‘In war the trophy head is a mark of supremacy and respect’. Frances Larson, Severed, Granta, 2015

1790 – 13 December, Sydney Cove: ‘The author of this publication [Captain Watkin Tench] received a direction to attend the governor [Arthur Phillip] at head quarters immediately.

I went, and his excellency informed me, that he had pitched upon me to execute the foregoing command…infuse universal terror…convince them of our superiority… if practicable, to bring away two [2] natives as prisoners and to put to death ten [10]. That we were to cut off, and bring in the heads of the slain, for which purpose, hatchets and bags would be furnished.

We were to proceed to the north arm of the [Botany] bay…destroy all weapons of war: no hut was to be burned: that all women and children were to remain uninjured’.  Marine Captain Watkin, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhadinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

Can we know what drove Governor Phillip’s ferocity? Yes we can – simmering rebellion centred on Lieutenant John Macarthur and ‘certain  officers’ of the newly arrived New South Wales Corps (June 1790) sent from England to replace the troops of Sydney’s marine garrison who, in January 1788, invaded the island continent of New Holland. See: A Tale of Two Fleets

In December 1790 the threat to Governor Arthur Phillip RN as Captain General and Supreme Commander of British forces lay not with the Bidgigal of Botany Bay, ravished by smallpox the previous year – 1789. The threat came from within military ranks, the first contingent of infantry who, in June 1790, arrived aboard Neptune, Suprize and Scarborough the death ships of a second fleet aptly named ‘Britain’s Grim Armada. See: A Lethal Weapon: Smallpox Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

 1790 – June, Sydney: Prior to their arrival Tench wrote; ‘We had now been [thirty-six] months from England in which long period no supplies [and] from the intelligence of our 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. The misery and horror cannot be imparted, even by those who have suffered under it’.

When the second fleet arrived with a large cohort of severely traumatised mainly male criminals the weekly ration in the starving settlement was inadequate for even a toddler.

To every child more than eighteen months old and, to every grown person, two & one-half pounds of [salted] pork, two & one-half pounds of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease per week…under eighteenth months old, same quantity of rice and flour, and one pound of pork’. Tench. ibid.

Tench’s sentiment;the misery and horror cannot be imparted, even by those who have suffered under it’ could also have been claimed by prisoners on the second fleet whose lives government had committed to the mercy of Camden, Calvert and King a firm of London slave traders.

‘The irons used upon these unhappy wretches were barbarous…the contractors had been in the Guinea trade, and had put on board the same shackles used by them in that trade’. Captain Hill [Suprize] to William Wilberforce, Historical Records See: How The Mindset Of Savagery Came To Australia

Two hundred and seventy three (273) of 1017 mostly male prisoners loaded onto Neptune, Scarborough, Scarborough at Plymouth died during the voyage, four hundred and eighty-six (486) landed alive of these 15% – 124 – died within weeks.

‘Oh, if you had seen the shocking sight of the poor creatures who came out of the three [3] ships, it would make your heart bleed; they were almost dead; few could stand; and they were obliged to sling them as you would goods, and hoist them out of the ship, they were so feeble; and they died ten [10] or twelve [12] a day when they first landed.

She heard the Governor standing by, say that to transport men and women like this was ‘murthering them’. Letter of a ‘First Fleet’ woman convict dated 24 July 1790, Joseph Banks Papers, cited M.H. Ellis, John Macarthur, Angus and Robertson, 1969 

Barely six (6) months from England’s hustle and bustle, most from London’s teeming streets, the survivors found nothing  familiar. No houses or cobbled streets, horses or carriages, spires or bridges, crowded taverns or coffee houses, rag-fairs or dark alleys, no gin and no pockets worth picking.

No one, solder or criminal – man or woman, could comprehend their surroundings. Food so scarce it was barely enough to keep a baby alive and when, in a few short weeks the fleet’s four (4) ships departed there would be no English ships in the harbour so all hope of escape and freedom would be gone.  See: Missing in Action – HMS Sirius & HMS Supply

Panicked at the prospect of staying in such a strange place some, ‘all’ Tench said ‘came out on the last fleet, simply walked north hoping to reach China; with a view of asserting their freedom’.

It is little wonder intense, well documented animosity, surfaced quickly between Phillip’s ‘people’ and the newcomers. Governor Phillip, wily and experienced, perceived danger in such widespread unrest.

And especially so as Major Francis Grose, the Corps’ commander, stayed in London to recruit sufficient numbers to meet establishment requirements, many he was forced to source from the Savoy military prison.

‘From 1788 there had been continuous disputation between the civil power represented by the autocratic uniformed naval governors, and the military’. John McMahon, Not A Rum Rebellion but a Military Insurrection, Journal of The Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 92, 2006

Lieutenant John Macarthur a junior officer of the New South Wales Corps, emboldened by Major Grose’s absence, was quick to pick-up on that ‘disputation’ and make it his own. See: Take Two – Rules of Engagement

‘Britain’s Grim Armada‘ catapulted Phillip into open warfare with the First Australians. A war characterised by Peter Stanley in The Remote Garrison as; ‘war, nasty and decidedly lacking in glory’.

