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Brian’s Travel Diary

Wednesday, 15 Mar 2006

Location: History of Newcastle, Australia

MapAt 1:30am I was awakened by the deep bass sound from the fog horn of a cargo ship passing through the narrow port from the ocean to the docks (It’s really not that different than hearing Homer make soothing ocean sounds for Marge). This ship was just one of many anchored just off shore hoping to catch a load from the world’s largest coal exporter – Newcastle, Australia. I live just a few hundred meters from the waterway which takes on several hundred thousand ton cargo ships every day to fulfill the energy needs of the South Pacific. The cargo ships and the coal know no time of day. Much unlike the bell tower which feels the need to remind me on the hour what time it is, even a half hour later at 2am it still chimes, but just twice.

The coal in Newcastle wasn’t exactly found the same way Ol' Jed Clampett found oil in his backyard. Newcastle was discovered on September 9th, 1797 by Lieutenant John Shortland. By 1797 Australia was a penal colony for about ten years (Yes, I said 'penal' you can laugh). More specifically, the state of New South Wales was the original penal colony of Australia – which includes both Sydney and Newcastle. Sydney was orginally the main residence for convicts of the British Empire. Specifically, Port Arthur was where many prisoners got personal attention from the business end of a whip for just about any reason from attempting to escape or insulting a member of the Imperial Ruling class – affably known as a “pommy bastard.” Those who were lucky enough to successfully escape Sydney, and essentially gamble their lives with an encounter with the Aborigines, were rewarded with the pursuit efforts of Lt. John Shortland – a pommy bastard. Some convicts ship-jacked the “Cumberland,” a 74-gun ship, from Sydney Cove. I don't know how a bunch of convicts were able to go 'Pirates of the Carribbean' on Britain's ship, but just think of Captain Jack Sparrow and I'm sure you will be close. In Shortland’s pursuit he tracked the convicts down in what is now my home. When Shortland wasn’t flogging escapees he was moonlighting as an explorer and found the Hunter River and an abundance of coal. A settlement of convicts here and there and few years later yadda yadda yadda Newcastle! So, officially, that makes two places in the world that I have lived founded by a penal colony (Georgia is the other one in case you were wondering).

Any good society always starts with a good foundation, I always say. Newcastle stayed a penal colony under military rule for about 20 years and was considered one of the harshest places to live. There was no more barbarous or notorious place for punishment in all of Australia then Lime Burners Bay. Apparently, burning oyster shells for lime, while being flogged is hazardous to one’s health. The reason Newcastle only lasted 20 years as a penal colony was that the governor felt it was too close to Sydney, an intellectual paradise too virtuous to be subjected to such nefariousness - or something like that. So, the convicts were once again pushed north by those pommy bastards.

The other interesting tidbit, because I don’t think there are more than two, is that during WWII a Japanese sub actually attacked Newcastle. The only rational conclusion is that the sub captain had his chart upside down and thought it was actually Sydney. At any rate the sub surfaced and shelled the city for about 15 minutes or so. The Aussies had lots of look out towers but only one real howitzer-type gun. Like a mother bear defending her cubs the Aussies valiantly fought back and fired… and missed... again and again. The sub and its crew fled scared out of their Kamikaze minds! At least, that’s what the Aussies will have you believe. The artillery emplacement is still up on the hill with original bunkers still in place.

If a sub came in to attack today they wouldn’t have to worry about the military because they would more likely be run over by any one of several dozen cargo ships trying to fill up on coal like vultures to a carcass. There are literally dozens at sea at a time, most on an appointed schedule, but some freelancing just hoping to be squeezed in and given a shot to load up on New South Wales first exported commodity. Today, Newcastle is Australia’s oldest export port.

So that’s how this place came about.

--You can check out some pics talked about in this story in "more newcastle pics" Enjoy.