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

Britain’s criminal neglect of her own people, part Survivor part Lost in Space, is not yet part of Australia’s history.

1790 – April, Sydney: ‘To every person in the settlement without distinction: two pounds of pork, two pounds and a half of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart  of pease, per week, to every grown person, and to every child of more than eighteen months old.

When the age of this provision is recollected, its inadequacy will more strikingly appear: The pork and rice we brought from England. The pork had been salted between 3 and 4 years, and every grain of rice was a moving body from the inhabitants lodged within it. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

1790 – 3rd June, Sydney:  Not until the middle of June 1790 did a ship, Lady Juliana ‘with London on her stern’, sail into Sydney Harbour bringing an end to the ‘misery and horror’ of mind-bending isolation and protracted starvation, that Australia’s historians brush-off as ‘the hungry years’.

Britain’s failure to send logistical support for the ‘First Fleet’ expedition played a pivotal role in the near annihilation of the First Australians.

Most Australians know of the Mayflower’s voyage of two (2) months from Plymouth to America and are aware of negative repercussions of that incursion on Native American Indian tribes.

But have little knowledge or interest in the 1000 (one thousand) of 1500 (one thousand five hundred) English men, women and children who left Portsmouth on the ‘First Fleet’ in May 1787 for an eight (8) month voyage to New Holland and were callously left to starve 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from their homeland with profound social, cultural and biological ramifications for Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples.


1787 – 25 April, London: ‘A further number of convicts, which you may expect will shortly follow you from hence’. King George III to Captain Arthur Phillip, 25 April 1787.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: A squadron of eleven (11) ships, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’, commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN left England on the 13th May 1787 to invade, conqueror and subdue the peoples of New Holland now Australia.

1787 – 13 November, Africa: The fleet sailed from Cape Town on the last leg of its eight (8) months passage to Botany Bay in mid November 1787. The first night at sea;  ‘just as it was getting dark’  the look-out on HMS Sirius sighted a vessel flying an English flag.

‘We was in hope of her being from England, probably to us’. John Easty, First Fleet Journal

Disappointment, she proved to be Kent an ‘English Merchant [whaling ] Ship out of London…[Kent] informed us of some more ships being taken up for Botany Bay’ spirits rose at the news.

An Admiralty letter dated 23 March 1787 dealt with the ‘First Fleet’s sailing arrangements. The letter referred to Captain John Hunter RN and Lieutenant Henry Ball RN – commanders of the fleet’s two warships – HMS Sirius and  HMS Supply and authorised a ‘month’s leave of absence for Lt. Riou…to attend his private affairs’.

1789 – 14 September, Falmouth: Inexplicably not until September 1789 was a ship, HMS Guardian under Lieutenant Edward Riou’s  command, ‘taken up for Botany Bay’ and for this government was greatly at fault.

1789 – 24 December, Africa: On Christmas Eve 1789 Guardian hit an iceberg off the coast of Africa. Neither Lieutenant Edward Riou RN or HMS Guardian, made it to Sydney.

‘It was a very unfortunate thing for us the loss of the Guardian. The Complete Letters of Newton Fowell, ed. Nancy Irvine, 1988 See: Australia’s Titanic – HMS Guardian

The earliest Guardian could have reached Sydney was January/February 1790 and by then the English were almost completely dependent on indigenous food and 50% of local Aborigines had died of smallpox . See: Famine  – The Dead Don’t Eat


‘D[ear] Clark, On my arrival at this place [Sydney] from Norfolk Island, I found a piece of scarlet Cloth in the Qr Masters stores which, I have every reason to suppose belongs to me but as I have understood that you had a Great Quantity of things coming out from England, [in Guardian] I would not take it untill I knew if you had any claim to it’. Captain George Johnson, New South Wales Corps to Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark, 7th August1791

In addition to food, medicines,equipment and ‘a Great Quantity’ of books, clothing and other personal items belonging  to the marine officers of the Sydney garrison including ‘a piece of scarlet cloath’, had been crated and stowed aboard Guardian.

‘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 pursued against him’. John Moore, The First Fleet Marines, 1786-1792, Queensland University Press, 1987.

In addition to Ralph Clark’s ‘scarlet cloath’ another clue pointing to Britain’s failure to re-supply the ‘First Fleet’ as promised with ‘[ships] which Phillip believed were following closely from England’  can be found among the papers of Major Robert Ross the Sydney garrison’s antagonistic commander.

