ASLEEP IN THE DEEP – MERCHANT MEN OF THE FIRST FLEET

‘By Alexander, under care of Lieutenant Shortland, agent for the transports, I have sent dispatches to the Right Honourable the Lord Sydney and yourself, with a rough survey of Port Jackson….Lieutenant Shortland is likewise charged with a box of letters from Monsieur La Perouse for the French Ambassador’. Governor Phillip to Under-Secretary Nepean, July 10th 1788.Frank Murcott Bladen, Historical Records of New South Wales

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‘Our wealth and power in India is their great and constant object of jealously; and they [the French] will never miss an opportunity of attempting to wrest it out of our hands’. Sir James Harris [1784], cited Michael Pembroke, Arthur Phillip Sailor Mercenary Spy Governor. Hardie Grant Books, Sydney 2013

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‘When leaving Botany Bay, two French ships were seen in offing…there would seem to be “some justification for the saying that England won Australia by six days”. Edward Jenks, cited H.E. Egerton, A Short History of British Colonial History, Methuen, London 1928

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‘When Phillip planted the flag at Sydney Cove in 1788 he was not claiming the land for the British to take it away from the Aboriginal people but to make sure the French did not make the claim first’. The Honest History Book, Larissa Behrendt, Settlement or Invasion, ed. David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, NewSouth, 2017

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‘The British had long sought to penetrate Spain’s jealously  guarded South American trade’. Nigel Rigby, Peter van der Merwe, Glyn Williams – Pacific Explorations, Voyages of Discovery from Captain Cook’s Endeavour to the Beagle, Bloomsbury, Adlard Coles, London, 2018

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‘The final battles of the American Revolution were fought not in North America but in India, another theater where Britain and France were vying for political dominance. In both the United States and India as well as throughout the developing world legacies of that distant war persists’. Essays on The American Revolution – A World War, David K. Allison, Larrie D. Ferreiro, Smithsonian Publishing

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‘Legacies of that distant [American Revolutionary] war persist’. op.cit

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth England: A flotilla of eleven (11) ships commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ with an overwhelmingly male complement of approximately 1500 souls sailed from Portsmouth on a voyage of 15,000 miles (23,000 km) to invade the island continent of New Holland now Australia.

HMS Sirius and HMS Supply carried two hundred (200) Royal Naval personnel, twenty (20) officials and a male stowaway.

Two hundred and forty-five (245) marines guarding five hundred and eighty (580) male criminals ‘rationed as troops serving in the West Indies’ were distributed throughout the fleet’s nine (9) merchant vessels, three (3 )charted from the British East India Company. See: A Tale of Two Fleets

Merchant ships at that time were crewed to a standard formula related to tonnage; eight (8) seamen and one (1) boy per one hundred (100) ton.

With specialist warrant officers, the number of crewmen on Lady Penrhyn, Alexander, Charlotte, Scarborough, Friendship, Prince of Wales and supply ships Borrodale, Fishburn, Golden Grove  would have numbered approximately four hundred and forty (440) men.

‘New Holland is a blind, then, when we want to add to the military strength of India’. Anon. to Evan Nepean, Bladen, Historical Records of New South Wales

Fully funded by government the aim of this large expeditionary force was to claim British sovereignty over the entire eastern coast of New Holland and establish secure alternate strategic, logistical and trade sea-routes to and from India and Asia.

‘The short term consequences [loss of America] were less dramatic than many expected. Though Britain’s eclipse as a world power was confidently predicted her economic recovery was swift ad the colonial development of Australia, New Zealand, India and part of Africa went some way to compensating for the loss of the first British Empire’. J.A Cannon, Emeritus Professor of Modern History, University of Newcastle upon Tyne ed. Oxford Companion to British History

Just as importantly a military presence and naval base in the Southern Oceans would expose Spain’s fabulously rich South American Pacific Coast colonies to direct land and sea attack. Proximity not Distance Drove the Invasion of New Holland. 

