ON 12 FEBRUARY, LIEUTENANT KING came to Phillip's tented mansion to take the oath as superintendent and commanding officer of Norfolk Island. Phillip seemed to see King's occupation of Norfolk Island above all as a penal rather than a commercial expedition. Nonetheless, once King had “taken the necessary measures for securing yourself and people, and for the preservation of the stores and provisions, you are immediately to proceed with the cultivation of the flax plant, which you will find growing spontaneously on the island.” Potentially, for an ambitious young Cornishman just shy of thirty years like King, a man of great endurance and average talents of command, the settlement on Norfolk Island offered great opportunity. In a far clearer sense than the creation of Sydney, which was merely an expansion of convict holding capacity, the occupation of Norfolk Island was explicitly to be the expansion of empire. The party sent thither was “to secure the same to us and prevent it being occupied by the subjects of any other European power.” The corn, the flax, the cotton and other grains produced on the island were to be the property of the Crown, as was the produce of the public farm Phillip had the convicts tilling and planting in Sydney.
King was particularly warned not to permit the building of any vessel whose length of keel exceeded twenty feet. If any ship of that or greater length were to be driven onto the island, thereby opening up the possibility of sea escape, King was to scuttle it immediately or otherwise render it unserviceable. Norfolk Island was to depend passively on regular visits from Supply.
The coming settlement on the island was designed for the moment to be a haven for relative innocents. In the earliest days of February King had gone aboard the Lady Penrhyn to ask Surgeon Bowes Smyth about suitable women to take to Norfolk Island. The chief attraction for these women would be in getting away from what they might have considered more dangerous elements in the chaotic, fortnight-old convict camp. All of them volunteered to go.
The little Supply departed Sydney Cove in mid-February on a cool summer's morning and beneath thundery clouds, with King and his six women and eight men, his surgeon and two marines, his carpenter and his weaver. On their journey they encountered arising from the sea a previously unseen, splendid, and lonely pinnacle of rock, which would be named Ball's Pyramid to honour Supply's master, and next they found an unknown island, unoccupied by Aborigines, with many plump giant turtles on its beaches. They hunted the turtles for their meat and named the island to honour Lord Howe of the Admiralty. These Englishmen operated on a prompt instinct similar to Cook's—that what was named was tamed; what was addressed was possessed.
On arrival, Supply having taken more than two weeks of violent gales to reach Norfolk Island, they were greeted by a furious surf. Eighteen years past, Cook had landed on the north side, but King searched the coastline for a week before finding a halfway safe landing place along that coast. At a place he named Duncombe Bay to honour the Member for Yorkshire in the House of Commons, the first landing party was put ashore. The bay was found to be enclosed by reef, as was most of the island. Landed, King was enthusiastic about what he saw while exploring the central valley and the pine-clad hills with his surgeon, Thomas Jamison. King's journal shows he was quick to name geographic points after possible sponsors—not only was there Duncombe Bay, but also Anson Bay to honour the Member for Litchfield. He noted with some astonishment: “We have not seen a leaf of flax or any herbal grass whatever, the ground being quite bare, which is rather extraordinary as Captain Cook says that flax is more luxuriant here than in New Zealand.” Banks and Cook had misled everyone about Botany Bay, and now about Norfolk Island!
In essence, King was his own Aborigine here, for he was beginning from the beginning, and no natives inhabited the island. (Its later record for drownings and shipwrecks might explain why.) Once ashore his charges pitched tents on open ground on the south side of the island, where there was a gap in the reef in the area he named Sydney Bay, but soon to become Kingstown, to honour George III. The first Sunday ashore, King called the settlement together for divine service in his tent and read Phillip's commission to him. He took formal possession of the island and drank the toasts to the Royal Family. His subsequent speech was very much in the spirit of a middling officer in the Royal Navy, and rather like Phillip's in Sydney Cove—he told his charges that every encouragement would be given them to behave with propriety and industry, and that those who lacked those qualities would be punished “as useless and destructive members of society.” He told them something Phillip had not told his charges in Sydney Cove—that if they behaved well, he would see to their repatriation. He then settled down to manage the community along the lines set by Phillip, as if it were a large farm and the convicts his farmhands. They did all that the people in Sydney Cove were doing, except the timber was kinder. They split and sawed pines to build storerooms and shelters. They sowed the ground and hauled away the branches of felled pines. And it all seemed to go better here. This might become the penal utopia.
There were the usual earthly arrangements. Thomas Jamison, King's surgeon, a Trinity College man whom Lieutenant Clark called “a cunning villain,” formed an association with Elizabeth Colley of Lady Penrhyn, and produced two illegitimate sons for whom he would provide. But there was also the idyll: one of the young women, Olivia Gascoigne, would soon marry Nathaniel Lucas, a carpenter and cloth thief, by whom she would have thirteen colonial children.