Ross, immediately on his return to England on HMS Gorgan in 1792 lodged an application for compensation. He cited possessions lost on HMS Guardian in December 1789 and from HMS Sirius in March 1790, when off Norfolk Island, Sirius ran onto submerged rocks and sank. 

There is little doubt Governor Phillip had been led to expect relief ships would arrive early in the deployment. But not until the end of June 1790, with the arrival of Justinian, a stores-ship, did any supplies from England reach Sydney.

Although daily expecting relief Phillip wisely made contingency plans. He ordered Captain John Hunter RN prepare his ship HMS Sirius for sea. Her guns were removed, timbers strained on the long voyage from England were strengthened to withstand rough seas and high winds.

September 1788 came and went – still no relief ships – Phillip could wait no longer. On 2 October 1788 HMS Sirius sailed on a  lone perilous run to Africa for food and medicines.

Despite a crew hungry and weak from scurvy, [Sirius made [the] passage to the Cape of Goodhope round Cape Horn in 90 days’.

‘It had been imagined in England, that some, if not considerable savings of provisions might be made by the quantities of fish that it was supposed would be taken’. David Collins, First Fleet Journal.

London had calculatedquantities of fish’ the coastal Aborigines’ main source of protein ‘would be taken’. London was right, using  Sirius and Supplys seine – trawling nets- ; ‘about four hundred weight of fish being brought up, it was issued’ to hungry Englishmen.

London was wrong on the south eastern coast of New South Wales, seasonal conditions dictate supply. In winter fish leave the Sydney area to spawn.

‘Famine besides was approaching with gigantic strides….We had now been [more than] two years in the country, and thirty-[five] months from England, in which long period no supplies except what has been procured at the Cape of Good Hope by the Sirius has reached us’. Tench. ibid


Sirius returned from Africa in May 1789 with limited supplies of flour and salted meats for the king’s ships and what could be spared for the colony.

[In April] 1789 a smallpox epidemic struck the Aboriginal population round Sydney. Inexplicably, the epidemic did not affect the European population, but Phillip estimated that it resulted in the death of 50% of the local Aboriginal community. People of Australia, Macquarie Series, Ed. Bryce Fraser, 1998. 

The Englishmen were now almost completely dependent on severely depleted stocks of indigenous foods. Phillip knew the previous year – 1789 –  deaths (50%) of the local Aboriginal community from smallpox, had saved his people. See: A Lethal Weapon: Smallpox Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

In mid -March 1790 Phillip drew of that experience and ordered HMS Sirius and HMS Supply evacuate 50% of Sydney’s white population to Norfolk Island where fish was plentiful year-round and vegetables grew well. Sirius was then to sail onto China for help.

At the end of March 1790 HMS Supply returned to Sydney from Norfolk Island with devastating news – HMS Sirius was lost. She landed the evacuees safely but while unloading stores Sirius ran aground and smashed to pieces in ‘pounding surf”.

Her  crew, one hundred and sixty (160 )Royal Navy personnel, landed safely but were stranded along with the evacuees.

With Sirius lost, Phillip had no choice other than to send his lone ship, HMS Supply to sea and soon; ‘as I do not think that vessel is in a condition to attempt a winter’s passage round the South Cape’.

In April 1790 HMS Supply sailed for Batavia, modern day Jakarta.Tench describes the settlement’s despair;‘ We followed her  with anxious eyes until she was no longer visible.‘ Truly did we say of her, In te omnis domus inclinata recumbit – Thou the support of all [t]his tottering house’. Shakespeare’s, Othello

Phillip’s decision to send Supply to Batavia was a desperate one. It not only left the Sydney and Norfolk settlements isolated from each other but, with Supply absent, went any possibility of escape or communication with the outside world.

‘The duration of the Supply’s voyage was generally expected to be six months: a period at which, if no relief arrived in the mean time from England we should be found without salt provisions, rice and pease’. Tench. ibid.

Throughout June 1790 in dribs and drabs a second convict fleet – ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ – arrived in Sydney Cove. Its four (4) ships, Lady Juliana and its death ships – Neptune, Suprize and Scarborough – brought another one thousand (1000) English mouths to feed. See: Britain’s Grim Armada – The Dead and the Living Dead

Lady Juliana arrived on 3rd of June 1790 with a small flock of sheep saved by Lieutenant Riou from HMS Guardian  books, clothing and Lieutenant Ralph Clark’s ‘piece of scarlet cloath’.

