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

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: The ‘First Fleet’ an armed squadron of eleven (11) ships commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN sailed from England to invade the island continent of New Holland.

Of its overwhelmingly male complement, 1500 souls, seven hundred and fifty (750) were convicted criminals. The five hundred and eighty male (580) male convicts ‘fed as troops serving in the West Indies’ were available for combat. See: April Fools Day

”The cultural arrogance of the British was evident even before the First Fleet sailed…There was no recognition that the Aborigines had their own notion of right, that from their point of view they were entitled to defend themselves from invasion…Phillip was authorised to see to the defence of the colony’. Professor Bruce Kercher, An Unruly Child, A History of Law in Australian, Allen & Unwin, 1995.

1788 – 20 January, Botany Bay: The fleet, after eight months of voyaging across 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’Portsmouth to Spanish Teneriffe, to Portuguese Rio to Dutch Cape Town – to the island continent of New Holland whose peoples ‘were entitled to defend themselves’, anchored in Botany Bay on its south-eastern coast in mid January 1788.

On the lengthy last leg sixty-eight (68) days Cape Town to Botany Bay scurvy appeared throughout the fleet and there was an urgent need for fresh food so the warships HMS Sirius and HMS Supply immediately on coming to anchor deployed their trawling nets.

‘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’. Dr John White, Chief Medical Officer, Journal of A Voyage to New South Wales, Oxford University Press, 2011

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: Two (2) French ships La Boussole and L’Astrolabe under command of Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse arrived in the entrance to Botany Bay the sight of HMS Sirius with gun-ports open caused the French south to seek safety at Sutherland.

1788 – 26 January, Port Jackson: The English quit Botany Bay on 26 January 1788 and sailed nine (9) miles (14 km) north to Sydney Cove nestled deep within Port Jackson where earlier that day Phillip had raised the Union Jack and claimed victory over France. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head

Phillip’s mission accomplished letter to arch-intriguer Earl of Shelburne assured government; ‘here a Thousand sail of the Line may ride in the most perfect Security’.  Governor Phillip to William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, Marquis of Lansdowne, cited in Oxford Book of Australian Letters ed. Brenda Niall and John Thompson, 1998 

1788 – 7 February, Sydney: ‘The battalion was drawn up on parade…music playing…convicts assembled…His Majesty’s commission read…Nor have Government been backward in arming Mr. Phillip with a plenitude of power’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

Despite assurance supplies and logistical support would ‘follow shortly’ none came. The cast-a-ways of the ‘First Fleet’ were left to starve. See: Abandoned and Left To Starve at Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790


1790 – 1 January, Sydney: ‘No communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th of May, 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth. Our impatience of news from Europe strongly marked the commencement of the year.

From the intelligence of our friends and connections we had been entirely cut off …every morning from daylight until the sun sunk, did we sweep the horizon in the hope of seeing a sail’. Tench. ibid.

Britain’s abandonment of her people had the direst of consequences for Australia’s First Peoples. See: A Lethal Weapon – Smallpox Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

1790 – March, Sydney: March – with ‘winter at hand’ government stores held; ‘salt meat until 2d July; flour 20th August; rice, or pease in lieu, 1 October. The pork and rice were brought with us from England; the pork had been salted between three and four years, and every grain of rice was a moving body, from the inhabitants lodged with it’. Tench. ibid. 

1790 – March, Sydney: The previous year – 1789 – pressure had been taken off contested food resources when 50% of the local Aboriginal community contracted smallpox and died. See: Smallpox – Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

Phillip drew on that experience and evacuated 50% of the English population to Norfolk Island two (2) weeks sailing time away where fish were plentiful year round and richer soil more productive.

1790 – 6 March: HMS Sirius and HMS Supply departed Sydney for Norfolk Island with convicts, marines, flour and rice. Sirius was to sail onto China and arrange rescue.

