Level 3 Mortlock Wing State Library of South Australia North Terrace Adelaide SA 5000

John White's Journal of a voyage to New South Wales 1788

John White’s Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales was published in 1790, and represents one of the earliest and most important first-hand accounts of Australian colonial history. It includes sixty-five plates of a wide variety of animals, insects, fishes and plants and is one of the rare editions in colour.

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John White was an Irishman who entered the Royal Navy as a trainee surgeon in 1778, and in 1788 was appointed Surgeon-General of the new British penal colony in New South Wales. An energetic and sympathetic medic, he worked to improve the conditions for the convicts on the transport ship Charlotte, as well as founding the settlement’s first hospital.

Aside from his medical duties, White had an abiding love of natural history, and the Journal contains many of the first descriptions of Australian species known to western science. The book has 65 engraved plates, produced in England based on specimens and descriptions sent home by White. Many of the illustrations are thought to be based on the work of the British natural history illustrator, Sarah Stone. White was particularly interested in the medicinal properties of the native flora and fauna, and is reported to have been among the first to distil eucalyptus oil from plant samples in 1788.

The plates in this book were drawn in England from specimens sent back by White in November 1788, only 10 months after he arrived with the First Fleet in NSW. Included are pictures of dingoes, lizards, birds, insects, fishes, kangaroos and plants such as eucalypts and acacias as well as native implements. There is also a table of medical statistics "Deaths from December 1786 and July 1788" and tables of weather observations.

This RGSSA edition is one of the rare copies with hand coloured plates. However, the ‘Blue frogs’ (p 248) were not in fact blue – their colour had been changed from green to blue by preserving fluid on the way back to England.

White's fish
White's fish
White's spiders
White's spiders

RGSSA catalogue rgsp 994.402.W 585 b

John White (1756?-1832), was appointed chief surgeon of the expedition to establish a convict settlement at Botany Bay. Of almost 1500 people in the eleven ships of the First Fleet 778 were convicts, many in poor health from long imprisonment. It is to the credit of White and his assistants that on the voyage of more than eight months there were only thirty-four deaths. On joining the First Fleet White had begun to keep a journal, in which he made many notes of birds and animals examined in the colony. In November 1788 he sent these to a London friend, Thomas Wilson who edited them and had them published in 1790 by J Debrett as the Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales. Accompanying the text were sixty-five engravings illustrating the natural history and products of the colony, drawn in England from specimens sent by White, with descriptions by English specialists.