‘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

1790 – March 19, Sydney: ‘the tidings’; loss of HMS Sirius the ‘First Fleet’s flagship – ‘dismay’ all hope of a China rescue  gone.

Norfolk Island: Sirius was at the bottom of the sea off Norfolk Island and her crew, one hundred and sixty naval (160) personnel, now stranded along with 50% of the white population evacuated from Sydney to save them from imminent starvat1on.

1790 – 1 January: ‘We had now been two years in the country, and thirty-two months from England, in which long period no supplies…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…Famine was approaching with gigantic strides’. Tench. ibid.

The previous year – April 1789 – 50% of  local Aborigines died of smallpox taking pressure off the Sydney settlement’s supply of fish, principal source of fresh protein for both populations. See: A Lethal Weapon Smallpox: Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

1790 – March, Norfolk Island: ‘famine’ in March 1790 Governor Phillip drew on experience and ordered the evacuation of 50% of ‘his people‘ to Norfolk Island.

Norfolk Island, two (2) weeks sailing time from Sydney was settled by Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN in February 1788. There fish were plentiful year-round, fruits and vegetables thrived in soil richer in nutrient than Sydney’s shallow sand.

1790 – June, Sydney:  When the death ships of a second fleet, ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’, anchored in Sydney Cove in June 1790, 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

1790 – 6 March, Sydney: HMS Sirius and HMS Supply evacuated 50% of the white Anglo population to Norfolk Island in early March 1790. Sirius was to sail onto China and arrange a rescue mission.

The evacuation gave Governor Phillip an opportunity to rid himself of venomous Marine Major Robert Ross by appointing him Lieutenant-Governor of the island to replace Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN. King a fellow naval officer and Phillip’s long-term trusted friend, would return to Sydney in HMS Supply to support Governor Phillip now completely isolated in the midst of a starving hostile soldiery.

1790 – 19 March, Norfolk Island: ‘Sirius’ landed her evacuees successfully but ran aground on an uncharted reef and broke to pieces over a number of days stranding her crew on the island.

1790 – 5 April, Sydney: HMS Supply sailed through Sydney Heads in early April 1790 bringing 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 were 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 was to sail to Batavia, modern day Jakarta. Lieutenant Henry Ball her captain 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 King’s support. He entrusted his confidant take to England his official dispatches together with a covert letter confirming, the strategic and trade advantages that drove Britain’s remarkably prescient invasion of New Holland in 1788, had been achieved.

‘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.

Prescient – within five (5) years Britain was at war with the world, broadly the French Napoleonic Wars 1793 to 1815.

The military and naval bases Phillip established at Sydney effectively stymied French ambitions guaranteeing Britain dominion over the Southern Oceans thus securing alternate strategic routes to and from India, China and Asia that could serve as a blockade-breaker in time of conflict.

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

Before sailing 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.

1790  – June, Sydney: When the second fleet – ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ – arrived in Sydney, June 1790, with the first contingent of infantry – New South Wales Corps – and one thousand (1000) empty stomachs, the weekly ration issue was well below subsistence level.

‘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.


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


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