A PLAGUE OF LOCUSTS – THE ENGLISHMEN OF THE FIRST FLEET

‘A very tasty pea and ham soup washed down with tea from the leaves of the local sarsaparilla vine. In fact being British the colonists drank so much of the stuff that sarsaparilla remains almost extinct in the area around Sydney’. Tony Robinson’s History of Australia, Penguin 2011.

1788 – 18 January, Botany Bay: HMS Supply, the first of eleven (11) vessels making up the ‘First Fleet’ with a complement of 1500 hungry souls, reached Botany Bay, in the island continent of New Holland, now Australia on 18th January 1788, almost immediately Supply deployed her seine [trawling] nets.

‘No sooner were the fish out of the water than they [Aborigines] began to lay hold of them as if they had a right to them, or that they were their own; upon which the officer of the boat, I think very properly, restrained them giving, however, to each of them a part. They did not at first seem very well pleased with this mode of procedure, but on observing with what justice this fish was distributed they appeared content’. John White, Chief Medical Officer, First Fleet Journal

‘It had been imagined in England, that some, if not considerable savings of provisions might be made by the quantities of fish that it was supposed would be taken’. Marine Captain David Collins, First Fleet Journal. 

1788 –  March, Sydney Cove: Throughout the remaining months of Sydney’s hot summer, the trawling nets of  Sirius and Supply were never idle.

‘Our customary method was to leave Sydney Cove about four o’clock [4 pm] in the afternoon and go down the harbour and fish all night from one cove to another. We have made twenty-three (23) hauls of the seine in one [1] night’. The Jacob Nagle Journal, cited, Jack Egan, Buried Alive, Allen and Unwin, 1999.  

In cooler months fish leave Sydney waters to spawn. Dr. White’s idea of British ‘justice’ and, how the Aborigines supposedly perceived ‘content[ment]’ with the distribution ‘procedure’, would not survive the winter of 1788.

1788 – April: Captain David Collins, the judge-advocate, reported; ‘as the winter was approaching…our little camp now began to wear the aspect of distress, from the great number of scorbutic (scurvy) patients that were daily seen creeping to and from the hospital tents’.

1788 – May:  In Dr White’s opinion by mid May scurvy had; ‘now risen to a most alarming height, without any possibility of checking it until some vegetables can be raised’.

But, as seeds from England planted at the wrong time of the year, failed to germinate in Sydney’s shallow soil, there would be no vegetables for quite some time, the Englishmen had to look elsewhere for greens to combat scurvy.

Midshipman Daniel Southwell of HMS Sirius wrote to his father of parties sent to gather; ‘cabbage tasting like nut [and the] many salutary herbs that made wholesome drink [sarsparilla tea] and  of great use to our sick. Balm is here in plenty and several vegetable have been lately found that are of the same kind, though not so good, as at home.

Here is spinach, parsley, a sort of broad beans, several wholesome unknown vegetable…a sort of green berries that are pronounced a most excellent antiscorbutic (with Vitamin C) are gathered in abundance and a specie of sorrel, all of a peculiar fine acid’. Midshipman Daniel Southwell cited, Buried Alive. ibid.

The intruders saw resistance to their intrusions as ‘treachery’ expressing astonishment when their efforts at hunting and gathering met fierce resistance.

Supposedly ignorant of ‘giv[ing] offence’ the marooned Englishmen continued to raid the Aborigines’ food resources with complete disregard for the needs of Aboriginal families.

1788 – June, July, August: Winter; ‘the fish caught were trifling …they [Aborigines] seem very badly off for food, not having any fish.’A party of natives came to the place where the Sirius’s boat had been to haul the seine, and having beaten the crew took from them by force a part of the fish they had caught’. White. ibid

During the long winter months, like a swarm of locusts, they seized foods integral to the health and support of local Aborigines. See: Abandoned and Left To Starve Sydney Cove January 1788 t0 June 1790

The natives appear very numerous…a convict Cooper Handly who went out with an armed party of marines to collect wild vegetable and sweet [sarsparilla] tea strayed from them and was afterwards met by the natives, who murdered and mutilated him in a shocking way…the marines buried him near where he was killed’. 

 2 of the Convalescent convicts were sent out to get greens for the hospital. They were met by a party of the natives about a mile from the camp – the natives attacked them first by throwing stones which they were returning, when they used their spears; one of the convicts escaped with a barbed spear broke in him entering the small of the back & that was obliged to be cut out. He reported that  the other convict was killed. Cited, Dr John Cobley, Sydney Cove 1788, Angus and Robertson, 1980

Dr. John White operated on the wounded man; ‘after dilating the wound to a considerable length and depth, with some difficulty…extracted the spear, which had penetrated the flesh nearly three inches’.

Dr George Worgan, notable for bringing his piano to Sydney in HMS Sirius and teaching Elizabeth Macarthur to play it, assisted White at the operating table, Worgan reported; ‘the man said they had give no offence that he knew of’.

But Governor Arthur Phillip knew all about ‘offence‘. See: A Clear and Present Danger – Starvation

These people last summer would neither eat shark nor stingray; but the scarcity of fish in the winter, I believe, obliges them to eat anything that affords the smallest nourishment’. Dispatch Arthur Phillip to Lord Sydney, 28 September 1788.

1788 – October, Sydney: ‘They certainly are not pleased with our remaining amongst them…as they see we deprive them of fish which is almost their only support.

‘The fish [came] back in great quantities into the harbour’. Phillip. ibid.

1788 – 2 October, Africa: Captain John Hunter RN sailed HMS Sirius out through Sydney’s towering headlands and set a southerly course for Cape Town via Cape Horne to buy supplies from the Dutch.

EPILOGUE

‘The main battle was about having enough to eat’. Don Watson, The Story of Australia.

1789 – 5 May, Sydney:  When HMS Sirius returned from Africa with flour and medicines 50% of local Aborigines had died from smallpox. See: Smallpox – Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

 

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