Old Tales of a Young Country

The Settlement of Sydney

Marcus Clarke

AT DAYLIGHT on the 13th May, 1787, His Majesty’s ship “Sirius” made signal to sail to a little fleet that had been lying off the Mother Bank since the 16th of March. This little fleet was destined to carry Governor Phillip to take formal possession of Botany Bay, a place recommended to the Government as suitable for a convict station.

The fleet was not a large one. It consisted of His Majesty’s ships “Sirius,” “Supply,” and “Hyena” (the latter only acting as convoy for a certain distance), three victualling ships with two years’ stores and provisions for the settlement, and six transports with troops and convicts. The major-commandant and his staff were on board the “Sirius,” and the transports carried about 200 officers and soldiers, together with 775 convicts, consisting of 565 men, 192 women, and 18 children. The list of the military force, as given by Captain Watkin French, of the Marines (from whose account of the expedition the minuter details of this paper are derived), is worth noting—4 captains, 12 subalterns, 24 sergeants and corporals, 8 drummers, and 160 private marines; and he adds that the majority of the prisoners were mechanics and husbandmen specially selected by order of the Government. Having got through the Needles with a “fresh leading breeze,” the convicts began to repine at their lot; but on the morning of the 20th, getting their irons knocked off by order of the commandant, and sending a few messages to England by the “Hyena,” which parted company that afternoon, matters began to assume a more cheerful aspect.

Let us glance for a moment at the state of affairs in Europe. It was seven years after the Gordon riots and the burning of Newgate. American independence had been already declared, and the blood shed at Bunker’s Hill had caused the tree of liberty to blossom and bud. Admiral Kempenfelt and the “Royal George” had gone down at Spithead. William Pitt was 29 years old, and had been Premier of England for four years. The steam-engine had supplanted the hand-loom in the cotton mills for nearly three years. Poor Peg Nicholson had just stabbed at George III., and Edmund Burke had thrown the first stone at Warren Hastings. Washington was on the eve of his presidency, and the Convocation of Notables was waiting to be convoked. It was the age of mail coaches, knee-breeches, frogs, Frenchmen, taxation, and wooden shoes. England was yet bleeding from her struggle with her colonies, and the thundercloud of revolution hung over France. Napoleon had just got his commission as sub-lieutenant, and the Bastille had not yet fallen.

After touching at Teneriffe on the 3rd June—where a convict made a desperate attempt to escape by seizing a boat in the night and rowing off to a small cove, from which he intended to “cross to the Great Canaries”—and at Rio de Janeiro on the 7th August, the fleet cast anchor in Table Bay on the 13th of October, and found the harbour crowded with shipping. At the Cape they remained until the 12th of November, and took on board 2 bulls, 7 cows, 3 horses, 44 sheep, 32 hogs, besides goats and poultry, for the purpose of stocking the settlement. A few officers also purchased live stock, but found it an inconvenient proceeding, as hay cost 16s. the hundredweight. It was also gratifying to the expedition to be informed by the master of an American ship, 140 days from Boston, on a trading voyage to the East Indies, and rescuer of the officers and crew of the “Harcourt,” wrecked on the Cape de Verde Islands, that “if a reception could be secured, emigration would take place to New South Wales, not only from the old continent but the new one, where the spirit of adventure and thirst for novelty were excessive.”

Meeting with contrary winds, Governor Phillip resolved to change his pennant from the “Sirius” to the “Supply,” and proceed on his way without waiting for the rest of the fleet. On the 25th, therefore, the separation took place, several sawyers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other mechanics being drafted from various ships into the “Supply,” in order that His Excellency might get a few buildings run up by the time the fleet should arrive. The fleet itself was put into two divisions, the first, consisting of three transports, under the command of Lieutenant Bird; and the second, comprising the victuallers and remaining transports, was left in charge of Captain Hunter, of the “Sirius.” Sailing in this order, then, on the 7th January, 1788, the expedition sighted the shore of New South Wales, but the westerly wind dying away, the little squadron was compelled to hold off the shore, and did not get sight of it again until the 19th, and on the morning of the 20th—a dull, heavy, and cloudy day—the last division cast anchor in the harbour, and was welcomed by the already-arrived “Supply” and her illustrious passenger. The voyage had taken exactly 35 weeks, and out of 112 marines His Majesty had lost but one, making up for it, however, by the death of 24 out of the 700 convicts.

