1788 – 1800 – Colonies collide as settlers settle

The soldier took the last morsel of the food that was offered and moved aside to allow the worker to pass.

It was good to be on guard in this gallery where the temperature was more consistent than it was outside.

The food was a variation from food in the other galleries; not necessarily better, just different. Food was still food that had been regurgitated, but this had a different taste.

The foraging workers had reported back to their mates with information of this find. They had indicated the size, moisture content, palatability and distance from the closest area of the gallery system. That had been back in midsummer. The ‘committee’ had assessed the data of this find; that it was in a quadrant west of their colony where they had no major operation, a major reason for the tunnel building workers to begin to do their part of the job.

It was now past midwinter and the workers had broken through the initial strange wood into food that was different again. It still consisted of cellulose but even for this wood-eating species, it was much easier to harvest a bellyful, the foragers said. The energy cost of transfer to the colony was so much lower than chewing off particles of solid wood. The ‘word’ was the original tunnel had been enlarged and strengthened. New branching tunnels had been constructed to enable new galleries to reach deep into this new, soft and palatable food source.

The other soldier, his red coat buttoned to the throat against the morning chill on the flats of Sydney Cove, ordered the convicts to move the crates from under the taut tarpaulins into the new timber slab huts on the West Bank of the Tank Stream.

In just over six months, pro rata, the human colony had done almost as much work as the termite colony. The crated stores offloaded from the ships had, until now, been placed in a clearing guarded by the soldiers.

Two convicts shuffled to either end of the crate of calico and heaved to lift it. The wood crumbled in their hands; the top of the crate lifted away from the bottom that disintegrated into paper-thin shards of timber and a seething, scurrying mass of white insects.

Like white ants

Certainly the convicts, who had never ventured from Mother England, had not seen the like of this.

Joseph Banks and his off-siders had returned to London from his previous voyage with the then Lieutenant James Cook with over 1400 plants and over a thousand animals —but no termites.

Banks was feted because of his collections. In fact, many of the Royal Society intelligentsia of the day, including the very famous Carl Linnaeus lobbied to have New South Wales renamed Banksia. That idea didn’t get up but we do have Banksia trees, Bankstown in Sydney and Banks in Canberra.

In London, Joseph Banks had become the President of the Royal Society, a position he held for 41 years. On 15th February 1781 he had received a paper from one Henry Smeathman: ‘Some Account of the Termites which are found in Africa and Other Hot Climates’. Apparently, Banks didn’t warn those preparing to set up the Colony at Botany Bay seven years later that Australia might have termites too — and Smeathman was dead by then anyway, but he had written that Captain Arthur Phillip knew about them.

The Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip had seen termites during his travels, but even so, it would seem that his officers thought such incidents as crumbling storage crates were not the sort of things they should bring to his august attention. Other crated stores were shifted into the more secure storage. Many, in fact most crates had white ant damage.

Without any experience of such an attack, those in charge of the safekeeping of the stores, tried to stay ahead of the insects by shifting the crates regularly. But then the timber sheds and huts built to protect their contents from thieves came under unseen termite attack from underneath and within, removing strength and integrity.

Lamp oil gave some short-lived protection, but it was a very precious and expensive commodity and its availability was dependent on the supply ships that were supposed to arrive periodically. Furthermore, although boiling water was immediate death to these destructive ‘ants’, killing just hundreds of them did nothing to deter the next wave of individuals that appeared from the termite colony almost overnight.

The human colony at that time had no answers for its battle with the termite colonies.

Colleen McCulloch’s exhaustively researched novel ‘Morgan’s Run Part Five’ describes the human colony’s building predicament:

“In May 1788, she wrote: “very little timber was coming out of the sawpits, but quantities of palm logs were now being freighted from coves nearer to the rearing bastions of the Heads. These round, fairly straight boles were flimsy and rotted quickly, but they could easily be sawn and chinked with mud, so most of the increased spate of the building was done with palm logs and a thatch of palm fronds or rushes. The Casuarina shingles were being weathered and saved for permanent structures, starting with the Governor’s house. The bricks of the nucleus of this had been landed and the wonderful field of brick clay not so very far distant, was already being worked — brick-making went on as fast as the miserable twelve-brick moulds from on board could be turned around.

“There was, however, one problem about building in brick or the stunning local yellow sandstone: no one had found a single trace of limestone anywhere. Anywhere! Which was ridiculous — limestone was like soil — it was always so abundant that no one in London had given it a thought. Yet how, in the absence of limestone could any mortar be mixed to join bricks or sandstone blocks together?

Needs must. The ships’ boats were sent out to collect every empty oyster shell dumped around Port Jackson’s beaches and rock shelves, a very heavy undertaking. The natives were partial to oysters (very tasty oysters all the senior officers pronounced) and left the shells piled up like miniature slag heaps. If there was no alternative, then the Government would burn oyster shells to make lime for mortar.

Experience proved that it took 30,000 empty shells to produce enough mortar to lay 5000 bricks, the number contained in a tiny house, so as time went on, the forays in search of this only source of lime extended to Botany Bay and Port Hacking to the south and almost 100 miles north of Port Jackson. Millions upon millions of empty oyster shells, burned and ground to dust, went between the bricks and blocks of the first solid, imperishable buildings around Sydney Cove.”

The walls and floors of new buildings were now impervious, but the bloody white ants were still eating everything else made from wood! Here we had a colony of termite- ignorant humans invading a land inhabited by colonies they knew not how to cope with. On the other side of the coin, termite colonies were welcoming of the new human colonies bringing them new timber and other edible cellulose materials that they found to be really palatable.

This is an excerpt from “Colonies in Collision” A Concatenated Chronicle of Termites and Termiteers in Australia 1788 – 2018 by Doug Howick and Ion Staunton.

You can purchase a copy here.