As fresh gales combed the great pines and thunderheads hung low, King was delighted to find turtles on a sandy beach on the eastern side of the island. Huge turtles would supply many excellent meals for the people of Norfolk Island. After first planting some vegetables, he went in company with his people, free and convict, to Turtle Bay and there collectively they caught three of the enormous creatures. But on 3 March, John Jay, one of the Supply's quartermasters, insisted on trying to catch a turtle in the surf “although desired to desist,” and drowned. He would not be the last to suffer death in Norfolk Island's turbulent surf.
At last, later in the month, indeed on St. Patrick's Day, “I discovered,” wrote King, “that the flax plant which Captain Cook takes notice, is of no other than that plant which I have hitherto called the larger kind of iris with which this isle abounds, but it in no manner resembles the flax of Europe.” A bundle of it was tied up and put into a pool of water to soak, with the intention of drying it after the European method of preparing flax, but the finished product was useless.
AS IN SYDNEY COVE, it was the soldiers who committed the first sin on Norfolk Island. In April, King detected Private John Batchelor, one of his two marines, stealing rum out of the flask in which it was kept in King's tent. He did not doubt what must be done. “In the afternoon I assembled the people together and punished him with one dozen lashes for quitting his work, one dozen lashes for breaking into the King's stores, and one dozen for theft.” In a few months Batchelor too would drown when a huge surf broached a longboat he was travelling in.
The lash had made its entry into Norfolk Island like the entry of the serpent into Eden. It would from then on frequently distinguish the governance of the place. Charles McClennan, a fourteen-year-old from Durham who had been sentenced at the age of ten for stealing goods to the value of ten pence, tried to steal rum out of the surgeon's tent and was punished with three dozen lashes. However provoked, and for whatever cause, he had brought down the convictry of Norfolk Island to the level of those on the mainland. King determined he would have to make an even more severe example of the next person found stealing.
Now unpromising incidents abounded. Hail destroyed corn, barley, and wheat, and grubs all the potatoes. The sawyers were poisoned by trying some native beans, and Charles McClennan was again lashed for uttering “some very seditious and threatening words.”
There seem to have been kinder exchanges between King and his housekeeper, the convict Ann Innett, in his primitive cottage of pine-wood, that went unrecorded, as did the process by which she became his lover. She was to become pregnant with Norfolk Island's first child early in the Australian autumn. After nine months had passed King still celebrated divine service with a gentlemanly lack of embarrassment, and baptised the newborn infant by the name of Norfolk, “he being the first born on the island.”
BACK IN SYDNEY, as foreshadowed during the ceremonial of 7 February, Phillip had taken before David Collins the oaths of abjuration and assurance, made politically necessary by the Scottish uprising in favour of the House of Stuart's Bonnie Prince Charlie forty years earlier. “I, Arthur Phillip, do truly and sincerely acknowledge, profess, testify and declare, in my conscience, before God and World, that our sovereign Lord King George is lawful and rightful King of this realm.” The oaths asserted before God the claim of the House of Hanover to the Crown and denounced any claim of “the pretended Prince of Wales and his open and secret abettors.” Phillip was also to make the declaration contained in the Act for Preventing Dangers which might arise from Popish Recusants, basically those who would try to restore the Catholic Pretender, the Bonnie Prince. By the time the oaths were taken in Sydney Cove, the Pretender had already made a sad, liquor-bloated corpse, having perished at the Palazzo Muti in Rome on 31 January 1788.
In any case, Phillip was an intense supporter of the Hanoverian Crown. He would early emphasise how seriously he took the Crown's ownership of all things in New South Wales. A convict sold an animal “of the squirrel kind” to the steward of Lady Penrhyn for liquor. The governor summoned Captain Marshall of the Lady Penrhyn and told him “that all the convicts got was the property of government,” demanded the animal back, and subjected the steward to fifty lashes.
Equally the government's property were those areas up-harbour where the waters ultimately narrowed to become a river flowing down into Port Jackson from the hinterland. Officers and men still marvelled at the capaciousness both of the river and the port itself. “In my belief,” wrote Jacob Nagle, “I should suppose Port Jackson to hold nearly all the ships in England.” Phillip would soon investigate the upper reaches of the river, and the area to the north to see if they could be adapted to the colony's use.
