Cattle stealing, body snatching and murder for the Tasmanian surgeon

Quite often a reader’s note to Roamer, occasionally accompanied with pictures, is the start an intriguing story with strong, local connections.

Such as today’s photos of a sailor carved in bone, and a button, all that remains from the life of a local man who travelled to the other side of the world and made a somewhat unusual mark on history.

An e-mail arrived in Roamer’s mailbox recently with a name on it - Jacob Mountgarrett.

The name was accompanied by a document and a short explanation “there’s a wee bit more in here” which was something of an understatement!

Born and reared in County Armagh, Jacob Mountgarrett’s “wee bit more” included a spell as a surgeon on a convict ship to Australia in 1802 and then some serious exploring and farming in Tasmania.

He was also accused of bush ranging, murder, theft, and the ‘scientific study’ of his victims - in other words, dissecting bodies and distributing bones to ‘collectors’!

Born around 1773, Jacob Mountgarrett was very probably the son of Rev. John Mountgarrett, curate of Drumbanagher, near Killeavy, County Armagh.

Jacob qualified as a surgeon in London and became a naval surgeon, serving in the Mediterranean and at Cape St Vincent.

After being paid off in 1802, he joined H.M.S. Glatton, transporting convicts to New South Wales, where he ‘applied’ to become a settler in Tasmania.

Jacob’s fellow-settlers included soldiers and convicts, who built and occupied a little ‘town’ at Risdon Cove, just north of what was to become Tasmania’s Hobart.

The group was under the leadership of 23-year-old Lieutenant John Bowen, a Royal Navy officer from Devon. Having trekked and explored with Lt. Bowen in search of a suitable location, Jacob Mountgarrett was appointed surgeon of the little community with various organisational responsibilities.

On 27 September 1803 Bowen noted in his diary the settlement “shows an effective strength of 22 men, 21 convicts and their overseer” of whom two were “in charge of stock”, a blacksmith, a carpenter and two tree-fellers focussed on building, and three women were “cutting grass”, probably for thatching.

They shared nine cattle, 25 sheep, Bowen had a horse, and the soldiers and so-called free settlers (non-convicts) had a total of seven sheep, eight goats and 38 pigs.

Jacob Mountgarrett began with one cow and kick-started a little farm, growing and harvesting wheat for the first time in Tasmania.

Bowen reported to the authorities that he had “all his people housed” and that “the soldiers and prisoners have got very comfortable.”

The soldiers’ huts were near Jacob Mountgarrett’s quarters, and the prisoners’ quarters were constructed on the brow of a steep bank overlooking a creek.

On 7 October 1803 the Governor of Australia wrote

“I have heard that Lt. Bowen has landed safely at Risdon Cove in the River Derwent on Van Diemen’s Land - he speaks in high terms of the beneficial settlement.”

Bowen had in fact added a little ‘spin’ to reality!

The settlement was perched on the top of a steep bank on the edge of a very narrow gully, and the desolate plateau on which it stood, enclosed with rocky hills, was a useless setting for a make-shift village.

And there were ‘social problems’! The soldiers became mutinous and some convicts, a number of them from Ireland, refused to work and pilfered supplies.

Amidst these unpleasant circumstances, and in such difficult terrain, Jacob’s farm didn’t prosper, and despite his medical title and social standing, he turned to an unsavoury lifestyle.

He was implicated in the killing of a number of indigenous Aboriginal people in 1804 and was responsible for sending at least one victim’s body to Sydney in a barrel as a ‘specimen’. This dark episode in the new colony’s history is a foundation story for the European invasion of Tasmania, and for the colonists’ relations with Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

Mountgarrett undertook more exploration of the country to the north-west of Port Dalrymple, and received a grant of 600 acres in Norfolk Plains on the South Esk River.

But conditions in the expanding settlement deteriorated and Mountgarrett became associated with many doubtful activities.

He was accused of assisting fellow Irish settler Peter Mills, a surveyor and harbour-master, with his bush ranging activities, and in 1815 Jacob was sent to Sydney for trial.

He was acquitted but while in Sydney he had to have his arm amputated.

He sought permission to retire on a pension.

When the pension was refused Mountgarrett returned to his medical duties in December 1817.

He was naturally handicapped by the loss of his arm, and there were more than a few complaints about his neglect of duty.

He was notorious as a bad debtor and was suspected of cattle stealing and misappropriating the stores and medicines for which he was responsible. His ‘contract’ was terminated in 1821.

He died, insolvent, on 27 January 1828 and was buried in the old Church of England burial ground, Launceston.

In 1811 he had married Bridget Edwards who was left destitute and died in April 1829.

A little 50-millimetres-high sailor carved in bone and two buttons from a naval surgeon’s uniform were excavated from the land around Jacob Mountgarrett’s hut in 1980, the only reminders left of a very ‘colourful character’ from Ireland.