1840 - 1842: Port Essington (north coast) and home to England

30 April 1840

Gilbert's letter to Gould of the 4th of May stated that he had arrived in Sydney the day before, but according to Chisholm (1940: 162, who gained his information from ship's passenger lists) Gilbert reached Sydney on the Caledonia on the above date.

4 May 1840 

Gilbert wrote an aghast letter from Sydney to Gould, who had returned to London without waiting for him (Mitchell Library, Sydney MS 1465/24/7, also see Whittell 1942: 221-223 and Moyal 1976: 65-66). 

15 May 1840 

A few days later Gilbert sent two boxes containing his Swan River collection to Gould via the Lord William Bentinck. In his letter to Gould telling him of the shipment, Gilbert wrote that he had also enclosed a box of Port Essington birds collected by Owen Stanley, which was destined for the Zoological Society (Mitchell Library, Sydney CY 461 700-703, also see Whittell 1942, 223-224). 

Gilbert also wrote that he had obtained passage on the Gilmore which was going to Port Essington (the British Navy outpost on the Cobourg Peninsula of the north coast of Australia), as the colony needed re-supplying after the ravages of a hurricane some months before.

8 June 1840

Another letter from Gilbert in Sydney to Gould (Mitchell Library, Sydney CY 461: 704-707; also see Chisholm 1938, 194-195). Gilbert was on the eve of sailing for Port Essington in the Gilmore.

15 June 1840

Gilbert left Sydney on the Gilmore (500 tons) for Port Essington (Chisholm 1940: 162).

12 July 1840

The Gilmore reached the inlet of Port Essington (Chisholm 1940, 162).

15 July 1840

Eastern Osprey Pandion cristatus leucocephalus collected at Port Essington (LIV D297a). 

16 July 1840

Gilbert wrote from Port Essington to Gould (Mitchell Library, Sydney CY 461: 708-711). Regarding wildlife, he had only been out once "and saw so many beautiful Species of Birds that I knew not which to shoot at first". The Assistant Surgeons of the outpost had already collected many species and Gilbert was sure between them they could form "as splendid a collection as we have done in any part of Australia". Gilbert had pitched his tent but it was so insufferably hot that Commendant McArthur arranged for quarters for him in Government House.  The settlement was called Victoria.

Whistling Kite Haliastur sphenurus collected at Port Essington (LIV D306c).

17-22 July 1840

The following birds in National Museums Liverpool were collected between these dates at "Port Essington": Leaden Flycatcher Myiagra rubecula concinna (LIV D2115s), White-winged Triller Lalage sueurii tricolor (LIV D5544s), Crimson Finch Neochmia p. phaeton (LIV D1753b), Red-backed Fairy-wren Malurus melanocephalus cruentus (LIV D600c), Lemon-bellied Flycatcher Microeca f. flavigaster (LIV D3914s) and a White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Coracina papuensis apsleyi (LIV D5533s).

25 July 1840

Willie Wagtail Rhipidura leucophrys pictata (BMNH 1881.5.1.1255), a Tawny Frogmouth Podargus strigoides phalaenoides (RMNH 173872) and eggs of the Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus girrenera (WFVZ 178702) collected at Point Record, Port Essington.

29 July 1840

Great Bowerbird Ptilonorhynchus  n. nuchalis (LIV D4664) and a Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus s. sanctus (BMNH 1881.5.1.3008) collected at Mangrove Point, Port Essington. 

30 July 1840

Northern Rosella Platycercus v. venustus collected at Pig Lagoons, Port Essington (LIV D619).

31 July 1840

Brush Cuckoo Cacomantis variolosus dumetorum collected at Pig Lagoons, Port Essington (RMNH Old Catalogue No.1).