Meanwhile, in Sydney Cove, no sooner had the commissary Mr. Andrew Miller done his calculations over the supplying of rations than four young men were caught with stolen butter, pease, and pork from the tented storehouse. Thomas Barrett had long been a prisoner, having stolen from a spinster when he was as young as eleven or twelve. He had been condemned to death but reprieved to be transported on Mercury, from which he landed in England after convicts took the ship over. Like others, he was condemned to death again for return from transportation, but once more was reprieved. On board the Charlotte a few months out of England, young Barrett had been caught trying to pass counterfeit quarter-dollars made out of old belt buckles and pewter spoons, and Surgeon White had been impressed by his ingenuity in manufacturing the coins when a sentry had been on guard all the time over the hatchway, and hardly ten minutes elapsed without someone going down among the convicts.
Barrett, now aged about eighteen years, faced the death penalty for a third time under the terms laid down by Arthur Phillip in his first speech to the convicts. Henry Lovell, a London ivory-turner in his mid-twenties; Joseph Hall, another graduate of the Mercury, and John Ryan, a London silk-weaver, also appeared before Judge-Advocate Collins and his bench of officers in the tented court at one o'clock in the afternoon. The first three were unanimously condemned to death, but Ryan was sentenced to 300 lashes, being adjudged more a receiver than thief.
Sydney Cove was now to achieve its first executions “in terrorem, testimony to the Majesty of the Law, a Dreadful and Awful Example to Others.” At five in the afternoon of a late February day, with the summer sun falling down the sky, the marine garrison marched to the place of punishment, a tree between the men's and women's camp on the western side of Sydney Cove. All the convict population were compulsorily gathered to see this demonstration of the fact that their rations were considered sacrosanct. The three men appeared beneath the tree's long branches, probably a Moreton Bay fig tree. Barrett asked to speak to one of the convicts, a Mercury crony, Robert Sideway, who on the Friendship had incurred a flogging and chaining and had a risky reputation. This request was granted and a confidential hugger-mugger passed between them. Then Barrett requested the chance to talk with one of the women but was refused, and mounted his ladder under the tree, as did Lovell and Hall theirs, the nooses hanging level with their necks. But as all three men stood there, Major Ross was approached by a sentry who came running from the governor's tent with a twenty-four-hour stay of execution for Lovell and Hall. They came down their ladders and it was time for the final rites for Barrett. “The Reverend Mr. Johnson prayed very fervently with the culprit before he was turned off, and performed every office appertaining to his function with great decorum.” Barrett, of “a most vile nature,” expressed not the least signs of fear until he mounted the ladder, “and then he turned very pale and seemed very much shocked.”
He was not the only victim of the hanging tree. A young convict named James Freeman, sixteen when he was sentenced to death at Hartford and reprieved in 1784, had been given the task of being the penal colony's hangman. In the next few days, he too had been sentenced to death for stealing flour from another convict, but there was evidence that he had merely stumbled on the flour cached in the woods. Governor Phillip pardoned him on condition he became the public executioner, and Surgeon Worgan noted that “here was an opportunity of establishing a Jack Ketch who should in all future executions either hang or be hanged” (Jack Ketch being a renowned criminal-hangman from Newgate). Freeman believed it would make him a pariah. In the case of Barrett, the unnamed convict assigned the task had delayed fixing the rope and taking Barrett's ladder away for so long that Major Ross threatened to have the marines shoot him. He had to be severely threatened also by ProvostMarshal Brewer, who disliked the scene anyhow and did not want to have it dragged out. Mr. Brewer, said Surgeon Worgan, “was under the disagreeable necessity of mounting the ladder himself in order to fix the halter.”
Having called on the convicts to take warning from his fate, Barrett was “turned off.” Freeman was in an unhappy position: “All grandeur, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner,” wrote an eighteenth-century commentator. “Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and at that very moment, order gives way to chaos, thrones topple and society disappears.” In the spirit of that principle, Freeman had to be forced to exercise the office every time someone was hanged from then on.
The First Fleet children saw Barrett asphyxiate and piss his pants and were thereby educated in the power of authority. What the Cadigal, drawn by the sound of drums and observing from the bush, thought of this strange ritual would be recorded later. They were astonished and appalled. Strangulation was not one of their punishments. They measured retribution in the more calculable currency of blood.
As thunder clouds came up from the south, the body hung an hour and was then buried in a grave dug very near the gallows. Thus an acre of Eora ground was rendered unholy. Throughout the century, surgeons and physicians, helped by robust beadles and porters, had stolen the bodies of the hanged either from Tyburn Hill, where the London executions took place until 1783, or even from the new scaffold outside Newgate. But here, science had not advanced enough to threaten the eternal rest of Barrett. Overnight a thunderous downpour fell on his grave. Rain gushed in at the canvas and thatched cornices of convict huts. Convicts darted from camp site to camp site with a petition to the great central presence, Phillip, who would find himself presented the next morning with an appeal from the mass of the felons begging that the sentences of Lovell and Hall be commuted. The people who signed it knew well enough that the court system was a lottery, that the condemned had probably been worked at by hefty marines and temporary constable convicts before they confessed, guilty as they may well have been.
