1790 – 1 June, Sydney Cove: ‘No communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th May 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth…from the intelligence of our friends and connections we had been entirely cut off…the misery and horror of such a situation cannot be imparted, even by those who have suffered under it’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

1790 – weekly ration; ‘without distinction…to every child of more than eighteen (18] months old and to every grown person two [2] pounds of pork, two and a half [2½] pounds of flour, two [2] pounds of rice, or a quart of pease, per week…To every child under eighteen [18] months old, the same quantity of rice and flour, and one [1] pound of pork.

When the age of this provision is recollected, its inadequacy will more strikingly appear. The pork…from England had been salted between three [3] and four [4] years… a daily morsel toast[ed] on a fork catching the drops on a slice of bread, or in a saucer of rice…every grain was a moving body from the inhabitants lodged within it…flour brought from the Cape by Sirius [May 1789] soldiers and convicts used to boil it up with greens’. Tench op.cit.

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

1788 – 18 January, Botany Bay: At 2.15pm on 18 January 1788, after eight (8) months voyaging 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans ‘HMS Supply, one (1) of a large armed convoy of eleven (11) ships commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’, with a complement of 1500 souls (one-half convicted criminals) anchored in the entrance to Botany Bay, New Holland now Australia.

At 3 pm Governor Phillip first set foot on Australian soil. He was seeking fresh water….Later that afternoon, some of them [Aborigines] directed him to a stream nearby. Royal Australian Historical Society Minutes, cited Maria Nugent, Botany Bay, Where Histories Meet, 2005

1788 – 20 January, Botany Bay: Within thirty-six (36) hours the entire  fleet, was anchored off Bare Island in Botany Bay. See: Apollo 11 – Fly Me To The Moon

1788 – 21 January, Port Jackson: Phillip judged there was insufficient fresh water to support permanent settlement for such a large number. In one of three (3) small boats he led a team of officers and marines. Looking for ‘Port Jackson’ – marked as such by Captain James Cook in 1770 they examined country to the south naming Point Sutherland.

Retracing their route they rowed (9) miles (14 km) north of Botany Bay where they found the towering bluffs Captain Cook had described; ‘here’ Phillip wrote  ‘a Thousand Sail of the Line may ride in most perfect Security’.

Sydney Cove:  The following two (2) days were spent examining a myriad of bays and inlets. Phillip settled on a ‘snug’ cove with an abundance of fresh running water – the  Tank Stream – naming it after Home Secretary Lord Sydney.

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: ‘The boats returned on the evening of the 23d’ the First Fleet had found a home a vast harbour ‘[w]here..it was determined the evacuation of Botany Bay should commence the next morning’. Tench. ibid.

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: At first light two (2) ships hove into view. Although the wind was up and dense sea-mist made visibility difficult Phillip knew exactly who they were.

Three (3) years earlier, August 1785 hidden in shadow, Arthur Phillip had watched La Boussole and L’Astrolabe commanded by Captain Jean-Francois La Perouse make a difficult exit from Brest Harbour on a voyage projected to take three (3) years a voyage that was to include New Holland.

Denied permission to enter Botany Bay, under the threat of Sirius’ cannon, La Perouse took his ships back out to sea and out of sight. Not knowing where he had gone; ‘He [Phillip] ‘ordered a party to be sent to Point Sutherland to hoist English colours’. John Moore, First Fleet Marines, 1786-1792, Queensland University Press, 1967

1788 – 25 January, Sydney Cove: HMS Supply was made ready for sea and at first light on the 25th Phillip, fearing La Perouse may get there before him, made a dash for Sydney Cove. Supply sailed through the harbour’s towering headlands and finding no French ships cast  anchor just on nightfall. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half Head

1788 – 26 January: At first light Phillip the Union Jack was raised ; ‘a firing party of marines formed u-p and fired a feu de joie, toasts were drunk to His Majesty King George 111, the royal family, and success to the new colony’. Moore. ibid.

