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.

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 a complement of approximately 1500 souls (one-half convicted criminals), sailed from Portsmouth on a voyage of 13,000 miles (21,000 km) to Botany Bay, New Holland now Australia.

HMS Sirius and HMS Supply carried two hundred (200) Royal Naval personnel. Twenty (20) officials, two hundred and forty-five (245) marines guarding five hundred and eighty (580) male criminal combatants distributed throughout nine (9) vessels, three (3) of these chartered from the British East India Company. See: A Tale of Two Fleets

Merchant ships 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 the fleet’s nine (9) chartered vessels, would have numbered approximately four hundred and forty (440) men.

The mission of this large naval expedition, fully funded by government, was to invade, conqueror and claim British sovereignty over the entire eastern coast of New Holland.

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

Britain’s aim was to secure alternate trade and logistical sea-routes to and from India and China. Just as importantly, having so recently lost her North American colonies by way of defeat in the War of American Independence 1775- 1783, the Southern Oceans seas would also expose Spain’s fabled South American colonies to attack. See: Britain + France + America + India + Peru + New Holland = European Australia

1788 – January 18-20, Botany Bay: After a voyage of eight (8) months, within 36 hours between 18-20 January 1788, the ships found safe anchorage in Botany Bay. Phillip however assessed wide-open ‘Botany Bay offered no Security for large Ships’.

1788 – January 21-23, Port Jackson: The following day Phillip set off in one (1) of three (3) small row-boats to explore the surrounding county’s bays and inlets.

On the evening of the 23rd the scouting party returned to Botany Bay with good news. The ‘First Fleet’ had found a home. A vast harbour; ‘here’ Phillip wrote ‘a Thousand Sail of the Line can ride in the most Perfect safety’ with a snug defensible deep water – Sydney Cove – an added bonus.

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: The following morning at daybreak masts of two (2) French ships La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, commanded by Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse, appeared on the horizon.

Phillip recognised them instantly. In 1785 Phillip, then a spy in the pay of Britain’s Secret Service, he had watched as they made a difficult exit from Brest naval base on a wide-ranging voyage that was to include New Holland.

Sirius with gun-ports open refused La Perouse entry to Botany Bay. The French ships turned away sailed south and sought safety at Sutherland Point.

‘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

1788 – 25 January, Port Jackson:Alarmed’ why?  Although Phillip had stepped ashore at Sydney Cove three (3) days prior he had not raised ‘English Colours‘ nor had he left any personnel to ‘occupy’ it.

‘International law had developed a doctrine of discovery that dictated the rules by which European colonial powers could claim territory around the world’. The Honest History Book, Larissa Behrendt, Settlement or Invasion, ed. David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, NewSouth, 2017

Therefore, according to Euro-centric international law of ‘discovery’ ‘the finest harbour in the world’ was still up for grabs. For Phillip the closeness of the race for New Holland was mind-blowing and there was a lot at stake.

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

If La Perouse sailed north from Sutherland to Sydney Cove and planted ‘French Colours’ before Phillip returned ‘a state of war’ would exist between Britain and France. See: Australia – Britain by A Short Half-Head

‘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.

But Captain Phillip the naval commander had no stomach for blowing La Perouse and his men out of the water.  See: A Band of Brothers and Mortal Enemies

1788 – 25 January, Botany Bay: ‘until noon’ thick fog prevented Phillip’s departure from Botany Bay in Supply. The seas appear to have  been extremely rough as Moore, citing fleet journals, says ‘Supply reached Sydney Cove at 7 p.m.’

1788 – 26 January, Sydney: Phillip with a party marines rowed ashore at first light. From a ‘hastily erected flagstaff…raised the Union Jack’. See: ? Aside from seagulls how many white birds were on the ground at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 – None

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove:  During the rest of that day the remaining English ships made an albeit dangerous exit from Botany Bay. They sailed nine (9) miles (14 km) north plus a further five (5) miles deep into the harbour coming to anchor alongside Supply just on nightfall.

HMS Sirius was last to leave Botany Bay. Captain John Hunter stayed behind to guide La Boussole and L’Astrolabe navigate the bay’s cross-currents to a safe anchorage in Frenchmens Cove.

Now each year the cove’s sloping lawns, a picture-perfect picnic spot, hosts a memorial to gallant La Perouse and his men who sailed away in March 1788 and were never seen again.   

‘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.

1788 – 6 February, Sydney Cove: Throughout the day, beginning at 6 am, the ‘First Fleet’ women – two hundred and twenty-one (221) were rowed ashore from the ships that had been home for just on a year.

1788 – 7 February, Sydney Cove: ‘On that day all the officers of guard took post in the marine battalion…his Excellency Arthur Phillip Governor and Captain General’ claimed  British sovereignty over the of New Holland ‘from Cape York…to South Cape’. See: A Cracker Jack Opinion – No Sweat

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 they were under orders to disgorge their human cargo and sail for China without delay.

1788 – 6 May 1788: They departed Sydney Cove on 6 May 1788 and, 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.

1788 – 14 July, England: In mid-July Alexander, Friendship, Prince of Wales with the store-ship Borrowdale set sail on the return voyage to England. They parted company off Lord Howe Island.

Alexander and Friendship set course via Batavia for the Cape of Good Hope.