Phillip made no immediate reply to the petition. He let the preparatory rites go ahead. Ralph Clark, leading a guard, collected the two men from Harry Brewer's keeping and marched them to the execution site. Johnson prayed with them as they mounted the ladder and Freeman prepared the nooses. But then the judge-advocate arrived with the commutation of sentence. Lovell was to go to Norfolk Island for life, and Hall to be stuck indefinitely on the little island just off Sydney Cove named Pinchgut.
ONE OF PHILLIP'S MULTITUDE of disappointments was that there were no limestone deposits around the cove, which made it uncertain whether permanent habitations for himself and his officers, the people, and the stores could ever be raised. The sandstone which stonemasons would later craft into splendid honeycomb-coloured public buildings did not answer Phillip's needs now. An adaptable building contractor from Kingston-on-Thames, James Bloodworth, who under financial pressure had committed some felony to do with the endorsement of cheques or the rigging of books, had taken a reconnaissance into the bush south of Sydney Cove and found good deposits of red clay highly suitable for brick-making. That February opened up possibilities for Bloodworth. Known to have a wife in England, he was embarking on a tender and passionate association with the grief-stricken Sarah Bellamy, who had just lost her shipboard-conceived son, and would soon lose his father, Joe Downey, when he sailed with the Lady Penrhyn to China. He also drew the attention of Harry Brewer to these potential brick-making deposits and thus, with Harry, assumed the position of chief of construction and superintendent of bricks. Phillip set some of the women to collecting seashells for Bloodworth to burn for mortar. It was urgent work, not just because a government house needed building, and a barracks for officers and marines, but so that the all-important storehouses could be constructed, the precious rations presently standing vulnerably in guarded tents.
Convicts employed in digging up clay and forming it into bricks with brickbats under Bloodworth's direction were met at the clay field, soon named Brickfield Hill, by natives of the Cadigal clan who threw stones at them then ran away. Perhaps some unconscious impulse told the Cadigal to resist the creation of permanent structures. But to Phillip the brick-makers were performing a founding act of good order. Bricks and seashell lime would turn Sydney Cove from a camp to a town.
For it was important that permanent structures of authority and storage be planned. It was 25 March before all the stores were landed from the Lady Penrhyn, Scarborough, and Charlotte, and those ships were discharged from government service. They were the three going on to China for tea, and their carpenters had made the necessary adjustments in the hold to convert them from convict transports to normal freight carriers. Lieutenant George Shortland, the agent for the transports, confirmed Lady Penrhyn's discharge after she landed her government stores of beef, pork, bread, flour, pease, butter, and rice in their various measurements—tierces, puncheons, barrels, firkins, and brams. The ship had also landed a loom for weaving canvas; mill spindles, mill brushes, mill bills, and picks; handcuffs with instruments; nearly 600 petticoats, 600 jackets, 121 caps, 327 pairs of stockings, and 381 shifts; 40 tents and six bundles of ridge poles; a transport jack for repairing wagons; hoses, wind sails, some prefabricated cabins, bulkheads, beds, hammocks, and marine clothing. Who would have thought that in addition to 103 women convicts and sundry marines, all that would have fitted in the 103-feet length and less than 30 feet width?
A new assessment of the rations to be issued was now studiously drawn up by the anxious commissary. An immediate reduction of 12 pounds for every 100-pound ration of beef, and 8 pounds for every 100 pound ration of pork, was made. But the marine wives that day, Sergeant James Scott was happy to report, were ordered their usual allowance of liquor, “with the proviso that their husbands will repay it again.” The ration reduction was not the only bad news, since the same day the governor met the officers on the subject of grants of land, and told them that it was not in his authority to grant them land, although he had been authorised to grant land to privates and non-commissioned officers when they had completed their service in the marines. The best he could offer the officers was the use of pieces of ground for gardens or for feeding their stock, but they could not receive permanent grants. In his lieutenant-governor's tent, Major Ross was vocal to his closest friend, Captain Campbell, about what he saw as a carping, letter-of-the-law decision by Phillip. Indeed, had officers been given grants, said Ross with some point, it was likely they could have contributed significantly to the common welfare.
