John Hunter, 2nd Captain. HMS Sirius 1788

Born 29 August 1737 Leith Edinburgh Scotland, son of shipmaster William Hunter and his wife Helen née Drummond. John appointed 2nd Captain, joining HMS Sirius on 15 December 1786 at Deptford, Crew Number 158, aged 49 years. His journal An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island is a valuable source of life on Norfolk Island after the shipwreck was published in 1793.

In 1786 John Hunter wrote: On the 15th, I was informed by a letter from Mr. Stephens, Secretary to the Admiralty, that there was a commission signed for me in that office and desiring I would come to town and take it up. The nature of the service upon which the Sirius might be employe those seas to which she was bound, having been considered, it was judged necessary that an officer, bearing a certain rank, should command that ship in the absence of Captain Phillip, whose presence, it was to be supposed, would be requisite at all times wherever the seat of government in that country might be fixed… and received a commission, appointing me Second Captain of his Majesty’s ship Sirius, with the rank of Post Captain, and with power to command her in the absence of her principal Captain; subject nevertheless to his control, and to such orders and directions for my proceedings as he might see occasion to give me, for the good of the service.[1]

Midshipman and later 1st Lieutenant Henry Waterhouse received the principal part of his nautical education for Captain John Hunter aboard HMS Sirius. John at the age of 53 years was the ship’s captain for the final voyage of HMS Sirius March 1790 and was stranded on Norfolk Island in March 1790. His writings have given historians details on the circumstances of the wreck of HMS Sirius.

Phillip Gidley King wrote that on 19 March 1790 Captain Hunter and Mr. Waterhouse were got on shore together, and just as they got footing on the reef, the captain was so much exhausted, that he had nearly quitted his hold: the first and second lieutenant, with some of the sailors, remained on board all night.[2]

Whilst stranded on Norfolk Island, John Hunter continues continued to fill the pages of his sketchbook that he had started on his arrival in Port Jackson and rescued off the shipwreck with carefully drawn natural history paintings; at least 14 of the 100 watercolours in the sketchbook are of Norfolk Island species Three of the birds of Norfolk Island that Hunter painted are now extinct: the kaka (Nestor productus), pigeon (Hemiphaga novaesee landiae spadicea) and dove (Gallicolumba norfolciensis). Hunter’s paintings of the kaka and of the dove of Norfolk Island are the only known contemporary visual records of these birds. John also added drawings to his sketchbook of snapper and fish, parrots, pigeons and others birds of Norfolk Island. John Hunter sketch book is one of the most important items we have from the First Fleet era and includes many other paintings of early Sydney and Norfolk Island which is now part of the collection of the National Library. However, some of George Raper’s watercolours appear to have been copied by John Hunter in his own sketchbook, whilst both in Sydney and whilst stranded on Norfolk Island.[3]

John Hunter has always the respect of his crew, stranded seaman Jacob Nagle wrote: Captain Hunter and him (Robert Ross) did not agree while on the island. He would not allow the soldiers or convicts to go a forigin and wished the captain to prevent us likewise, but as the Governor claped sentries on the roads which led round the island, that no one could go anywhere without a pass, the captain ordered Mr. Bradley to give the seamen a pass whenever they called upon him for one. At this present time one of the convicts was fishing on the rocks, was taken off by the surf, and drowned. The Governor then applied to Captain Hunter to prevent the seamen from fishing a long shore. He told him his men were like spaniel dogs if they fell in they would crawl out again, and he did not wish his men to starve while there was anything to be got by forging round the island. [4]

In February 1791, John returned to Sydney aboard HMAT Supply, at the time he described the crew’s situation now became exceedingly irksome. On the 11th of February, I embarked, with the officers and ship’s company, on board the Supply, having taken my leave of a place which had cost me so much distress and vexation.[5]

John Hunter disembarked from HMAT Supply in Sydney on 26 February 1791. He then embarked on the Dutch vessel Waaksamheid for England, with the remaining ships company. On his return in April 1792 Captain Hunter, was court martialled on board HMS Brunswick over the loss of HMS Sirius and he and the ships officers and company were honourably discharged.

On his return to England John was paid by bill for the “whole time” away from England and four servants.[6] The individual names of John Hunter’s servants is not known however there were stranded on Norfolk Island.

John Hunter returned to NSW aboard HMS Reliance in 1795, to take up the appointment of Governor of NSW which he held until 1800. Also aboard HMS Reliance were other ex-officers of HMS Sirius, Henry Waterhouse as the Second Captain and John Shortland as the 1st Lieutenant.

John Hunter had nominated himself for the position of Governor, “the liberty of offering myself as a candidate to succeed him (Governor Phillip) … make me extremely desirous of having farther opportunity of rendering such service to it as may [be] expected from the experience I have had, and the most unremitting zeal and attention to the various duties of the office…. I am sure will be most acceptable to you a constant endeavour to promote the prosperity of the colony.”[7]

John continued with his love of drawing and art, in 1795 he brought from England “four dozen black lead pencils … a box of Reeves watercolours with pencils.[8]

Portrait of Vice-Admiral John Hunter, Governor of New South Wales

Image: Portrait of Vice-Admiral John Hunter, Governor of New South Wales. William Mineard Bennett. NLA, Rex Nan Kivell Collection NK2040

In September 1797, while in pursuit of escaped convicts, Lieutenant John Shortland discovered the Hunter River, naming the river, after his former Captain John Hunter of HMS Sirius and now the Governor of NSW. Other places in NSW were also named after John Hunter, such as the Hunter region and Hunter Street Sydney.

John Hunter had a long standing career with the Royal Navy, by 1782 he held the rank of 3rd Lieutenant, and appointed 2nd Captain of HMS Sirius in 1786. On returning to England John continued his career with the Royal Navy, with the Command of HMS Venerable in 1804, after another ship wreck John did not go back to sea, he was promoted to rear-admiral in 1807. At the time of his death on 13 March 1821 in London, John was a Vice Admiral in His Majesty Royal Navy and a respected adviser on colonial affairs.[9]

[1] John Hunter, An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island.
[2] Phillip Gidley King, Journal of Philip Gidley King: Lieutenant, R.N. 1787-1790.
[3] Linda Groom, Steady hand: Governor Hunter and his First Fleet sketchbook, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2012.
[4] Jacob Nagle, Jacob Nagle his Book A.D. One Thousand Eight Hundred and Twenty Nine May 19th. Canton. Stark County Ohio, 1775-1802.
[5] John Hunter, An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island.
[6] HMS Sirius Ship Musters, TNA, ADM 36/10978.
[7] HRNSW, Vol 2, pp. 73 – 74.
[8] Linda Groom, Steady hand: Governor Hunter and his First Fleet sketchbook, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2012, p. 87.
[9] TNA, ADM 6/22/424, ADM 6/23/369; Will of John Hunter, TNA, 11/1642/97; Linda Groom, Steady hand: Governor Hunter and his First Fleet sketchbook, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2012.

Read online and download John Hunter An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island