British Roots in Australian Soil: Forby Sutherland, Death and the Nineteenth Century Nation

The first British man to be buried in Australian soil was a Scottish sailor.  Forby Sutherland was an Orcadian sailor who was part of the crew of Captain Cook’s voyage to New South Wales in 1770.  A casualty of the late eighteenth-century push by European nations to explore and colonise the South Seas, Sutherland would almost certainly have left little mark on history or literature, another sailor lost at sea, were it not for the extraordinary location of his dissolution. The sailor had exhibited symptoms of consumption for much of the voyage before succumbing to the disease when the ship was at anchor in Botany Bay. His death and subsequent burial in Australian soil are noted in Cook’s diary:

Last night Forby Sutherland, Seaman, departed this Life, and in the A.M. his body Was buried ashore at the watering place, which occasioned my calling the south point of this bay after his name.

This short description is the foundational text in what was to be a long line of literature concerning British death in Australia. Sutherland was to be the first of many thousands of men, women and children of British origin laid to rest in that most foreign of soils, and the first to be commemorated in print.

Cook’s brief note of the sailor’s death was also not the only record of Sutherland’s eternal sojourn in the Southland. The symbolism of such a moment became increasingly apparent to colonial Australia’s early poets as they sought to shape a national literary culture over the next century. Sutherland’s death and burial were the subject of several examples of poetry in the century leading up to Australian Federation.

The literary reactions which the sparse story of Sutherland’s death provoked are an example of the important role which the dead could play in the formation of nineteenth century national cultures. As New South Wales transitioned from insecure colonial outpost to well-established and increasingly culturally confident settlement, Sutherland’s grave was adopted by several poets as a symbolic point of origin for the an emerging proto-national community. The death of the sailor offered a more palatable alternative myth of origin to that of the New South Wales penal colony and could obscure the ongoing territorial dispute between white settlers and Australia’s Aboriginal Nations.  Where much of Australia remained a contested space full of frontiers and unresolved conflicts, the Forby Sutherland poems I’ll look at in this blog cast that first British grave as the first step in an inevitable journey from ‘wasteland’ to settled nation. The grave in these texts is a foundation not just for present state but for a future national community.

English-born poet Barron Field’s 1823 sonnet ‘On Visiting the Spot Where Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks First Landed’ foregrounds Sutherland’s death within the story of the Cook expedition’s landing at Botany Bay. Written when the British colonies in Australia were still in an early phase of their development, and New South Wales was still perceived by many at home as a lawless penal colony, the poem is concerned with identifying and marking a site of origin for the New South Wales settlement. Opening with the exhortation to ‘here fix the tablet!’, Field characterizes Cook’s landing site as ‘classic ground’ which should be acknowledged and memorialized (14).

Sutherland’s grave takes on a particular importance within this project. Field describes the burial of the young sailor as an act which claims Botany Bay for the British state:

‘…and thence a little space

Lies Sutherland, their shipmate; for the sound

Of Christian burial better did proclaim

Possession than the flag, in England’s name’ (14).

The very act of placing Sutherland’s body in the soil is a claim upon the land which in Field’s view is of greater significance than the planting of a flag. This rhetorical strategy is used to dismiss prior aboriginal sovereignty.  Field’s ‘simple race of Australasia’ have no graves in this poem only an ‘Indian village’ whose position ‘on that sand’ hints at its precarity and impending disappearance (14).  Rather than a passive lifeless object, the corpse becomes a dynamic political entity whose placement can change the territorial status of a continent.

As the Australian colonies grew and expanded in the later nineteenth century, further poets explored the nation-building potential of the sailor’s grave. In Henry Kendall’s poem ‘Sutherland’s Grave’ (1869), the grave is a lonely site of pilgrimage within the vast natural landscape of a still largely unpeopled continent. The first lines of the poem are devoted to describing the shores around Sydney in terms of a sort of colonial sublime:

‘All night long the flying water breaks upon the stubborn rocks-

Ooze-filled forelands burnt and blackened, smit and scarred by lightening shocks;’

Kendall describes an empty landscape dominated by the surging sea. Sutherland’s grave represents a point of order within this sublime wilderness reminding the reader of the presence of God within even the most untamed landscape.

Cross thy breast and bless the silence: lo, the place is holy ground!

Holy ground forever, stranger! All the quiet silver lights

Dropping from the starry heavens through the soft Australian nights-

Dropping on those lone grave-grasses- come serene, unbroken, clear,

Like the love of God the Father, falling, falling, year by year!

