‘The bloody raw power of decapitation…the eternal tension between drama and control…lies at the heart of the death penalty’. Frances Larson, Severed, Granta Books, 2015

Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples can, with laser accuracy, plot their near annihilation from Governor Arthur Phillip’s General Orders of December 1790.

‘Military and police raids against dissenting Aboriginal groups lasted from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. These raids had commenced by December 1790’. Professor Bruce Kercher, History of Law in Australia, Allen and Unwin, 1995

Governor Phillip General Orders 0f 1790 triggered an algorithm that ‘lasted to the twentieth century’. The mindset his orders created is with us yet.

1790 –  December 9, Botany Bay: ‘On the 9th of the month, a sergeant of marines, with three convicts…went out on a shooting party…to the north arm of Botany Bay…among them M’Entire, the governor’s game-keeper (the convict of whom Bannelon had, on former occasions, shewn so much dread and hatred)’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961 See: Manly – Location, Location, Location

1790 – December 10, Botany Bay: At 1 am; ‘the serjeant was awakened by a rustling noise in the bushes’. Pemulway the Aboriginal warrior speared and mortally wounded John M’Entire.

1790 – December 11, Sydney: Tench tells; ‘he [M’Entire] expressed a longing desire not to be left to expire in the woods’. The hunters with M’Entire in tow reached Sydney in the early hours of the following day.

1790 – December 12, Sydney: ‘[I Tench] received a direction to attend the governor at head quarters immediately’.  Governor Phillip informed him; ‘the natives will be made severe examples of whenever any man is wounded by them’.

1790 – December 12, Sydney: Governor Arthur Phillip, General Orders to Marine Captain Watkin Tench: ‘Put ten [10] to death…cut off, and bring back the heads of the slain…bring away two [2] prisoners to execute in the most public and exemplary manner, in the presence of as many of their countrymen as can be collected’. Tench. ibid.

Pemulway’s spearing of M’Entire had been a targeted attack; ‘put ten [10] to death’ indiscriminate retaliation – innocent and guilty.

Captain Tench registered shock; ‘here the governor stopped, and addressed himself to me said, if I could propose any alternation of the orders under which I was to act’.

Tench proposed; ‘capture six [6]…a part should be set aside for retaliation; and the rest, at a proper time, liberated, after seeing the fate of their comrades. This scheme, his excellency was pleased instantly to adopt, adding, if six [6] cannot be taken, let this number [6] be shot’.

To that end Tench instructed his troops; ‘be ready to go out tomorrow morning at daylight…with three [3] days provisions, ropes to bind our prisoners with and hatchets and bags, to cut off and contain the heads of the slain’.  See: A Hatchet Job – Heads Off The Bidjigal of Botany Bay

Captain Watkin Tench’s detachment consisted of fifty (50) men – ten (10) officers with the regulation ratio of non-commissioned men to forty (40) other ranks.

For Australia’s First Peoples the make-up of this detachment is of utmost importance. In December 1790 marines of the ‘troubled’ Sydney garrison, marooned since 1788, were incapable of sustained effort.

‘The main battle was about having enough to eat’. Don Watson, Story of Australia, 1984

Marines malnourished, suffering profound lethargy from prolonged semi-starvation, could barely stand let alone undertake a three (3) days march in full kit under a blazing December sun.

1790 – December 14, Sydney: So it is certain, when the section moved out for Botany Bay on the 14th of December, the majority of its forty (40) rank and file would have been infantry troops of the New South Wales Corps who, in June 1790, arrived in Sydney with a second fleet – ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’.

The Corps was first of; ‘twenty-five regiments of British infantry [who] participated in the great struggle at the heart of the European conquest of this continent’. Dr Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, The British Army in Australia 1788-1870, Kangaroo Press, 1986  

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