1 - 8 August 1840

Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus haematodus rubritorques (LIV D700c), Red-backed Fairy-wren Malurus melanocephalus cruentus (LIV D600d), Striated Pardalote Pardalotus striatus uropygialis (LIV D522), Little Friarbird Philemon citreogularis sordidus (LIV D952s) and a Varied Triller Lalage leucomela rufiventris (LIV D5547s) collected at Victoria, Port Essington, and a Dusky Honeyeater Myzomela o. obscura (UMZC 27/MEL/24/R/1) collected at Port Essington (8th August).

10 - 14 August 1840

Masked Finch Poephila p. personata (LIV D1761), Bar-breasted Honeyeater Ramsayornis fasciatus (LIV D5492s), two Double-barred Finches Taeniopygia bichenovii annulosa (LIV D1749 & D1749a), two Long-tailed Finches Poephila acuticauda hecki (LIV D1761a and AMNH 721590) and a Little Woodswallow Artamus minor derbyi (LIV D2226s) collected in the interior [of the Cobourg Peninsula].

17 August 1840

Bar-breasted Honeyeater Ramsayornis fasciatus collected at Mortunna, Port Essington (LIV T13274). 

Gilbert then "went in a cruise for a week in a large Deck Boat visiting the Islands in Van Diemens Gulf" (letter to Gould dated September 19th). Van Diemens Gulf is to the west of the Cobourg Peninsula. The approximate dates for this can be gleaned from specimens in the Liverpool Museum, viz:

27 August 1840

Red-headed Honeyeater Myzomela e. erythrocephala collected on Greenhill Island, Van Diemens Gulf (LIV D859s). 

28 August 1840

Rufous Whistler Pachycephala rufiventris falcata (LIV D2165s) and a Rufous-banded Honeyeater Conopophila albogularis (LIV D5457s) collected on Mayday (= Morse) Island, Van Diemens Gulf. 

30 August 1840

Gouldian Finch Erythrura gouldiae collected on Greenhill Island, Van Diemens Gulf (LIV D1773, paralectotype of the species).

5 September 1840

Three Australian Pied Oystercatchers Haematopus longirostris were collected at Port Essington (LIV D5012s, D5085s & D5086s).

8 September 1840

Varied Lorikeet Psitteuteles versicolor collected at Port Essington (MCZ 88783).

10 September 1840

Shining Flycatcher Monarcha alecto melvillensis collected at West Bay, Port Essington (LIV D1974a).

14 September 1840

Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus variegatus collected at Port Essington (BMNH 1881.5.1.4042).

15 - 19 September 1840

Silver-crowned Friarbird Philemon a. argenticeps (LIV D875s), Northern Fantail Rhipidura rufiventris isura (LIV D2038a) and a Green-backed Gerygone Gerygone c. chloronata (LIV D5490s) collected at Victoria, Port Essington.

19 September 1840 

Gilbert wrote to Gould from Port Essington (Mitchell Library, Sydney CY 461: 712-715, also see Chisholm 1938: 195-197; 1940: 167 and Moyal 1976: 66-67). He had already collected 200 specimens from 90 species of bird, eggs, skeletons and a fine collection of Insects, also a few plants, reptiles and fish. That he had only collected 3 mammals he put down to the after-effects of the hurricane. Gilbert also reported that he had made one trip in the interior for ten days, going several miles farther than any European had done previously. He had also cruised for a week in a large Deck Boat visiting the Islands in Van Diemens Gulf, where he collected several birds he had not seen on the mainland. 

20 September 1840

Gilbert went fishing, collecting two Whipfin Silverbiddys Gerres filamentosus (BMNH 1843.6.15.[52] and 1853.1.4.4), two Indo-Pacific Tarpons Megalops cyprinoides (BMNH 1843.8.10.11 and 1843.6.15.43) and a Jarbua Terapon Terapon jarbua (BMNH 1843.6.15.42) [in the sea] near Victoria.

