AUSTRALIA

January 1788-Spring 1790 Settling In

 

           

The two French ships which had followed the First Fleet into Botany Bay remained at anchor thee for the best part of six weeks, which allowed for a number of polite exchanges with the British now ensconced at Port Jackson. Phillip Gidley King, fluent in French, especially enjoyed the French officers' company, their conversation and the delicacy of their manners. Without King's journal we would know very little about this small, beautifully equipped expedition and its courteous officers: the two ships sailed out of Botany Bay into oblivion, lost somewhere in the Pacific. In the event, King had sailed even earlier, being informed by Phillip on 31 January that he was to had a tiny settlement at Norfolk Island, another even more remote site identified by Cook as promising. On the morning of 15 February King and his little band of settlers - seven free men and fifteen convicts, six of them women - embarked on the supply, to be dumped on a beach with their baggage and provisions piled around them with orders to make a new society. Naval obedience came at a high price.

Before he left King made the most of his time with the French. He reports the Comte de La Perouse as notably less well disposed to the local people than was Phillip. His wariness was natural enough at a landfall only a handful of weeks before, the expedition had lost two longboats and more than a dozen men, among them the captain of the Astrolabe and eight other officers, in a surprise attack by natives. (Up to that time they had not lost a single man.) Their assailants were islanders, probably Samoans, 'a very strong and handsome race of men scarce one among them less than 6 Feet high, & well-sett', who over several days had seemed perfectly friendly, and then, after what seemed to the French a trivial incident, had swung their clubs with killing effect. The French estimated that about thirty islanders fell to their guns.

Retrospectively La Perouse read the episode as a textbook example of 'savagery': of unpredictable fluctuations in mood, unpredictable eruptions of murderous violence. At Botany Bay he built a stockade around his tents, mounted two small guns, and kept his guns at the ready. Phillip built no stockades and he set no guards, or not against the Australians. He intended in persuade the local people that the newcomers were their friends. But his first task was to settle his own people, and once the flurry of disembarkation was over, with its inescapable disorder - the orgiastic scenes on the night of the disembarkation of the convict women have become legendary - officers, soldiers and convicts set about making themselves at home.

First, the alien landscape had to be snapped and its strangeness tamed by naming. Spectacular landmarks were given the names of distant patrons - Pittwater, Norfolk Island - but with their duty done to the grandees, the new arrivals could celebrate themselves and their adventures - Tench's Hill, Bradley's Head, Collins Cove, Dawes Point. The names, used daily and inscribed in letters to kin and friends, must in time have come to seem 'natural'. Both Phillip's sturdy mind and conciliatory ambitions are suggested by his decision in mid-1791 to reject the wistful romanticism of Rose-Hill for the new up-river settlement in favour of the local name, Parramatta, which meant something like Where Eels Meet - that is, a place of feasting and fecundity.

Outposts of empire are lonely places. But calendars count time at the same rate everywhere, so the settlers celebrated their first King's Birthday on 4 June with all the pomp and alcohol they could muster. No news came from the real world: they could not know whether they were at war with France on any particular day, and these ardent patriots were to hear the King was well again before they had known he was ill. Remote though they were from the centres of action, distance brought none of the liberties remoteness can bring. The bounds of settlement were crushingly narrow. Officers could look forward to occasional 'expeditions' on land or on the water, but convicts were penned within settlement boundaries, unless they were given specific duties outside it. They were always being admonished for 'straggling' - wandering in the bush without permission - which they continued to do whatever the consequences in flogging or spear wounds. 

Officers settled to a range of genteel diversions. As we have seen, some made music, some collected specimens, some drew or painted. some kept journals, giving form to otherwise featureless days: 'this happened, then that happened'. A few, like Major Ross, squabbled. Irritability helps pass the time. And, as we know, everyone, or everyone literate, wrote letters home. They wrote in the hope that, barring shipwrecks, the words they were writing would be read months or years later by a known loved someone in some known loved place. George Worgan bursts into what r4eads like a post-modernist riff on time, sound and distance as he considers that, however long the chain of words he is hurling towards his brother, 'the First Word will not have reached one quarter over the Seas that divides Us, at the time the last is tumbling out of my Mouth', and decided he will let fly each one 'with such an impulsive Velocity...as to make their Way against the Resistance of rocks. Seas and contrary Winds and arrive at your Street Door with a D - I of a Suscitation...' A 'suscitation' indeed, with the force of love, gales and several seas behind it. Worgan was missing his brother badly. Two transports were about to sail. He planned to put a letter to Dick on each, and reflected on the melancholy possibility that neither would arrive. Then Dick, in lieu of his living, living words, would have to make do with the narratives being prepared by Collins or Tench for news of his young brother. The two ships were sailing in the morning. Worgan confided he had thirty-one letters, five of them almost as long as this forty-page monster, 'to Close, Seal, Enclose and direct' and get on board before the ships raised anchor. Then comes a forlorn postscript: 'I have sent you 2 letters beside this.' For all its compulsive chirpiness, Worgan's huge letter breathes loneliness. 