There were plans to use the corps in expeditions against Panama, Peru and the Phillippines, but nothing eventuated and the corps’ first experience of war came in January 1793 on the Hawkesbury River north west of Sydney’, Professor Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, The British Amy in Australia 1788-1870, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1986

THE BACK STORY

Commodore George Anson’s voyage of ‘triumph and tragedy’ is a tale that holds a ‘a unique and terrible place in British maritime history’. Glyn Williams, The Prize of All the Oceans, The Triumph and Tragedy of Anson’s Voyage Round the World, Harper Collins Publishers, 2000

Similarly the First Fleet was a voyage of ‘triumph and tragedy’. Triumph for Britain and ‘tragedy’ that holds ‘a unique and terrible place’ in the history of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples.

‘Few personal  documents relation to [Arthur] Phillip survive, his low personal file and the secret work in which he was sometimes involved help to make him one of the least-known founders of any modern state in his case – Australia’ Pacific Explorations, Voyages f Discovery  from Captain Cook’s Endeavour to the Beagle, Bloomsbury, Adlard Coles, London, 2018

Why then is Captain Governor Arthur Philip RN ‘one of the least known founders of any modern state’?

Botany Bay – 1788,  18-20 January:  The fleet after a voyage of eight (8) months found safe anchorage in Botany Bay. Careful planning had kept mortality, reckoned at 2%, to a minimum.

This was in stark contrast to Anson’s ‘tragedy’. Only one (1) of his eight (8) ship squadron, the flagship HMS Centurion, returned to England with a mere one hundred and forty-five (145) survivors of the original 1300 souls embarked.

Few had died in battle most succumbed to scurvy.

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Phillip assessed ‘Botany Bay offered no Security for large Ships’ and a more suitable site was sought. Next day taking Captain Cook’s 1770 charts he set out with surveyors in three (3) small row-boats to find Cook’s ‘Port Jackson’.

Port Jackson – 21 January: Later that day their tiny craft rowed through its towering sandstone bluffs into a vast harbour. ‘ Here’ Phillip  wrote ‘a Thousand Sail of the Line can ride in the most Perfect safety’.

Sydney Cove – 22 January:  From a myriad of bays and inlets Phillip chose a snug deep-water cove with a stream of  fresh running water. He named it after Lord Sydney the then Home Secretary

Botany Bay – 23 January:  By sunset on 23rd the scouting party was backin Botany Bay with good news. The ‘First Fleet’ had found a home and orders issued to ‘evacuate‘ on the morrow.

24 January – ‘Consternation’: At daybreak masts of two (2) ships appeared  on the horizon.  Phillip instantly recognised La Boussole commanded by Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse with L’Astrolabe  astern.

Earlier (August 1785)  Phillip, then a spy in the pay of Britain’s Secret Service,  had watched as they made a difficult exit from Brest naval base to embark on a wide-ranging voyage that was to include New Holland.

Now (1788) Sirius with gun-ports open refused La Perouse entry to Botany Bay. The French ships turned away and sailed out of sight.

‘Phillip was alarmed…[he] ordered a party to be sent to Port Sutherland to hoist English colours. He also stipulated that the move to Port Jackson be kept secret, and that no one was to go on board the French ships’. John Moore, First Fleet Marines 1786-1792, Queensland University Press, 1988

25 January:  Phillip was alarmed’. Three (3) days prior he stepped ashore at Sydney Cove but had not raised ‘English Colours‘ nor left personnel to ‘occupy’ it.

‘When Phillip planted the flag at Sydney Cove in 1788 he was not claiming the land for the British to take it away from the Aboriginal people but to make sure the French did not make the claim first’. Behrendt. op.cit.

For Phillip, aware of what was at stake for ‘king and country’, the closeness of the race for New Holland was mind- blowing. See: Australia – Britain by A Short Half-Head

‘International law had developed a doctrine of discovery that dictated the rules by which European colonial powers could claim territory around the world’.  Behrendt. op.cit.

Thereforethe finest harbour in the world’,  according to Euro-centric international law of ‘discovery’, was still up for grabs.

If La Perouse sailed north and, planted ‘French Colours’ before Phillip returned there, ‘a state of war’ would exist between Britain and France.

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Botany Bay – 25 January: Captain Phillip had no stomach for blowing La Perouse and his men out of the water. He boarded HMS Supply but dense fog held up departure until noon. John Moore, citing fleet journals,says ‘Supply reached Sydney Cove at 7 p.m.’ 