Yea, and like a Voice supernal, there the daily wind doth blow

In the leaves above the Sailor buried ninety years ago.

The grave becomes a way in which Christian meaning can be inscribed on the previously inscrutable and heathen face of the Australian continent. A human body buried within the soil humanizes a previously inhuman place. This approach elides the pre-existing cultural legacy of the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia in favour of representing the country as terra nullis prior to European occupation. The land is a primeval wasteland where a modern man’s grave can assume the role of an ancestor’s tomb.

Published ten years later, Scottish-born poet George Gordon McRae’s ‘Forby Sutherland: A Story of Botany Bay’ (1879) also presents the grave as a site which irrevocably transforms the Australian landscape.  In McRae’s poem the conventional ballad motif of a maiden waiting for her already dead love allows for an image which sees the seeds of love’s roses blooming over the dead man’s grave and thus taking on national significance:

“Take these,” cries smiling Nell, “to sow

In foreign lands; and when folk see

The English roses bloom and grow,

Some one may bless an unknown me.”

The turf lies green on Forby’s bed,

A hundred years have passed, and more,

But twining over Forby’s head

Are Nell’s sweet roses on that shore.

The seeds in Forby Sutherland’s pocket take root and flourish into England’s national flower just as, McRae suggests, the expedition he was a member of planted the seeds of a new nation in Britain’s image. Sutherland’s very body nourishes the propagation of the new country in an image that is at once horticultural and, I think, slightly cannibalistic.

The imagined land where these roses grow and bloom is once again unpeopled; an empty space waiting to be cultivated rather than disputed territory with previous inhabitants.

These three treatments of the same subject serve to illustrate the multiform ways death can serve within the creation of a new national mythology.  Sutherland’s death and burial function to claim territory, to highlight the simultaneous loneliness and boundlessness of Britain’s possessions and to represent the rooting and growth of British culture in new soil.

Field, Kendall and McRae are all interested in the body’s position within the soil and the way in which the grave might change the meaning of a landscape. The process of changing and claiming the landscape was central to the development of European Australia. Settling Australia was in large part the process of altering and changing the landscape, importing and planting crops which would ‘improve’ the land by making it more like Britain.  Alan Bewell describes how natural history operated as a mechanism of colonisation arguing that colonists ‘set out to adapt and transform the world’s environments to European needs’ (22).  The very decision to found a penal colony at Botany Bay in 1788 was informed by Joseph Banks’ reports on the natural resources he had observed there in 1770. The dispossession of Australian’s aboriginal inhabitants was also often cast in terms of the way in which landscapes might be used or transformed, as John Gasgoine argues ‘the possibilities of improvement, of making the “waste lands” bloom,’ formed ‘the basic justification for European intrusion’ (167).

Just like the numerous crops and flowers which could be transported and transplanted from the old world into new world soils, to feed and clothe the new colony, so too could the British dead nourish a colonial collective memory and national identity on the other side of the world. For the authors of the Sutherland poems Forby Sutherland represents the first seed planted in a project which sought to transport and root a British cultural identity in the antipodes.


Works Cited

Bewell, Alan. Natures in Translation: Romanticism and Colonial Natural History. John Hopkins University Press. 2016.

Field, Barron. and University of Sydney Library Scholarly Electronic Text and Image Service.  The Kangaroo and other Poems [electronic resource] / Field, Barron (1786-1846). University of Sydney Library Scholarly Electronic Text and Image Service, 1998.

Gasgoine, John. The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia. Cambridge University Press. 2002.

Kendall, Henry. and University of Sydney Library Scholarly Electronic Text and Image Service.  The Poems of Henry Kendall [electronic resource] / Kendall, Henry (1839-1882)  University of Sydney Library, Scholarly Electronic Text and Image Service, 1998.

McRae, George Gordon. ‘Forby Sutherland- The Story of Botany Bay’. The Australasian. 10 May 1879. 7.


Dr Sarah Sharp joined the SouthHem team at UCD in Autumn 2017 as an IRC Postdoctoral Fellow. Her current research project ‘In Foreign Soil: Death Abroad in Scottish Literature and Travel Writing 1790 and 1900’ looks at the traces which the deaths of Scottish migrants have left in nineteenth century writing and what these accounts can tell us about ideas of national identity during the period.


 ‘Botany Bay, 1788’, watercolour by Charles Gore. Image curtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

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