‘Dear Jack…I value Death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you’. David Prendergast, Oxford Book of Australian Letters, ed. Brenda Niall and John Thompson, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998

Gender disparity characterised Britain’s invasion and occupation of the island continent of New Holland now Australia.

‘The tender [Supply] may be employed in conveying to the new settlement a further number of women from the Friendly Islands, New Caledonia etc. from whence any number may be procured without difficulty; and without a sufficient proportion of that sex it is well known that it would be impossible to preserve the settlement from gross irregularities and disorders’. London, Heads of a Plan for Botany Bay, 1786

1788 – 1868: Of 163,000 convicted criminals transported from the British Isles to Australia between 1788 and 1868 only 25,000 were women and of these 12,500 went directly to Tasmania. See: G is for Genocide

1786 – 26 August, London: Toward the end of August 1786 Treasury advised the Navy Board; ‘To take the necessary Measures for providing a proper Number of vessels for the Conveyance of 680 Male and 70 female Convicts to Botany Bay’.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: A ‘proper number’ – eleven (11) vessels – two (2) warships HMS Sirius, HMS Supply, six (6) troop carriers Alexander, Scarborough, Prince of Wales, Charlotte, Friendship, Lady Penrhyn with three (3) store-ships Fishburn, Golden Grove, Borrowdale are known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’.

This large armed squadron commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN sailed from England for Botany Bay on 13 May 1787. Fully funded by government the ‘First Fleet’ was radically different from Britain’s subsequent transportation fleets in that all males – marine and convict – were rationed as ‘troops serving in the West Indies’. See: A Riddle – When an invasion fleet is not an invasion fleet?  When it’s the First Fleet

Captain Arthur Phillip RN was first and foremost a military commander engaged on a military campaign and the ‘First Fleet’ first and foremost an invasion fleet.

The mission to conqueror and dispossess New Holland’s First Peoples of their land in order Britain gain supremacy over the southern oceans.

The fleet’s complement of 1500 souls was overwhelmingly male – 1300 men – twenty (20) officials, two hundred (200) Royal Naval personnel, two hundred and forty-five (245) marines, four hundred and forty (440) merchant seamen, five hundred and seventy (570) male convicts with a female  component of only two hundred and twenty-one (221) women, of whom thirty-one (31) were marine wives.

Mary Johnson wife of Reverend Richard Johnson the fleet Chaplain, selected by William Wilberforce ‘God’s Politician’ and, England’s leading anti-slavery politician, accompanied her husband to New South Wales.

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: Mid January 1788, after a voyage of eight (8) months, within 36 hours the entire fleet was anchored in Botany Bay – an amazing feat of navigation. See: Marine Lieutenant William Dawes – ‘The Eternal Flame’ & ‘Terror’ 

Botany Bay, wide open and difficult to defend with a limited water supply for such a large number, proved unsuitable for permanent settlement.

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, two (2) French ships, commanded by Jean-Francois La Perouse, arrived off the entrance to Botany Bay but bad weather forced them south to shelter at Sutherland.

‘There is some justification for the saying that England won Australia by six days’. Edward Jenks, History of Australian Colonies, cited in H.E. Egerton, Short History of British Colonial History, Methuen, 1928

The English left Botany Bay to the French and sailed (9) miles (14km) north to Port Jackson (Sydney Cove) where ‘a spring of fresh water’ – the Tank Stream – made permanent settlement possible.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: After the marines and male convicts landed Governor Phillip raised the Union Jack and claimed Britain’s victory over France. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head

Land was cleared and marked out for a parade ground, soldiers supervised as male convicts felled trees, dug saw-pits, latrines and set up tent lines.

1788 – 6 February, Sydney Cove: Ship manifests record two hundred and twenty-one (221)  women and about thirty (30) free children disembarked in Sydney Cove on 6 February 1788 and moved into a tent town of canvas and duck boards.

1788 – 6 February, Sydney: ‘The tempest…exceeded anything I have ever had a conception of I never before experienced so uncomfortable a night…and the heat was suffocating’. Arthur Bowes Smyth, Surgeon Lady Penrhyn, First Fleet Journal

A day of high humidity was followed by a stifling night. In pitch darkness came a cycle of violent storms – wild winds, driving rain, thunder and fearful lightning.

Lightning struck a tree it split in half and burst into flames. Seven (7) sheep Marine Major Ross had tethered beneath it burned to death. The sounds and smell of their dying must have heightened the terror of the storm.

And in the midst this wild cacophony fleet journals report a ‘sexual orgy’ took place in convict lines.

Safe arrival after a long, perilous voyage to a frightening unknown land 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from home makes it difficult to credit orgasms – sexual and/or otherwise – did not occur that dark and stormy night.

‘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, Vol. 1, Angus and Robertson, 1982

Yet historians, intent on sanitizing, play down the very notion of ‘a sexual orgy’ thus deftly avoiding the blinding obvious – gross disparity of the sexes.

In Britain’s prisons throughout the 18th century the sexes mixed more or less freely. However post legislation, the Hulks Act of 1776, male convicts sentenced for ‘transportation to America [later] beyond the seas’ were confined for years on dank, filthy ships – prison hulks – moored along the Thames River

Situational homosexuality; then as now prisoners embrace the ‘situation’ in which they find themselves. With too few women to alter that ‘situation’ a ‘sexual orgy’ would have been male to male encounters.

Few prisoners transported to Australia could write, let David Prendergast’s ‘ frank and tender letter of homosexual love’ speaks for those exiled an ‘extreme distance’ from their lovers, family, friends and homeland.

1846: As David prepared for death on the gallows in 1846 he wrote a farewell letter to Jack the lover left behind in England.

‘Dear Jack…I value Death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you. I hope you wont forget me when I am far away and all my bones is moldred away. I have not closed an eye since I lost sight of you…the only thing that grieves me love is when I think of the pleasant nights we have had together’. I remain your True and loving affectionate Lover’.  Oxford Book of Australian Letters. op.cit.


An acute shortage of food caused Governor Phillip, a man held to be of ‘uncompromising common sense’, decide against procuring; ‘a further number of women  from the Friendly Islands’ as instructed in the Heads of a Plan for Botany Bay.

‘for I am certain’ he wrote to Lord Sydney ‘your Lordship will think that to send for women from the Islands, in our present situation, would answer no other purposes than that of bringing them to pine away in misery’. Governor Phillip to Lord Sydney, May 15th 1788, Historical Records of New South Wales

As flagged it proved ‘impossible to preserve the settlement from gross irregularities and disorders’  ‘misery’ fell on the First Nations’ women conscripted to ‘comfort’ both conqueror and criminal. See: A Vicious Circle – The Hangman’s Noose

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