Sydney Cove: 26 January: At first light a party of officers and marines rowed ashore. From ‘a hastily erected flagstaff’  Phillip raised the ‘Union Jack of Queen Anne’.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove:  During the day all remaining English ships made an albeit dangerous exit from Botany Bay. Sailing nine (9) miles (14 km) north of Botany Bay  by nightfall they were anchored alongside Supply.

HMS Sirius was last to leave. Captain John Hunter RN stayed to guide La Boussole and L’Astrolabe navigate the bay’s dangerous cross-currents. La Perouse dropped anchor in what we now know as Frenchmen’s Cove.

‘Owing to the multiplicity of pressing business necessary to be performed immediately after landing, it was found impossible to read the public commissions and take possession of the colony in form, until the 7th of February’. Tench. ibid.

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La Perouse was the most ‘pressing business’. Governor Phillip called on Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN a trusted fiend and ally who, in 1783, served under him in HMS Europa on a ‘secret’ mission to attack Spanish Monte Video.See: Hush Christopher Robin

King, along with Marine Lieutenant William Dawes, were to make their way over to Botany Bay. King’s task  to gauge what La Perouse intended after leaving Sydney.

Dawes, the fleet’s scientific officer, would check the accuracy of K-1 the marine chronometer Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne of Greenwich Observatory had supplied the expedition.

‘With his marine clocks John Harrison tested the waters of space-time [he] wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket-watch’.  Dava Sobel, Longitude The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Fourth Estate, London 1996

K-1 was a faithful replica of John Harrison’s H-4  the revolutionary time-keeper that, in 1759, had solved the problem of calculating longitude when ships were at sea beyond sight of land.See Lotto and Longitude

Without delay the two (2) set off overland to Botany Bay. That night they dined on La Boussole  and no doubt talked till dawn. Gidley King was able to assure La Perouse Governor Phillip would honour his request  to allow detailed accounts of the highs and lows of the Frenchmen’s  long voyage, together with a box of private letters,be sent to France with returning transports.  See: A Band of Brothers and Mortal Enemies.

King learned La Perouse had, before moving onto Botany Bay, made two (2) unsuccessful attempts to land on an uninhabited island. Captain Cook, on his second voyage in 1774, had charted and named it Norfolk Island.

Rowed back next day to Sydney Phillip agreed with King’s assessment. Without doubt La Perouse intended to land and occupy Norfolk Island and arrangements to occupy the island began immediately.

‘As soon as circumstances will permit of it, to send a small establishment thither to secure the same to us, and prevent it being occupied by the subjects of any other European power’. Governor Phillip cited Jack Egan, Buried Alive Sydney 1788-1792, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1999

On the 30th of January 1788 Phillip formally commissioned Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN Lieutenant-Governor of Norfolk Island.

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 6 February, Sydney Cove: Throughout the day, beginning at 6 am, the ‘First Fleet’ women, prisoners and marine wives – two hundred and twenty-one (222) in all – along with their children, twenty-two (22) born on the passage, were rowed ashore from ships that had been home for just on a year. See: ? Aside from seagulls how many white birds were on the ground at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 – None

7 February, Sydney Cove: ‘On that day all the officers of the guard took post in the marine battalion…his Excellency Arthur Phillip Governor and Captain General’ proclaimed, without consent or treaty, British sovereignty over the entire eastern coast of the island continent of New Holland ‘from Cape York…to South Cape’. See: A Cracker Jack Opinion – No Sweat

14 February, Norfolk IslandHMS Supply at ‘6 pm’  a week later laden with six (6) months of supplies, tools,seed, plants, pigs, poultry, sheep, approximately twenty-nine (29) people including two (2) physicians, nine (9) male and six (6) female convicts, marines,sailors and a couple of volunteers departed for Norfolk Island.

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The fate of the fleet’s merchant seamen differed greatly. Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn and Scarborough, had been chartered from the British East India Company.

Contracted to ship tea from China to England their masters were under orders to disgorge their human cargo and sail for China without delay.

