‘In war the trophy head is a mark of supremacy and respect’. Frances Larson, Severed, Granta, 2015


1790 – 13 December, Sydney Cove: ‘If practicable, to bring away two [2] natives as prisoners and to put to death ten [10]. That we were to cut off, and bring in the heads of the slain, for which purpose, hatchets and bags would be furnished’. Marine Captain Watkin, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhadinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

Can we know what drove Governor Phillip’s ferocity? Yes we can – simmering rebellion centred on ‘certain  officers’ of the newly arrived New South Wales Corps (June 1790) one in particular Lieutenant John Macarthur.

‘The author of this publication [Captain Watkin Tench] received a direction to attend the governor [Arthur Phillip] at head quarters immediately.

I went, and his excellency informed me, that he had pitched upon me to execute the foregoing command…infuse universal terror…convince them of our superiority…we were to proceed to the north arm of the [Botany] bay…destroy all weapons of war: no hut was to be burned: that all women and children were to remain uninjured’.  

In December 1790 the threat to Governor Arthur Phillip RN as Captain General and Supreme Commander of British forces lay not with the Bidjigal of Botany Bay, ravished by smallpox the previous year – 1789. See: A Lethal Weapon: Smallpox Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

Its origin lay within military ranks the first contingent of the New South Wales Corps raised specifically to replace marines of the Sydney garrison who, in January 1788, invaded the island continent of New Holland.

The infantry arrived aboard Neptune, Suprize and Scarborough the death ships of a second fleet aptly named ‘Britain’s Grim ArmadaSee: A Tale of Two Fleets


‘From the intelligence of our friends and connections we had been entirely cut off, no communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th May 1787 the day of our departure from Portsmouth…in which long period no supplies, except what had been procured at the Cape of Good Hope by the Sirius (May 1789) had reached us’. Tench. ibid.

Prior to the arrival of the second fleet the Robinson Crusoes of the ‘First Fleet’ had endured three (3) years of ‘misery and horror…such a situation cannot be imparted, even by those who have suffered under it’.

The second fleet brought a large number, over one thousand (1000) severely traumatised male criminals.

Without doubt Tench’s misery and horror’ can be applied to prisoners on the second fleet whose lives government had committed to the mercy of Camden, Calvert and King a firm of London slave traders.

‘The irons used upon these unhappy wretches were barbarous…the contractors had been in the Guinea trade, and had put on board the same shackles used by them in that trade’. Captain Hill [Suprize] to William Wilberforce, Historical Records See: How The Mindset Of Savagery Came To Australia

Plymouth: Two hundred and seventy three (273) of 1017 mostly male prisoners loaded at Plymouth onto Neptune, Scarborough, Scarborough died during the voyage. Four hundred and eighty-six (486) landed alive. Of these it was estimated at least 15% – 124 – died within weeks.

‘Oh, if you had seen the shocking sight of the poor creatures who came out of the three [3] ships, it would make your heart bleed; they were almost dead; few could stand; and they were obliged to sling them as you would goods, and hoist them out of the ship, they were so feeble; and they died ten [10] or twelve [12] a day when they first landed.

She heard the Governor standing by, say that to transport men and women like this was ‘murthering them’. Letter of a ‘First Fleet’ woman convict dated 24 July 1790, Joseph Banks Papers, cited by M.H. Ellis in John Macarthur, Angus and Robertson, 1969 


Barely six (6) months from England’s hustle and bustle, most from London’s teeming streets, the survivors found nothing  familiar. The harbour empty – no English ships – no houses or cobbled streets, horses or carriages, spires or bridges, crowded taverns or coffee houses, rag-fairs or dark alleys, no gin and no pockets worth picking.

No one – solder or criminal – man or woman, could comprehend their surroundings. Food was so scarce it was barely adequate for a toddler.

Sydney – June 1790: ‘To every child more than eighteen months old and, to every grown person, two & one-half pounds of [salted] pork, two & one-half pounds of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease per week…under eighteenth months old, same quantity of rice and flour, and one pound of pork’. Tench. ibid.

In a few short weeks when the fleet’s four (4) ships departed there would be no means of escape and all hope of freedom gone.  See: Missing in Action – HMS Sirius & HMS Supply

Panicked at the prospect of staying in such a strange place some, ‘all’ Tench said ‘came out on the last fleet, simply walked north hoping to reach China; with a view of asserting their freedom’.

It is little wonder intense, well documented animosity, surfaced quickly between Phillip’s ‘people’ and the newcomers. Governor Phillip, wily and experienced, perceived danger in such widespread unrest.

And especially so as Major Francis Grose, the Corps’ commanding officer, had stayed behind in London to recruit sufficient numbers to meet establishment requirements. Eventually he would be forced to source some from the Savoy military prison.


‘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 The Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 92, 2006

Emboldened by Major Grose’s absence, Lieutenant John Macarthur a junior officer of the New South Wales Corps, was quick to pick-up on that ‘disputation’ and make it his own.

Macarthur’s weapons were a forked tongue, the poison pen, the duel and grog. Governor Phillip, known for his insight, could not have failed to recognise a ruthless antagonist.

Macarthur ‘ a man who made enemies’ was driven by unbridled personal ambition for success in this new world of land grants to which he had brought pregnant wife Elizabeth and toddler son Edward.  See: Machiavellian Macarthur

History records John Macarthur was the common-dominator in the downfall of Phillip’s immediate successors the ‘uniformed naval governors’ Captain John Hunter, Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King and the legendary Captain William ‘Bounty’ Bligh. See: Australia Day Rebellion 20 January 1808

Later he lent support to Commissioner Bigge sent from London to spy on Governor Colonel Lachlan Macquarie, first of Britain’s military Governors.

The arrival of the second fleet, aptly dubbed ‘Britain’s Grim Armada‘, catapulted Phillip into open conflict with the First Australians. A war characterised by Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison as; ‘war, nasty and decidedly lacking in glory’.


‘The public stores contained salt meat sufficient to serve until the 2d of July; flour until the 20th of August, and rice, or pease in lieu of it until the 1st of October...The pork and rice were brought with us from England…salted between three and four years and every grain of rice was a moving body from the inhabitants lodged within it’. Tench. ibid.

1790 – 6 March, Sydney: Three (3) months before the arrival of the second fleet Governor Phillip ordered 50% of Sydney’s white population, marines and convicts, evacuated to Norfolk Island.

1790 – 19 March, Norfolk Island: While in the process HMS Sirius, ran onto a submerged reef and sank. Thirty (30) crew returned to Sydney in HMS Supply leaving one hundred and thirty (130) stranded along with the evacuees.

1790 – 6 April, Jakarta: In a desperate bid to save the Sydney settlement from complete disaster Governor Phillip sent HMS Supply, to Batavia, modern-day Jakarta. Her captain was to buy tons of food and medicines from the Dutch and hire a ship to bring the supplies to Sydney. See: Missing in Action: HMS Sirius and HMS Supply

1790 – May, Sydney:  ‘The distress of the lower classes for clothes was almost equal to their wants…the stores had been long exhausted, and winter ‘cold windy, icy rain ‘was at hand’.  Tench.ibid.

1790 – mid July: Jakarta: Supply (170 tons, crew 50) after three (3) hazardous months at sea reached Batavia where Lieutenant Ball purchased rice, flour and medicines and chartered a ship – Waaksamheyd – to bring them to Sydney.


‘Phillip was authorised to see to the defence of the colony’. Professor Bruce Kercher, An Unruly Child, A History of Australian Law in Australia, Allen and Unwin, 1995

There can be no doubt the pre-emptive positioning of naval and military bases at Port Jackson in the southern oceans figured prominently in Prime Minister William Pitt’s planning.

‘There were plans to use the [New South Wales] Corps in expeditions against Panama, Peru and the Philippines’. Dr. Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, The British Army in Australia 1788-1870, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1986

Britain’s invasion of New Holland in 1788 was remarkably prescient. Within five (5) years (1793) Britain, France and Spain were at war again. Phillip’s authorisation applied when ever and from whom-so-ever such threat arose. See: Proximity Not Distance Drove Britain’s Invasion of New Holland

‘New Holland is a good blind, then…stationing a large body troops in New South Wales…  when we want to add to military strength of India’. Anon, Historical Records of New South Wales

1790 – December: For Phillip the military commander the stakes high if he failed to hold the line against Macarthur and his cronies Britain’s chance of retaining strategic advantage ‘when we want to add to military strength of India’ would be lost.


1790 – September 7, Many Beach: Three (3) months earlier – September 1790 –  a tipping point for the future of Australia’s First Peoples occurred when a whale – ‘a tremendous monster’ – beached at Manly causing great excitement in both The Aboriginal and European camps.

Whales had deep cultural and spiritual significance for local Aborigines, many gathered to marvel at it. Governor Phillip began his life at sea  hunting whale in icy Arctic waters so, when news of the stranding reached Sydney, he was rowed across to Manly.

There ‘a native [Wileemarin] aimed his lance with such force and dexterity striking the governor’s right shoulder, just above the collar bone’. Tench. ibid. See: Kidnapped: Manly – What’s In A Name

Sydney: William Balmain the senior surgeon successfully removed the lance. Phillip had lost a great deal of blood so recovery was slow. Ailing, isolated in the midst of an increasingly hostile military, with no naval support – Sirius was lost, Supply at Jakarta .

In addition to his many worries Phillip had serious doubts the Dutch, aligned to the French, could be trusted when engaged in business dealings with needy Englishmen.

Time was running out and with Macarthur and ‘certain Corps officers’ circling the tents Phillip knew his position as supreme commander was in extreme jeopardy.


1790 – 17 October, Sydney: ‘Joy sparkled in every countenance to see our old friend Supply enter the harbour from Batavia. We had witnessed her departure with tears: we hailed her return with transport’. Tench. ibid.

Supply returned from Jakarta with as many supplies as she could carry but with a drastically reduced crew. Batavia at that time was considered the ‘fever-capital of the East’. Midshipman Ormsby stayed on with a party of eleven (11) men to supervise the loading of Waaksamheyd and it appears most contracted malaria and died.


1790 – 17 December, Sydney:  Waaksamheyd  the Dutch ship Lieutenant Ball chartered arrived from Jakarta in the middle of December 1790 with tons of food and medicines and intriguing possibilities – seizure – rebellion – escape. See: The Great Escape

The stage was set for a clash of giants – Phillip for King and Country – Macarthur for himself.

Governor Phillip a proven military strategist, his back to the wall with few options, intent on saving the Sydney settlement from insurrection and anarchy, chose diversion to assert his ‘supremacy’. See: A Tethered Goat – John McEntire

In war the trophy head is a mark of supremacy and respect’. Frances Larson, Severed, Granta, 2015








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