Ross was like a man thrashing about in the coils of Phillip's neglect. Phillip did not come to his tent, or invite him over to the government tent, to discuss executive decisions with him. Nor had he won the affection of his officers even though he had made it clear to Phillip they would not work as convict supervisors. For he grew spiky about small issues concerning the rebelliousness of some of his officers, and his misgivings about the governor and the country in general began to grate on those forced to listen to his complaints.
One matter that had begun plainly enough, but rapidly escalated into tension and conflict, demonstrates Ross's prickliness and lack of adaptability. When at the communal cooking fires and coppers where most of the convicts seemed to want to prepare their rations, as they had at sea, a good-looking Irish convict, Jane Fitzgerald, spoke pleasantly to Private William Dempsey, a series of troublesome events began. When Dempsey answered, a Private Hunt came over and asked Dempsey how dared he speak to a woman from Hunt's ship, Scarborough, and so, in Hunt's mind, part of the sexual property of Scarborough marines. A convict tried to intervene and Private Hunt called him a “Portsmouth rascal.” Hunt confessed to hitting Dempsey, but denied using any insulting words.
Captain Watkin Tench presided over Hunt's court-martial, taking evidence from Jane Fitzgerald and others. The sentence brought down was that Private Hunt should either ask William Dempsey's pardon, publicly, in front of the battalion, or else he could receive 100 lashes. Within an hour of the sentence coming down, Major Ross sent the case back to the court-martial claiming that they were wrong to bring down alternative punishments. He instructed the court to impose one sentence only.
At four o'clock that afternoon, the five officers signed their reply to Ross, saying that they were unable to reconsider the sentence. Ross wrote to the officers again, and at seven o'clock that evening they wrote back saying that they considered it impossible to alter their decision. Thus rancour went whizzing from tent to tent around Sydney Cove. The members of the court certainly felt that their honour as officers was being impugned, but Ross's personality added a certain tincture of pleasure to their refusing what he demanded. As Private Easty said in his journal, “The court sat four times when Major Ross would not accept the court-martial upon which the court confined themselves … and said that [rather than give way] they would go home to England.” Ross immediately placed them all under house arrest.
The officers of the court wrote to Phillip, as did Major Ross, but Phillip had to overturn Ross's suspension of the five officers—the colony needed their services. Ross insisted they remain under technical arrest with their ranks frozen.
Which was all irrelevant to the reality: that for everyone in Sydney Cove, rank frozen or not, a level of hunger and a great yearning for the lost delicacies of Britain became the lot of all the settlement. Fresh meat from marsupials like the kangaroo and wallaby, and fresh fish from Port Jackson, were in inadequate supply, and much of what was caught went to the hospital. Men and women remembered with passionate fondness the food pedlars of the English towns, the sellers of watercress, asparagus, and chestnuts, cakes, mutton, and pork pies and steaming sausages, oysters, fish, and fruit in season. How richly they must have talked about the horse-drawn early-breakfast stalls which would set up on some corner or by the approaches of a bridge and sell scalding tea and coffee and hot, fresh bread soaked in butter, all for a halfpenny. The people of Sydney Cove had wronged the cities which had presented them with such delights, and they were being punished in a shire naked of such pleasures.
Now scorbutic—scurvy-prone—women and children were nursed with infusions of the leaves of the bush named Smilax glyciphylla which grew around the cove and contained ascorbic acid. It was prepared like tea and widely drunk not only in the hospital but as a tea substitute in the tents and shelters of Sydney Cove. Such enterprising surgeons as Bowes Smyth and John White set groups of women searching also for the blue berries of Leptomeria aceda, of which a cupful was said to be sufficient to keep scurvy at bay. “Our little camp now began to wear the aspect of distress, from the great number of scorbutic patients that were daily seen creeping to and from the hospital tents.” Every carpenter from the transports and store ships still in the harbour of Port Jackson, every half-skilled artisan amongst the convicts was sent to assist in building huts. The longboats of the ships still brought up the cabbage tree fronds for thatching from the lower part of the harbour, and a range of huts was begun on the western side for some of the female convicts. The Supply, returning to Sydney from dropping King at Norfolk Island, had brought a beneficial supply of fresh turtle with it, and White suggested it should be sent out to fetch more. Collins was worried by the general condition of the people, because “the winter of this hemisphere was approaching.”
Collins was aware that venereal disease was also in the camp, even though many of the sufferers had tried to conceal it. Typically, Arthur Phillip decided on drastic and community-wide preventive health measures. “To stop this evil, it was ordered by the governor that any man or woman having and concealing this disorder should receive corporal punishment, and be put upon a short allowance of provisions for six months.” Surgeon White could treat the infection with mercury drops and salve, but there remained a few cases, so that this too could bring the penal commonwealth to ruin.