‘From 1788 there had been continuous disputation between the civil power represented by the autocratic uniformed naval governors, and the military’. John McMahon, Not a Rum Rebellion but a Military Insurrection, Journal of Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 92, 2006

1788 – Sydney: The chain of command at Sydney was dysfunctional. For many reasons relations between Captain Arthur Phillip an officer of the Royal Navy and Marine Commander Major Robert Ross of the Royal Navy’s military arm were toxic.

From the get-go Governor Phillip had no confidence in Major Ross holding him responsible for failure to procure reserve small armaments – musket balls.

Consequently, during the fleet’s stop-over in Rio de Janeiro August to September 1787, Phillip was obliged to purchase 10,000 of them.

1787 – 13 October, Africa: At the Cape of Good Hope the fleet’s reception played out the complete opposite to that experienced at Rio, Brazil (August-September 1787) where Phillip had lived previously while serving in the Portuguese Navy. See: Arthur Phillip – The Importance of Being Arthur

The Dutch colonial administration at Cape Town proved obstructive in the extreme and Phillip was initially held to ransom by traders who day-to-day withheld bread and other essentials until he agreed to meet their inflated prices.

Many tonnes of supplies were absolutely necessary for the expedition’s future survival at New Holland. Yet Dr. John White, the fleet’s chief medical officer, wrote; ‘it must be lamented that the quantity fell very short of what we ought to have taken’. John White, First Fleet Journal.

Not only was quantity lacking, apart from hardy goats, most livestock intended for breeding – cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry – proved to be of poor quality, all fared badly on the long haul to Botany Bay.

Many sheep, fed dry fodder on the sixty-eight (68) day voyage from Cape Town, when turned out onto fresh grass at Sydney,  developed acidosis and died.

Although Captain Phillip was most anxious to comply with Sir George Blane’s dictum for health and safety, ships should be at sea no longer than forty-two (42) days, the lengthy negotiations meant the Fleet was held up at Cape Town far longer than anticipated.

Portsmouth to Tenerife – 13 May 1787 to 1 June, 19 days; Tenerife to Rio – 10 June to 6 August, 56 days, adverse weather forced Phillip abort a planned stop-over at St. Jago, Cape Verde; Rio to Cape Town – 4 September to 13 October 1787, 35 days.  Cape Town to Botany Bay – 12 November 1787 to 20 January 1788, 68 days.  See: Apollo II – Fly Me To The Moon

1787 – 12 November, Cape Town: New Holland was a long way off when the fleet sailed from Cape Town on 12 November 1787 and this caused Phillip reassess his strategy; ‘a mere abortion’ of a plan.

‘Had he [Phillip] conceived the idea and put it into practice at leaving Rio de Janeiro it might have succeeded in some measure but as it was now produced [25 November 1787] it was a mere abortion of the Brain, a whim which struck him at the time as the sequel will sufficiently evince‘. Bowes-Symth. ibid.

1787 – 25 November, at sea: What Phillip decided was, at the very least an extremely risky and complicated manoeuvre; he ordered the fleet split into two ( 2) divisions.

Not only was Phillip’s order seen as fool-hardy many saw it a strategic error and Major Ross, who had not been consulted, regarded it a massive slight.

I could not, I confess, but feel myself much hurt at His Excellency’s not having given me the most distant hint of his intention prior to our quitting the Cape that I might have made some preparation for such an event and more particularly so as I found that it had been made known to others, as a proof of which I received my first intimation of his design from the mess of the Sirius’s gun-room’. Major Robert Ross Despatch to Stephens, Secretary Navy, 10 July 1788, Historical Records of New South Wales. 

Ross was outraged when ordered to transfer two (2) companies of marines in mid-ocean onto Scarborough and accompany them in the dash for New Holland.

Dissension between the two (2) men deepened and bitter antagonism between the two (2) arms of the naval service increased markedly.

Phillip transferred from HMS Sirius to HMS Supply taking Alexander, Friendship and Scarborough, fastest of the transports, and made for Botany Bay.

Arthur Bowes-Smyth surgeon on the second division Lady Penrhyn had a lot to say about most things and gives flavour to the marines’ resentment.

‘Since Commodore Phillip left us the remaining seven [7] ships of the fleet have kept better together as Captain Hunter who does not carry such a press of Sail as the Commodore used to’. Arthur Bowes First Fleet Journal, Australian Documents Library.

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: HMS Supply and the first division ships reached Botany Bay on 18 January 1788 followed closely by the remainder of the fleet. See: William Dawes & the Eternal Flame

The extremely rough voyage Cape Town to Botany Bay took sixty-eight (68) days, during which entire time water was rationed to three (3) pints per person per 24 hour period.

