‘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

Sydney – June 1790:  What went wrong?

‘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

The first contingent of British infantry was raised specifically to replace 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.

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

Lieutenant John ‘MacMafia’ Macarthur, the teetotaller who put ‘firey India rum’ into The New South Wales Rum Corps arrived with the second fleet at the end of June 1790.

‘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,  an inadequate water supply, Botany Bay was was unsuitable for permanent settlement. After exploring  countryside south as far as Sutherland, Phillip entered a vast harbour and chose a ‘snug’ cove nine (9) miles (14 km) to the north of Botany Bay.

Botany Bay’s inadequacies however were not the whole story.

(Jean-Francois, de Galaup, Comte de La Perouse, was hanging around [at Botany Bay] with two ships)’. Larissa Behrendt, The Honest History Book, Ed. David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, New South Publishing, 2017

Botany Bay – 23 January: When Phillip returned from Sydney on the 23rd he gave orders the fleet evacuate the area at first light the following day.

Botany Bay – 24 January: To Governor Arthur Phillip’s intense ‘consternation’ La Boussole  and L’Astrolabe commanded by La Perouse appeared in the bay’s entrance. The Sirius cannon and wild seas forced the French to seek shelter at Sutherland.

Botany Bay – 25 January:  In ‘foul’ weather Phillip with officers and marines quit Botany Bay in HMS Supply 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’. Behrendt. op.cit.

Sydney Cove: – 26 January: At dawn the ‘detachment’ rowed ashore . The Union Jack was raised from a ‘hastily erected’ flagpole, a few shots were fired and a loyal toast tossed down. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head – Captain Arthur Phillip & Jean Francois La Perouse

The remaining English ships managed a dangerous exit from Botany Bay to anchor alongside HMS Supply about 8 pm.  HMS Sirius the fleet’s flagship was last to leave. Captain John Hunter RN guided 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 on the 7th of February 1788 ;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.

Since Captain Cook landed on Norfolk Island in October 1774 from HMS Resolution during the second of his three (3) voyages its usefulness as a satellite settlement was always in the mix.

Samples of flax, thought suitable for rope-making and, timber for masts and planking from the multitude of pine trees for which Norfolk Island is famed, were collected and taken back to England.


Norfolk Island – 14 February 1788 :


Britain had been stung by the very recent loss of her ’empire in the west’ in the American War of Independence (1775-1783). The humiliating defeat had been due in large part to France’s intervention.

Vast amounts of French money, men, munitions and military know-how supported General George Washington and his Patriot home-spun militia of irregulars.






Sydney Cove –  1 January 1790: ‘No supplies…we had now been two years in the country, and thirty-two months from England…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’ , Her fellow country men women and children were left to starve 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from their homeland. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve, Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790  

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.

‘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

Norfolk Island:

Governor Phillip rid himself of Major Ross in March 1790 by appointing him Lieutenant-Governor of Norfolk Island some 1650 km to the west of Sydney. There earlier, in order to stymie La Perouse settling there, Phillip had in mid-February 1788, established a satellite settlement on the island.

1790 – March:  Phillip, drew on the experience of the previous year -1789 – when 50% of Sydney’s Aboriginal population died of smallpox. In early March 1790 he ordered the  evacuation of 50% of  ‘his people’ to the island. See: Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat Smallpox & Starvation 1789

1790 – June, Sydney Cove: ‘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 Suprize one (1) of 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.

War with France was hanging in the air so 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 moved swiftly to fill the power vacuum created by Major Grose’s absence. Macarthur was quick to pick-up on the existingantagonism’ and made it his own.

Governor Phillip with a wealth of experience could not have failed to recognise in John Macarthur a ruthless enemy not only to himself but to ‘King and Country’. And Phillip knew 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. First came conflict with Spain then, in February 1793, Republican France declared war on England.

‘That the fighting against France in 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.

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

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.


‘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.

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

‘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 do 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.

And given the dire circumstances that fear was completely understandable; ‘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’ .

1790 – 20 June Sydney: 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 [Justinian] 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

The wretched condition of the second fleet survivors, the needs of the sick and dying, had 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’ and local Aborigines were extremely hungry. Their fish, oysters and a 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.

But 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


Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply