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 New Zealand 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.
SUDDEN DEATH OF A VERY OLD COLONIST -21st April 1859 – The Hobart Town Daily Mercury
Yesterday morning the city was shocked by a report of the sudden death of Mr. James Kelly, better known as Captain Kelly, who it was stated had dropped down dead in the street, The report was true to some extent, for although he did not instantly die, he expired on the way to the Colonial Hospital.
It appears that about ten o’clock Mr. Kelly, who held the office of wharfinger, left his residence as usual to proceed to the New Wharf, and when near the junction of Liverpool and Argyle-street, he was seen to stagger and then fall ; on proceeding to his assistance it was discovered that he was in a fit, and it was proposed to convey him to the hospital as the nearest place of succour ; before, however, he reached the gate life, as we have stated, was extinct, and in all probability from a fatal attack of apoplexy.
Perhaps no person was more generally known by name at least, both in and out of the colony, than the deceased, who for many years was the principal pilot to this port, and in several of the works descriptive of Van Diemen’s Land in the earlier stages of colonization ” Kelly the Pilot’s good humoured face” is mentioned as a welcome sight after a long, and in those days, tedious voyage, especially as he invariably brought with him to the ship an acceptable present from his farm at Bruni Island. At one time the deceased was a wealthy man; he was a shipowner, extensively engaged in whaling, and a large portion of the land at Battery Point, now covered by Kelly and other streets, was his sole property ; adversity, however, from which no one is exempt, placed its stern and icy hand on poor Kelly, and like many others his fair possessions passed away to others : latterly he was wharfinger at our port, the duties of which office he fulfilled with general satisfaction.
The great event of Captain Kelly’s life was an excursion round the island in a whale boat, detached descriptions of which, compiled from a rough log, have been published at intervals in the news- papers. During this bold and hazardous trip he discovered the Gordon River, Port Davey, and other places to the westward, which have retained the names given to them by the adventurous explorer. Poor Kelly used to narrate with great glee some of the rather strange incidents which occurred during the voyage, especially with the natives, of whom a large number were then in existence in the unsettled parts of the colony.
The deceased has for a long time had engraved upon a stone in St David’s burial ground, marking the spot where his wife is interred, his own name and, as he used to say himself, “all filled up but the date.” He was a native of N.S.W. and was we believe, nearly 70 years of age; he was about to rent from the crown DeWitt’s Island, for the purpose of establishing a fishery there, and was also on the point of refitting his old vessel the “Dogo” now lying at Kangaroo Point.
An inquest will be held on the body to ascertain the precise cause of death, altbough it would appear that it was caused by apoplexy; his remains will, no doubt, be followed to the grave by a large concourse of mourners.