‘What is the most arresting thing in all these recordings is the way in which they perceive Aboriginal Australians on not exactly equal terms, but on terms of people who have a right to the occupancy of this land’. Dr Nicholas Brown, The Australian National University and National Museum of Australia, on inclusion of some ‘First Fleet’ Journals onto UNESCO’s World Heritage List. ABC AM Programme, 15 October 2009

1790 – June, Sydney: What went so wrong? Lieutenant John Macarthur the teetotaller, who put ‘Rum’ into the New South Wales Corps, arrived in Sydney with a second fleet in June 1790.

‘Macarthur’s haughty quarrelsome nature which manifested itself on the voyage was to provoke much more conflict after his arrival in New South Wales in June 1790’. Michael Flynn, The Second Fleet, Britain’s Grim Armada of 1790, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1993

‘Four companies of Marines landed with the first Europeans [1788] to settle in Australia. Twenty-five regiments of British infantry served in the colonies between 1790 and 1870.

They fought in one of the most prolonged frontier wars in the history of the British empire, and for the first half of their stay were probably more frequently in action than the garrison of any other colony besides that of southern Africa’. Dr Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, The British Army In Australia 1788 to 1870, Kangaroo Press, 1986

Lieutenant Macarthur came with the first contingent of ‘British infantry’ raised specifically to replace the; ‘four companies of Marines’ who left England in May 1787 on the ‘First Fleet’ – reaching Sydney Cove in January 1788 and who by June 1790 were overdue for repatriation.

Major Francis Grose Commander their commander did not accompany his men remaining in London to recruit sufficient numbers to satisfy establishment requirements many were ‘derelicts and delinquents’ he sourced from the Savoy military prison.

Lieutenant Macarthur ruthless, driven by over-arching personal ambition, moved swiftly to fill the power vacuum left by Grose’s absence.


‘International law had developed a doctrine of discovery that dictated the rules by which European colonial powers could claim territory around the world. Raising the flag was one of the acts recognised as an assertion of a prior claim against other colonial powers eyeing off the same land. (Jean-Francois, de Galaup, Comte de La Perouse, was hanging around [at Botany Bay] with two ships)’. Larissa Behrendt, The Honest History Book, Ed. David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, New South Publishing, 2017

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: Captain Arthur Phillip RN, landed at Sydney Cove at first light on 26 January 1788, raised the Union Jack thereby declaring England, in the race for new territory – New Holland, had beaten arch-enemy France to the punch. See: Australia – Britain by a Short Half-Head: Captain Arthur Phillip & Phillip Jean Francoise La Perouse

1788 – 7 February: ‘Without consent’ of its First Peoples, Governor Arthur Phillip, the first of four (4) ‘autocratic uniformed naval governors’, claimed British sovereignty over New Holland, now Australia.

‘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 Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 92, 2006

‘Continuous disputation‘ was played out initially between Governor Phillip and Marine Major Robert Ross commander of the Sydney Garrison. Ross’ men numbered two hundred and forty-five (245) marines, officers and men of the military arm of His Majesty’s navy.

‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross. Of all Phillip’s problems, 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 pursed against him’. John Moore, The First Marines 1786-1792, Queensland University Press, 1987

1790 – March, Norfolk Island: Governor Phillip rid himself of Major Ross in March 1790 evacuating him to Norfolk Island with 50% of the European population and appointing him Lieutenant-Governor of outpost. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve, Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790 

January 1790

1790 – January, Sydney: ‘We had now been two years in the country, and thirty-two months from England…no supplies…entirely cut off since the 13th of May 1787…the day of our departure from Portsmouth’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961  

England abandoned the Robinson Cruscos of the ‘First Fleet’ leaving men, women and children to starve 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from their homeland; ‘the misery and horror of such a situation cannot be imparted, even by those who have suffered under it’. Tench. op. cit.

June 1790

1790 – June, Sydney: ‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross’. This statement held true until Lieutenant John Macarthur disembarked in June 1790 from Scarborough one (1) of the second fleet’s three (3) death ships.

Macarthur, embolden by the absence of Grose his commanding officer, was quick to pick-up on existing ‘antagonism’ and make it his own.

Governor Phillip, known for his insight, could not have failed to recognise in John Macarthur a ruthless enemy not only to himself but to King and Empire.

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

The stakes were high for Britain’s invasion of New Holland had been remarkably prescient. In 1793 England and France were again at war, there can be no doubt the pre-emptive positioning of a military presence and an established naval base in the southern oceans figured prominently in Prime Minister William Pitt’s plans.

‘From the coast of China it [New Holland] lies not more than about a thousand leagues, and nearly the same distance from the East Indies, from the Spice Islands about seven hundred leagues, and near a month’s run from Cape of Good Hope…or suppose we were again involved in a war with Spain, here are ports of shelter and refreshments for our ships, would it be necessary to sent any into the South Sea’. Admiral Sir George Young’s Plan to Home Home Secretary, Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol.1

If Phillip failed to hold the line against Macarthur and his cronies Britain’s chances of retaining an undoubted strategic advantage; ‘stationing a large body of troops in New South Wales’ 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 applied when ever, from where ever and from whom ever such threat arose.

‘Military and police raids against dissenting Aboriginal groups lasted from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries…These raids had commenced by December 1790’. Kercher. ibid.

In 1790 the threat to Governor Phillip came not from the Bidgigal people of Botany Bay ravished by smallpox the previous year (1789) but from within military ranks. See: A Lethal Weapon – Smallpox: Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

Following the arrival of the second fleet in June 1790 well documented animosity surfaced quickly between Phillip’s ‘people’ of 1788 and the one thousand (1000) new comers, most fresh from the teeming streets of London.

Phillip perceived danger in widespread unrest and, given the circumstances, ‘the public stores contained salt meat until…2d July; flour…20 August; rice, or pease in lieu…until 1st of October. Marine Captain David Collins, First Fleet Journal

1790 – June: The weekly ration ‘to every child of more than eighteen months old and to every grown person without distinction…two pounds of pork, two pounds and a half of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease, per week’. Tench. ibid.

1790 – July, Sydney:: Despite the arrival in July 1790 of Justinian, a store-ship with the first supplies from England, food was  very scarce. John Macarthur’s boundless ambition, linked to hunger, anger and fear, created a perfect storm.

1790 – September, Manly Beach: A trigger presented itself in September 1790 when a ‘monster’ whale stranded on Manly Beach.

‘A native [Wileemarine] with a spear in his hand aimed his lance with such force and dexterity striking the governor’s right shoulder, just above the collar bone’. Tench. ibid. See: Manly – Location, Location, Location


Governor Phillip wily experienced, a proven strategist, intent on saving the Sydney settlement from insurrection and anarchy, moved to assert his authority, but how? See: Death of a Sure Thing – John M’Entire




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