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Colonel Collins' Commission 14 January 1803 (NSW)
'Wanted' poster for unfound documents.
This document is the authority by Letters Patent from King George III to David Collins to take charge of 'a Settlement or Settlements to be formed on the southern coast of New South Wales'. Collins investigated sites at Port Phillip on the mainland and the Tamar River in northern Van Diemen's Land, before fixing on a site near the entrance to the Derwent River in the south of the Island.
French expeditions were exploring the Australian coastline at the same time as Matthew Flinders was making the voyage around Australia which established that this was a continent, and not a group of large islands. After the Governor of New South Wales reported the presence of French ships in Bass Strait, the British Admiralty proposed settlements at strategic locations to forestall any rival colonisation.

Lieutenant John Bowen had set up a settlement at Risdon in the Derwent in the second half of 1803, under a Commission issued by Phillip Gidley King, the Governor of New South Wales. In a Confidential Instruction dated 1 May 1803 King told Bowen that, should ships of France or any other nation form a settlement in the neighbourhood, Bowen should advise them 'of His Majesty's right to the whole of Van Diemen's Land'.

Under the authority of the Letters Patent, David Collins was to take charge of a settlement intended to prevent the French occupying 'either of the most important objects' in Bass Strait – King Island and Port Phillip Bay, according to a Colonial Office memorandum. When Collins investigated Port Phillip he rejected it as not suitable for settlement and sought further instructions from King. On 26 November Governor King sent him to investigate both Port Dalrymple and the Derwent River as locations for settlement, and instructed Collins to take command as Lieutenant-Governor at the preferred place.

Collins sent a party of men to Port Dalrymple at the Tamar River first. He judged from their report that navigation on the river would be difficult and that the Aboriginal inhabitants were hostile. He then sailed south to the Derwent, arriving on 15 February 1804, and decided this was the most suitable location for settlement.

In January 1804, King instructed Bowen to deliver his charge to 'the Lieut. Governor' if Collins chose the Derwent, but Bowen was not at first willing to do so. His reasons are not on record, but the territory named in Collins' Commission does not include the Derwent. Collins was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of settlements to be formed 'to the northward of Basses Streights and on King's Island, or any other Island within the said Streights'.

Governor King, annoyed at Bowen's delay, wrote to him in May 1804: 'I cannot conceive that you had any authority for declining giving up the settlement, etc, nor can I attribute Colonel Collins not claiming it as of right to any other motive but delicacy in him.' Perhaps it was this delicacy which lay behind the fact that Collins handed King's instruction to Bowen only on 8 May 1804.

In 1804, Governor King divided the Island into two dependencies, one initially centred on Port Dalrymple, under Lieutenant-Governor William Patterson, the other in the south under Collins. The Secretary of State for War and Colonies, Lord Hobart, had directed in a despatch of June 1803 (but only received in Sydney in May the next year) that a settlement be created at Port Dalrymple. In 'a political [that is, strategic] view', he continued, it was 'peculiarly necessary'. Hobart introduced an element of confusion, and amusement in Sydney, by describing Port Dalrymple as 'upon the southern coast', probably meaning the Derwent settlement, where Collins already was.

King did the appropriate and convenient thing. Patterson's Commission, however, was issued not as Royal Letters Patent, but under the seal of the Governor of New South Wales.

The boundary in the Island was at the 42nd parallel south. The northern dependency was named the County of Cornwall and the southern the County of Buckinghamshire. These halves of the Island were jurisdictionally separate until 1812 when they were united under the Lieutenant-Governor of the southern half, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Davey.


Giblin, WR, The Early History of Tasmania, 1642–1804, vol. 1, Methuen, London, 1928.

Historical Records of Australia, Series III, vol. 1.

Kersher, Bruce, An Unruly Child: A History of Law in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1995.

Robson Lloyd, A History of Tasmania, vol. 1, part 1, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1983.

Shaw, AGL (ed.) and John West, The History of Tasmania, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1971 (incorporates West's handwritten revision of the original 1852 edition). The amended copy of The History of Tasmania is held by the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Research trail
Commission by Royal Letters Patent, dated 14 January 1803, of Colonel David Collins as Lieutenant-Governor of settlements formed or to be formed on the south coast of NSW to the north of Bass Strait, on King Island, or any other Island within the Strait.

Searches in the Archives Office of Tasmania and the State Library of Tasmania were unsuccessful. The document was then sought in State Records New South Wales and in the Mitchell Library Manuscripts Collection in the State Library of New South Wales. Although other papers of the Collins family are held in this collection, this document was not located.

Although Collins would have taken the document with him to Van Diemen's Land as the legal instrument granting his authority, and affirming his right on behalf of Britain to ward off the French, a duplicate would have been retained in London as a Colonial Office record. The search then moved to the Public Record Office in London, where the draft of a covering letter to Collins was found (CO 324/66 ff210–15 copied to microfilm as PRO 1201–2 in the Australian Joint Copying Project).

No trace of the Letters Patent has yet been found. Hugh Munro Hull, an early Van Diemen's Land historian, suggested that the document was destroyed long ago. Hull recorded hearing a clerk from the Colonial Secretary's Office in Hobart giving evidence before the Land Commissioners in 1835 that all the 'official documents' in Government House were destroyed by fire on the night of Collins' death.

The transcript on this website is taken from the copy of the document printed in Historical Records of Australia. This leaves the puzzle – where was the document when this copy was made?