Between the end of September and a date before the beginning of November 1840 John Gilbert visited the Indonesian island of West Timor. There is no mention of his intention in his letter of September 19th, the last that seems to exist from Gilbert's Port Essington stay. Again, as with Gilbert's third excursion to York in Western Australia in November, 1839, the main proof of his trip to Timor are the data labels on specimens. These are in National Museums Liverpool, Turin Natural History Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. The dates on these run between September 29th and October 9th, when they abruptly stop - indicating that, perhaps, Gilbert was on Timor for just 10 days. According to Captain Chambers' papers for 9th October 1840 (National Maritime Museum; Chambers was the master of the Pelorus, which had been stranded at Port Essington by the recent hurricane), Gilbert went to Timor with John Armstrong - the Port Essington colony's gardener and botanical collector - on the English schooner Lulworth; she made several trips between the capital of Timor, Kupang, and Victoria , Port Essington with buffaloes for the colony (Spillett 1972: 72, 77). However I am puzzled by two discrepancies in Spillett's book, and have been unable to check Chambers' primary source. First, Spillett stated that the Lulworth left on 1st October, although there is a bird in AMNH collected by Gilbert at Copang (= Kupang) on the 29th of September. Second, Spillett wrote that "They returned a month later..."; Chambers' papers are dated the 9th October, so how could he have known that? Did Spillett mean a week, not a month - which is backed up by the specimens collected? However, Gilbert appears to have collected no specimens between the 9th October and 29th November 1840, when he collected a Brown Booby off Meville Island. If Gilbert was still on board the Lulworth on 29th November, and not another vessel from the colony of Port Essington, it seems it took the Lulworth around three weeks or even four to sail from Kupang to Port Essington, whereas it had only taken the schooner 9 days to sail from Port Essington to Kupang.

29 September 1840

The earliest specimen known from Gilbert’s visit to Copang (Kupang), Timor: Zebra Finch Taeniopygia g. guttata (AMNH 720221)

30 September - 9 October 1840

At least another 26 bird specimens were collected by Gilbert in “Copang”, Timor. These are in National Museums Liverpool or Turin Natural History Museum.

  • 30 September 1840: Orange-breasted Sunbird Nectarinia s. solaris (LIV D763s) and Taeniopygia g. guttata (LIV D1759d).
  • 1 October 1840: two Timor Ground Thrushes Zoothera p. peronii, two more Taeniopygia g. guttata, 2 Green Figbirds Sphecotheres viridis and a Black-faced Woodswallow Artamus cinereus perspiciilatus.
  • 2 October 1840: Honeyeater Meliphaga reticulata and two finches Padda fuscata.
  • 3 October 1840: Saxicola caprata pyrrhonota and Friarbird Philemon buceroides.
  • 4 October 1840: No specimens with this date have been found yet.
  • 5 October 1840: Triller Lalage s. sueurii and Saxicola caprata pyrrhonota.
  • 6 October 1840: Unadorned Flycatcher Gerygone inornata
  • 7 October 1840: flycatcher Myiagra ruficollis rufigula, fantail Rhipidura r. rufiventris and honeyeater Meliphaga reticulata.
  • 8 October 1840: Blue-cheeked Mistletoebird Dicaeum m. maugei and Black-headed Mannikin Lonchura molucca vagans.
  • 9 October 1840: Glossy Swiftlet Collocalia esculenta neglecta, another Gerygone inornata, another Philemon buceroides and a Spangled Drongo Dicrurus hottentottus densus.

29 October 1840

Brown Booby Sula leucogster plotus collected near Melville Island, off Port Essington (MVM B 17578). The next specimens found with a date are from 12th November; a two week gap. Those specimens were fish - was Gilbert still on the Lulworth?

12 November 1840

Two Malabar Groupers Epinephelus malabaricus caught in the harbour of Port Essington (BMNH 1843.6.15.53 & 1853.1.4.3). Still on board the Lulworth?

13 November 1840

Large-tailed Nightjar Caprimulgus macrurus schlegelii? collected from the King's River (LIV D143s) and Silver-crowned Friarbird Philemon a. argenticeps collected from Victoria (LIV D1047s), both within the harbour of Port Essington.