Botany Bay in January the weather was very hot and fresh water of primary concern. Within an hour of anchoring Supply’s  pinnace was lowered and a small party rowed to a stretch of fine sand where, having indicating their need for water, followed a group of local Aborigines led them a little way to ‘a run of fresh water’.

Phillip however formed the opinion Botany Bay’s water supply was not sufficient to sustain such a large number – 1500 souls –  complement of the ‘First Fleet’.

1788 – 20 January: At 6 am the following morning, 20 January, Governor Phillip set off in one (1) of three (3) long-boats to examine the adjacent country-side.

‘Before he left us he directed me to land a certain number of men on the south side of the bay every morning to fell trees and form saw-pits, in order that the whole [of the convicts] might be set to work in erecting stores etc. in case he did not meet with a more promising situation’. Major Ross. ibid.

Although most convicts had dysentery and, many had not set foot on dry land for some years, Ross pushed sick exhausted men to the limit of endurance clearing ground and digging saw-pits. See: Three Amigos + One

‘Several of the First Fleet [convicts] had been tried as early as 1781 and 1782. As seven [7] years transportation was the most common sentence, many had already served five-sevenths of their time on embarkation and six-sevenths on disembarkation at Sydney Cove. Dr John Cobley, Crimes of the First Fleet, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1982

1788 – 22 January, Port Jackson: Towards evening two (2) days later, 22nd January, Captain Phillip’s party returned to Botany Bay with good news, the ‘First Fleet’ had found a home.

From fleet journals we can speculate some women convicts were confident Captain Phillip had found a town they sorted their clothes selecting the best to impress the locals.

Perhaps the town would be similar to Rio with its many churches, monasteries, markets, music and well-dressed women promenading in the cool evenings; or perhaps like Cape Town, rougher around the edges, but with busy regular intersecting streets, fine houses, coffee palaces and colourful market-stalls.

While no convicts had been allowed off their ships in either place, still in chaiins they were allowed on deck to exercise. From what they saw and, gleaned from marines who went ashore and those officers who took lodgings, there had been much to enjoy.

What Phillip had found at Port Jackson, nine (9) miles (14km) north of  Botany Bay, was not a town but country that promised better soil for planting, a strong running stream would supply ample fresh water. A sheltered cove situated deep within the port offered safe anchorage; ‘here a thousand Sail of the line [warships] may ride in the most perfect Security’.    

Major Ross, seeing his own strenuous efforts come to nought, received Phillip’s news with a mixture of anger, frustration and anticipation.

As the weather continued threatening, there would be time to prepare an orderly departure. Ships damaged on the voyage could be repaired before the short sail to Albion – Phillip’s initial name for the permanent settlement at Sydney Cove.

Meantime Surgeon Bowes- Smyth, who regarded the ‘Natives [as] altogether a most stupid insensible set’ ventured into the bush and got himself lost.

‘I lost myself & cd. not find my way back to the Wooding party, which threw me into no small panic least I shd. meet with any of the Natives before I cd. extricate myself from the Labrynth I had got into.  At one time I was surrounded by fern (exactly the same as in England) on every side above my head’.  Bowes-Smyth. ibid.

Men went fishing with trawling nets and it is here a picture emerges of what was to go so very wrong between the First Australians and the Englishmen who claimed for themselves ‘the right’ to everything ‘as if [it was] their own’.

‘No sooner were the fish out of the water than they [Aboriginals] began to lay hold of them, as if they had a right to them, or that they were their own’. Dr. John White. ibid.    

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: Then at first light on the 24th came a huge shock. Out of the haze two (2) ships, first jubilation – supplies from England – then dismay they were not flying English colours. See: Abandoned and Left To Starve

‘There would be ‘some justification for the saying that England won Australia by six days’. Edward Jenks, The History of Australian Colonies cited in British Colonial Policy, Hugh E. Egerton, 1928.

Only Captain Phillip the spy knew for certain who they were. He had watched from the shadows as Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse led La Boussole and L’Astrolabe out of Brest Harbour in August 1785 sparking England’s race for New Holland. See: Arthur Phillip The Spy Who Never Came In From The Cold

Phillip did not know if ‘a state of war’ existed between France and England thus making La Perouse’s arrival extremely problematic for a Captain of the Royal Navy.

‘He ordered a [marine] party to be sent Point Sutherland to hoist English colours. He also stipulated that the move to Port Jackson be kept secret, and that no one was to go on aboard the French ships’. John Moore, First Fleet Marines, Queensland University Press, 1987

1788 – 24 January: ‘This evening Major Ross came on board us [Lady Penrhyn] and informed us that the governor was resolved at all Events to leave the Bay at daylight in the morning’ [25 January]. Bowes-Smyth. ibid.

For Phillip in view of ambiguity – war – secrecy was paramount, it was imperative he erect ‘English Colours’ at Port Jackson before the French were aware of its existence.