6 May: They departed Sydney Cove on 6 May 1788. Although scurvy and dysentery plagued all ‘First Fleet’ merchant crews, sailors on Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn and Scarborough, fared better than those on the other transport and supply ships.

14 July: In mid-July Alexander, Friendship, Prince of Wales with the store-ship Borrowdale set sail for England.

16 July, Lord Howe Island: Two (2) days later off Lord Howe Island they parted company. Alexander and Friendship set course for the Cape of Good Hope via Batavia.

Prince of Wales and Borrowdale, fearing monsoons might overtake them; ‘thought it advisable to bear down for Rio’.

15 August: These two (2) broke contact in mid August 1788. Both made for Rio but took separate pathways.

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September: Although Governor Phillip had been assured more convicts and provisions would ‘follow shortly’ but none arrived. By  September 1788 a tipping point had been reached.

Now desperate Phillip ordered Captain Hunter prepare HMS Sirius for a lone voyage to Africa to buy supplies and medicines from the Dutch.

 2 October, Africa:  Sirius, Captain John Hunter RN, with First Lieutenant William Bradley RN second-in-command, departed Sydney at the beginning of October 1788 on a perilous voyage  through ‘islands of ice’ around tempestuous Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Town.

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14 October, Rio:  Meantime by mid October 1788 Prince of Wales reached Brazil. By then her captain was dead and the crew too weak to bring her into port. The harbour-master was signalled for; ‘men to carry us to the Anchoring Ground’.

18 November, Brazil: A month later – 18 November 1788 – Borrowdale was standing-to off Rio, she also needed assistance to come to anchor.

1789

Brazil: Local sailors were recruited to augment depleted crews.  Early in 1789 both ships sailed for England. Although it is known (7) Borrowdale seamen died the total mortality on these two (2) ships is not known.

1789 – England March 22:  Prince of Wales docked at Falmouth, Cornwell on 22 March 1789.

23 March, London: The following day the first news from Botany Bay hit London’s newspapers arousing intense interest. Family, lovers, friends, neighbours – the people could not get enough of Botany Bay.

26 March, Falmouth: Borrowdale arrived a few days later with duplicates of Governor Phillip’s dispatches.

Alexander carried the originals.

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What of Alexander and Friendship?  Their voyage was truly terrifying. See: Evacuation – Saving Lieutenant William Collins

October 1788  Borneo: Attacked by pirates bent on murder they managed to outrun them. The delay proved costly. Off the coast of  Borneo, they were caught by monsoons.

Lashed by torrential rain-storms the two (2) ships were tossed about by gale force winds. Lieutenant Shortland fearing Friendship could not survive such a battering, ordered her crew abandon ship.

Four (4) days of utter terror and outstanding courage followed. Alexander’s crew weak from scurvy battled mountainous seas and unrelenting rain, yet managed to snatch survivors from Friendship’s deck.

It was nothing short of miraculous Alexander manned by starving men did not founder during this extremely risky manoeuvre. Friendship was spiked and left to sink.

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Meantime Sirius was braving the freezing southern oceans. Captain Hunter pushed both ship and crew to the limit. They dodged ‘islands of ice’ clung to life and limb in tumultuous ‘Drake Passage’ and, on Christmas Day in even worse weather, worked their way round Cape Horn.

1789 – 1 January, Cape Town:  HMS Sirius anchored at Robbin Island off Table Bay on the first day of January 1789.

1789 – mid January, Table Bay: Alexander limped into Cape Town in mid January 1789. Lieutenant Shortland was astounded to find Sirius lying at anchor.

He was much distressed to learn that, relief ships considered well overdue when he left Sydney in July 1788, still had not arrived when Sirius sailed at the beginning of October 1788. See: Titanic:  Australia’s Titanic – HMS Guardian – The Missing Link

1789 – 25 May, England:  Alexander, after extensive repairs, continued on her way and reached England towards the end of May 1789. It is believed only four (4) of the original merchant crew survived.

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‘Lieutenant Shortland is likewise charged with a box of letters from Monsieur La Perouse for the French Ambassador’.

******La Boussole and L’ Astrolabe sailed for home on the 10th of March 1788 and were never seen again. Each year a their fleeting presence is commemorated at the Sydney suburb of La Perouse.

