739–1803)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Plymouth, Devon, England


1803 (aged ~ 64)
Lille, France

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