‘How might the desolation and separation from loved ones, the lack of recourse from arbitrary decision and the sheer hopelessness of fate be tallied?…Gaoler and gaoled communicated across a gulf of mutual antagonism: against the formally declared and forcibly imposed authority’. Stuart Macintyre, 2004 A Concise History of Australia, 2004

It is risky to compare the heroes of one society with the cast-offs of another. Especially so when the comparison made is between Britain’s convict-soldiers, transported to Australia at the end of the 18th century and Australian soldiers, prisoners of the Japanese, in the middle of the 20th century.

‘Historians, like scientists have had only one comprehensive source of information on the subject of starvation. In Prisoners of the Japanese Gaven Daws compared the hunger of the men in the Minnesota [Experiment] to the privations suffered by Allied prisoners in the Pacific Theater. Todd Tucker,The Great Starvation Experiment, 2006

1944-45, America: A unique experiment conducted by Dr. Ancel Keys during World War II permits such comparison. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment with thirty-six (36) white American male conscientious objectors, all volunteers aged between twenty-three (23) and thirty-six (36) years, took place between November 1944 and December 1945.


‘The administration gave no consideration to the date of expiry of sentences and several of the First Fleet had been tried as early as 1781 and 1782. As seven 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

No matter how offensive the comparison may appear, Australia’s heroes and England’s cast-offs have much in common. Each group suffered and died under ‘forcibly imposed authority’.

Similarly: Captors and captured – predominately young men far from home – ‘communicated across a gulf of mutual antagonism’.

Similarly: ‘Separation from loved ones’, loss of freedom, indeterminate confinement with gnawing uncertainty of outcome; fear, despair, forced labour and the arbitrary nature of mindless brutality.

Similarly: Hunger, semi-starvation sustained over a period of years resulted in ‘grave nutritional disorders’ scurvy, beriberi and associated vitamin deficiency diseases.

‘The misery and horror of such a situation cannot be imparted, even by those who have suffered under it’. Marine Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

There were significant differences of course. Australia offered a healthy climate with no malaria and the convicts were captives of their own racial, religious, cultural and language group.

A mixed bunch – some violent desperadoes – some career criminals – some stole to survive – others caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: When the ‘First Fleet’ sailed from England for Australia on the 13th May 1787, the majority of its 750 convicts, mostly men ‘aged between 23 and 36′, had already served the majority of their sentence.

Many of its 570 male prisoners had been held for years on dark, dank prison-ships moored along the Thames River. Vindictive retribution exiled these young men an’ extreme distance’ to the other side of the planet. See: April Fool’s Day

‘What do you want Jack…what are doing in London? It’s my home Jack said….That’s what I want. My home’. Peter Carey, Jack Maggs, 1997. 

Unlike Jack Maggs, Peter Carey’s fictional convict who returned to England ‘before expiry of sentence’, most English convicts never saw their homeland again.

‘The natives of the country [New Holland]…live in Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the inequality of condition. Captain James Cook RN, The Endeavour Journal.

Prisoners and their military minders alike, brought a hierarchy of ‘mutual antagonism[s] inherent in their class-riven society to a society; ‘not disburb’d by the inequality of condition’.

‘Inequality of condition’ –  England’s prisoners knew all about ‘inequality’ but nothing of ‘amity and kindness’ myth-makers would have us believe characterised Britain’s military campaign of dispossession.

‘The troops sent to garrison the Australian colonies participated in the great struggle at the heart of the European conquest of this continent.

They fought in one of the most prolonged frontier wars in the history of the British Empire and for the first half of their stay were probably more frequently in action than the garrison of any other colony besides that of Southern Africa’. Dr Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, The British Army in Australia 1788-1870, Kangaroo Press,  Sydney, 1986

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: The ‘First Fleet’, with a complement of 1500 souls commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, within 36 hours between 18-20 January 1788, after a voyage of eight (8) months traversing 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of’ ‘ imperfectly explored ocean’, anchored in Botany Bay, New Holland, now Australia. See: Abandoned and Left To Starve Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790

Starvation; to die or be  brought near death or suffer acutely from lack of food’.

1789 – April, Sydney: Smallpox appeared among the indigenous population in April 1789 killing upwards of 50% of Sydney’s Aboriginal  population. See: Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

‘As in most sieges, the zoo animals were among the first victims in Leningrad. It was not a hard decision, what was the point of watching the poor beasts when they could nourish famished people for a few days.

After the zoo animals, the people of Leningrad next turned to their beloved pets. Killing beloved dogs and cats was slightly harder than killing zoo animals, but an easy decision nonetheless for hungry-enough people’. Todd Tucker. ibid.

Inexplicably the smallpox virus did not affect the European population although that population included approximately sixty (60) mal-nourished children without prior exposure to the disease.

Some adults with prior exposure would have acquired life-long immunity but those with no exposure should have been as susceptible to the virus as the First Nations’ Peoples. See: A Lethal Weapon Smallpox – Siege Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

1790 – January, Sydney:  ‘We had now been in this country; thirty-two [32] months from England in which long time no supplies…had reached us…no communication whatever having passed with our native country since 13th of May 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth.

Here on the summit of the hill every morning from daylight until the sun sunk did we sweep the horizon in hope of seeing a sail’. Tench. ibid.

1790 – April, Sydney Cove: The weekly ration: ‘To every child of more than eighteen months old…and every grown person two pounds of pork, two pounds and a half of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease. The pork salted between three and fours years and every grain of rice was a moving body, from the inhabitants lodged within it’. Tench. ibid.

‘Flags Up – With London on her stern’

1790 – 3 June, Sydney: The Lady Juliana, was one (1) of four (4)  convict transports that made up a second convict fleet – Britain’s Grim Armada – reached Sydney Cove on the 3rd of June 1790.

Lady Juliana, the first vessel from England, broke the long isolation endured by desperate Englishmen, women and children struggling to survive the ‘misery and horror’ of abandonment, starvation and savage brutality.


1942-1945: Japan’s prisoners-of -war are Australia’s heroes. Unprepared, outnumbered, outgunned and, in their eyes betrayed, they saved Australia from enslavement.

Captured and imprisoned by a cruel enemy they endured years of starvation, forced labour and unspeakable suffering. Arbitrary decision[s] by cruel captors determined the course and experience of their imprisonment.

They stuck together in the face of ‘sheer hopelessness’ supported and cared for each other, sharing what little they had. Without the ‘amity and kindness’ of mutual respect even more would lie in unmarked, makeshift jungle graves beside a blood-soaked railway and bodies left where they fell on brutal forced marches, their bones hidden now alongside over-grown bush tracks.

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