There were the immediate pleasures of local conviviality. From their first days in the colony gentlemen were deploring the convict passion for rum and the wickednesses they would commit to get it, but not only the lower orders were addicted to alcohol. Surgeon White gives a genial description of the toasts drunk during that first extravagant King's Birthday. The lower orders had been catered for the governor had issued every soldier a pint of porter in addition to his usual allowance of rum-and-water grog, and to every convict a half pint of rum 'that they might all drink his Majesty's health'. Then the gentlemen settled to their pleasures. After the midday gun salutes the officers attended the governor in his house, and sat down to dinner to the pleasant accompaniment of the band playing 'God Save the king' followed by 'several marches'. Worgan gives us the menu: they are 'mutton, pork, ducks, fowls, fish, kanguroo, sallads, pies and preserved fruits': foods handsomely outside the usual salted or dried rations. Then the cloth was removed, and they had the toasts. White lists them: 'His Majesty's health was drank with three cheers. The prince of Wales, the Queen and royal family, the Cumberland family and his Royal Highness Prince Henry William...his majesty's ministers were next given.' Then, the obligatory public toasts drunk they began on the private and the particular, with the governor opening the new round with a toast to their own 'Cumberland County', the first British-style county in the new world, existing as yet only in the mind, but, as Phillip proudly declared, 'the largest in the world'. Its name, he said, would be 'Albion'.

So the toasts continued. Worgan (these surgeons seem to have been devoted drinker) recorded the officers drank 'PORT, LISBON, MADEIRA, TENERIFFE and good Old English PORTER' (his capitals, which 'went merrily round in bumpers' through a long afternoon. then , after joining in the democratic jubilation around a great bonfire, the officers went back to the governor's house for supper and a night-cap of three. We have to assume that by bedtime most of them were thoroughly drunk. Nonetheless, they were affronted the next morning to discover that during their loyal celebrations some of their tents had been looted: 'We are astonished at the number of thefts which had been committed during the genral festivity, by the villainous part of the convicts, on one another, and on some of the officers, whose servants did not keep a strict lookout after their marquees'. White harrumphed: 'Availing themselves thus of the particular circumstances of the day, is a strong instance of their unabated depravity and want of principle.' A young convict would hang for the crimes he committed in the course of that festive night.

What provides the frankest account we have of officers' drinking, and some of his own conduct implies a ready tolerance of inebriation. At another celebration in August 1788, the governor's dinner to honour the birth of the Prince of Wales, White and William Balmain, one of his assistant surgeons, had a difference of opinion, rose from the table, went outside, and, without seconds (so avoiding the risk of bloodless reconciliation) fought a pistol duel. Ralph Clark claimed that each fired several shots at the other, but that the only injury sustained was a slight wound to Balmain's thigh, which implies either remarkably bad marksmanship or incapacitating drunkenness. As White on a good day was capable of bringing small birds down from trees, we have to diagnose inebriation exacerbated by a warm temperament. by the end of the same year White was ready to settle another dispute with pistols, this time with an adjutant of marines, until friends managed to persuade him he was in the wrong. Phillip would need a cool head to keep such effervescent fellows in amity.

The second King's Birthday celebrated in Sydney was marked by a play, George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, watched happily by governor and officers, but acted, directed and produced by convicts - which sheds an enexpected light on convict condition and caste relations in the new colony. Tench:

I am not ashamed to confess that the proper distribution of three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles stuck around the mud walls of a convict hut, failed not to diffuse general complacency on the countenances of any persons of various descriptions who were assembled to applaud the representation.

I am not ashamed to confess that the proper distribution of three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles stuck around the mud walls of a convict hut, failed not to diffuse general complacency on the countenances of any persons of various descriptions who were assembled to applaud the representation.

That is: they enjoyed it. thee were more mundane pleasures to be taken in tending exotic menageries of pets like parrots or dingos or possums or lizards. the Australians' alert, handsome dingos especially caught the dog-loving British eye. In fragrant defiance of an 'all dogs ashore' order Phillip had given in Portsmouth, a number of officers had brought their dogs with them on the voyage. The dogs contributed unpleasantly to the horrible crowding of shipboard life, already burdened with a Noah's Ark of 'useful', meaning edible, animals, and there are indications that sailors resented cleaning up after them, more than a few fetching up overboard. On Ralph Clark's Friendship five dogs, including his own, had mysteriously vanished before the voyage was much more than half over. soon after they handed the dog-deprived British were searching the countryside or bartering with dog-rich Australians for dingo puppies.

What happened next could have served as an early warning od deeper incompatibilities. John Hunter, studying the dingos as carefully as he studied all the creatures of the new continent, discovered them to be fatally flawed. Despite their notable good looks, they had an ineradicable propensity to kill all and any small animals. Some packs could even drag down kangaroos. Hunter writes, regretfully:

Of those (native) dogs we have had many which were taken when young, but never could we cure them of their natural ferocity; although well fed, they would at all times, but particularly in the night, fly at young pigs, chickens, or any small animal which they might be able to conquer and immediately kill and generally eat them. I had one which was a little puppy when caught, but notwithstanding I took much pains to correct and cure it of its savageness, I found it took every opportunity, which it met with, to snap off the head of a fowl, or worry a pig, and would do it in defiance of correction. They are a very good-natured animal when domesticated, but I believe it to be impossible to cure that savageness, which all I have seem to possess.

Governor Phillip himself supplied an assessment of this interesting animal, based on his study of a living specimen he had sent as a present to Under-Secretary Nepean:

It is very eager after its prey, and is fond of rabbits or chickens, raw, but will not touch dressed meat. From its fierceness and agility it has greatly the advantage of other animals much superior in size for a very fine French fox-dog being put to it, in a moment of it seized him by the loins, and would have put an an end to his existence, had not help been at hand. With the utmost case it is able to leap over the back of an ass, and was very near worrying one to death, having fastened on it, so that the creature was not able to disengage himself without assistance, it has also been known to run down both dear and sheep.

An impressive animal, but an alarming one. David Collins put the dilemma with his usual pragmatic economy. 'The dogs of this country...have an invincible predilection for poultry, which the severest beatings could never repress. Some of them are very handsome.'

If it's meat and it moves, grab it.  These nomad dogs knew nothing of the pastoralists' distinction between 'stock' and 'game'. Meanwhile the offspring of the dogs the British brought with them, especially little terriers and spaniels, were eagerly coveted by the Australians. they were dog lovers too: their dingos were allies in the hunt and companions around the campfire. but dingos, bred to stalk flighty marsupials, did not bark. British dogs did. Through their centuries of living in agricultural settlement they had developed a strong sense of property, so they barked at strangers, especially strangers who came softly in the night. Translated to Australian conditions, those British-bred spaniels and terriers could give warning of night attacks. One of the skills of the Australian warrior was to move stealthily through the night, and kill an enemy who had mortally offended him as he lay by his own campfire.

To each culture its own canine. the 'mindless' slaughter of stock and the consequent murderous reprisals which were to embitter British-Australian relations through later decades were implicit in this energetic early trade between dog lovers. 

Isolation, with desolation lurking within it, remained the temporary settlers' worst enemy. William Bradley has left us a watercolour of the settlement at Sydney Cove in early 1788: a scatter of tents, a few huts, a handful of larger structures, a flagpole - and that is all. The land constructions are given substance and focus by the two ships riding at anchor in the clear water. for officers, sailors and marines those ships spelt security even in a storm, and breathed of home. Mind and spirit were refreshed by the clustered signs of European, indeed of British, technological ingenuity. Later, when officers condescended to play host to parties of Australian sightseers, leading them around the assemblage of cunning arrangements which constitute a ship, they were offended to find the tourists thoroughly bored, coming alive only when weapons or animal skins stimulated their curiosity. If for some of these men the sea was an open highway to England, by February 1789 the big ships had all sailed away, and even the faithful Supply was gone on a mission to Norfolk island. The settlers were left with only the poor fruits of their own labour huts, rents, a canvas house for the governor, some scars in the earth, some trees felled. With the harbour empty, Sydney cove must have seemed to to cling to the edge of the world.   

For convicts, some uncertain as to whether they would ever return home, others knowing they would not, the isolation must have been worse. We can measure their despair by the fantasy which sent many of them off along th4 sea-shore or into the scrub in search of 'China', which they thought lay a long walk and across a river somewhere, or to another place where a copper-coloured people would welcome them, and thee would be peace and no more labour. We hear their own exhaustion and the echoes of sailors' tales here, and sweet memories of that earthly paradise, Tahiti.

