Sydney – 5 April, 1790: ‘Dismay was painted on every countenance, when the tidings were proclaimed at Sydney’. Marine Captain Watkin, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L, Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

Norfolk Island  – 19 March 1790: the First Fleet’s flagship, while in the process of evacuating 50% of Sydney’s starving European population to Norfolk Island, ran aground on a submerged reef and sank. Her crew, one hundred and sixty naval (160) personnel, were marooned along with the evacuees.  See: Abandoned and Left to Starve @ Sydney Cove, January 1788 to June 1790

China: ‘Famine was approaching with gigantic strides’. Sirius was to have sailed on to China and arrange rescue. ‘Dismay’ all hope of rescue was gone.


Sydney – 1 January, Sydney: From the intelligence of friends and connections we had been  entirely cut off no communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th May, 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth… in which long period no supplies [from England] have reached us’. Tench. ibid.

The previous year – April 1789 – 50% of local Aborigines died of smallpox taking pressure off fish. For both populations fish was their principal source of fresh protein. See: A Lethal Weapon Smallpox: Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

In March 1790, with winter looming, Governor Phillip had draw on that experience and ordered an evacuation to Norfolk Island two (2) weeks sailing time away. There fish were plentiful year-round and fruits and vegetables thrived in soil, richer in nutrients, than Sydney’s shallow sand.

Norfolk Island: Earlier (February 1788) – to prevent La Perouse from claiming the island – Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN had established a satellite settlement there.

1790 – 6 March, China: HMS Sirius and HMS Supply evacuated 50% of Phillip’s ‘people‘ to Norfolk Island. Sirius was to sail onto China and arrange a rescue mission.

1790 – 19 March, Norfolk Island: ‘Sirius’ landed her evacuees successfully before running aground on an uncharted reef. Over a number of days; ‘caught in pounding surf on every side’ she broke up. The crew were taken off without loss but were now stranded on the island.

1790 – 6 April, Sydney: Supply returned to Sydney where from shore Tench; ‘saw captain [ Lieutenant] Ball make  an extraordinary motion with his hand, which too plainly indicated that something disastrous had happened’.

1790 – June, Sydney:  Two (2) months later, when the death ships of a second fleet, ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ anchored in Sydney Cove, in  the harbour was empty of English ships – HMS Sirius was wrecked and HMS Supply at Jakarta.


‘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 covet and open, which Ross pursued against him’. John Moore, The First Marines 1786-1792, Queensland University Press, 1987

The evacuation to Norfolk Island – March 1790 – gave Governor Phillip an opportunity to rid himself of the venomous Marine Major Robert Ross, commander of the Sydney garrison. Ross was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the island relieving Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN who was to return to Sydney and support Governor Phillip.

1790 – 5 April, Sydney: HMS Supply sailed through Sydney Heads in early April 1790 bringing the devastating news – no China rescue.

‘Happily’ a relieved Tench wrote; ‘captain Hunter and every other person belonging to her were saved’.

‘It became necessary to put the [Sydney] colony upon still shorter ration…for a week 4lb. flour, 2 & one-half pound salted pork, and 1 & one-half lbs.of rice… a moving body from the inhabitants lodged within it…the pork from England salted between three and four years…our stock of flour bore no proportion to the salt beef and pork’. Tench. ibid.

Soldier and convict alike were so physically weak and mentally depressed work hours had to be reduced. Up at sunrise, work began on the drum-beat, a short breakfast-break, work until 1 pm; ‘the afternoons allowed the people to receive their provisions [daily] and work in their gardens’. Tench. ibid.     

1790 – April 6, Jakarta: Governor Phillip informed ‘all officers of the garrison’ HMS Supply would sail to Batavia, modern day Jakarta.  Lieutenant Henry Ball RN was to buy tons of food and medicines from the Dutch and charter a ship (Waaksamheyd) to bring them to Sydney as soon as possible.

So precarious was the position at Sydney Phillip felt compelled to relinquish Lieutenant Gidley King’s much needed support. He entrusted his long-term friend and confidant take his latest dispatches to England, together with an ‘eyes only’ letter addressed to Evan Nepean.

‘I need not enlarge on the benefit of stationing a large body of troops in New South Wales…New Holland is a good blind then, when we want to add to the military strength of India’. Historical Records of  New South Wales. Anon.

The documents confirmed the military and naval bases Phillip established at Sydney had, at least for the time being, effectively stymied French ambitions in India. The wide-ranging strategic and trade advantages that drove Prime Minister William Pitt’s invasion of New Holland could, in time, be fully realised.

And prescient, for within five (5) years (1793), France had declared war on Britain and, after a brief truce March 1802 – May 1803 global war, broadly the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars 1793 to 1815.

Britain’s dominion over the Southern Oceans secured alternate strategic routes to and from India, Asia and Spanish South America. Sea-lanes that could serve as a blockade-breaker in time of conflict. See: Britain + France + America + India + Peru + New Holland  = European Australia

1790 – 17 April, Batavia: HMS Supply sailed for Batavia in mid April 1790 with Royal Naval Lieutenants Ball and Gidley King and a crew of fifty (50) naval personnel leaving a now ailing Governor Phillip completely isolated in the midst of a hostile soldiery.

Before departing Sydney Supply went down the harbour to make one last trawl; ‘about four hundred-weight of fish being brought up it was issued’ to very hungry English men women their children and babies.

After Supply sailed for Jakarta the ration was drastically reduced; ‘two & one-half pounds of pork, two & one-half pounds of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease per week, to every grown person and to every child more than eighteen months old…under eighteenth months old, same quantity of rice and four, and one pound of pork’. Tench. ibid.

1790  – June, Sydney:  When, two (2) months later, June 1790, the second fleet – ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ – arrived in Sydney with the first contingent of infantry, one hundred and fifteen (115) officers and men of the  New South Wales Corps, guarding one thousand (1000) mainly male prisoners, the weekly ration issue was well below subsistence level.


‘Captain Arthur Phillip founded a penal colony with instructions from the crown to protect the lives and livelihoods of Aboriginal and forge friendly relation with the natives…Within a matter of years violence had broken out on both sides  and Phillip would now instruct raiding parties to bring back the severed heads of warriors’. Stan Grant, Talking to My Country, Text Publishing, 2017

What flipped the switch from ‘friendly relations’ to ‘severed heads’?

‘There were plans to use the [New South Wales] Corps in expeditions against Panama, Peru and the Philppines but nothing eventuated’. Dr. Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, The British Army in Australia 1788-1870, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1986

Major Francis Grose commander of the New South Wales Corps remained in London to recruit numbers necessary to satisfy establishment requirements. Lieutenant John Macarthur a ruthless junior officer fuelled by over-arching personal ambition filled the power vacuum.

‘The great change came in the arrival with the Second Fleet of the first companies of the New South Wales Corps’. Nigel Rigby, Peter van der Merwe, Glyn Williams – Pacific Explorations, Voyages of Discovery from Captain Cook’s Endeavour to the Beagle, Bloomsbury, Adlard Coles, London, 2018

The scene was set for a titanic struggle between Governor Phillip for King and Country and Lieutenant John Macarthur for himself. A struggle that set in motion the near annihilation of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples. See: John Macarthur The Great Pretender

Addendum: At Jakarta Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN negotiated a passage on a Dutch ship. He reached England before the end of 1790 and delivered to the Admiralty the latest of Governor Phillip’s despatches.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply