Came the Captain
Richard Brooks: from convict ship captain to pillar of early colonial Australia
15 April 2016
Our Treasures Gallery volunteer, Christine Maher, has become so interested in the life of Richard Brooks, she has written his biography, Richard Brooks: From Convict Ship Captain to Pillar of Early Colonial Australia. The biography will be launched at the National Library Bookshop at 6pm, 11 May—book your tickets. Here she introduces us to the life of a convict ship’s captain.
Convict ship captain Richard Brooks (1765-1833), was a contemporary of many of the people whose manuscripts and paintings are periodically displayed in the Treasures Gallery.
Brooks made six voyages to Australia before settling in 1814. The first voyage he was master of the infamous convict ship Atlas (1802), when a third of his convicts died as they were herded together to make way for his substantial shipment of rum. On his second voyage as master of the transport Alexander (1806), he sailed in convoy with incoming Governor William Bligh, whose 1789 notebook is on display in the Treasures Gallery. Following the 1808 Rum Rebellions, when his ship Rose was impounded by the rebels as an illicit trader, Brooks returned to England carrying Bligh’s secret despatches. He gave a first-hand report of the rebellion to Bligh’s sponsor Sir Joseph Banks, for whom he was carrying a pair of black swans.
Returning to England in 1813, Brooks was later shipwrecked in the Falkland Islands from where he made an epic voyage in the ship’s longboat to mainland South America to seek rescue for the Isabella’s castaways. You can read the story of the shipwreck and resulting voyage online.
Brooks’ acquaintances were a veritable ’who’s who’ of colourful colonial characters from Sir Henry Browne Hayes of Vaucluse, transported for abducting a Quaker heiress to Judge Advocate Richard Atkins, whose journal is sometimes on exhibit and whose estate at Denham Court was transferred to Captain Brooks in repayment of a debt. His portrait—now hanging in the National Gallery of Victoria—was painted by Treasures stalwart Augustus Earle, who completed the Brooks’ family portraits at his estate.
Brooks was the first white settler south of Lake George. The Lake was painted by convict artist Joseph Lycett in the 1820s. From his out-station and convict compound at Bungendow (Bungendore), near Canberra, he sent livestock into the Monaro as he carved out the colony’s first cattle empire. His illegitimate son Richard Brooks Jnr is generally acknowledged as the Monaro’s pioneer settler.