‘The cultural arrogance of the British was evident even before the First Fleet sailed’. Professor Bruce Kercher, An Unruly Child, A History of Law in Australia, Allen and Unwin, 1995

1787 – 13 May, England: The battle for New Holland began in London 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from New Holland when a large squadron of eleven (11) ships known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ sailed from Portsmouth bound for Botany Bay.

‘In writing of the recruitment of criminals into the armed forces, Stephen Conway observed, ‘It was still found necessary periodically to clear both the putrid and congested gaols and the equally overcrowded and insanitary hulks’. Cited, Alan Frost, Botany Bay Mirages, Melbourne University, Publishing, 1994.

All males on the ‘First Fleet were fed as ‘troops serving in the West Indies’ and available for combat.

An army on the move, the fleet complement of one thousand five hundred (1500) comprised two hundred (200) Royal Navy personnel, two hundred and forty-five (245) marines – enlisted men and officers , four hundred and forty (440) merchant seamen, twenty (20) officials, one (1) male passenger, five hundred and seventy (570 ) male convicts, one hundred and eighty-nine (189) female convicts, thirty-one (31) marine wives and about thirty (30) children.

Pressure exerted by Sir Charles Middleton head of the Navy Board who, tasked together with William Richards a private contractor to provision the fleet, reduced by one-third the weekly ration issued to both the marines and male convicts during the fleet’s voyage of eight (8) months.

That during the voyage all ‘First Fleet’ males received two-thirds ‘of that of troops serving in the West Indies’.

Traditionally wives accompanying their husbands on active service received one-half of the ‘standard’ ration and their children one-quarter.

Therefore during the voyage the one hundred and ninety-three (193) female convicts embarked were fed 2/3rds of the male rate and their ten (10) children 1/2 of that ration with the result they received more food than marines’ wives – thirty-one (31) – and their seventeen (17) children.

This inequity in the distribution of food to marine wives, when added to a myriad existing tensions and resentments, soured completely relations between the expedition’s naval arm and the expeditions overall commander Captain Arthur Phillip RN, and Major Robert Ross commander of its military arm.

1788 – 18-20 January, Botany Bay: Within thirty-six (36) hours between 18th  and 20th of January 1788 the eleven (11) ships of the English fleet reached safe anchorage in Botany Bay, New Holland now Australia.

1788 – 24 January 1788, Botany Bay: Four (4) days later two (2) ships La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, under command of Captain Jean-Francois La Perouse arrived in the entrance to the bay. The might of Sirius’ guns and strong winds forced the French south to seek safety and shelter at Sutherland Point. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head Captain Arthur Phillip & Comte Jean Francois La Perouse

1788 – 25 January 1788, Sydney Cove: Despite foul weather in great haste at first light Captain Arthur Phillip boarded HMS Supply and sailed nine (9) miles (14 km) north of Botany Bay to Sydney Cove ordering the rest of the fleet follow as soon as the bad weather abated.

‘Before leaving Botany Bay Phillip had messages painted on the rocks of Bare Island near where the Fleet had been moored, to guide the ships which Phillip believed were following closely from England to Sydney Cove’. The Australian Story and Its Background, Bruce Mitchell, 1965

See: On the Rocks

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove:  The following morning the rest of the fleet managed a dramatic exit from Botany Bay anchoring in Sydney Cove just on dark.

1788 – 27-28: Almost immediately on disembarking nest morning the convicts began unloading provisions from the fleet’s three (3) stores-ships Fishburn, Golden Grove and Borrowdale.

The Navy Board mandated, once the fleet had arrived in Australia, the fullstandard ration of troops serving in the West Indies’ must be issued. At the insistence no doubt of Major Ross ration equity was established between the military wives and female convicts with each receiving two-thirds of the ‘standard male ration and their children one-quarter of that ration.

1788 – 6 February: The fleet’s one hundred and ninety- three (193) women prisoners and their children disembarked from the ships that had been their home for nigh on a year.

1788 – 7 February: At mid-day the convict sat in a circle as marines under arms received the governor with flying colours, fife, pipes and drum. Letters Patent and Phillip’s Commission and Instruction’s, giving Phillip the ‘widest powers’ under the Act of Parliament authorising Establishment of the Colony of New South Wales were read.

‘He was instructed to commence cultivation, especially of the flax plant, and to establish a settlement at Norfolk Island as soon as possible’. John Moore. ibid.