See:  Only men ? Aside from seagulls how many white birds were on the ground at Sydney Cove on the 26th January 1788 – None

Foul weather kept the English in and the French, who had sought safety at Sutherland, out of Botany Bay until the afternoon and despite the dangerous conditions ‘tragedy almost struck‘ all the English fleet reached Sydney Cove by 8 o’clock that night with just enough light to see ‘English Colours’ flying from a flagstaff.

‘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. This painted message was later replaced by a wooden notice erected on the island’. Bruce Mitchell, The Australian Story and Its Background, 1965.

The next ten (10) days were taken up with landing the marines, their wives (31 & 17 children). Male convicts who were set to work unloading Fishburn, Golden Grove and Borrowdale the fleet’s three (3) stores-ships and preparing a tent settlement.

1788 – 6 February: ‘The day the convict women [189 +14 children] disembarked they landed by rowing boats between 6 am and 6 pm’. Moore. ibid.

1788 – 7 February:  With what Tench described as; ‘all the pomp and circumstance of glorious war‘ Captain, now Governor Phillip, raising his voice to be heard above the crashing waves declared; ‘We have come today to take possession of this fifth great continental division of the earth on behalf of the British people’. Historical Records of Australia.

Local Aborigines now had every reason to be worried. They may have thought previously these strangely outfitted people would soon move on but watching silent and unseen, knowing what ceremony was all about, came the realisation they intended to stay.

‘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 New South Wales, Series 1, Vol. 1.

1788 – 13 March: The first reduction in the ration was made within weeks of arrival.

‘The commissary made a deduction of 12 lb [5.5] kg] per hundredweight [50.8kg] of beef and 8 lb [3.5kg] in the hundredweight of pork (i.e. 100 lb of beef must be cut into 28 pieces, and 104 lb of pork cut into 56 pieces)’. Historical Records. ibid.

Before leaving Portsmouth, even though Phillip anticipated the fleet would be resupplied within a matter of ‘months’, he requested the Navy’s Victualling Board make a substantial increase in the allocation of portable soup, initially a meagre ‘fifty [50 lb] pounds’.

‘As it is probably the ship’s [Sirius] company [160] will be on salt provisions for some months after they arrive on the coast of New South Wales, [I] will be glad of two hundred pounds of portable soup in addition to fifty pounds already supply’d. Letter to Sir Charles Middleton, 22 March 1787, Arthur Phillip

Portable soup: ‘From 1757 onwards; the British Navy issued a vital and innovative substance known as portable soup. Essentially it was a dried soup made from ‘all the offals of oxen killed in London for the use of the Navy’, mixed with salt and a few vegetables. Stephen R. Bown, Scurvy, Penguin, 2003

Governor Phillip had good reason to expect additional supplies for he had been assured; ‘A further number of convicts, which you may expect will shortly follow you from hence [England]’. Instructions to Arthur Phillip, London, 25th April 1787.

When no ships came it became clear survival would depend on appropriating fish and crustacean the local Aborigines’ primary source of protein.

During Sydney’s summer months fish was plentiful, HMS Sirius and Supply’s trawling nets were deployed daily, as much as ‘400 hundred weight of fish being taken up…sailors hauling the net at a cove close to the mouth of the harbour had some trouble with a party of natives’.

Weeks then months still no ships. Winter came and fish was scarce, two (2) populations – one indigenous one introduced – competed with increasing hostility for the same resource but without equity; trawling nets versus spear, hook and vine.

‘While the seine was hauling some of them [Aborigines] were present….No sooner were the fish out of the water than they began to lay hold of them as if they had a right to them, or that they were their own; upon which the officer of the boat, I think very properly, restrained them giving, however, to each of them a part.

They did not at first seem very well pleased with this mode of procedure, but on observing with what justice this fish was distributed they appeared content’. Dr John White, First Fleet Journal.