17 November 1840

Eggs of the Orange-footed Scrubfowl were collected at Port Essington (WFVZ 178836).

18 November 1840

Chestnut-backed Button-quail Turnix castanotus collected at Warrui, Port Essington (LIV D3687). 

No specimens with dates have been found between 19th and 25th November. Gilbert may have been en route for Coral Bay, which is at the north-west end of the inlet of Port Essington (the settlement of Victoria is near the south-west end of the inlet, about 20 miles south of Coral Bay by sea).

25 November 1840

Eggs of the Striated Heron Butorides striata stagnatilis collected from small islets in Coral Bay (BMNH 1962.1.111a & b).

26 November 1840

Pied Imperial-Pigeon Ducula bicolor spilorrhoa (LIV 3498) and White-breasted Woodswallow Artamus leucorynchus leucopygialis (LIV D2225s) collected at Coral Bay, Port Essington

27 November 1840

Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus macropus collected at Smith Point., Port Essington (LIV D340).  Smith Point is at the north-east tip of the inlet of Port Essington, the other side from Coral Bay, so Gilbert must have been on a boat for this period he spent at the head of the inlet.

30 November 1840

Eggs of Orange-footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt tumulus were collected at Port Essington; from the dates either side of these specimens, they must have been collected at Smith Point (WFVZ 178835).

1 December 1840

Wandering Whistling-duck Dendocygna arcuata australis collected at Smith Point, Port Essington (LIV D845b).

No specimens with dates on 2nd or 3rd December have been found yet, which seems strange given that Gilbert seems to have been making a special collecting trip to Coral Bay and Smith Point. Perhaps he was on a boat patrolling the waters and which had other duties. It was, after all, a naval colony.

4 December 1840

Eggs of Olive-backed Oriole Oriolus sagittatus affinis collected at Smith Point (BMNH 1962.1.359).

5 December 1840

Eggs of Rufous-banded Honeyeater Conopophila albogularis collected at Smith Point (BMNH 1962.1.280)

6 December 1840

Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa melanuroides collected at Smith Point, Port Essington (LIV D4983s).

11 - 23 December 1840

The following specimens were collected at Victoria, Port Essington between these dates: Pied Butcherbird Cracticus nigrogularis picatus (LIV D2661s), Little Friarbird Philemon citreogularis sordidus (LIV D891s), Crimson Finch Neochmia p. phaeton (LIV D1753a) and Melithreptus a. albogularis (LIV D1679b).

No Gilbert specimens with collecting dates between 23rd December 1840 and 14th January 1841 have yet been found, an unexplained gap of three weeks (but at the hottest time of year in an area prone to fevers).

14 January 1841

Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus variegatus collected at Table Head River, Port Essington (LIV D4826s). Note that, according to Frith and Calaby (1974: 10) Table Head River is the same as the present-day Caiman Creek. It is on the east side of the Port Essington, running into the inlet. It was here that Gilbert found at least twenty nests of the “Torres Straits Pigeon” [= Pied Imperial-Pigeon Ducula bicolor spilorrhoa] (see Gould's “The birds of Australia” vol.5, text to plate 60).

15 January 1841

Pied Imperial-Pigeon Ducula bicolor spilorrhoa collected [at Table Head River], Port Essington (BMNH 1846.4.8.34, skeleton).

16 January 1841

Eggs of [Orange-footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt tumulus] found at Port Essington (WFVZ 178839).

22 January 1841

Black Butcherbird Cracticus quoyi spaldingi collected at East Bay, Port Essington (LIV D532). East Bay is at the south-east end of the inlet of Port Essington.