1788 – 14 February, Norfolk Island: Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King, sailed to Norfolk Island, two (2) weeks sailing time from Sydney and established a satellite community with forty-four (44) males, sixteen (16) females – prisoners and guards – and their children.

1788 – 26 February, Sydney: Andrew Miller chief of the Commissary took over distribution of rations from Zachariah Clark the agent representing William Richards Jnr the government contractor.

On disembarkation at Sydney the full weekly ration for ‘troops serving in the West Indies‘ was issued to all males; officials, soldiers, and convicts.

bread or flour;          7 pounds – lbs –  (3.2 kg)

salted beef;                 7 lb (3.2 kg) increased from 4 lb (1.8 kg)


salted pork;                4 lb (1.8 kg) increased from 2 lb (900 g)

dried peas;                  3 pints (1.7 litres) an increase of 1 pint (1.1 ) litre

butter;                           6 oz (170 g)

rice;                                one-half  lb (227 g) OR an additional lb (454 g) of flour

‘Notwithstanding all the care and attention [Phillip] bestowed on the preparations, it was found on arrival that many of the stores were short in quantity, poor in quality, or absent altogether’. Commentary, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Vol. 1.

An inventory revealed  ‘provisions of all specie’  were grossly inadequate.

1788 – 13 March: Phillip ordered the first of many reductions.

‘From the time of his [Andrew Miller] commencing victualling the garrison on the 26th day of February 1788 the commissary made a deduction of 12 lb in the hundred weight of beef and 8 lb in the hundred weight of pork ( i.e. that every 100 lb of beef must be cut into 28 pieces, and every 104 lb of pork cut into 56 pieces)’.

1788 – 12 May: Andrew Miller informed Governor Phillip the number of livestock; ‘7 horses 2 bulls, 6 cows, 29 sheep, 19 goats, 74 pigs, 18 turkeys, 29 geese, 35 ducks, 122 fowls, 87 chickens and 5 rabbits’. 

About this time [May 1788] an accident happened which I record with regret. The whole of our black cattle consisting of five cows [ one was retained] and a bull [with a bull-calf]…strayed into the bush….Their loss, if it proves one will be rather a misfortune for the colony and as an additional calamity the sheep, both of the public or private stock die very fast. First Fleet Journal, Captain Watkin Tench, ed. Tim Flannery. 

The loss of cattle was indeed a ‘calamity’ as neither sheep nor pigs ‘thrived’.

We had now given up all hope of recovering the cattle which were so unfortunately lost in May’. One (1) cow remained, but isolated from the ‘herd‘, she became so ‘wild and dangerous…it being found impracticable to secure and slaughter her in the common way…she was shot. 

Prior to leaving England Phillip had been told to ‘expect more convicts and additional supplies.


‘A further number of convicts, which you may expect will shortly  follow you from hence’. Instructions, George 111 to Captain Arthur Phillip, 25 April, 1787. 

Phillip knew, if relief ships ‘which [he] believed were following closely from England’ did not arrive and soon, he would be obliged to send the fleet’s flagship HMS  Sirius to Cape Town for more food. To that end he instructed Captain John Hunter RN prepare his vessel for a perilous lone voyage around Cape Horn to Africa.

Things went from bad to worse; ‘the sheep die very fast from some cause’, with acidosis the most likely cause. On the final leg of the voyage – Cape Town to Sydney – the ships were at sea for sixty-eight (68) days and the sheep fed dry fodder.

On landing the sheep were turned out onto fresh green grass, such an abrupt change of diet can induce acidosis; ‘the sheep die[d] very fast’.

Similarly ‘ the hogs don’t thrive…the poultry do not increase very fast’.

This last statement can best illustrated by marine Sergeant Scott who wrote of; ‘setting a broody hen on 17 eggs, from which 16 were hatched. Unfortunately as a result of various misfortunes such as attacks by rats and some drowning or straying 2 remained by the new year’

1788 – September: Zachariah Clark joined the commissary to assist Andrew Millar. A stock-take of dry goods;  revealed; ‘every grain of rice was a moving body from the inhabitants lodged within it’. The flour too was contaminated by weevils and rat droppings.

In store there remained; ‘1 years’ supply of salted beef, butter and dried pease [dahl], 2 years’ of salted pork but only 15 weeks’ supply of rice’.

Phillip ordered an immediate reduction of 1 lb. [454g] of flour.