1788 – May: Most cattle purchased at Cape Town died on the long sixty-eight (68) day leg to Sydney. In May 1788 a bull and five (5) cows who came in Lady Penrhyn wandered off into the bush. The remaining cow, separated from the herd, went mad. She was shot and eaten.

1788 – WINTER

‘It has 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’. Marine Captain David Collins, First Fleet Journal

London had not reckoned on seasonal conditions in the southern hemisphere where, in autumn-winter months (March to August) fish leave Sydney waters to spawn.

1788 – 8 July:  ‘A party of natives came to the place where the Sirius’s boat had been to haul the seine, and having beaten the crew took from them by force a part of the fish they had caught’. White. ibid

The Navy Victualling Board’s initial allocation, a measly ‘fifty pounds [of ] a vital substance portable soup’ for HMS Sirius even less of smaller HMS Supply, together with Phillip’s belief, supplies would reach him within ‘some months’, is supporting evidence relief vessels were expected by mid-1788 at the very latest.

1788 – August: Still no ships – Phillip made contingency plans and ordered Captain John Hunter RN prepare HMS Sirius for a voyage to Africa. Her timbers, strained on her long voyage from England to Australia, were strengthened to withstand mountainous seas and gale force winds.

1788 – mid July, to England: By September 1788 the European population had reduced significantly. Approximately four hundred (400) merchant seamen, crew of eight (8) of (9) chartered vessels, sailed for home. However many merchant-men, weakened by starvation and scurvy, died on the return voyage. See: Asleep In The Deep – The Merchantmen of the First Fleet.

‘These people [Aborigines] last summer would neither eat shark nor stingray; but the scarcity of fish in the winter, I believe, obliges them to eat anything that affords the smallest nourishment…they certainly are not pleased with our remaining amongst them, as they see we deprive them of fish, which is almost their only support’. Dispatch Arthur Phillip to Lord Sydney, 28 September 1788.

1788 – September: Phillip reduced the weekly ration by one-third and activated his contingency plan.

1788 – 2 October, Cape Town: HMS Sirius, commanded by Captain John Hunter RN, sailed alone from Sydney to purchase food from the Dutch at the Cape of Good Hope. Hunter set a tough dangerous course that took Sirius far beyond any land mass deep into southern oceans with its myriad ‘Islands of Ice’ passing through Drake’s Passage.

To lighten the load and to the consternation of Captain Hunter and his crew Sirius was stripped of her guns. Re-mounted at Dawes Battery they were to play an important part in Australia’s early modern history. See: Boswell Goes Into Bat for the Botany  Bay Escapees

1788 – November, Sirius at sea: ‘Our people now began to grow Sick what for the want of Fresh Provisions and Thick foggy weather together seized them with Pains in the Breast & Bones & as soon as they kept their bed the Scurvy broke out’. Midshipman Newton Fowell, Sirius Letters 1786-1790 ed. Nancy Irvine, Fairfax Library, 2007

1788 – December, Sydney: If as Phillip feared, Sirius hit an iceberg or made it safely to Africa and the same hostile niggardly Dutch colonial administration that had delayed him at Cape Town might frustrate Captain Hunter. If Sirius did not survive the treacherous return passage the game would be up for the Englishmen marooned at Sydney Cove.

Phillip faced with such uncertainty ordered tiny Supply (170 tons) with Golden Grove the one (1) remaining chartered stores ship, ferry more people to Norfolk Island.

Earlier, in February 1788, Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN had established a small settlement there in order to stymie the French as they headed home to France.

 1789: AUTUMN

‘To every person in the settlement without distinction: 4 lbs flour, 2½ lbs salt pork and 1½ lbs of rice per week. We soon left off boiling the pork as it had become so old and dry that it shrunk ½ in its dimensions when so dressed’. Tench. ibid.