Nature-offered scant solace. Splendidly tall, straight trees proved useless when felled: riddled with fissures, they oozed thick blood. The soil was no more than a pretty skin over rocks, and the flowers, so sweet in their brief season, withered under the oven-hot lasts of the summer winds. As relations with the local people worsened, unarmed convicts or even solders who ventures too far into the scrub might not return, killed by the Australians, or simply lost, wandering and calling in the featureless wilderness. Of necessity they used the Australians' paths, and some of those, like the path used to visit the French at Botany Bay, came to be marked by evil memories. In the October of that first year a convict sent to gather 'vegetables' and known to be a steady fellow somehow strayed from the group. His body was found on that path, 'his head beaten to a jelly, a spear driven through it, another through his body, and one arm broken. What had been done to him before he died? A contingent went out immediately to bury the corpse, but three times in the next month it was reported to be above ground again. they thought it had been dug up by the natives' dogs.

Even as the newcomers were beginning to mark their presence on the land with their buildings and garden plots, their names and their stories, the complicated scribble of deeply-indented coves defied mental mapping. The normally phlegmatic David Collins lets us glimpse a moment of existential dread, confessing that:

In many of the arms (of the harbour), when sitting at my ease with my companions in a boat, I have been struck with horror at the bare idea of being lost in them' as from the great similarity of one cove to another, the recollection would be bewildered in attempting to determine any relative situation. It is certain that if destroyed by no other means, insanity would accelerate the miserable and that must ensue.

By the end of that first year many of the interlopers must have lost heart in their power to tame this strange place and in its strange, elusive people, but it was Major Ross, officially second-in-command, who fired off an uninhibited denunciation to Under-Secretary Nepean, designed to scuttle the whole enterprise. (His letter is also a model of applied nastiness):

From our governor's manner of expressing himself, for he communicates nothing to any person here but to his secretary (Captain Collins), he had, I dare say, described this country as capable of being made into the Empire of the East. But notwithstanding all he may from interested motives say - and as this letter is for your own private perusal - I do not scruple to pronounce that in the whole world there is not a worse country than what we have yet seen of this. All that is continuous to us is so very barren and forbidding that it may with truth he said that here nature is reversed; and if not so, she is nearly worn out, for almost all the seed we have put into the ground has rotted, and I have no doubt but will, like the wood of this vile country when burned or rotten, turn to sand... if the minister had a true and just description given him of it he will not surely think of sending any more people here... Of the general opinion entertained here of the wretched prospect we have before us I cannot, I think, give you a more convincing proof than that every person (except the two gentlemen already mentioned, whose sentiments I am perfectly unacquainted with) who came out with a design of remaining in the country are now most earnestly wishing to get away from it.

That in November 1788. Conditions would get worse. When in May 1789 the Sirius returned from the Cape, where it had made a dash for supplies, it brought stale flour and staler news. The colonists' letters had been handed on to a ship leaving the Cape for England, but they knew that months would pass before they could hope for a reply. through the empty weeks stores were depleting further and hunger was added to loneliness. By 1790 it seemed that, with no supplies arrived from England, the colony might very well starve. Punishments were escalating, so home places were increasingly marked with blood and anguish. Crimes were multiplying tool a man who had already suffered the first installment of his 500-lash punishment for stealing food, and was being kept shackled in the hospital until he could endure the rest, managed to get an iron off one leg 'and in that situation was caught robbing a farm'. Collins grimly recorded that 'on being brought in, the received another portion of his punishment'. but the devoted guardian of law could see the paradox. He knew that such acts resulted from 'either the villainy of the people, or the necessities of the time'. He also knew the motive to be irrelevant: villainy or necessity had to be treated alike, as equally deliberate crimes. And he worried: 'Very little labour could be enforced from people who had nothing to eat.'

As the slow days passed, morale sagged further. Norfolk Island still enjoyed its reputation for natural bounty, a reputation based more on distance than reality, so with typical daring Phillip decided to split the colony. In March 1790 he sent the Sirius with almost half the convicts and an appropriate number of marines under major roass to the island to give each settlement its best chance of survival. ross would replace King as commandant of the island; King would continue to England on the Sirius: and we are reminded how few pieces Phillip had to play in this desperate endgame.

