BETRAYED – THOMAS BARRETT

‘The arm of a large tree situated between the Tents of the Men and Women was fixt upon as a Gallowsthe body hung an hour and was then buried in a grave dug very near the Gallows’. Surgeon Bowes Smyth, Journal 1787-1789, Australian Documents Library, Sydney,1979

1788 – 27 February, Sydney Cove: Thomas Barrrett was the first man hanged in European Australia.

About 5pm on 27 February 1788, from the end of rope flung over ‘the arm of a large tree’, he strangled slowly. At 6 pm Barrett was cut down, Dr John White, as chief medical officer, would have certified death.

Link: Act 1, From Here To Eternity

‘He [Barrett] may have been the maker of the ‘Botany Bay Medallion’, a skilfully engraved metal medallion inscribed with a relief description of the voyage dated 20 January 1788 and a representation of the Charlotte at anchor at Botany Bay’. Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia, Library of Australian History.

The silver coloured medallion measures 74mm (3 inches). The obverse depicts Charlotte one of the ‘First Fleet’s six (6) chartered troops transports for the voyage to Botany Bay.

The medal’s reverse has a precise reckoning of the fleet’s voyage of 13,000 miles (21,000 km). Beginning; ” Sailed/the Charlotte of /London from Spit Head the 13 of May 1787. Bound for Botany Bay in the Island of New Holland’…. ending: ‘arrived Botany Bay/the 20 Jany…Diftance [distance] from Great Britain/miles/13106’.

The medallion is believed to have been fashioned by Thomas Barrett from a kidney dish belonging to Dr John White the fleet’s chief medical officer.

White kept a weather diary.  During the voyage he took daily temperature and barometer readings and ‘per time-keeper, and lunar Ob’ calculated and recorded longitude and and latitude. So it seems highly likely White supplied Thomas Barrett with the medal’s technical information and supervised its exacting engraving and the two (2) men formed a relationship.

There can be no doubt John White was a skilled administrator. The low mortality on the ‘First Fleet’ is attributed in large part to his exactitude and dedication to Captain Arthur Phillip’s orders regarding rationing, exercise and attention to cleanliness.

‘The arrival in June 1790 of the Second Fleet tested White and his staff to their utmost. About 500 convicts were landed dying or seriously ill. Despite lack of medicines and hospital accommodation White and his assistants nursed more than half of them back to health’. Rex Rienits, John White, Australian Dictionary of  Biography.

When the second fleet ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ arrived in June 1790 the colony was swamped with starving and extremely ill Englishmen. Under White’s direction many lives were saved but even so, 15% of prisoners landed alive died within weeks of arrival.

‘A similar crisis arose with the arrival of the Third Fleet between July and September 1791. At one time about 600 newly-arrived convicts were under medical treatment and incapable of work and in 1792 the appalling total of 436 died’. Rex Rienits. ibid.

Thomas Barrett and John White would have spent considerable time in relationship as White planned and Barrett skilfully translated White’s vision for the Botany Bay Medallion.

1788 – 27 February, Sydney: ‘he [Barrett] expressed not the least signs of fear till he mount’d the ladder & then he turn’d very pale & seemed very much shock’d’. Arthur Bowes Smyth. op.cit.

A dark shadow lies over Dr John White’s judgement and integrity.

1788 – August, Sydney: White fought a duel with William Balmain the colony’s most competent surgeon in August 1788.  Subsequently, when Balmain applied for promotion, White bitterly opposed every application.

White ‘followed the time-honoured custom of assuming the credit for his subordinates’ discovery’. Dennis Considen, one such subordinate, was belatedly credited with recognising the efficiency of eucalyptus oil as an antiseptic and discovering uses for its resin-gum.

1793 – 7 October, Sydney:  White similarly muddied the waters over provenance of paintings by convict Thomas Watling. The young Scotsman charged and found guilty of forging ‘guinea notes on the Bank of Scotland’  after an eventful passage that included an escape at Cape Town, fetched up in Sydney in October 1793 and assigned to Dr John White.

Watling regarded himself as primarily a landscape painter but his;‘ chief employment for White was to make drawings of birds, animals, and plants’. White denied Watling the right to sign his drawings and paintings.

The Watling Collection, held in the British Natural History Museum, has never been placed on pubic display. The reason the ‘London collection …only 123 of the 512 drawings [and] five [landscapes] are signed by Watling, and it is doubtful if any of its unsigned landscapes can be attributed to him. Rex and Thea Rienits, Early Artists of Australia.

It is not too fanciful to suppose Thomas Barrett may have believed he had tapped into John White’s humanity. How wrong he was. ‘…he had long merited the ignominious death which he was about to suffer’. John White Journal of A Voyage to New South Wales, Oxford City Press, 2011 

‘the body hung for an hour & was then buried in a grave dug very near the Gallows’. Bowes Smyth. ibid.

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