‘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’. Conway, cited in Alan Frost, Botany Bay Mirages, Melbourne University Press, 1994

When was an invasion fleet not an invasion fleet? When It was the First Fleet.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: An armed convoy of eleven (11) ships, commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’, sailed from England on 13th May 1787 to invade the island continent of New Holland in order to occupy and claim British sovereignty; ‘from [its] northern extremity Cape York…to South Cape’.

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

The fleet’s complement of 1500 souls was overwhelmingly male, one-half – seven hundred and fifty (750) – were common criminals commuted death.

Legislation, the Hulks Act of 1776, deemed criminals reprieved death on condition of ‘banishment from the kingdom’ were deemed ‘servants of the Crown’. See: The Hulks Act 1776: Transportation America & Australia – Differences and Similarities

‘As has been pointed out the ratio between volunteer and pressed men cannot be ascertained accurately. Professor Lewis in his study of the navy during the Age of Nelson has estimated…pressed men [at] 50%’. Christopher Lloyd, The British Seaman, 1968

During the term of their sentence the fleet’s five hundred and eighty-five (583) male convicts were available for combat.

‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the [male] convicts…the standard adopted was that of troops serving in the West Indies’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, Library of Australian History, 1990

The ‘First Fleet’ comprised two (2) Royal Naval vessels HMS Sirius and HMS Supply with two hundred (200) personnel. Two hundred and forty-five (245) officers and enlisted of the Sydney marine garrison, with thirty-one (31) marine wives and thirty (30) free children, were distributed throughout four (4) troops transports – Alexander, Prince of Wales, Scarborough, Charlotte.

‘Soldiers: three hundred knowing their work thoroughly may be stronger than three thousand less sure of their game’. John Ruskin, The Cestus of Aglaia, 1866

Two (2) convict transports Lady Penrhyn and Friendship with mainly female prisoner camp-followers and three (3) stores vessels Fishburn, Golden Grove and Borrowdale completed the flotilla.

Merchant ships in the 18th century were crewed to a formula; eight (8) ordinary seamen plus one (1) boy per hundred (100) ton. In addition each vessel carried specialist crew – sailing masters, mates, pursers etc. According to this formula crew of the six (6) transports must have numbered about four hundred and forty (440) merchant seamen.

Four hundred and forty five (245) professionals;‘knowing their work thoroughly’, more than four hundred (400) hundred  merchant seamen plus five hundred and eighty (580) male prisoners -1425 – ‘less sure of their game’ – equal a formidable invasion force.

‘It is impossible that [His Majesty’s] government should forget that the original aggression was ours. Lord John Russell to Sir George Gipps [Governor of New South Wales], Dispatch, London, 21 December 1838, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Vol. XX.

Yet historians almost always refer to the ‘First Fleet as ‘small’ when it was noting of the sort. It was an expeditionary force, an army on the move.

‘Nineteenth century Australians fostered the belief in the uniquely peaceful settlement of Australia…the premise, sometimes unspoken, was either the original inhabitants had simply made way for the Europeans, or that the Aboriginals had no title to the land. Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, The British Period 1788-1790, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2001

Non-Aboriginal Australia’s foundation myth is that of a ‘uniquely peaceful settlement’ based on ‘amity and kindness’ the weasel words of their day. It is time to revisit the ‘First Fleet’ and unravel that carefully constructed belief.

‘We know that Aboriginal resistance was widespread, consistent and determined...frontier conflict between European settlement and the Aboriginal peoples, was for much of our history, greatly downplayed’. Grey. ibid.

The tipping points of violent dispossession were guile, gender, guns, greed and grog.

‘How moral was the Empire? In North America, as in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and then later in East Africa, the process was the same: acquire land by seizure or trickery and then ignore the native, or shoot him if he acted as if he still owned the place.  

There is a need for a re-writing of history, for the purging of some guilt by its contemplation. Donald Horne, God Is An Englishman, Penguin, 1969




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