‘His failure to invite the French commander there [Port Jackson] reflect some fear fear that he might be known as a spy’. Alan Frost, Arthur Phillip His Voyaging, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1987

1788 – 25 January:  Leaving Major Ross to manage a sticky situation Phillip quit Botany Bay for Port Jackson aboard HMS Supply arriving just as night fell.

As for the other ten (10 vessels the same ‘strong southerly current’ that forced La Perouse sail south to seek shelter at Sutherland, made an orderly departure impossible. Three (3) attempts to leave the bay were foiled by high winds and opposing currents running across the bay’s wide-open face. .

1788 – 26, January, Sydney Cove: At first light Phillip landed and Moore states;  ‘a firing party of marines lined up and fired a feu de jois, in between the volleys of which, toast were drunk to His Majesty King George III, the royal family, and success to the new colony’.

Captain Phillip raised the Union Jack from a hastily erected flagstaff to proclaim Britain’s victory over France; ‘raising the flag was one of the acts recognised as an assertion of a prior claim against other colonial powers eyeing off the same land’. Larissa Behrendt, The Honest History Book, 2017  See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head

Phillip was aware La Perouse could have unseen sailed north from Sutherland to Sydney Cove and raised the French flag so he knew it was imperative ‘to make sure the French did not make the claim first’. Behrendt. ibid.

1788 – 26 January: Not until morning of 26 January was the English fleet able to exit Botany Bay and then with great difficulty putting both lives and ships in peril.

‘We were obliged to work out of the Bay wt. ye. utmost difficulty and danger wt. many a hairbreth (sic) escape…Charlotte was once in imminent danger of being on the Rocks. The Friendship & Prince of Wales…came foul of each other [as did] Friendship and Charlotte…it was wt. the greatest difficulty our ship [Lady Penrhyn] avoided the same fate’. Bowes-Smyth. ibid.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney: Bewildered Aborigines looked on as in adverse conditions these large unwieldy craft took to the open sea. Just on dark – ‘½ 6’ – the ship succeeded in anchoring alongside HMS Supply.

‘Everyone blaming the Rashness of the Governor on insisting upon the fleet working out in such weather, and all agreed it was next to a Miracle that some of the ships were not lost, the danger was so very great’. Bowes-Smyth. ibid.

1788 – 27/28 January, Sydney Cove: The following day dawned ‘cloudy and windy’ bruised battered marines and male convicts began disembarking into Sydney Cove and so began ‘the downfall of its ancient inhabitants’.

‘For the first time since creation, been interrupted by the rude sound of the labourer’s axe, and the downfall of its ancient inhabitants; a stillness and tranquillity which from that day were to give place to the voice of labour, the confusion of camps and towns, and ‘the busy hum of its new possessors’. Marine Captain David Collins, Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol. 1, Ed. Brian H.  Fletcher, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1975

The ‘new possessors’ England’s convicted criminals were again set the task of clearing a parade ground and erecting a landing stage so supplies could be unloaded without delay.

1788 – February 6, Sydney Cove:  Very early on the morning of 6 February the women, all two hundred and twenty-two (222),  were rowed ashore. Bowes-Smyth observed; ‘some few among them might be sd. to be well dress’d’.

That night came a storm of monumental proportions. Torrential rain, deafening thunder, lightening split a tree setting it alight; a pig and seven (7) sheep with two (2) lambs tethered beneath it burnt to death.

‘So vicious were these early storms that during the next night [7th] a sentry was blinded by lightening’. Lieutenant William Bradley RN, A Voyage to New South Wales, 1786-1792, New South Wales Public Library, cited Moore. ibid

The ‘First Fleet’ was overwhelmingly male 1300 men and 222 women. Amid the storm’s chaos sailors, marines and seamen from the transports brought grog to the party; ‘a Scene of Debauchery and Riot ensued during that night’. Bowes Smyth. ibid

1788 – 7 February: At 11 o’clock next morning the ‘pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war’ was played out as Governor Phillip took formal possession of New South Wales without consent of its Peoples.  

‘The detachment under arms and with colours flying and band playing forming a guard of honour to receive the Governor then marched past accompanied by the band which played several pieces “suited to the business”…the troops formed a circle around the convicts who were ordered to sit down.’ Moore. ibid

Phillip was well aware in these ‘new possessors’ baddies vastly outnumbered the goodies

‘The first month or two ashore would lay the foundations of that ethos in which group attitudes and relationship would develop, and in many ways the very early days would establish the real nature of the marine-convict relationship would be asserted’. Moore. ibid. 


1788 – February 27,28,29: Governor Phillip ‘la[id] the foundations‘ by stamping the ethos of hierarchy and authority on a dangerous and volatile situation. See: From Here to Eternity, Blind Man’s Bluff, Catch 22












Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply