‘What is the most arresting thing in all these recordings is the way in which they perceive Aboriginal Australians on not exactly equal terms, but on terms of people who have a right to the occupancy of this land’. Dr Nicholas Brown,  Australian National University and National Museum of Australia, on inclusion of some ‘First Fleet’ Journals onto UNESCO’s World Heritage List. AM Programme, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 15 October 2009

What went wrong?

Twenty-five regiments of British infantry served in the colonies between 1790 and 1870. 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 to 1870, Kangaroo Press, 1986

The first Corps of infantry, raised  in October 1789 replaced the First Fleet’s four (4) companies of marines who departed England in the ‘First Fleet’ on the 13th of May 1787 to invade the island continent of New Holland, now Australia.

‘The great change came in the arrival with the Second Fleet of the first companies of the New South Wales Corps [among them] Lieutenant John Macarthaur – a central figure in the military ‘mafia’ which quickly established itself as Australia’s first governing and property elite’. Nigel Rigby, Peter van der Merwe, Glyn Williams, National Maritime Museum Greenwich, Pacific Explorations, Bloomsbury, Adlard Coles, London 2018

John ‘MacMafia’ Macarthur the teetotaller who put ‘firey India rum’ into the infamous New South Wales Rum Corps.

England – 16 October: 1789: ‘ War-Office – A Corps of Foot for New South Wales, Major Francis Grose of the late 96th Regiment is appointed to be Major Commandant’. The London Gazette, issue: 13140, October, 1789

Sydney – June 1790: The first contingent arrived with the second fleet at the end of June 1790. Among them; lowly placed  ‘Ensign M’acarthur, from the 68th Regiment, to be Lieutenant.

‘Macarthur’s haughty quarrelsome nature which manifested itself on the voyage was to provoke much more conflict after his arrival in New South Wales in June 1790’. Michael Flynn, The Second Fleet, Britain’s Grim Armada of 1790, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1993


Botany Bay – 20 January 1788:  The ‘First Fleet,’ an armed squadron of eleven (11) ships commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, reached  Botany Bay in mid-January 1788.

Sydney Cove – 21 January: Wide open difficult to defend, with an inadequate water supply, Botany Bay was deemed unsuitable. After exploring  countryside south as far as Sutherland, Phillip entered a vast harbour nine (9) miles (14 km) to the north of Botany Bay. He chose a ‘snug’ deep-water cove for permanent settlement.

Botany Bay – 23 January: Phillip returned to the fleet on the 23rd and gave the fleet orders  to ‘evacuate’ for Sydney Cove at first light the following day.

Botany Bay – 24 January:  To his astonishment and intense ‘consternation’, two (2) French ships La Boussole  and L’Astrolabe commanded by Jean-Francois de Galaup, La Perouse appeared in the bay’s entrance.

The Sirius cannon and wild seas forced the French to seek safety and shelter at Sutherland.

Botany Bay – 25 January:  In ‘foul’ weather Phillip, some officers and a detachment of marines aboard HMS Supply quit Botany Bay and made for Sydney Cove arriving just on dark.

‘Raising the flag was one of the acts recognised as an assertion of a prior claim against other colonial powers eyeing off the same land’. Larissa Behrendt, The Honest History Book, Ed. David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, New South Publishing, 2017

Sydney Cove: – 26 January: At dawn they rowed ashore. A flagstaff was  ‘hastily erected’ and the Union Jack of Queen Anne hoisted. A few shots were fired off and the loyal toast to King George 111 tossed down. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head – Captain Arthur Phillip & Jean Francois La Perouse

During the day the remaining ships survived a dangerous exit from Botany Bay. Last to leave was HMS Sirius.  Captain John Hunter RN stayed to guide La Perouse to a safe anchorage off Bare Island. See: A Band of Brothers and Mortal Enemies.

Sydney Cove – 7 February 1788: Ten (10) days later without consent’ of its Peoples or seeking a Treaty, Governor Arthur Phillip, first of four (4) ‘autocratic uniformed naval governors’, formally claimed British sovereignty over New Holland, now Australia.

Norfolk Island:  During the second of his three (3) voyages Captain Cook had landed on the island from HMS Resolution.  He took samples of flax for rope-making and, timber for masts and planking, back to England.

Since then the island had been in Britain’s sights and now; ‘Jean-Francois, de Galaup, Comte de La Perouse, was hanging around  with two ships). Behrendt. op. cit


A mere five (5) years earlier Britain suffered a humiliating defeat in the America’s Revolutionary War of Independence (1775-1783). The reason vast amounts of French money, men, munitions and military know-how had catapulted General George Washington and his Patriot home-spun militia to victory.

There can be no doubt Britain’s humiliation at the loss of her thirteen (13) colonies –  North and South Carolina, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia was due in large part to France’s intervention.

‘The administration of the 24-year old Prime Minister William Pitt was under no illusions about the pretensions of its enemies…As Sir James Harris, the foremost diplomat of the age and then British ambassador at The Hague put it: ‘Our wealth and power in India is their great and constant object of jealously; and they will never miss an opportunity of attempting to wrest it out of our hands’. Michael Pembroke, Arthur Phillip Sailor Mercenary Governor Spy Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne Sydney, 2013

Accepting defeat ‘was not in the English character‘. Now in 1788, with La Perouse ‘hanging around’ Governor Phillip acted, if not in panic, in great haste. He moved to occupy Norfolk Island 1650 kms from Sydney.

‘New Holland is a good blind, then…stationing a large body of troops in New South Wales…when we want to add to military strength of India’. Anon. Historical Records of New South Wales.

Norfolk Island -14 February 1788: Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN departed Sydney with a party of twenty-three (23 .He was to assume the role of Lieutenant-Governor and ‘raise the flag…against other colonial powers’.

March 1788:  The island surrounded by submerged reefs and ‘pounding surf on all sides’, lacked a safe harbour.  On the 6th of March 1788  Lieutenant Ball captain of HMS Supply pulled off an extremely difficult landing without loss of life.

Sydney Cove – 10 March 1788: La Boussole with La Perouse at the helm and L’Astrolabe set sail for France. Both ships were lost with all hands. Each year their fleeting presence is commemorated at La Perouse a Sydney suburb.



Sydney Cove –  1 January 1790: ‘No supplies…entirely cut off since the 13th of May 1787…the day of our departure from Portsmouth…the misery and horror of such a situation cannot be imparted, even by those who have suffered under it’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961  

England callously abandoned the Robinson Cruscos of the ‘First Fleet’ leaving her fellow country men women and children to starve 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from their homeland. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve, Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790  

‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross. Of all Phillip’s problems, including those of the terrible famine of 1789 and 1790, probably none was so harassing as the persistent antagonism, both covert and open, which Ross pursed against him’. John Moore, The First Marines 1786-1792, Queensland University Press, 1987

‘The terrible famine’; it is little wonder Major Robert Ross commander of two hundred and forty-five (245) marines, the military arm the Royal Navy, did not find it difficult to inculcate a spirit discontent and rebellion.

Sydney – March 1790:  The previous year – April 1789 – 50% of Sydney’s Cadigal Aboriginal population died of smallpox. Phillip, drew on the experience and, in March 1790, evacuated  50% of  ‘his people’ to the island. Phillip rid himself of Major Ross by appointing him to replace Gidley King as Lieutenant-Governor of Norfolk Island.  See: Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat Smallpox & Starvation 1789


June 1790: ‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross’. This statement held true until June 1790 when Lieutenant John Macarthur landed from Scarborough one (1) of the second fleet’s three (3) death ships.

Major Francis Gross, commander of the New South Wales Corps, remained in London to recruit numbers sufficient to satisfy establishment requirements.

‘In the eighteenth century the Indian subcontinent was already in chaos, and the American Revolution provided the spark for renewed hostilities and the increase of British Dominance’. Richard Sambasivam, British Global Ambitions and Indian Identity, The American Revolution A World War, Ed. David K.Allison & Larrie D. Ferreiro, Smithsonian, Washington D.C. 2015

With war between Britain and France hanging in the air recruitment proved difficult. Grose was forced to recruit ‘derelicts and delinquents’ from the Savoy military prison.

Lieutenant Macarthur a junior officer driven by over-arching personal ambition, quick to pick-up on existingantagonism’ moved swiftly to fill the power vacuum created by Grose’s absence.

Governor Phillip with a wealth of experience could not have failed to recognise in John Macarthur a ruthless enemy dangerous, not only to himself,  but to ‘King and Country’.

The second fleet had brought news of the French Revolution . Governor Phillip now knew with the streets of Paris running with blood India was out of the immediate equation the stakes could not have been higher. See: Proximity – Not Distance -Drove Britain’s Invasion of New Holland.


‘From the coast of China it [New Holland] lies not more than about a thousand leagues, and nearly the same distance from the East Indies, from the Spice Islands about seven hundred leagues, and near a month’s run from Cape of Good Hope…or suppose we were again involved in a war with Spain, here are ports of shelter and refreshments for our ships, would it be necessary to sent any into the South Sea’. Admiral Sir George Young’s Plan to Home Home Secretary, Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol.1

Britain’s invasion of New Holland was remarkably prescient.  In February 1793 Republican France declared war on England.

‘That the fighting against France in [the American war] what was originally and essentially a European war should have spread so swiftly to the tropics was a result of many factors, most of them predictable. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, 3rd ed. Fontana Press, London

‘Predictable’: There can be no doubt the pre-emptive positioning of a military presence and a naval base in the southern oceans had figured prominently in Prime Minister William Pitt’s plans.