Epilogue: Ralph Clark 

Ralph Clark’s presence lingers on in Sydney though his connection to Sydney Harbour’s one (1) hectre island, remains largely unknown either to visitors or majority of Sydney-siders. The hungry Lieutenant established a vegetable garden there but his efforts to support himself came largely to nought, for if anything edible did appear, it was stolen before it reached his table.

Lieutenant Ralph Clark kept a diary. It is of such intimacy clearly its entries were not meant for others’ eyes. Nevertheless when, in 1914 it came up for auction at Sotherbys, it was purchased by the Mitchell Library, Sydney for the nation.

Amongst Ralph Clark’s comments, his oft repeated condemnation of female convicts ‘D….d Whores’ lives on. His diary provides a very human and instructive insight into the earliest years of Britain’s occupation of Australia

Of all the First fleet journals, that of Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark is the most intimate, personal and entertaining. Intimate because Clark writes freely of his lascivious dreams and thoughts. Jacket, The Journal and Letters of Lt. Ralph Clark 1787-1792, ed. Fidlon and Ryan, 1981

LIEUTENANT RALPH CLARKE – THE MAN – ‘All the gains on earth…should never have made me leave…my dear beloved Alicia and sweet boy’.

On 23rd June 1784 Ralph Clark married Betsy Alicia Trevan their son, also Ralph, was born on 23 August 1785. Anxious to increase his chances of promotion, Clark put his name forward for duty in Botany Bay. But plagued by home-sickness it was a decision the love sick soldier came to regret bitterly;

On 13th  of May 1787 Lieutenant Clark sailed to New South Wales in the convict transport Friendship guarding seventy-six (76) male and twenty-one (21) female convicts.

Clark took with him a picture of Alicia and from the time he left Portsmouth every night it became his habit to kiss the picture. After some time, fearing it would not survive his ardour Clark  arranged to have it framed and, for safe-keeping, kept it in a box made for the purpose.

Clark’s faithful diary tells how, to further preserve it, he restricted kissing Betsey’s picture to Sundays only; ‘ This being Sunday [took ] picture out of its prison… kist your Beloved Image’.

And on special anniversaries; ‘Kist your Beloved Image a thousand time as being your birthday [and] this being Christmas Day Kist your d…r Image’.   

1790 – March, Sydney: Still no word or supplies from England.

Governor Phillip in order to save the Sydney settlement from starvation, decided to evacuate 50% of the English population to Norfolk Island. The island’s fertile soil was better suited for growing vegetables and Phillip hoped, with fewer people at Sydney, complete disaster might be averted.

Once settled on Norfolk Island Clark’s need for intimacy could not be contained. Mary Branham, a young convict and her son by a previous liaison, were among those sent to Norfolk Island and Mary became Clark’s live-in companion. Their daughter Alicia was born on 23 July 1791.

In December 1791 the Clark family returned to Sydney where Alicia was baptised by Rev. Richard Johnson the Fleet Chaplain. Later that month, together with the bulk of the marine garrison, they left Sydney aboard HMS Gorgan and sailed home to England by way of the Cape of Good Hope.

June 1792: England at last HMS Gorgan docked in Portsmouth from where, five (5) years earlier at dawn on 13th May 1787, the ‘First Fleet’ had sailed for Botany Bay.

The Ralph Clark story has a sad ending’.

While in New South Wales Ralph Clark had been promoted First Lieutenant. But on returning to England found himself on half-pay. However by the middle of 1793, just as his beloved Alicia found herself pregnant, Britain was at war again. Ralph was called up for full-time service and went off to fight the French and Dutch. He joined young Ralph, then a midshipman, on either HMS Tarter or HMS Sceptre.

Early in 1794 Alicia went into premature labour, her baby was still-born and Alicia died. Later that year, on the same ship and on the same day, father and son died. Midshipman Ralph Clark RN of yellow fever, First Lieutenant Marine Ralph Clark was killed in action.

‘The catalogue produced by Sotheby’s to advertise the sale of Clark’s journal states that young Ralph died “on the same day” as his father….Thus the small family for which Clark suffered so much came to an end….Yet it is possible that the Clark line continues to this day. What became of Mary Branham and her little girl Alicia?   The Journal and Letters of Lt. Ralph Clark ed. Paul G. Fidlon & R.J. Ryan, 1981.  

The writer of this blog believes Mary Branham and her two (2) children returned to England with Lieutenant Ralph Clark on .See: HMS Gorgan and the Botany Bay Escapees


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