Borrowdale was entrusted with duplicates of Phillip’s dispatches Alexander carried the originals and La Perouse’s documents.

London – 3 June 1789: . On 3rd of June 1789 Lieutenant Shortland delivered both to the Admiralty. Shortland had been Royal Navy’s Agent for the ‘First Fleet’ so Captain Hunter had no qualms entrusting him with ‘secret’ intelligence. He was able to convince the Admiralty of the utmost importance of Port Jackson to Britain.

‘The voyage to and from Chilli and Peru would be Easy and Expeditious for a sailing from Port Jackson…the proximity of our Colony in that Part of the World to the Spanish settlement and the coast of Chile and Peru…makes it an important Post, should it ever be necessary to carry…war into those seas’.  John Hunter Journal, Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, 1793 Bibliobaazar ed. 2008

Paris – 26 June 1789: Despite tensions and difficulties existing between Britain and France a report of the ‘tragic events…[appeared] in the Journal de Paris on 26 June 1789’.

He also reported to Lord Sydney at the Home Office. The English men, women and children  he had sent 15,000 miles (23,000 km) to Botany Bay faced starvation and annihilation.

If HMS Sirius did not survive her extremely risky return-passage from Africa, those marooned at Sydney since January 1788, without any logistical support, might all even now be dead.

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1789 – May, London: Because of the First Fleet’s extraordinary gender imbalance, Home Secretary Sydney gave priority to Phillip’s request for more female convicts. See: Brokeback Mountain

He issued a contract to William Richards, sole civilian contractor for the ‘First Fleet’, to fit-out and provision a female transport the Lady Juliana.

Dubbed ‘The Brothel Ship‘ with two hundred and twenty-six (226) female prisoners and six (6) children Juliana sailed from Plymouth at the end of July 1789 on what turned out to be an extended year-long voyage.

1789 – mid June, Whitehall: Lord Sydney resigned in June 1789. William Wyndham Grenville, a young cousin of Prime Minister William Pitt, succeeded as Home Secretary and issued expressions of interest for the transportation of another 1300, predominately mainly male convicts.

He accepted the lowest tender and awarded contracts for three (3) ships Neptune, Suprize and Scarborough to Camden, Calvert and King – London’s largest firm of slaver-traders working the infamous Atlantic Afro-American slave trade.

Of its  seventy-eight (78) women, eleven (11) died on the passage. Starved and treated with great brutality one-quarter (25%) of male convicts embarked died during the voyage.

Many survivors went onto to brutalise the ‘other’.  Grenville’s zeal for cost-cutting was an added factor in determining the future fate of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples. See: A Tale of Two Fleets

London Gazette Extract 1789

1790 – England, January 4:The fleet departed England in the first week of January 1790. Infantry, one hundred and fifteen (115) officers and men of the New South Wales Corps, raised specifically to relieve the marines of 1788, were tasked with riding shot-gun to contain mutiny and prevent escape.

1790 – 12 January: Justinian a lone store-ship, contingent to but not part of the second fleet, sailed from Falmouth, Cornwell  on 12 January 1790.

1790 – Sydney, June:  By the end of June 1790 Neptune, Suprize and Scarborough with mainly male criminals and first of twenty-five (25) regiments of British infantry who served on Australian soil between 1790 and 1870,reached Sydney.. See: Britain’s Grim Armada: The Dead and the Living Dead

‘Captain Arthur Phillip founded a penal colony with instructions from the [British] crown to protect the lives and livelihoods of Aboriginal people and forge friendly relations with the natives…within a matter of years violence had broken out on both sides and Phillip would now instruct raiding parties to bring back the severed heads of warriors’. Stan Grant, Talking to My Country, Text Publishing, 2017

EPILOGUE

‘The great change came in the arrival with the Second Fleet of the New South Wales Corps…[among them] Lieutenant John Macarthur – a central future in the military ‘mafia’ which quickly established itself as Australia’s first governing and property elite’. Nigel Rigby, Peter van der Merwe, Glyn Williams – Pacific Explorations, Voyages of Discovery from Captain Cook’s Endeavour to the Beagle, Bloomsbury, Adlard Coles, London, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

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