The health and vitality of the Englishmen steadily declined on an unpalatable, monotonous diet devoid of nutrient or vitamins.

Meanwhile on fertile Norfolk Island, although marooned, the people were materially much better off than their counterparts in Sydney as the island’s soil was more suitable for growing vegetables.Medicines, flour and rice were sent from Sydney to Norfolk Island in HMS Supply.

However, unlike Sydney where the sandy soil proved so poor when seed was sown it failed to germinate, and where in winter fish leave the area to spawn, ‘King’s people’ on Norfolk Island ‘continued healthy, having fish and vegetables in abundance by the former of which he was enabled to save of his salted provisions’.

1788 – September 1788: Still no relief ships – Phillip could wait no longer.

1788 – 2 October, Africa: Captain Hunter, having finalised his preparations of  HMS Sirius sailed out through Sydney Heads and, set a course via treacherous Cape Horn for the Cape of Good Hope where he was to buy food and medicines.

Meanwhile at Sydney Phillip’s ‘people’ remained in the words of Reverend Richard Johnson the fleet Chaplin – ‘ buried alive’ . They continued a daily struggle for survival to the extreme detriment of the First Australians whose foods they stole.


1789 – 6 May, Sydney: HMS Sirius returned from Cape Town on 6 May 1789 with one (1) year of provisions for the two (2) king’s ships and a limited amount of poor quality flour for the settlement.


1790 June 1790: Not until the end of June 1790 did a stores-ship Justinian reach Sydney with the first relief supplies from England.

See: A Plague of Locusts


1792 – January, Sydney: A Home Office dispatch dated 10 January 1792, addressed to Governor Phillip from Home Secretary Henry Dundas who had succeeded Lord Sydney, arrived in Sydney on 26 July 1792 by way of the Britannia.

1792 – 2 October, London: Four (4) years to the day since Captain Hunter sailed HMS Sirius on her mercy dash to Cape Town to save  famine – ravaged Sydney Cove from starvation Phillip, whose departure from the colony was imminent, wrote a lengthy response to the Home Secretary Dundas’s dispatch.

Below are excerpts from Phillip’s dispatch to Dundas, together with a short excerpt from Phillip’s letter to Major Francis Grose commander of the New South Wales Corps sent from England to replace the original garrison marines.

Britain failed to commission a Governor to succeed Phillip so Major Grose would, on Phillip’s departure (December 1792), assume full control at Sydney. Grose ruled as a military despot until the second commissioned governor, Captain John Hunter RN – late of HMS Sirius – arrived back in the colony.

See: Inertia – Bureaucratic Inertia & Four Black Holes – Dire Consequences For The First Australians.

1792 – October, London:  To Home Secretary Dundas in Whitehall:

“I[ Phillip] will not, sir, trouble you with a recapitulation of the wants of this colony, as duplicates of my letters by the Pitt go by this conveyance, further than to say what may point out of the necessity of an immediate and adequate supply…[as] however trifling the article, we have been nearly as much distressed as for provisions’.

‘My letters by the Supply, Gorgan and Pitt will have shown that I look to England for the necessary supplies, of which we still stand in great need, and which I doubt not are now on their passage; but the great length of time in which this colony has remained in its present state [near-starvation, almost bereft of medicines, clothing, shoes, necessaries and utensils] takes away hope from many and the consequences must be obvious.’ 

‘I am very sorry to be under the necessity of adverting to the observations I have so often made, that the colony having been almost constantly on reduced ration [since 1788] is a great check on the public labour, as well as the cause of many very unpleasant circumstances.’

‘It has sir, been my fate to point out wants from year to year it has been a duty the severest I have ever experienced. Did those wants only respect myself or a few individuals I should be silent; but here are numbers who bear them badly; nor has the colony suffered more from wanting what we have not received than from the supplies we have received not arriving in time.’

‘When the Atlantic arrived from Bengal [20 June 1792] this settlement [Sydney] had only thirteen (13) days’ flour and forty-five (45) days’ maize in store, at the ration then issued, which was one (1) and a half pound (1 & 1/2), and four (4) pounds of maize per man for seven (7) days and when the Britannia arrived [26 July 1792] we had only salt provisions for fifty-three (53) days at the then ration, which was only two (2) pounds of pork per man for seven (7) days.’

