‘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,  Australian National University and National Museum of Australia, on inclusion of some ‘First Fleet’ Journals onto UNESCO’s World Heritage List. AM Programme, Australian Broadcasting Commision, 15 October 2009

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

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 ‘four companies of Marines’ who left England in May 1787 on the ‘First Fleet’ to invade the island continent of New Holland and who, by June 1790, were overdue for repatriation. See: Clue of the Scarlet Cloth

Their commander Major Francis Grose remained in London to recruit sufficient numbers to satisfy establishment requirements. With war with France hanging in the air this proved difficult task requiring Grose to source some ‘derelicts and delinquents’ from the Savoy military prison.

Lieutenant Macarthur a ruthless junior officer driven by over-arching personal ambition, moved swiftly to fill the power vacuum created 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 – 25 January, Port Jackson: Captain Arthur Phillip RN quit Botany Bay in HMS Supply and anchored in Port Jackson just on dark.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: At dawn next day Phillip with marines and some prisoners landed in Sydney Cove where the Union Jack was raised thereby declaring Britain, in the race for new territory to replace America lost in the War of Independence (1775-1783), 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, first of four (4) ‘autocratic uniformed naval governors’, formally 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

Initially that ‘disputation‘ was played out between Governor Phillip and Major Robert Ross the Marine commander of two hundred and forty-five (245) marines, officers and other ranks of the military arm of His Majesty’s navy. Towards Phillip Ross inculcated a spirit discontent and rebellion.

‘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 by evacuating him to Norfolk Island along with 50% of the starving white population and appointing him Lieutenant-Governor of the satellite settlement some 1650 nautical kms from Sydney.

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…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  

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.; See: Abandoned and Left to Starve, Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790 

June 1790

‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross’. This statement held true until June 1790 when Lieutenant John Macarthur landed from Suprize one (1) of the second fleet’s three (3) death ships. Embolden by Major Grose’s absence Macarthur 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.

‘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

The stakes were high for Britain’s invasion of New Holland had been remarkably prescient. Firstly conflict with Spain then, in February 1793 England and France were again at war, leaving little doubt the pre-emptive positioning of a military presence and an established naval base in the southern oceans had figured prominently in Prime Minister William Pitt’s plans.

‘Parallel to, and dependent upon, the Anglo-French duel for command of the sea went their struggle for overseas bases and colonies; here too, the culminating point in a century-long race was reached, with Britain emerging in 1815 with a position so strengthened that she appeared to be the only real colonial power in the world.

That the fighting against France in what was originally and essentially a European war should have spread so swiftly to the tropics was a result of many factors, most of them predictable’. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, 3rd ed. Fontana Press, London

If Phillip failed to hold the line against Macarthur and ‘certain officer’ cronies Britain’s chances of retaining the undoubted strategic advantages gained by; ‘stationing a large body of troops in New South Wales’ would be lost.

‘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.

But in June 1790 when the second fleet arrived the harbour was empty of English ships. Governor Phillip was isolated in the midst of very hostile soldiery without any naval support.

HMS Sirius was at the bottom of the sea off Norfolk Island and her crew, one hundred and sixty (160) Royal Navy personnel stranded on the island.

HMS Supply, if indeed she managed to survive the monsoon season, was at Jakarta buying food and medicines. Her captain Lieutenant Ball was to charter a Dutch vessel to bring the tons of supplies purchased to Sydney as soon as possible.

. See: Missing in Action HMS Sirius & HMS Supply

‘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-so-ever such threat arose. 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

‘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.

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

Given the dire circumstances; ‘per week to every child of more than eighteen months old and to every grown person without pdistinction…two pounds tof pork, two pounds and a half of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease…the public stores contained salt meat until…2d July; flour…20 August; rice, or pease in lieu…until 1st of October’ Phillip perceived danger in the widespread fear that gripped the newcomers.

1790 – 20 June, Sydney: Justinian, a store-ship arrived with the first supplies from England.

‘We were joyfully surprised on the 20th of the month to see another sail [Justinian] enter the harbour…and our rapture doubled on finding that she was laden entirely with provisions for our use. Full allowance, and general congratulations immediately took place’. Tench. ibid

‘Full allowance (if eight pounds of flour, and either seven pounds of pork, served alternately per week, without either peas, oatmeal, spirits, butter or cheese, can be so called ) is yet kept up; but if the Dutch snow [Waaksamheyd] does not arrive soon  from [Jakarta] it must be shortened, as the casks in the store house, I observed yesterday are woefully decreased’. Tench, cited Egan, Buried Alive

However the wretched condition of the second fleet survivors, the needs of the sick and dying, had radically altered the supply- demand equation.

1790 – July, Winter:fish is by no means plenty at least, they are not in abundance’ local Aborigines were extremely hungry, as their fish had kept the English alive for just on three (3) years they quite rightly felt entitled to a fair share of Justinian’s bounty.

But in this they were proved wrong and what was given was given grudgingly; ‘they throng the camp every day and sometimes by their clamour and importunity for bread and meat (of which they now all eat greedily) are become very troublesome God known we have little enough for ourselves!’. Tench. ibid

1790 – September, Spring: ‘The fishing boats had the greatest success…near 4000 of fish…being taken in two ]2] hauls of the seine….they were issued to this settlement [Sydney[ and at Rose Hill’. Tench

1790 -September, Manly Beach: In an atmosphere of anger and betrayal born of hunger and fear of capture; ‘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

Phillip was rowed back to Sydney where William Balmain the fleet’s senior surgeon extracted the spear. However Phillip had lost a great deal of blood and recovery was slow.

Phillip’s refusal to retaliate, assessed as weakness, when linked John Macarthur’s boundless personal ambition, created a perfect storm.


‘The ability to shock bestows a kind of power’. Frances Larson, Severed, Granta, London, 2014

Governor Phillip wily experienced, a proven strategist, intent on saving the Sydney settlement from insurrection and anarchy, with ‘intelligence’ the only arrow in his quiver, moved to assert his authority. See: John M’Entire – Death of a Sure Thing




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