Chapter Twelve


NAGLE, A MEMBER OF THE governor's boat crew, seemed very fond of Phillip. Nagle was aware that the governor liked particularly to escape the cares of Sydney Cove and travel with other gentlemen to explore the region. In early March Phillip was rowed out of the heads and along the coast in his cutter, accompanied by a longboat, to investigate the inlet next northwards from Port Jackson, named by Cook Broken Bay. Rounding its great, bushy headland, Phillip found that on the north side there were shoals and swamps, but on the south side, “the finest piece of water I ever saw,” which he named Pittwater after the prime minister. The hills of Pittwater, however, covered in thick foliage, fell straight to the beach or petered away into tidal mud, and did not offer lowlands of alluvium. Phillip began to realize that he had been lucky to find Port Jackson with its deep anchorages.

Exploring a dozen or more miles up the river, he encountered new clans of natives and spoke to them and traded, not always successfully. His party was fascinated to see that not all the Broken Bay women had the first two sections of their left little finger missing. As for future settlement here, where the river had created floodplains, he concluded, “There are some good situations where the land might be cultivated.” This river for thousands of years had borne the name Deerubbin. Phillip named it the Hawkesbury, in honour of the Earl of Liverpool, Baron Hawkesbury, head man at the Board of Trade in London.

Exploring the foreshores, encountering occasional Aboriginal corpses laid out in a sort of open-air burial, the party heard for the first time that Aboriginal cry Cooee, which would become for the whites also a means of finding friends in deep bush.

The gentlemen removed from the fretfulness of Sydney Cove, dining on mullet on the north side of Broken Bay within hearing distance of the seamen and soldiers, were in good spirits. According to Nagle, Dr. White said to the governor, “I am amazing fond of those mullet.” The governor being in what Nagle called “jocus youmer” answered, “So I perceive, for you have eaten six of them as you say, and you must allow that the least of them weigh 3 pound, and by calculation, the whole must weigh 18 pounds.” This created an atmosphere of what Nagle called “sport and diversion.”

Phillip returned to Port Jackson after a nearly ten-day journey. He had intended to march back to Sydney Harbour overland, but had caught what he called “a cold in his side,” with resultant pain. His kidney and urinary pain had become a chronic problem.

PHILLIP FOUND THE LAND near his house on the east side of Sydney Cove to be aesthetically pleasing with its park-like spacing of trees and gentle slopes from which he could look down on the ferny tangle around the Tank Stream. As for the site of government gardens and farms, however, it was serviceable but not wonderful. Phillip was driven by a desire to find superlative farming land, adequate to sustain his people—the sort of Eden new worlds were supposed to deliver up as a matter of course. The Hawkesbury floodplains were too far away, so he decided to take another trip, this time up the broad river which entered Port Jackson from the west and which could be considered a continuation of the great harbour. The river was a magnificent complexity of bays, inlets, and entering streams, and the first night out, having taken a southward-leading tributary, they came to mangrove swamps and had to camp “near some stagnant water” amidst a typical Sydney thunderstorm. At about eleven o'clock, sleeping on drenched ground, the governor fell ill again; he “was suddenly attacked with the most violent complaint in his side and loins, brought on by cold and fatigue.” Surgeon White, who was with him, thought correctly he had not got over his journey to Broken Bay. But Phillip insisted on continuing, up the main artery of water, and passed bushy tiers of sandstone, beaches and bays of mangrove, and then found grass “tolerably rich and succulent … interspersed with a plant much resembling the indigo.” The second night White fed the sick Phillip by hand with an excellent soup made out of a white cockatoo and two crows. The evening thunderstorm came, and again the governor suffered.

The next day they at last came to an expanse of large broad sandstone, a natural weir over which the by-now freshwater river ran. There was a native quarry of slate nearby. And amidst the trees, which were spaced with very little underbrush, the beautiful rainbow lorikeets flashed like hurled clots of colour. Here too ducks and teal were plentiful, and during their migration season from brackish water downriver to the fresh water via the natural rock weir, masses of eels would be found writhing and tumbling in the river, in great knots of potential food. The local Aborigines for that reason called the place Burramatta, eels, and themselves the Burramattagal, the people of the eel country.