‘From the time the corn (maize) began to ripen to the time it was housed, the convicts were pressed by hunger, and great quantities were stolen and concealed in the woods; several convicts died from feeding on it in its crude state when carrying the  grain to the public granary.’

‘One third (1/3) of every article received by that ship [Atlantic] as well as what was  received by the Britannia, has been sent to Norfolk Island by the Atlantic, which returned thence to [Sydney] 30th of last month [September] and will, I hope, sail for England by the middle of November next. Nothing will detain her a moment after the ship is ready for sea.’

‘There remains at present in this colony – 2 October 1792 – of flour and rice, as bread sufficient for ninety-six (96) days at two (2) pounds of flour, and five (5) pounds of rice for seven (7) days, salt provisions for seventy (70) days at full ration and of pease and dholl sufficient for one hundred and fifty-six days (156) days at the rate of three (3) lbs per week for each man.’

Governor Phillip opposed a request from Major Grose, commander of the New South Wales Corps, to allow certain of his officers hire Britannia at their own expense. The scheme was for officers to buy shares in Britannia and have her sail to Cape Town and there buy provisions, cattle and rum for the exclusive use of  the participating officers. At their discretion and, for a price, the benefits would flow onto the non-commissioned and rank and file of the Corps.

1792 – 4 October, Sydney: Governor Phillip to Major Francis Grose:

‘I [ Phillip] am sensible that the garrison suffers many inconveniences from the necessary supplies not arriving and which I should gladly do away by any means in my power, yet I cannot acquiesce with you in thinking that the ration served from the public stores is unwholesome; I see it daily at my own table; I am sorry to see that it is neither so good nor in that quantity as I would wish it; and every means in my power has, and will be taken to remedy the evil.’

Major Grose was defiant.  A cartel of racketeering British officers, led by a junior officer Lieutenant John Macarthur, bought shares in Britannia and went ahead with the scheme.

The Britannia commercial venture was the beginning of a rapacious monopoly that under Grose turned the military into the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corp. They went on to dominate the commerce of the colony in a stranglehold of grog and greed. The main purchase was cheap rum. It was sold at exorbitant prices and reaped enormous profits for certain corrupt officers.

1792 – 11 December, England: Governor Phillip accompanied by two (2) Aboriginal men Bennalong and Yemmerrawanne left Sydney aboard the Atlantic for the long return voyage to England. At daylight on 11th December Atlantic ‘weighed anchor and by 8 o’clock  was clear of the Heads’.

‘It was a great misfortune that this period of military rule occurred; because in the course of it the colony was brought to degradation by drink, corruption and general iniquity, which required years to mitigate’. A Short History of Australia, Ernest Scott, 1953.

1792 – December 1792 to September 1795: Due to bureaucratic inertia in London a lengthy period of absolute military rule – December 1792 to September 1795 – followed Arthur Phillip’s departure and changed forever the fate of a free  people – Australia’s First Peoples.

See: Tipping Points – Guns, Grog, Greed

Hostility within the military hierarchy, led by Lieutenant John Macarthur, led to the recall of Governor Phillip’s immediate successors , Governors, John Hunter RN and Phillip Gidley King RN.

1808  – 26 January, Sydney: The now Mr. John Macarthur, manipulated the overthrow and imprisonment of Governor Captain William Bligh RN yet another naval governor, the immediate successor to Governor King.

See: One Man Macarthur  & Three Governors – John Hunter RN, Phillip Gidley King RN, William Bligh RN

1808 – January 1808 to 1810 – January 1810:  From the removal Of Governor Bligh in January 1808 until Governor Lachlan Macquarie took up office in January 1810 the corrupt New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps had held absolute sway in the colony.

‘The regularisation of the military presence in the colonies dates from Macquarie’s arrival as Governor’. A Military History of Australia, The British Period, 1788-1870, Jeffrey Grey, 2001

1810 – 1 January, Sydney: Colonel Lachlan Macquarie took up his commission as Britain’s fifth Governor of Australia.

Governor Macquarie was accompanied by the 73rd Black Watch, a regiment of  loyal Scots troops, he had previously commanded, led now by Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice O’Connell.

See: An Elephant In The Room- The New South Wales’ Rum’ Corps

The main battle was about having enough to eat. The Story of Australia, Don Watson, 1984.

See: Anatomy Of An English Famine 1788  to 1800 & Beyond & The Consequences For Australia’s First Peoples


‘The evil that men do lives after them’. Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, Julius Caesar

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