25 January 1841

Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus girrenera collected at East Bay, Port Essington (LIV D306). Little Shrike-thrush Colluricincla megarhyncha parvula collected at [East Bay] Port Essington (BMNH 1881.5.1.446). Mangrove Robin Peneoenanthe puverulenta alligator collected at East Bay ((BMNH 1881.5.1.3731)

27 January - 8 February 1841

The following specimens were collected at Victoria, Port Essington between these dates: Red-backed Fairy-wren Malurus melanocephalus cruentus (LIV T12785), Bar-breasted Honeyeater Ramsayornis fasciatus (LIV D5477s), Forest Kingfisher Todiramphus m. macleayi (LIV D1618b), Blue-winged Kookaburra Dacelo leachii cervina (LIV D594), Silver-crowned Friarbird Philemon a. argenticeps (BMNH 1846.4.8.27) and Peaceful Dive Geopelia striata placida (LIV D4269s).

9 - 11 February 1841

The following specimens were collected at Knocker's Bay (north of Victoria but on the same, west, side of Port Essington), between these dates: White-gaped Honeyeater Lichenostomus unicolor (LIV D918s), Shining Flycatcher Myiagra alecto melvillensis (LIV D5481s) and Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus haematodus rubritorques (LIV D700).

I have not yet found any dated specimens which were collected between 11th and 25th February 1841.

25 February 1841

Eggs of Australasian Grebe Tachybaptus n. novaehollandiae collected [at Port Essington] (WFVZ no number).

I have not found any dated specimens which were collected between 25th February and 4th March, and the remaining specimens collected before Gilbert left for England were all eggs. These could have been collected by local Aborigines. Was Gilbert ill?

4 - 6 March 1841

Eggs of several species were obtained at Port Essington between these dates: Wandering Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna arcuata australis (BMNH 1962.1.102 / Buckley Collection 179 a-c and WFVZ 178842; may all be from the same clutch); more eggs of Australasian Grebe Tachybaptus n. novaehollandiae (BMNH 1962.1.44, BMNH 1902.2.20.193-4 & WFVZ no number) Chestnut-backed Button-quail Turnix castanotus (BMNH 1941.4.6.1194 & WFVZ 178692).

I have not found any dated specimens which were collected between 4th and 17th March, when Gilbert left for England.

17 March 1841

Gilbert left Port Essington at 5.50 a.m. on H.M.S. Pelorus (the brig which had finally been repaired enough to be seaworthy, sixteen months after being damaged in the hurricane which so devastated the settlement) for Singapore, via Timor (Chisholm 1940: 162). 

29 April 1841

Gilbert arrived in Singapore on or about this date. He transhipped to the barque Thomas Harrison for London (Chisholm 1940: 163). Gilbert wrote a short letter to Gould on the same day (Mitchell Library, Sydney CY 461: 716-717) referring to the £90 passage money from Singapore to London.

26 July 1841

Three Masked Boobies collected at Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean (LIV D2900, D2901, D2901b).

17 September 1841

A letter from Gilbert (off Start Point off the coast of England) to Gould (Mitchell Library, Sydney CY 461: 718-719): "I am happy to inform you I am thus far towards my return to happy old England again....". The letter must have been taken off the Thomas Harrison by the pilot boat.

30 September 1841

Gilbert arrived in London on the Thomas Harrison (Chisholm 1940: 163).

It is generally unknown what Gilbert did in the interim between his two trips to Australia, but he was probably working for Gould. At least one collection of birds (the Muller collection from New Guinea) which was labelled up by Gilbert must have been dealt with during this period. It would also seem likely that all the species sheets now in Cambridge University Library which were used by Gould as notes for “The birds of Australia” were transcribed by Gilbert from his field note-books during this period. Whatever his occupation, Gilbert was in England for barely 4 months before taking ship again for Australia.

31 January 1842

Gould and Gilbert signed an agreement covering Gilbert's second trip to Australia (N.B. the document is dated 21 Jan at the start of the document but dated the 31st after the signature at the end). Mitchell Library, Sydney ML A172: 128-131 / CY Reel 461: 525-528. Also see Chisholm 1938, 198-199.