If Phillip failed to hold the line against Macarthur and ‘certain’ of hisofficer’ cronies Britain’s chances of retaining the undoubted strategic advantages of; ‘stationing a large body of troops in New South Wales’ would be lost.



In June 1790 when the second fleet reached Sydney the harbour was empty of English ships. Governor Phillip with no naval support was completely isolated in the midst of an extremely hostile soldiery.

HMS Sirius was at the bottom of the sea off Norfolk Island and her crew, one hundred and sixty (160) Royal Navy personnel were stranded on the island.

HMS Supply was at Jakarta to buy tons of supplies and medicines.. Her captain Lieutenant Ball was authorised to charter a Dutch vessel [Waaksamheyd] to bring them to Sydney as soon as possible. See: Missing in Action HMS Sirius & HMS Supply


‘Phillip was authorised to see to the defence of the colony’. Professor Bruce Kercher, An Unruly Child, A History of Australian Law in Australia, Allen and Unwin, 1995

That authorisation applied when ever, from where ever and from whom-so-ever such threat arose.

In 1790 the threat to Governor Phillip came not from the Bidjigal people of Botany Bay ravished by smallpox the previous year (1789) but from within military ranks. See: A Lethal Weapon – Smallpox: Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

Captain William Hill


‘Military and police raids against dissenting Aboriginal groups lasted from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries…These raids had commenced by December 1790’. Kercher. ibid.

Wily experienced, a proven strategist intent on saving the Sydney settlement from insurrection and anarchy, Phillip had but one (1) arrow in his quiver – ‘intelligence’- its source Bennalong.

‘M’Entire, the Governor’s game-keeper( the person of whom Baneelon had, on former occasions, shown so much dread and hatred’. Tench. ibid.

Phillip moved to assert his authority. In doing so  he ignited ‘one of the most prolonged frontier wars in the history of the British empire’. See: John M’Entire – Death of a Sure Thing


Following the second fleet’s arrival well documented animosity surfaced between Phillip’s ‘people’ of 1788 and one thousand (1000) mainly male new comers, most fresh from the teeming streets of London and widespread fear gripped the newcomers.

They found that the ration; ‘per week to every child of more than eighteen months old and to every grown person without distinction…two pounds tof pork, two pounds and a half of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease…the public stores contained salt meat until…2d July; flour…20 August; rice, or pease in lieu…until 1st of October’ .

Then before the end of June Justinian, a store-ship arrived with the first supplies from England.

‘We were joyfully surprised on the 20th of the month to see another sail enter the harbour…and our rapture doubled on finding that she was laden entirely with provisions for our use. Full allowance, and general congratulations immediately took place’. Tench. ibid

‘Full allowance (if eight pounds of flour, and either seven pounds of pork, served alternately per week, without either peas, oatmeal, spirits, butter or cheese, can be so called ) is yet kept up; but if the Dutch snow [Waaksamheyd] does not arrive soon  from [Jakarta] it must be shortened, as the casks in the store house, I observed yesterday are woefully decreased’. Tench, cited Egan, Buried Alive

25% of the 2nd fleet’s mainly male convicts died on the voyage and the wretched condition of the sick and dying survivers, radically altered the supply- demand equation for the worst.

1790 – July, Winter: ‘Fish is by no means plenty at least, they are not in abundance’. The local Aborigines were extremely hungry. Their fish, oysters and wide variety of various crustaceans had kept the English alive for just on three (3) years now the locals quite rightly felt entitled to a fair share of Justinian’s bounty.

In this they were proved wrong. What was given was given grudgingly; ‘they throng the camp every day and sometimes by their clamour and importunity for bread and meat (of which they now all eat greedily) are become very troublesome God knows we have little enough for ourselves!’. Tench. ibid

1790 – September, Spring: ‘The fishing boats had the greatest success…near 4000 of fish…being taken in two ]2] hauls of the seine….they were issued to this settlement [Sydney[ and at Rose Hill’. Tench.

1790 -September, Manly Beach: In an atmosphere of anger and betrayal born of hunger and fear of capture; ‘A native [Wileemarine] with a spear in his hand aimed his lance with such force and dexterity striking the governor’s right shoulder, just above the collar bone’. Tench. ibid. See: Manly – Location, Location, Location

Phillip was rowed back to Sydney where William Balmain, the fleet’s senior surgeon, extracted the spear. Phillip had lost a great deal of blood and recovery was slow.

Phillip’s refused to retaliate the military adjudged this weakness, linked to John Macarthur’s boundless personal ambition, Phillip’s passive response created a perfect storm.


‘The ability to shock bestows a kind of power’. Frances Larson, Severed, Granta, London, 2014


Parallel to, and dependent upon, the Anglo-French duel for command of the sea went their struggle for overseas bases and colonies’.Kennedy. op.cit.

xxxxxxx’here too, the culminating point in a century-long race was reached, with Britain emerging in 1815 with a position so strengthened that she appeared to be the only real colonial power in the world’. Kennedy

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