1789 – April, Sydney:  In April 1789 smallpox appeared among Sydney’s Aborigines killing 50% of their number. Starvation and disease go hand-in-hand. Everyone – English and Indigenous – were starving yet the smallpox virus was impossibly selective. There were no cows  therefore not even serendipitous cow-pox inoculation was possible. See: A Lethal Weapon – Smallpox: Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

‘A smallpox epidemic struck the Aboriginal population round Sydney. Inexplicable, 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

Joseph Jefferies was the one (1) exception he died of smallpox in May 1789. In August 1787 the young Native American adventurer from New York’s Staten Island signed as crew on HMS Supply when the ‘First Fleet’ re-provisioned at Rio De Janeiro. See: Joseph Jefferies From New York to Rio to Old Sydney Town – One – Then There was None.

1789 –  8 May: HMS Sirius did return from Africa bringing medicines and limited amounts of poor quality flour and some rice, most intended for the ‘king’s ships’ and what could be spared for the colony.

1790 – 1 January: ‘No communication whatever [has] passed with our native country since the 13th of May, 1787 We had now been two years in the country…in which long period no supplies, except what had been procured at the Cape of Good Hoe by the Sirius, had reached us. Tench. ibid.

Still no relief ships. The supplies from Africa were almost exhausted so the ration issue was further reduced. As the previous year 1789, grain crops shallow-rooted in Sydney’s sandy soil failed to mature, most of the sheep brought from Cape Town in 1787 were dead and the cattle had disappeared.

‘Famine besides was approaching with gigantic strides….We had now been two years in the country, and thirty-two 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.

1790 – March: ‘Famine’ Phillip knew the previous year – 1789 –  deaths from smallpox in the local Aboriginal population had shifted the balance in favour of European survival. He drew on that experience and halved his numbers. See: Smallpox – Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

1790 – 5 March, Norfolk Island: HMS Sirius, accompanied by HMS Supply, sailed for Norfolk Island with 50% of Sydney’s European population and six (6) months supply of flour and rice.

1790 – 19 March, Norfolk Island: HMS Sirius successfully landed most of her human cargo before running aground on a submerged reef. In ‘pounding surf’ she broke up over time. Most supplies and all personnel were retrieved before the stricken ship sank below the waves.

The ‘Sirius’ sinking was a disaster. Phillip planned Sirius was to sail onto China for help, while Supply would return to Sydney and continue trawling.

This had been always been a risky plan. Without the Sirius crew, one hundred and sixty (160) Royal Naval personnel, Phillip would be defenceless in the face of starving prisoners and a hungry, demoralised marine garrison commanded by Marine Major Robert Ross whose behaviour bordered on open rebellion. See: Take Two – Rules of Engagement

‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross. Of all Phillip’s problem, 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. ibid.

Governor Phillip partly remedied that situation by appointing Major Ross Lieutenant Governor of Norfolk Island. He ordered Lieutenant Phillip King RN, a trusted long-time friend who in 1788 had established the island settlement, return to Sydney to act as confidant.

With the Sirius crew stranded on the island along with the evacuees ‘we are now on this little island 506 souls’. Besides fish, the settlement’s main source of protein were mutton birds, their eggs and chicks. Adult birds were bludgeoned to death and their oil harvested for fuel. Major Ross tried but failed to limit the numbers slaughtered.

‘Ross initially proposed that everyone could take three [3] birds a day; ‘but when the weekly ration of meat was reduced to one and one-half [1½] pounds, he proposed allowing everyone to ‘bring in as many as they thought proper…the resulting slaughter and nightly havoc was beyond Description [Marine Lieutenant Ralph] Clark recorded that the number of birds killed jumped from between 600 and 800 a day to between 2000 and 3000. Clark, Cited in Tim Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Press, 2001

Without the mutton bird it is doubtful these ‘First Fleet’ hunters and gatherers could have survived long after the departure of HMS Supply.

1790 – 5 April, Sydney: HMS Supply returned from Norfolk Island with devastating news – HMS Sirius was lost and with her all hope of a China rescue. At Sydney the food supply was critical.

