I have reached an age where I have started to forget where I have put things, but so far they have not been things of any great importance. The state of Tasmania, by contrast, was only twenty-four when it forgot where it had put its first governor, and the jogging of its collective memory has taken nearly a century. A mere middle-ranking marine officer when he arrived in New South Wales, First Fleeter David Collins went on to midwife the birth of both our other foundation states. Tasked by Governor King to set up a secondary penal colony, it was Collins who established the first British settlement in Victoria, which explains why Melbourne’s main CBD thoroughfare bears his name. And it was Collins who later rejected the proposed Mornington Peninsula site in favour of one he believed to be more conducive to the rehabilitation of felons on the banks of the majestic Derwent River.
If he hadn’t done so Tasmania might well have come under French control – the political and cultural implications of which do not bear thinking about. Collins’ leadership in the difficult early years of Tasmanian settlement earned him great respect and affection (which explains why Hobart also has a Collins St), and when he died, in 1810, he was given the closest to what that hard-pressed community could come to a state funeral. But when the cemetery where he was buried was subsequently deconsecrated to make way for what is now St David’s Park, nobody remembered to mark the location of its most illustrious occupant. This shameful limbo persisted until just two weeks ago, when archaeologists using the latest ground-penetrating radar discovered what they believe to be Collins’s remains. Plans are now afoot to erect a memorial above them, and I’ve no doubt that the great Australian historian Stuart Macintyre, who has himself just died, would have been very pleased that one of our most important historical figures is finally to be given the public recognition he so richly deserves (although one cannot help hoping, in light of the post-Black Lives Matter fate of so many colonialist memorials, that his does not take the form of a statue). I have a more personal reason for applauding the project. When I arrived in this country, the only currency my surname had was entirely positive – Collins being the name of the six impressive submarines whose construction had recently been commissioned by the Hawke government. But a sad corollary of a later Labor administration’s decision to replace those submarines, and of the Morrison government’s recent decision to trash the replacements in favour of something more state-of-the-art, is that the once-proud name of Collins has now become a byword for obsolescence and decrepitude in Australia. Which of us has not, in the course of the last six months, pulled some antique sausages out of the back the freezer and thought ‘Better not – they look a bit Collins class’? And, as summer approaches, and Covid restrictions on private gatherings are lifted, how many Australians have looked at the rusty old Weber on their balcony before heading down to their nearest Bunnings in search of something ‘a bit less Collins class’? If the grave those archaeologists have located in Hobart really does contain the remains of Tasmania’s first governor, I am sure he is spinning in it.
It is all in a day’s work for advertising creatives like myself to steal somebody else’s idea and then refuse to apologise for doing so. But the more exacting standards of being a Spectator Australia columnist mean I cannot take the credit for another’s inspiration – even when that person happens to be another ad man. So when I suggested, in a recent piece, that Australia’s first indigenous head of state should be Uluru, I should also have mentioned that the person who came up with this brilliant solution to all our constitutional woes, and who has been actively promoting the Uluruist cause on other, equally respected media platforms for some time now, is my good friend Ian Watson. Respect.
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