The stay in the bay was not of long duration. The Governor and Lieutenant-Governor (Mr. Robert Ross) started to explore the country the next morning, and getting into an opening called by Captain Cook “Port Jackson,” were so struck with the advantages of the place that it was determined instantly to remove thither. On setting sail the next morning, however, a great alarm spread through the fleet: two large ships were seen standing in for the mouth of the bay! All sorts of rumours were afloat. It was the vanguard of a Dutch fleet come to dispossess them. It was an armed vessel of war, and her consort. It was a store-ship from England. Governor Phillip, however, stayed the panic by making public announcement that the strange sail were French ships under the command of M. de La Perrouse. The next morning the two nations saluted each other as they passed with flags flying in the solitary bay. After a few hours run to Port Jackson, during which time the party admired the luxuriant prospect of its shores, among which many of the “Indians” were frequently seen, they anchored in a snug cove, and on the next day commenced to disembark.

Setting vigorously to work to cut down the trees, set up the tents, and mark out the dimensions of their future home, the expedition passed away some weeks pleasantly enough. The Governor fixed his residence on the eastern side of a small rivulet at the head of the cove, with a large body of convicts encamped near him; and on the western side were stationed the remaining body of prisoners, with guards posted over them night and day. The pressure of business—that is to say, the making of huts and daubing of wattles—prevented the immediate reading of the commissions, but on the 7th of February the colony was taken possession of in due form. On that day the officers of the guard took post in the Marine battalion, which was drawn up and marched off the parade, with colours flying and music playing, to an adjoining ground which had been cleared for the occasion, and upon which the convicts were assembled. The judge-advocate, David Collins, Esq., then read His Majesty’s commission, which appointed His Excellency Arthur Phillip, Esq., Governor and Captain-General in and over the territory of New South Wales and its dependencies. Upon this His Excellency made a judicious speech to the convicts, assuring them of his desire to treat them fairly and kindly, and read an Act of Parliament for the establishment of laws, and patents for holding civil and criminal courts. Three volleys were fired by the troops, who then marched back to their parade and were reviewed by His Excellency, the day’s proceedings winding up by a “cold collation” in His Excellency’s newly-erected tent, and the “drinking of many loyal and public toasts.” We can imagine the happy little picnic party in the cool of the evening drinking prosperity to Port Jackson, with the “Indians” handy in the adjoining bush, and about 1200 square feet of cleared land round about them, all unwitting of goldfields, Bathurst rushes, separation of Victoria, land acts, universal suffrage, and the like.

The extent of the Governor’s authority by this commission is defined to reach from 43° 39’ south to lat 10° 37’ south; and commencing again at the 135° of longitude east of Greenwich, it proceeds in an easterly direction, and includes all islands within the limits of the specified latitudes in the Pacific Ocean.1 As far as regarded his authority over his governed subjects, he was absolute; he had no council; he could imprison at will, and pardon at will.

He was soon called upon to exercise his power. Four days after the conciliatory speech, three convicts were brought to trial. One was convicted of striking a marine with a cooper’s adze, and received 150 lashes for his pains. Another, for theft, was marooned on an adjoining island, and kept there on bread and water for a week; while a third, sentenced to receive 50 lashes, was pardoned by the grace of the Governor. On the 28th of February a “mutinous plot” was discovered among the convicts, who had planned to steal the provisions and take to the bush. Four were arraigned, three sentenced to death, and the fourth to be flogged. Only one, however, was executed—the ringleader, Thomas Barrett, “an old and desperate offender, who died with a hardy spirit.” He was swung off the limb of a big tree, near which were assembled the whole body of convicts, guarded by the battalion of marines.

The constitution of the court by which these fellows were tried was rather peculiar. The number of members, including the judge-advocate, was limited to seven, who are expressly ordered to be officers of either army or navy. The court being met in military fashion—armed—the judge-advocate swears in the members in the manner adopted towards jurymen, and is afterwards sworn in himself in the same manner. The crime is then put to the prisoner and the prosecution is left entirely to the person at whose suit he is tried. The witnesses are all examined on oath, and the decision is directed to be given according to the laws of England, “or as nearly as may be, allowing for the circumstances and situation of the settlement,” by a majority of votes. In capital cases, however, five out of the seven members must concur to make a verdict. During the sitting of the court, the court-house was surrounded by a guard under arms, and admission granted to any one who might choose to enter it.