Phillip's party continued on foot, approving the open ground as they went. The hill at the southern end of this stretch of promising riverbank, fourteen miles from the heads of Port Jackson, was named Rose Hill by Phillip to honour his former neighbour at Lyndhurst, Sir George Rose, who had spoken up to get Phillip this job. But the usage Parramatta became gradually more common. In any case, Phillip felt a weight lifted from his body. This new world was not as recalcitrant as everyone feared. Writing to Lord Sydney, Phillip was relieved to report, “There is good country near us and it shall be settled and cultivated early in the spring.”

Three of the fleet were ready now to carry his message to London. The departure of the Charlotte, the Lady Penrhyn, and the Scarborough on 1 May brought an end not only to many a long association between seamen and women ashore, but to the companionable crowdedness of Sydney Cove, and was a token that within weeks the last ship would go. The authorities were anxious that convicts, soldiers, and even sailors associated with the remaining ships, Sirius and Supply, would stow away, and searches of the vessels both by the masters and by the military were thorough. Nonetheless, the Charlotte carried away a naval rating belonging to the Supply and a young sailor who was an apprentice to the boatswain of the Sirius.

Before the ships sailed, there was much official and unofficial trafficking in souvenirs and curios to give to everyone from King George III downwards, and that would produce a reaction from the Eora later in the month. On 21 May 1788, William Ayres, a young convict recovering from scurvy, wandered with another recuperating convict, a young Irishman named Peter Burn, to the cove beyond the farm, Woolloomooloo, to pick greens and sweet tea or sarsaparilla (Smilax glyciphylla or Smilax australis). That evening Ayres stumbled back into camp with a broken-off spear protruding from his back. Burn had been with him, but had run away when Ayres had been speared, and the natives had pursued him. It would be a few days before a soldier found a shirt, hat, and a piece of Burns's jacket pierced by spear-holes in a native shelter in the bush.

The natives used different weapons to administer different degrees of discipline. The spear used on the convict Ayres was designed to stick fast amidst bone and musculature and to be difficult to extract. White wrote, “The weapon was barbed and stuck so very fast that it would permit no motion. After dilating the wound to a considerable length and depth, with some difficulty I extracted the spear, which had penetrated the flesh nearly three inches.” Ayres, recovered, told the officers what had happened. The Aborigines had tried to drive them away from the place with rocks, and he and Burn had thrown rocks back. Then the Aborigines had proceeded to throwing spears. As Ayres had been taking the spear in his back, Burn had been pursued by another party of Aboriginals who then hauled him away with his head bleeding “and seemingly in great distress.” Peter Burn was in fact dragged off and speared to death, an excruciating process.

The wounding of Ayres and murder of Burn produced a spate of comments about the treachery of the natives, although Tench said their skill in throwing spears was “far from despicable.” And the reaction of Phillip was not as vengeful as some would have wished. The governor suspected with virtual certainty, but without firm evidence, that there had been earlier attacks on and misuse of Aborigines, and rapes of native women by convicts, let alone theft of their tools, nets, shields, and spears.

Mutual murders did not end, despite Phillip's regular warnings to the convict population at morning muster. Some male convicts had been set to work cutting rushes to thatch cottages. Two of them were killed at the end of May 1788. Captain James Campbell of the marines—a man who had been scandalised by what he had thought of as chaos in the camp under Phillip's direction, and who doubted that the “three kingdoms could produce another man, in my opinion, so totally unqualified for the business he had taken in hand, as this man is”—had visited the rush-cutters in their camp. Finding some splashes of blood near the tent, Campbell followed them into the mangrove bushes and found both cutters, William Oakey and Samuel Davis, two cellmates from Gloucester prison and shipmates from the Alexander, lying dead some distance from each other. White wrote, “Oakey was transfixed through the breast with one of their spears, which with great difficulty and force was pulled out. He had two other spears sticking in him, to a depth which must have proved mortal. His skull was divided and comminuted so much that his brains easily found a passage through. His eyes were out, but these might have been picked away by birds.” Davis mysteriously had few marks on him, “and his body, lying amongst the mangroves in which he had sought shelter, was warm.” White concluded that while the natives were dispatching Oakey, Davis had crept into the trees where he was found, “and that fear, united with cold and wet, in a great degree, contributed to his death.”