Governor Phillip, known for his insight, could not have failed to recognise a ruthless antagonist driven by unbridled personal ambition and as history has it John Macarthur was the common-dominator in the downfall of Phillip’s immediate successors the ‘uniformed naval governors’ – Captain John Hunter, Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King, the legendary Captain William ‘Bounty’ Bligh, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, first of Britain’s military Governors and, his immediate successor, Governor Thomas Brisbane.

Macarthur’s weapons were the duel, forked tongue, poison pen and grog. See: Machiavellian Macarthur


‘New Holland is a good blind, then…stationing a large body troops in New South Wales…  when we want to add to military strength of India’. Anon, Historical Records of New South Wales

Britain’s invasion of New Holland in 1788 was remarkably prescient and there is no doubt the pre-emptive positioning of naval and military bases in the southern oceans figured prominently in Prime Minister William Pitt’s planning.

Within five (5) years – 1793 – Britain and France were at war for Phillip the military commander the stakes high if he failed to hold the line against Macarthur and his cronies Britain’s chance of retaining strategic advantage ‘when we want to add to military strength of India’ would be lost.

‘Phillip was authorised to see to the defence of the colony’. Professor Bruce Kercher, An Unruly Child, A History of Australian Law in Australia, Allen and Unwin, 1995

That authorisation would apply when ever and from whom-so-ever such threat arose.

1790 – 19 March, Norfolk Island: HMS Sirius, while in the process of evacuating 50% of Sydney’s starving white population to Norfolk Island, ran onto a submerged reef and sank. Thirty (30) crew returned to Sydney in HMS Supply leaving one hundred and thirty (130) stranded along with the evacuees.

1790 – 6 April, Jakarta: Just six (6) weeks before the second fleet’s arrival, in a desperate bid to save the Sydney settlement from complete disaster Governor Phillip sent HMS Supply, to Batavia, modern-day Jakarta. Her captain was to buy tons of food and medicines from the Dutch and hire a ship to bring the supplies to Sydney. See: Missing in Action: HMS Sirius and HMS Supply

1790 – April, Sydney: ‘The pork and rice were brought with us from England…salted between three and four years and every grain of rice was a moving body from the inhabitants lodged within it’. Tench. ibid.

1790 – May, Sydney: Cold wind, icy rain; ‘the distress of the lower classes for clothes was almost equal to their wants…the stores had been long exhausted, and winter was hand’.  

1790 – mid July: Jakarta:  Supply (170 tons, crew 50) after three (3) hazardous months at sea reached Batavia where Lieutenant Ball purchased rice, flour and medicines and chartered a ship – Waaksamheyd – to bring them to Sydney.

1790 – September 7, Many Beach: A tipping point for the future of Australia’s First Peoples occurred in September 1790 when a whale – ‘a tremendous monster’ – beached at Manly causing great excitement in both camps.

Whales had deep cultural and spiritual significance for local Aborigines and many gathered to marvel at it. Governor Phillip’s life at sea began hunting whale in icy Arctic waters when news of the stranding reached Sydney Phillip was rowed across to Manly where; ‘a native [Wileemarin] aimed his lance with such force and dexterity striking the governor’s right shoulder, just above the collar bone’. Tench. ibid. See: Kidnapped: Manly – What’s In A Name

William Balmain the senior surgeon successfully removed the lance but Phillip had lost a great deal of blood so recovery was slow. Ailing, isolated in the midst of an increasingly hostile military and with no naval support – Sirius was lost, Supply at Jakarta Phillip was extremely vulnerable.

Macarthur and ‘certain Corps officers’ were circling the tents and his position as supreme commander was in jeopardy.

1790 – October, Sydney: ‘Joy sparkled in every countenance to see our old friend Supply enter the harbour from Batavia. We had witnessed her departure with tears: we hailed her return with transport’. Tench. ibid.

Supply returned from Jakarta with as many supplies as she could carry but with a drastically reduced crew. Batavia where mosquitoes bred in vast numbers was at that time considered the ‘fever-capital of the East’. Midshipman Ormsby stayed on with a party of eleven (11) men to supervise the loading of Waaksamheyd and it appears most contracted malaria and died.

Phillip in addition to his many worries had serious doubts the Dutch, aligned to the French, could be trusted when engaged in business dealings with needy Englishmen.

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

That battle, centred on foods that had sustained the First Australians for millennia, began in January 1788.

‘The minimum that people expect from peaceful relations is security of life and property. Another way of putting this is to say  that what people mean by living in amity with their neighbours is that nobody should seek to kill or main them, or to make off with their possessions….all societies, however simple their inventory of material goods, have clear rules of property’. Lucy Mair, Primitive Government, Pelican Book, 1962 

Tench reported; ‘our customary method was to leave Sydney Cove about four [4] in the afternoon and go down in the harbour and fish all night…about four hundred-weight of fish being brought up, it was issued’ to very hungry Englishmen.

