ASLEEP IN THE DEEP – MERCHANT MEN OF THE FIRST FLEET

‘By Alexander, under care of Lieutenant Shortland, agent for the transports, I have sent dispatches to the Right Honourable the Lord Sydney and yourself, with a rough survey of Port Jackson….Lieutenant Shortland is likewise charged with a box of letters from Monsieur La Perouse for the French Ambassador’. Governor Phillip to Under-Secretary Nepean, July 10th 1788.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth England: A flotilla of eleven (11) ships commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ with a complement of approximately 1500 souls (one-half convicted criminals), set sail from Portsmouth on a voyage of 13,00 miles (21,000 km) to Botany Bay, New Holland on the 13th May 1787.

Two (2) warships HMS Sirius and HMS Supply carried two hundred (200) Royal Naval personnel. Twenty (20) officials and two hundred and forty-five (245) marines, guarding seven hundred and fifty (750) convicted criminals, were distributed throughout nine (9) chartered vessels.

‘New Holland is a good blind, then, when we want to add to the military strength of India’. Historical Records of New South Wales. Anon.

The mission of this large naval expedition, fully funded by government, was to invade, conqueror and claim sovereignty over the entire east coast of New Holland in order to gain supremacy over alternate trade and logistical sea-routes to and from India and China via the southern oceans.

Merchant ships were crewed to a formula related to tonnage; eight (8) seamen and one (1) boy per one hundred (100) ton. With specialist warrant officers, the number of crew on the fleet’s nine (9) chartered vessels, would have numbered approximately four hundred and forty (440).

1788 – January 18-20, Botany Bay: After a voyage of eight (8) months, within 36 hours between 18-20 January 1788, the ships found safe anchorage in Botany Bay.

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: Three (3) days after the English reached Botany Bay masts of two (2) Fresh ships La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, commanded by Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse, appeared on the horizon.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: The English ships quit Botany Bay and sailed nine (9) miles (14 km) north to Port Jackson and anchored in Sydney Cove where, on 26th January 1788, the Union Jack was raised and Governor Phillip claimed  British sovereignty over the entire east coast of New Holland ‘from Cape York…to South Cape’.  See: A Cracker Jack Opinion – No Sweat

The fate of the fleet’s merchant seamen differed greatly. Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn and Scarborough, chartered from the British East India Company, contracted to ship tea from China to England on the return voyage, were under orders to disgorge their human cargo and sail for China without delay.

1788 – 6 May 1788: They departed Sydney Cove on 6 May 1788 and, although scurvy and dysentery plagued all ‘First Fleet’ crews, sailors on Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn and Scarborough, fared better than those on the other transports and supply ships.

1788 – 14 July, England: Alexander, Friendship, Prince of Wales with Borrowdale – a stores-ship – set sail for England in mid-July 1788. A few days out to sea, off Lord Howe Island, they parted company.

Prince of Wales and Borrowdale, fearing monsoons would overtake them; ‘thought it advisable to bear down for Rio’. Alexander and Friendship set course for the Cape of Good Hope via Batavia.

1788 – 15 August: Prince of Wales and Borrowdale broke contact in mid August 1788 going separate ways.

1788 – September, Sydney: Meanwhile in Sydney a tipping point had been reached. Governor Phillip, before leaving England had been assured more convicts and provisions would ‘follow shortly’ but none came. By September 1788, Phillip now desperate, ordered HMS Sirius to Africa for food and medicines.

1788 – 2 October, Cape of Good Hope: Captain John Hunter RN, with First Lieutenant William Bradley RN as second-in-command, departed Sydney at the beginning of October 1788 on a perilous voyage around Cape Horn to Cape Town.

1788 – 14 October, Rio: The captain of Prince of Wales died a week before his ship reached Brazil in mid October 1788.   Her crew ,too weak to bring her into port, signalled the harbour master for; ‘men to carry us to the Anchoring Ground’.

1788 – 18 November, Brazil: A month later – 18 November 1788 – Borrowdale was standing off Rio she also required help to bring her in.

1789 – Brazil: Local sailors were recruited to augment depleted crews and both ships sailed for England early in 1789. Although it is known (7) Borrowdale seamen died total mortality on these two (2) ships is not known.