A small event is caught in the amber of that last-ditch strategy. George Maxwell, third lieutenant on the Sirius, had fits of irritability even on the voyage out, thrashing sailors for slight cause and earning a public rebuke from Phillip, who would tolerate no unauthorised thrashings on ships under his command. Then in  October 1788, with the Sirius off the Horn and bound for Capetown and essential supplies, Maxwell had ordered so dangerous an amount of sail clapped on that 'the ship lay down sufficient to heave the capt(ain) out of his cot on the cabin floor', and Hunter, 'finding he was delarious', had him taken off the watch.

So says Able Seaman Jacob Nagle, professionally concerned with the orders of officers, especially deranged ones. He also reports that after the Sirius returned to Sydney in May 1789, Maxwell 'got to raving he was sent to the hosptittel under the care of the docters', and, 'being leunatick', was kept in a house in the hospital gardens with a man to watch him, Collins puts Maxwell's condition more genteelly; the lieutenant, he writes, had over several weeks fallen into 'a melancholy and declining way', and had therefore been discharged from the Sirius before it embarked for Norfolk island in march 1790.

Being sometimes allowed to go out alone, maxwell managed to escape his keepers. Two days afterwards he was seen again, sighted in the lower harbour by a sergeant out fishing. alone in a tiny boat he had been rowing from one side of the lower harbour to the other, back and forth, back and forth, for the those two days, without rest or food or drink. Was he searching for his lost ship? Sent back to England a year later in John Hunter's care ('laying in his cabin in a dreadful condition, constantly delerious and unsencible of anything whatever', Nagle tells us) Maxwell died off Batavia in April 1791, and was buried at sea 'in as genteel a maner as could be expected to see'. His story reminds us that these imperial adventures could cost officers, soldiers and sailors too their health, or life, or sanity.

With the Sirius and the Supply both gone to effect the great transplantation to Norfolk Island, the mother colony tasted the desolation which had been the island's sour diet from its inception. Collins commented that Sydney looked 'as if famine had already thinned it of half its numbers', which indirectly it had. Phillip himself surveyed the huts and gardens of those who had gone, re-allocated them, reduced the working hours for men now seriously weakened by hunger, cut the ration yet again, and settled to wait.

On 5 April 1790 the Supply came back with terrible news. The Sirius had been wrecked on the jagged refs of Norfolk Island. The human cargo had been saved, and (as it was to turn out) a surprising among of the provisions, but the colony's one big, fast ship, their pride and their security, was at that moment being pounded to pieces on a reef. Now they had only the battered little supply between themselves and slow, unremarked death by famine. then on 3 June 1790 - the day before their beloved King's Birthday - another ship appeared; not the longed-for supply ship but the Lady Juliana, carrying a cargo of female convicts and almost no supplies. It brought more bitter news. In the previous December the store-ship Guardian, stuffed with goods for the colony, was attempting a passage around the Horn when it struck an iceberg. The ship had been forced back to Capetown for repairs. No one knew how or when the supplies could be got to Sydney. 

That was ill-fortune, but ill-fortune was compounded by neglect and stupidity. David Collins commented on the arrival of the Juliana: 'In the distressed circumstances of the colony, it was not a little mortifying to find on board the first ship that arrived, a cargo so unnecessary and unprofitable as two hundred and twenty-two females, instead of a cargo of provisions,' Worse, while the women were healthy most of them were not only female but old, 'a description of people utterly incapable of using any exertion to their own maintenance'.

Ten days after the Lady Juliana came the store-ship Lustinian with essential supplies, and on its heels three more transports of the Second fleet, with a quarter of their human cargo already dead, and most of the rest disease-ridden, debilitated or decrepit. David Collins was not tender to convicts, but he was appalled by what he saw. As the ships unloaded, 'several of these miserable people died in the boats as they were rowing inshore, or on the wharf when they were lifting out of the boats, both the living and the dead exhibiting more horrid spectacles than had ever been witnessed in this country'. And it had been wilfully done:

All this was to be attributed to confinement, and that of the worst species, confinement in a small space and in irons, not put on singly, but many of them chained together ... it was said that on the Neptune several had died in irons; and what added to the horror of such a circumstance was, that their deaths were cancelled, for the purpose of sharing their allowance of provisions, until chance, and the offensiveness of a corpse, directed the surgeon, or someone who had authority in the ship, to the spot where it lay.

With the arrival Phillip knew that avarice had been added to the toll of neglect and stupidity. Britain's gaol-keepers had taken their chance to empty the hulks and dump Britain's detritus onto the struggling colony; greedy ship's masters had taken their fees, neglected their convict cargo, and compounded the tragedy. Now he knew his desperate enterprise was vulnerable not only to lethargic administrators and the vagaries of water and wind, but to rogues as well.

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