Again, there was a curious reaction to these two deaths. John Hunter of the Sirius said of the deceased: “As they had hatchets and bill-hooks with them, it is believed they might have been rash enough to use violence with some of the natives.” There was also the sense, not shared by many convict males, however, that the murders of Oakey and Davis were payback killings. There was a story the two men had stolen a native canoe, an alternative form of an Eora man's soul, and the authorities tended to believe it. Surgeon White thought “that from the civility shewn on all occasions to the officers by the natives … I am strongly inclined to think that they must have been provoked and injured by the convicts.” (Typically, he then went on to describe a new bird, a yellow-eared flycatcher that had been caught that day.)

Nonetheless, Phillip felt that the killers needed to be identified so that there could be at least a parley and a mending of grievances. Phillip, White, some marine officers, six marines, and two armed convicts visited the murder site and then followed a native path running from there to the north-west arm of Botany Bay, where they found forty-nine canoes drawn up on a beach. Keeping an eye out for the murdered men's tools, they had a friendly meeting with more than 200 Eora men, women, and children gathered for some ritual occasion. Each man was armed with spear, woomera, shield, and hardwood club. When Phillip approached them, unarmed and offering fishhooks, beads, and other presents, one man stepped forward to show him a wound in his shoulder apparently caused by an axe, and another claimed by mime that the rush-cutters had killed a native by slashing him across the stomach. Returned to Sydney, Phillip gave an order that no group with less than six armed men was to go into the bush “on account of the natives being so numerous.” Phillip said of the Aborigines in a letter home to the Marquess of Lansdowne, the former British prime minister in whose honour he had named the western mountains beyond Rose Hill, “I think better of them having been among them.”

But one of the chief rilers of natives was the governor's own head huntsman, John McEntire. He came from amongst those Irish harvesters who sailed to England as deck cargo each year to work for the summer. During his time in Durham, McEntire had been found guilty of robbery and sentenced to death, the sentence being commuted to transportation. No one could predict how profoundly ran the rivers of loss and grievance in such a man, but he was a good shot and brought kangaroos and other marsupials to Phillip's table. He also had a certain charm and quickness, since many of the gentlemen were happy to include him in their parties of hunting and expeditions into the interior. He was also an essential aide to the naturalists of the fleet. For he shot birds, kangaroos, possums, and an emu as natural history items, supplying subjects, for example, for the excellent plates which would one day adorn Surgeon White's memoirs of his time here.

His rancour and bitterness would emerge full face in his dealings with the Eora, amongst whom he became, without Phillip's initial knowledge, a detested person. It may even have been in part as a vengeance against McEntire that Burn, his fellow Irishman, died, and Ayres was wounded so severely.

IN AUSTRALIA, APRIL is the beginning of autumn but a benign month, characterised in Sydney by daytime temperatures in the early to mid-twenties (20 degrees Celsius), with evening temperatures in the late teens. May brings little more threat of ice to the Sydney autumn, which found Henry Kable and his wife, Susannah, like McEntire, young convicts in a favoured position, dwelling in a hut on the east, less boisterous, side of the stream. Kable wrote, “I am, thank God, very easily situated, never worked one day since I have been here; some officers have been so pleased with my conduct that they continue me in the office of an overseer over the women.” The young couple lived in confidence that some £20 worth of clothes and personal goods bought for them by public subscription in England, and placed on Alexander, would be unloaded eventually and given to them. But repeated requests to Captain Duncan Sinclair of the Alexander throughout early 1788 failed to uncover anything of theirs except a few books. Though English law theoretically regarded felons as “already dead in law,” the handsome young couple were both great favourites of the officers and useful to the governance of the colony, and David Collins let Kable, the convict, take a civil case, the first in the history of the place, and an assertion of the equality of convicts before the law. Eventually, on 5 July 1788, before the Alexander left Sydney Cove, the case would be heard by a civil court summoned by Judge-Advocate Collins, and Provost-Marshal Harry Brewer now had sufficient eminence to ensure the appearance before it of Captain Sinclair. Sinclair being unable to produce the goods collected for the Kables, they received a judgment in their favour to the value of £15.