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

1788 – 15 August: Prince of Wales and Borrowdale broke contact in mid August 1788 each going separate ways.

Although Governor Phillip had been assured more convicts and provisions would ‘follow shortly’ none came. By  September 1788 a tipping point had been reached. A desperate Phillip ordered Captain Hunter prepare HMS Sirius for a lone voyage to Africa to buy supplies and medicines from the Dutch.

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

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

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

1789 – Brazil: Local sailors were recruited to augment depleted crews and both ships sailed for England early in 1789. Although it is known (7) Borrowdale seamen died the total mortality on these two (2) ships is unknown.

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

1789 – 23 March, London: The following day the first news from Botany Bay hit London’s newspapers arousing intense interest; the people could not get enough of it.

1789 – 26 March, Falmouth: Borrowdale arrived a few days later with duplicates of Governor Phillip’s dispatches. Alexander carried the originals.

What had become of Alexander and Friendship?  Their voyage was truly terrifying. Attacked by pirates bent on murder they managed to outrun them but the delay proved costly and, off the coast of  Borneo, they were caught by monsoons.

1788 – October, Borneo: 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. See: Evacuation – Saving Lieutenant William Collins

Four (4) days of utter terror and outstanding courage followed as Alexander’s crew, battling mountainous seas and unrelenting rain, managed to snatch survivors from Friendship’s deck. She was then spiked and left to sink.

It was nothing short of miraculous Alexander, manned by starving men, weakened by scurvy, did not founder during this extremely risky manoeuvre.

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

1789 – 1 January, Cape Town:  HMS Sirius anchored in Table Bay, Cape Town, on the first day of January 1789.

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

Shortland was much distressed to learn that a relief ship, considered well overdue when he left Sydney in July 1788, had still 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.

Captain Jean-Francois La Perouse had, prior to leaving Botany Bay (March 1788) for the return to France, entrusted Governor Phillip with reports and ‘a box of letters’ relating what proved to be the last known facts of the ill-fated French expedition.

1789 – 3 June, London: Phillip in turn entrusted these documents to Lieutenant Shortland. On 3rd of June 1789 Shortland delivered to the Admiralty Governor Phillip’s despatches, an ‘anonymous’ letter of great importance and La Perouse’s papers.

1789 – 26 June, Paris: Despite tensions and difficulties existing between Britain and France it is known the ‘box of letters’ was faithfully delivered. A report of the ‘tragic events…[appeared] in the Journal de Paris on 26 June 1789’.

Lieutenant Shortland, Royal Naval Agent for the ‘First Fleet’, made it crystal clear to the Admiralty and, to Lord Sydney at the Home Office that, the Englishmen he had sent 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from England to Botany Bay in May 1787, were starving and faced annihilation.

If, and it was a big if, HMS Sirius did not survive her extremely risky passage to and from Africa, those marooned at Sydney since January 1788 without logistical support might all, even now, be dead.

1789 – May, London: Lord Sydney the Home Secretary, because of the vast gender disparity on the ‘First Fleet’, gave priority to sending the female convicts Phillip requested. He issued a contract to William Richards, sole civilian contractor for the ‘First Fleet’, to fit-out and provision the Lady Juliana. See: Brokeback Mountain

Dubbed ‘The Brothel ShipLady Juliana was first of five (5) second fleet vessels. 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 a year-long voyage.

1789 – mid June, Whitehall: It was unfortunate at this critical time Lord Sydney resigned and William Wyndham Grenville, a young cousin of Prime Minister William Pitt, became Home Secretary. Grenville responded to Shortland’s pleadings by sending another 1300 prisoners (1000 men – 300 women).

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

‘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

Troops, first contingent of 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 in order to contain mutiny and prevent escape. See: The Switch 1790 

1790 January, Portsmouth:  Neptune, Suprize and Scarborough with mainly male criminals and first of twenty-five (25) regiments of British infantry troops, who served on Australian soil between 1790 and 1870, left England in the first week of January 1790. See: Britain’s Grim Armada: The Dead and the Living Dead

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

EPILOGUE

‘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

This writer believes Home Secretary, later Prime Minister Grenville’s zeal for cost-cutting, was an added factor in the future fate of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples.

By 1838, a mere fifty (50) years post 1788 a Parliamentary Select Committee found; ‘On the subject of the Aborigines of New Holland…It is impossible to contemplate the condition or the prospects of that unfortunate race without the deepest commiseration’. Lord John Russell to Sir George Gipps, 21 December 1838, Historical Records of Australia, Series  1. Vol XX

ADDENDUM

1789 – May, Sydney Cove: HMS Sirius did return safely from Africa. She sailed through Sydney Heads on 8th May 1789 bringing a limited amount of salted meats and 127,000 lbs. of poor quality flour. All supplies were intended for the king’s ships and what could be spared for the colony.

Sirius returned to a very different Sydney from the one she had left on the 2nd of October 1788.

1789 – 8 May, Sydney Cove: ‘We did not see a canoe or a native the whole way coming up the harbour….smallpox had made dreadful havoc among them’. Lieutenant William Bradley RN, A Voyage to New South Wales, facsimile edition, Ure Smith, 1969  See: A Lethal Weapon: Smallpox Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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