On the 15th February Lieutenant Bull sailed for Norfolk Island, a place concerning which the “Ministry” had heard great reports, and took with him Lieutenant King as commandant, a surgeon, a midshipman, a weaver, two marines, and sixteen convicts, of whom six were women. Events went on quietly enough. The natives, or “Indians” as they seem to have been called, were friendly, and viewed with astonishment the white skins and shaven chins of the new comers. Governor Phillip seems to have protected them from insult, and they in return behaved with some civility, though occasionally asserting their freedom by knocking in the skull of some aggressive convict. They were a poor set of creatures going entirely naked, sleeping in a sort of coffin of bark, eating roots and refusing rum; but when roused they could be dangerous. Their weapons were stone hatchets, wooden swords, spears, and clubs. The dingo, that pest of the early squatters, was quite domesticated in those days. Governor Phillip had one given to him as a present by a friendly native, and thought it something like a fox. With the aspect and appearance of the colony the settlers seemed more than satisfied, but they complained bitterly at first of the bad grain of the wood. Snakes were plentiful, and the emu and kangaroo alarmed the female convicts greatly. The soil seemed well adapted for agriculture, and the vegetables planted by the garrison grew very successfully. The notion of “mines,” which it would appear had possessed the brain of some wild dreamer in England, was speedily laughed to scorn, although Governor Phillip observed a “prodigious chain of mountains,” running north and south, at a distance of some 60 miles inland, which he thought might be worth exploring.

In the middle of March the French departed on the prosecution of their voyage. Their ships—under the command of M. de La Perrouse—had sailed from France on the 1st August, 1785, and as all the world knows, were not destined to get back again. While at Botany Bay the abbé Receveur, naturalist attached to the expedition, died, and was buried on the north shore, with a plate of copper attached to a tree above his grave.

On the 20th March the “Supply” returned from Norfolk Island, having safely landed Lieutenant King. Lieutenant Bull reported that the Norfolk pines were very large, but regretted much that he could not find any New Zealand flax, arguing badly for the future commercial prosperity of the colony from that circumstance.

Winter now coming on, the erection of barracks was set about with great vigour, and the privates of each company undertook to build for themselves two wooden houses, 68 feet in length and 23 feet in breadth, but were compelled to abandon the undertaking and proceed on a more limited scale. The plan of the town, moreover, was drawn out, and it being agreed that “to proceed on a narrow confined scale in a country of the extensive limits we possess would be unpardonable, extent of empire commanding grandeur of design,” the principal street was laid down 200 feet in breadth, and the rest in corresponding proportion. Possessed with the same admirable notions, His Excellency undertook an expedition into the interior. His party consisted of eleven persons, but at the end of four days, provisions growing scarce, it was deemed prudent to return.

Now the troubles began. Fresh meat began to fail. The “Supply” went to Howe’s Island (discovered on her former trip) to look for turtle, but found none. Fish became scarce. It was not thought prudent to kill the live stock bought at so great an expense at the Cape, and the settlement was compelled to live almost entirely on salt provisions. As a natural consequence, scurvy broke out: vegetables were scarce, and the garrison fell sick. It drew near the time for the departure of the ships for Europe, and earnest representations were made concerning the supply of fresh meat. But there was a hopeful spirit abroad.

On the anniversary of the King’s birthday all the officers dined with the Governor, and among other toasts drunk was that of “Prosperity of Sydney Cove, in Cumberland County.” At daylight the ships fired 21 guns each, which was repeated at noon, and answered by three volleys from the battalion of marines. Each prisoner received an allowance of grog, and—glorious day—“every non-commissioned officer and private soldier had the honour of drinking His Majesty’s health in a pint of porter, served out at the flag-staff.” Three days’ holiday were given to every convict on the island, and four felons who had been marooned in irons were allowed to rejoin their comrades. This indulgence, however, was followed by ill effects. A prisoner named Samuel Peyton, twenty years of age, broke open an officer’s marquee, with intent to commit robbery, for which offence he was tried and hung, together with another man, named Corbett, who had attempted to escape.

On the 14th of July, 1788, the ships, with the exception of the “Sirius” and the “Supply,” which had gone to Norfolk Island, sailed for England, to report to the British Government that the colony of Port Jackson had been successfully established.

Looking back—while a boy yells latest Sydney telegrams under my window—from the new story of 1871 to this old story of 1788, it seems worth the retelling.

1.    Captain French says 43° 49’; Flanagan, 43° 29’.    [back]

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