For young Henry, that court case was a new experience, the first time he saw the law as his lever, his weapon of equity, and it would never afterwards be far from his hand. Many years later, in 1807, Governor Bligh of New South Wales could claim that Kable and his partners ruined competitors in the nascent New South Wales shipping business “with constant litigation and infamous prosecutions in the courts.” That first of all civil actions in 1788 had given Henry ideas.

Another convict who lived in as privileged a position as the netherworld could offer a felon, in a society where there were not enough public officials to attend to all tasks, was Will Bryant, the former smuggler and attacker of excise men, and now government fisherman. Being a realist, Phillip knew that Bryant would be under pressure from other convicts to create a black market in fish. It was quite possible that one or other of the London convicts might see power and possibility for great leverage in unofficially cornering the fish market in a society where food was the ultimate commodity. To keep Bryant partially insulated from these pressures, a special hut was built for him and for his wife, Mary Broad, on the east side, away from the convict camp, and he was always presented with a portion of the fish he caught. In fact he may have become the first private employer of Sydney Cove, since he had a convict working in his vegetable garden in return for fish. Collins thought him fairly fortunate: “He wanted for nothing that was necessary, or that was suitable to a person of his description and situation.”

Bryant was, however, proud, and considered himself no criminal. He cherished freedom not just as a concept but as a reality, and was aggrieved he did not possess it. Thus he had a raw political sense, and the darkness in Bryant probably reduced the extent to which he was willing to consider himself lucky.

Through another relatively trusted convict, the first European cattle were about to go wild and become strays on the thin topsoils of New South Wales. The convict cow-herder, Edward Corbett, had confessed to a sailor that he had staved off hunger by stealing goods and giving them to another sailor, Kelly, in return for food. Collins committed Kelly in a hearing to trial by a criminal court. Corbett now knew his turn would be next, and ran away into the bush. The same day Corbett ran away, the cattle—four cows and two bulls—strayed from the government farm, a far more grievous loss in the eyes of the administration than was Corbett himself.

Amongst the ark of the First Fleet, these were the first European creatures to go loose in Australia, the first of the hard-hoofed, hard-mouthed beasts in which Europe measured wealth to go out pawing at the ancient Gondwana soil. Corbett similarly was one of the first Europeans to attempt to live off the land and with the Aborigines, but though the Aboriginal groups he ran in with did not treat him with hostility, they did not welcome him either. While wandering in one of the bays near Sydney Cove, looking for his place amongst the Eora, he saw a convict's head which seemed to have been burned, but which he identified as that of Burn, the young man who had run away on the day Ayres was speared while picking native tea and berries. Absconding convicts often made discoveries, horrid or useful, which they stored away to present to the gentlemen if they should have to return.

The worrying disappearance of the cattle occurred on the eve of George III's birthday, 4 June. It would be celebrated that year in places both distant and tenuously retained by the Crown—in Martinique, for example, at Cape Castle in southern Africa, in Canada and in remote princedoms in India. But Phillip, being such an enthusiast for the constitutional monarchy, ensured that nowhere would it be better celebrated than in this most unsubstantial and grotesque of all the King's possessions. At Phillip's canvas house on the day, healths were drunk to the person of the King, certainly, but above all to the Protestant liberties of mind and property for which he stood. Phillip's housekeeper, Mrs. Deborah Brooks, staged a dinner during which the marines' band played patriotic tunes. It was a feast by Sydney Cove standards—Surgeon Worgan lists mutton, pork, ducks, kangaroo, fish, salads, and pies, Portuguese and Spanish wines and English porter. The extended Royal Family was toasted, as well as Pitt's Cabinet, “who, it was observed, may be Pitted against any that ever conducted the affairs of Great Britain.” There did not seem any concern in Phillip's big Antipodean marquee that these paragons of British statesmanship to which the officers were drinking might forget to resupply New South Wales, but the thought must have been there in some minds.