1790 – 19 March, Norfolk Island: Sirius landed her evacuees safely but struck a submerged reef and sank. Her crew, together with one hundred and sixty (160) Royal Navy personnel, although taken off without loss of life, were now stranded on the island.

1790 – 6 April, Sydney: HMS Supply returned to Sydney with tragic news – Sirius was lost – there would be no China rescue.

‘A vigorous exertion to prolong existence, or the chance of relief, being all now left to us’. Tench.ibid.

A stark comparison between the ration issued on arrival in 1788 and that of 1790 highlights the level of panic that must have seized the little settlement.

1788 – January, Sydney: ‘As we have already noticed , no distinction was drawn between the convicts and their guards in respect of their rationing… the standard [ration] adopted was that of the troops serving in the West Indies.

7 pounds of bread or 7 pounds of flour, 7 pounds of [salted] beef or 4 pounds of [salted] pork, 3 pints of [dried] pease, 6 ounces of butter, 1 pound of flour or ½f pound of rice, ¾ ounce of cheese, ½ pint of vinegar’. Oldham. ibid.

1790 – April, Sydney: The weekly ration issue in April 1790 stood at; ‘to every child of more than eighteen months old and every grown person, two [2] pounds of pork, two pounds  and a half [2½] of flour, two [2] pounds of rice, or a quart of pease, per week, and to every child under eighteen [18] months old, the same quantity of rice and flour, and one [1] pound of pork’. Tench. ibid.

1790 – 17 April, Jakarta: In desperation Governor Phillip ordered Supply sail to Batavia, modern day Jakarta, to buy tons of food and charter a ship to bring them to Sydney. As Supply disappeared through the Heads Tench invoked Virgil’s Aeneid; ‘thou the support of all (t)his tottering house’. Tench. ibid.

1790 – 3 June, Sydney:  ‘Flag’s up London on her stern’.

Lady Juliana, a female transport with two hundred and twenty-six (226) prisoners, first of four (4) vessels of a second fleet, broke the silence and mind-bending uncertainty but Juliana brought little food. 

1790 – June:  At the end of June 1790 the second fleet’s death ships Neptune, Scarborough and Suprize arrived. Government had contracted these three (3) vessels to Camden, Calvert and King a firm of ‘Guinea’ slave traders working out of London.

Starved and treated with savage brutality of one thousand (1000) mainly male convicts embarked in London 25% died during the brutal passage with a further 15% dying within weeks of landing.

The aptly named ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ presented Governor Arthur Phillip RN with a myriad problems including the first contingent of the New Wales Infantry Corps raised specifically to replace marines of the ‘First Fleet’. Among them was Lieutenant John Macarthur a junior officer who all too soon would open up a second front and force an ailing Governor Phillip to dig deep in defence of ‘the colony’.


‘The attitude of the faction hostile to the Governor is reflected in the comment of an anonymous officer: “In our present alarming situation the Governor thought proper to summon us all to council, a step he never thought it expedient to take before; and I will  venture to affirm that he would not now have thought it worth his while to submit himself to the opinion of anyone but that dire necessity, and a want of sufficiency in himself pointed out to him the propriety of such a salutary measure”. Commentary, Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. 2 

See: Machiavellian Macarthur

‘A want of sufficiency in himself’?

Phillip had not fully recovered from his spearing by Willeramin an Aboriginal warrior on Manly Beach in September 1790.  See: Manly – Location, Location, Location

With HMS Supply at Jakarta and HMS Sirius at the bottom of the sea, her crew – 130 Royal Naval personnel -were  marooned on Norfolk Island he was without any naval support, completely isolated in the midst of an extremely hostile military garrison.

‘Phillip was authorised to see to the defence of the colony’. Kercher. ibid.

The ‘hostile faction’-  ‘certain officers’ led by Lieutenant Macarthur were circling the tents and Governor Phillip was forced to pull a rabbit out of the hat and he did.  See: A Tethered Goat – John M’Entire 10 December 1790 




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