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John Shortland (1769–1810)

by Arthur McMartin

This article was published:

John Shortland (1769-1810), by unknown engraver

John Shortland (1769-1810), by unknown engraver

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 06405

John Shortland (1769-1810), naval officer, was born on 5 September 1769, the eldest son of John Shortland. In 1781 he joined the navy as a midshipman and went to Quebec in a transport commanded by his father. From 1783 to 1787 he served in the West Indies, first in the Surprize and then in the Latona. In 1787 his father secured his appointment as master's mate in the Sirius when the First Fleet sailed for Australia. Shortland spent nearly five years in Australia including eleven months on Norfolk Island where the Sirius was wrecked in 1790. In 1792 he returned to England with Hunter and next year was promoted lieutenant in the Arrogant.

In 1794 he returned to Australia with the new governor, John Hunter, in the Reliance as first lieutenant. In this capacity he was too busy to join his shipmates, George Bass and Matthew Flinders, in their expeditions, but on 9 September 1797, while on his way to Port Stephens in pursuit of some runaway convicts who had seized 'the largest and best boat, belonging to Government', he entered the estuary of the Hunter River, where William and Mary Bryant and their party had probably sheltered briefly when they escaped northwards in 1791. During his brief stay Shortland named the river, though for some years it was often referred to as the Coal River, made the first chart of the harbour in the form of an eye-sketch and collected some samples of coal; in a later letter to his father he predicted that his discovery would prove 'a great acquisition to the settlement'.

In 1797 he was granted twenty-five acres (10 ha) at Liberty Plains and in 1800 received from Hunter another 300 acres (121 ha) at Bankstown. However, the steady round of naval duties and service as a member of the Criminal Court at Sydney were for Shortland no substitute for the action and excitement of the naval war in Europe, and in 1800 he returned to England in the Reliance. Soon afterwards he went to Egypt as agent for the troops under Abercromby, served in the Dolphin and the Trompeuse, and was then ordered to the Guinea coast where through the death of the captain he became commander of the Squirrel. In 1805 he joined the Halifax Station under Admiral Warren as post-captain in the Junon, a captured 40-gun French frigate fitted out partly at his own expense. On 13 December 1809 he fought a gallant but hopeless action against two 48-gun and two 20-gun French ships. He was very seriously wounded and his ship so badly damaged that the enemy was compelled to burn her. His mangled body was taken by the French to the hospital at Guadeloupe where he died on 21 January 1810, 'firm in his attachment to the Protestant faith'. He was buried with full military honours at Basse Terre. He was unmarried.

Skilful and devoted to his profession, Shortland had also proved a dutiful son, an affectionate brother and a good master. Active, diligent and courageous, his career was an epitome of all the best in the naval officer of the period. His name is commemorated in a suburb of Newcastle, the city whose site he had explored in 1797.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 1-4
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-2
  • 'Memoir of the Public Services of the Late Captain John Shortland, of the Royal Navy', Naval Chronicle, vol 24, 1810, pp 1-21
  • manuscript catalogue under John Shortland (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Arthur McMartin, 'Shortland, John (1769–1810)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 19 July 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

John Shortland (1769-1810), by unknown engraver

John Shortland (1769-1810), by unknown engraver

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 06405

Life Summary [details]


5 September, 1769


21 January, 1810 (aged 40)
at sea

Cultural Heritage

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