In the December 1815, James Kelly set off with four convicts from Hobart to complete a circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land.
Born in New South Wales, Kelly was apprenticed as a junior mariner at the age of 12, and had made several voyages out of Sydney by his adolescence. He was employed as a sealer, and then served on a trading vessel to Fiji. When was 18 and his apprenticeship was over, he sailed to India.
Kelly returned to sealing for a voyage to Macquarie Island in the Campbell Macquarie, which was wrecked; Kelly was rescued, and taken back to New South Wales. Shortly after he was married and became a master mariner, in 1812, commanding the sealing boat Brothers to the Bass Strait. He is said to have been the first white Australian-born master mariner.
His lasting connection to Van Diemen’s Land came through employment by Dr. Thomas Birch, who had him as master of the Henrietta Packet, a schooner which sailed between various colonial ports. Now, Kelly and his family relocated to a house on the Hobart Town Rivulet.
While Kelly’s nautical career continued, his circumnavigation of the island over the summer of 1815-16, in the whaleboat Elizabeth, is well-remembered for its accounts of contact with Aboriginal Tasmanians. The day after they set out, attempting to pull into Recherche Bay, they were met with ‘a tremendous volley of stones and spears’. Kelly’s narrative of the journey, published five years later, offered insights into the life of the first Tasmanians that could only have been witnessed by that small party journeying around the ragged coastline of Van Diemen’s Land in the early years of the young British colony.
Of course, anthropological concerns were not Kelly’s primary motive. His ‘official discovery’ of Port Davey and Macquarie Harbour on the west coast gained his employer a monopoly contract over the trade of the endemic huon pine. And Kelly’s own knowledge of sealing and whaling waters increased dramatically as he spent a year around the Vandemonian coast.
James Kelly would be known as the ‘father and founder’ of whaling in Van Diemen’s Land, with his official duties on the Derwent River including pilot and harbourmaster. He also inaugurated the Derwent Whaling Club, and developed agricultural interests on Bruny Island. His ‘Kelly Steps’, built to connect waterfront Salamanca Place with the houses of Battery Point, are a picturesque feature of the Hobart streetscape today.
But Kelly’s fate ended poorly - much like the industry he was involved with, and, for a time, its product. His wife died in 1831, his ship Australian was wrecked in 1834, his eldest son was killed by Maori in 1841, and the economic depression of the 1840s left him flat on his back. He died at age 68, suddenly. His funeral was well-attended.
Of course, there is no whaling or sealing industry in Tasmania today, and the numbers of these creatures in Tasmanian waters is thankfully growing. If you look closely, you will see seals - dozens of them - on the rocks of the Friars in this photograph. These are just south of Bruny Island in the Southern Ocean. An easy target for James Kelly and his band of sailors in the 1800s, today that threat is gone.
Daniel Cowper and his Hawaiian wife were also connected to the sealing trade.
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