Captain John Rolland was the first official land explorer of the North West Coast of Tasmania. Trekking west from the Tamar River with his small group of foot soldiers he discovered the Meander River and all the good grazing plains between the Western Tiers and the Coastline, east of the Mersey River. Though he was repulsed in his attempt to continue his inland route westward, he did manage to climb our iconic Mount Roland, from where he became the first white man to set eyes on Cradle Mountain, then traverse part of the Kentish district.
We ask why no mention of seeing the Kentish Plains from the top of Roland? We can only surmise from that height; the series of small plains must not have looked extensive enough. Perhaps like a couple of sixpences in the middle of a blanket of green bush. Compared with the vast western plains that Rolland trekked crossed before reaching the Mersey River, they were quite insignificant and too inaccessible. Two days later when he tried to get a closer look, the thickness of the surrounding forests prevented this. Tragically eleven months later, this brilliant young officer was dead aged 29 years. What follows is the story of the last year of his life.
Just two weeks after completing this exploration trip, Captain Rolland heads to Hobart Town. On 10 January 1824 along with Governor Sorell, he is a guest of honour at the second annual meeting of the Van Diemen’s Land Agricultural Society (forerunner of the Royal Agricultural Show Society).
As the aim of this organisation was to improve the quality of farming and livestock, he would have reported on vast areas of good grazing land he had discovered on the Western Plains and commented upon his own sheep and cattle enterprise. Captain Rolland submits a written report of his explorations to Governor Sorell on 21 January 1824 for which he gets highly commended. A week later, having been summoned to Sydney by Governor Macquarie of New South Wales, young Rolland sets sail from Hobart aboard the 400-ton ship Asia.
Appointed Commandant of Port Macquarie
In Sydney Captain Rolland gets a significant promotion. He is appointed next Commandant of the new penal station at Port Macquarie in northern New South Wales. Effective April 1824, he is given a different detachment of the 3rd Regiment Foot (The Buffs) to help him.
They consist of his deputy Lieutenant G R Carmac, Ensign James Grant, three sergeants, two corporals and 101 soldiers. Together they are wholly responsible for the convict settlement established only three years earlier at Port Macquarie almost 400 kms north of Sydney. With 1,500 convicts it was already overcrowded for the current facilities, and Rolland inherits the continuing problem of prisoners attempting to escape. Only a few months into his new assignment, the most audacious escape of convicts in a decade occurs under his watch. Seven convicts seized the newly arrived supply ship Isabella and escaped to sea. The Isabella had bought much needed supplies to Port Macquarie and was moored in the harbour but hadn’t yet unloaded. The convicts manning the flat bottom boat called the lighter had made one trip out to the Isabella and bought ashore the first load of the official documents and bags of mail. But on their next trip out to the boat, the convicts over-powered the captain and crew, put them unharmed in the lighter, cut the cables and sailed the Isabella out of the river never to be heard of again. Rolland immediately banned convicts working alone on the lighter boats without soldiers.
The NSW Governor had told Rolland his main concern was the rising cost of maintaining penal settlements. So, Commandant John Rolland aggressively tackles this problem and rigorously works at making his colony self-sufficient. He puts 300 prisoners working on various agricultural jobs, setting aside several acres just to grow vegetables. Another 100 prisoners prepared ground for growing trial crops of sugar cane and tobacco which he hoped they may export. Others he put making tools and iron work previously bought up by boat from Sydney. He also went, as he did in Van Diemen’s Land, in search of more agricultural land. He personally led an expedition fifty kilometres inland to the Wilson River area, where they discovered a good fertile district, known today ironically, as Rolland Plains.
His Enlightened and Humane Methods
Regarding convict productivity and punishment, Rolland reviewed ‘solitary confinement’, ‘the treadmill’ and the ‘revolting remedy of the lash’. He wrote to the Governor: From the most authentic accounts which I have been able to obtain of the best regulated prisons, the immediate recompense of a better diet and the ultimate one of a mitigation of punishment are held out as the reward for productive work and good conduct. He recommended the prisoner’s weekly ration should be equal to the soldiers: 7lb beef, 4lb of pork and 7lb of flour. He suggested that this diet be increased by another 3½lb of flour and ½lb sugar for those showing a willingness to work. It was said that on no instance where a soldier or convict was tried for insubordination and sentenced to the lash, did he carry out the full penalty.