1789 – 22 March, England: Prince of Wales docked at Falmouth on 22 March 1789.

1789 – 23 March, London: The first news from Botany Bay hit London’s newspapers the following day.

1789 – 26 March, Falmouth: Borrowdale arrived a few days later with duplicates of Governor Phillip’s dispatches.

What became of Alexander and Friendship? Their voyage was terrifying. Attacked by pirates bent on murder they managed to outrun them but the delay proved costly and monsoons overtook them off the coast of Borneo.

1788 – October, Borneo: Lashed by torrential rain-storms the two (2) ships were tossed about by gale force winds. Fearing Friendship could not survive such a battering Lieutenant Shortland ordered her crew abandon ship. See: Evacuation – Saving Lieutenant William Collins

Four (4) days of utter terror and outstanding courage followed as Alexander’s crew, battling mountainous seas and unrelenting rain, managed to snatch survivors from Friendship’s deck.

It was nothing short of miraculous Alexander, manned by weak starving men, did not founder during this extremely risky manoeuvre. Friendship was spiked and left to sink.

1789 – 1 January, Cape Town:  Meanwhile Captain Hunter pushed his ship and crew to the limit as HMS Sirius braved the freezing southern ocean, dodged massive ‘islands of ice’, rounded Cape Horn on Christmas Day and anchored in Table Bay, Cape Town, on the first day of January 1789.

1789 – January, Cape Town: When Alexander limped into Cape Town in mid January 1789 Lieutenant Shortland was astonished to find Sirius lying at anchor and much distressed to learn a relief ship, considered well overdue when he left in July 1788, had still not arrived when Sirius sailed from Sydney on 2nd of October 1788. See: Titanic:  Australia’s Titanic – HMS Guardian – The Missing Link

1789 – 25 May, England:  Alexander reached England towards the end of May 1789. Captain Jean-Francois La Perouse, prior to leaving Botany Bay to return to France, entrusted Governor Phillip with reports and letters relating to what proved to be the ill-fated French expedition.

1789 – 3 June, London: Phillip entrusted these documents to Lieutenant Shortland who reached London at the beginning of June 1789. Shortland delivered Governor Phillip’s dispatches and La Perouse’s ‘box of letters’ to the Admiralty.

1789 – 26 June, Paris: Despite tensions and difficulties existing between Britain and France, the La Perouse papers were faithfully delivered. A report of the ‘tragic events…[appeared] in the Journal de Paris on 26 June 1789’.

Lieutenant Shortland, Royal Naval Agent for the ‘First Fleet’ made it crystal clear to Lord Sydney that the Englishmen he sent 13,000 miles from England to Botany Bay in May 1787 were facing annihilation.

If, and it was a big if, HMS Sirius did not survive her extremely risky return passage from Africa, those marooned without logistical support since January 1788, might all now be dead.

1789 – June, Whitehall: It was unfortunate at this crucial time, William Wyndham Grenville, a young cousin of Prime Minister William Pitt, replaced Lord Sydney as Home Secretary.

Grenville, despite Shortland’s pleadings responded not by sending food or medicines but with another 1300 prisoners (1000 men – 300 women) and a contingent of troops, the New South Wales Corps, raised to replace marines of the Sydney Garrison.

1789 – 29 July, EnglandLady Juliana, first of four (4) ships comprising a second fleet ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ with two hundred and twenty-six (226) female prisoners and six (6) children, sailed for Australia at the end of July 1789.

The remaining second fleet ships – Neptune, Suprize and Scarborough were to follow with mainly male criminals and the first of twenty-five (25) regiments of British infantry troops who served on Australian soil between 1790 and 1870.. See: Britain’s Grim Armada: The Dead and the Living Dead

EPILOGUE

1789 – May, Sydney Cove: HMS  Sirius did return safely from Africa. She sailed through Sydney Heads on 8th May 1789 bringing medicines, a limited amount of salted meats and poor quality flour. Supplies intended for the king’s ships and what could be spared for the colony.

1789 – 8 May, Sydney Cove: ‘We did not see a canoe or a native the whole way coming up the harbour….smallpox had made dreadful havoc among them’. Lieutenant William Bradley RN, A Voyage to New South Wales, facsimile edition, Ure Smith, 1969  See: A Lethal Weapon: Smallpox Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

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