1790 – April, Sydney: ‘The pease was all expended…two pounds of pork, when boiled, from the length of time it had been in store, shrunk away to nothing; and when divided among seven people for the day’s sustenance, barely afforded three or four morsels to each’. Marine Captain David Collins,  First Fleet Journal.

Further reductions were made;‘salted pork could last only until 2 July, flour – 20 August, the rice and dried pease (dahl) until 1 October 1790’. Collins. ibid.

Phillip called a Governor-in-Council meeting. There was nothing for it but to send the tiny Supply (170) tons to Batavia, modern day Jakarta. There her captain, Lieutenant Ball RN, was to buy four hundred (400) tons of food and medicines and charter a Dutch ship (Waaksamheyd) to bring them to Sydney.

HMS Supply was quite unsuitable for such a task. The unspoken fear among those stranded at Sydney since January 1788 was, she would never make it to Batavia, let alone return quickly with as much food as she could carry.

1790 – 16 April, to Batavia: In mid April Lieutenant Ball sailed HMS Supply  out through The Heads into the open sea and set course for Jakarta.

The spoken fear for over one thousand (1000) Robinson Cruscos, men, women and children trapped at the end of the earth was just as scary, no ships no trawling, no fish – no ships and no chance of escape.

Despite the evacuation of 50% of the English population to Norfolk Island the ration issue was barely sufficient to sustain life. What remained of the salted meats brought from England contained little nutrient and no vitamins.

In this desperate atmosphere the systematic plunder of Aboriginal resources ramped up. Day and night teams of fishermen went out in small boats. Organised groups of hunters with guns and greyhounds roamed the bush to hunt and scavenge the Aborigines’ food.

1790 – June

1790, – 3 June: On the 3rd of June 1790 in the teeth of an east-coast low weather system Lady Juliana one (1) of four (4) vessels comprising a second fleet –‘Britain’s Grim Armada – anchored in Sydney Cove with two hundred and twenty-six (226) relatively healthy ‘useless’ women prisoners.

Apart from a small number of sheep saved from the wreck of Australia’s Titanic – HMS Guardian, Lady Juliana brought little food for the settlement. See: HMS Guardian – Australia’s Titanic

Bad weather delayed Neptune, Scarborough and Suprize, the fleet’s 2nd division ships, did not arrive until the end of June. The voyage had been a man-made disaster. Of one thousand (1,000) male and seventy-eight (78 female) convicts embarked at Plymouth 25% – two hundred and seventy-six (276) men died on these three (3) shameful ships. See: A Tale of Two Fleets

Greedy masters not only withheld prisoners’ full food ration they allowed them to chained and locked below decks during the voyage and condoned the behaviour of their brutal military guards – first contingent of infantry – the New South Wales Corps – raised to replace the ‘troubled’ marines of the Sydney Garrison.

Approximately 15% of those convicts landed alive died within a month or so of arriving. Many survivors never regained their physical, mental and moral health. The Second Fleet placed great strain on Governor Phillip’s extremely limited resources.

1790 – June: A stores-ship Justinian had arrived off Sydney two (2) weeks earlier (2nd June) but wild storms forced Benjamin Maitland her master take her far out to sea. Maitland sailed one hundred (100) nautical miles north of Sydney to seek shelter at Black Head near the entrance to Port Stephens.

1790 – 1 July: Justinian sailed into Port Jackson bringing the first supplies from England and averted complete disaster for the First Fleeters.

Tragically if the Eora Peoples thought the Englishmen who had descended on their resources like a plague of locusts would, in the name of justice and equity, share Justinian’s bounty they were sadly mistaken; what was given was given grudgingly.


‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross’. Moore. ibid.

1790 June, Sydney Cove: That statement held true until the arrival in Suprize of Lieutenant John Macarthur a ruthless junior officer of the New South Wales Corps. It was John ‘MacMafia’ Macarthur whose unbridled ambition changed the fate of Australia’s First Peoples. .See: Machiavellian Macarthur



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