Prior to Rolland’s appointment, Governor Macquarie had visited this penal colony and chosen the site for a Gothic style Anglican church on the most significant hill overlooking the settlement. It was to be built by convict labour under military supervision. When Captain Rolland’s arrived, it had barely begun, but he took a personal interest in its development. So, throughout the winter of 1824, they completed clearing the land, pegged out the site, laid the foundations and began making the 365,000 handmade bricks needed for its erection.
Rolland’s untimely death
Late in October 1824 Commandant John Rolland is suddenly struck down in the prime of his life with a deadly virus. His deputy Lieutenant Carmac had reported to Sydney earlier in November that Captain Rolland was suffering from a ‘severe indisposition’. But no one was expecting to read in his next dispatch:
It is with the deepest concern and regret that I advise the melancholy news of the death of Captain Rolland, who expired on the evening of the 16th Nov. He was so indisposed about the beginning of the month as to confine himself to bed and was under necessity of relinquishing from that time the administration of affairs. He appears to have been the victim of fever, which rapidly advanced in a few days, and soon precluded all hope of his recovery. I cannot deny myself on the present occasion expressing my respect and esteem for this excellent and amiable officer, and lament his premature departure from life, in which his great talents, energy and high principles promised he would be so distinguished. As there is no dedicated burial ground, it was considered the precincts of the Church, now in progress, was the rightful place where his remains should be interred.
People everywhere were shocked to read his unexpected death notice: At Port Macquarie, on 16 November 1824 of remittent fever, after an illness of twenty days, Captain John Rolland aged 29 of the Buffs Regiment, Commandant of Port Macquarie Penal Settlement. Commenting on Captain Rolland’s untimely death, the Sydney Gazette dated 2 December1824 states in part:
This officer is much lamented by the corps, in which he was universally esteemed for his private virtues and admired for the zeal and ability with which he performed his military duties. Thus, the Regiment has sustained in him, an irreparable loss and the service has been deprived of a most promising officer. The liberal and enlightened manner in which he conducted the duties of this highly responsible Command, we have reason to know, obtained him the unqualified approval of the Colonial Government, while he commanded the esteem and respect of all those placed under his charge.
So, it was just three weeks before Captain John Rolland, 2nd Commandant of Port Macquarie was due to lay the foundation stone for St Thomas Church, his own remains were buried between the footings of the same church by the new colonial chaplain Rev Thomas Hassall.
By order of his executors, the personal effects of the late Captain John Rolland were auctioned at the Military Barrack, Port Macquarie on Wed 9th Dec 1824. They consisted of various silver and plated spoons, forks, candle sticks, snuffers, cutlery, glass and earthenware, wearing apparel, books, wines etc. Interestingly enough another 15 months later, on Wednesday 22 March 1826 down in Van Diemen’s Land, at an auction held at the Man of Ross Inn, Ross Bridge, 600 fine wool sheep and 40 head of Port Dalrymple bred horned cattle, were sold belonging to the estate of the late Captain John Rolland of His Majesty’s 3rd Buffs Regiment. Presumably the cash balance of Captain John Rolland’s estate was returned to his family seat at Auchmithie, Scotland.
Rests in Historic Church, Port Macquarie
Today the historic St Thomas’ Anglican Church sits prominently on top of Church Hill, dominating the city landscape of Port Macquarie. It is among the oldest churches in Australia and one of the few remaining convict-built churches still in use. It carries National Trust of Australia classification and is also registered on the National Estate. Inside the church, up the long aisle that separates rows of red cedar box pews, there is just behind the front seat on the right side, a trapdoor in the wooden floor. When opened, it reveals the headstone of Commandant John Rolland laying horizontally above his grave. So, this very historic church in Port Macquarie, NSW has become a huge mausoleum for Rolland, just as here in Tasmania, Mount Roland is such a magnificent memorial to this gifted and dedicated young man who died so very young. In the short space of two years in the colonies, he contributed so much to the initial development of two very different districts.