The English foraged for the; ‘many salutary herbs…made a wholesome drink and of great use to our sick…spinach, parsley, a sort of broad beans, several unknown vegetables… are gathered in abundance’ and Phillip wrote; ‘unabated animosity continued to prevail between the natives and us’

1790 – December: Still no Dutch ship and desperation deepened. Ignoring the injury done to local Aborigines struggling to feed their families Phillip increased the number of hunting parties made up of ‘the best marksmen of the marine and convicts’.

‘He [Phillip] said since our arrival in the country, no less than seventeen [17] of our people had either been killed or wounded by the natives’. Tench.ibid.

Phillip’s inclusion of John McIntyre was deliberate provocation intended to draw a response from Pemulway the Bidgigal  warrior.

1790 – 9 December, Botany Bay: ‘A serjeant of marines with three (3) convicts, among them was M’Entire, the governor’s game-keeper (the person of whom Bennalong had on former occasions, shewn so much dread and hatred) went out on a shooting party’. Tench. ibid.

At dawn the shooting party set off to walk a well-trodden path to Botany Bay to hunt kangaroo planning to sleep overnight in; ‘a small hut formed of boughs which had lately been erected in the peninsula‘ ready at first light to shoot any kangaroo who came to graze.

1790 – 10 December: ‘About 1 AM the sergeant was awakened by a rustling noise in the bushes supposing it to proceed from a kangaroo…two [2] natives with spears one [Pim-el-wi] launched his spear at M’Entire and lodged it in his left side.’  See John M’Entire – A Tethered Goat

1790 – 11 December, Sydney: The shooting party returned to Sydney with the mortally wounded M’Entire who lingered on dying in mid-January 1791.

Ostensibly, to avenge M’Entire’s wounding, Governor Phillip ordered Captain Watkin Tench lead an assault on; ‘the natives of Botany Bay’.

1790 – 13 December: Governor Phillip General Orders: ‘Put to death to ten…bring in the heads of the slain…two natives as prisoners…I am resolved to execute the prisoners who may be brought in, in the most public and exemplary manner, in the presence of as many of their countrymen as can be collected [message] my fixed determination to repeat it, whenever any future breach of good conduct on their side, shall render it necessary’. Tench. ibid.

A targeted attack by a known assailant – Phillip’s orders were indiscriminate retaliation – Tench registered dismay; ‘Here the governor stopped…could I propose any alteration…instead of destroying ten [10] persons, the capture of six [6] would not better answer all the purposes for which the expedition was to be undertaken; as out of this number, a part set aside for retaliation…the rest, at a proper time, liberated, after having seen the fate of their comrades.

This scheme, his excellency was pleased instantly to adopt, adding, ‘if six [6] cannot be taken, let this number be shot’.   

To that end Tench assembled a detachment of fifty (50) troops – officers, non-coms and forty [40] privates ready to; ‘march to-morrow morning at daylight’.

For Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples the make-up of the detachment is of utmost importance they served as a template in Australia’s frontier wars.

‘The Marines, members of the Royal Navy…prey to starvation, lethargy and despair remained in New South Wales only as long as they had to, and from 1790 Australia was to be garrisoned by the army’. Dr Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, The British Army in Australia, 1788-1870, Kangaroo Press, Sydney 1986 

Stanley’s picture of these Robinson Cruscos marooned since 1788, aligns with Tench’s earlier assessment of his men.

‘The insufficiency of our ration soon diminished our execution of labour. Both soldiers and convicts pleaded such loss of strength, as to find themselves unable to perform their accustomed tasks’. It is safe therefore to asset the bulk of the infantry-men that made up ‘this terrific procession’ were drawn from the New South Wales Corps.

1790 – 14 December, Botany Bay: At first light the detachment moved out; ‘by 9 o’clock [had] reached the peninsula, at the head of Botany Bay, after having walked in various directions until four o’clock, without seeing a native, we halted for the night’.

1790 – 15 December: Next morning they spotted their prey ‘five [5] Indians on the beach’ only to find sloppy map-reading had led them astray Tench said; ‘before we came near enough to effect our purpose [they] ran off’. 

1790 – 16 December: ‘A day of severe fatigue’ with but no success…‘pass[ed] a restless night…denied repose by swarms of musquitoes and sand-flies’.

1790 – 17 December, Sydney: ‘Next morning we bent or steps homeward; and, after wading beast-high though two arms of the sea, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, were glad to find ourselves at Sydney, between one and two o’clock in the afternoon’. 

When Tench’s weary troops straggled into Sydney they found a very different place from the one they left just three (3) days before. Waaksamheyd was at anchor, the air filled with the heady smell of cooking.


1790 – 17 December, Sydney:  Waaksamheyd  the Dutch ship Lieutenant Ball chartered arrived from Jakarta in the middle of December 1790 with tons of food and medicines.


and intriguing possibilities. See: The Great Escape


The stage was set for a clash of giants – Phillip for King and Country – Macarthur for himself. The Governor, with his back to the wall and few options, chose diversion. See: A Tethered Goat – John McEntire




Phillip, a proven strategist, intent on saving the Sydney settlement from insurrection and anarchy, moved to assert his authority. 



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