The day “was a little damped by our perceiving that the governor was in great pain,” though “he took every method to conceal it.” He explained that he had intended to lay the first stone and name the town Albion that day, but the lack of progress in breaking the ground and the lack of skilled hands made naming a premature act. But to honour the Royal Family he named the Sydney area the County of Cumberland, the “boundaries of which is Broken Bay to the northward and Botany Bay to the southward as far inland as a range of mountains seen from Port Jackson from the westward.”

The soldiers were given a pint of porter each, on top of their regular ration of grog, and men who had been surviving on the rock named Pinchgut near the east side of the cove were pardoned and brought filthy, scrawny, and haggard back to the cove. About five in the evening an immense bonfire was lit. Convicts had been gathering wood for two days and the eucalypt trees in particular contributed by being great shedders of bark and branches. Worgan thought the bonfire a noble sight, bigger than the one traditionally set that day on Tower Hill in London. A number of convicts formed ranks on the far side of the flames and greeted Phillip with a verse of “God Save the King.”

But the Tawny Prince again took some of the honours that night. The next morning everyone was astonished by the number of thefts that had occurred, in particular from the huts or tents of officers whose servants had been told to keep watch but had wandered away to nearby convict fires for companionable talk and drink. Passionate Captain Meredith of the marines, coming back from the bonfire, found a convict in mid-theft and struck him on the head with a club, disabling him and sending him to hospital. The convict caught so by Meredith, Sam Payton, was a type for which the British public had a lot of time—the gentleman convict, well-dressed and well-spoken. Earlier in the night of the King's birthday, before being stupefied by Captain Meredith's blow, he had stolen shirts, stockings, and combs from Lieutenant Furzer's tent or hut, and had them with him in the swag he was carrying.

Payton spent his time awaiting trial under the care of Surgeon White at the hospital. “I frequently admonished him to think of the perilous circumstances he then stood in.” White suspected he had accomplices and urged him to come up with their names rather than be hung and find oblivion in New South Wales at the age of twenty. With some credibility, Payton claimed that because of his head injury he could not remember robbing Lieutenant Furzer's place, let alone entering Captain Meredith's—though he would suddenly admit to both once sentenced.

As for the missing Corbett, during his nineteen days out of the settlement, he lived chiefly by what he could get by creeping down to the edges of the fledgling town by darkness. When food went missing from the houses of convicts and marines, Corbett was declared an outlaw, a further distinction for him.

On the afternoon of 22 June, while Payton awaited his trial, a brief earth tremor ran through the settlement. It came, said young David Blackburn, master of the Supply, living ashore as so many of the ships' company did at that stage to build up their health, “from the south-west like the wave of the sea, accompanied by a noise like a distant cannon. The trees shook their tops as if a gale of wind was blowing.” It was the decisive experience for the wandering Corbett, for he presented himself on the edge of the settlement again and was captured by the governor's perhaps most trusted servant, Henry Dodd, a free man who was already showing considerable skill as an agricultural supervisor of convicts.

The returnee Edward Corbett and gentlemanly Sam Payton appeared before the criminal court and were both condemned to death. They were to be hanged the next day at 11:30 a.m. by the executioner convict, Freeman. Samuel Payton took the time to dictate a florid letter to his mother, wife of a well-respected stonemason in London. He no doubt had half an eye to the poignant impact such a letter would have on the London public, to whom, via inevitable publication, he may have been chiefly speaking. “My dear mother! With what agony of soul do I dedicate the few last moments of my life to bid you an eternal adieu! My doom has been irrevocably fixed, and ere this hour tomorrow I shall have quitted this vale of wretchedness, to enter into an unknown and endless eternity. I will not distress your tender maternal feelings by any long comment on the cause of my present misfortune. Let it therefore suffice to say, that impelled by that strong propensity to evil, which neither the virtuous precepts nor example of the best of parents could eradicate, I have at length fallen an unhappy, though just, victim to my own follies.”

Both Payton and young Corbett “died penaten,” noted Sergeant Scott, Payton in particular addressing the convicts “in a pathetic, eloquent and well-directed speech.” Indeed, Reverend Johnson may well have reached his maximum efficacy at the gallows tree that day, 25 June, since both men prayed fervently, “begging forgiveness of an offended God.” They expressed the hope too that those they had injured would not only forgive them, as they themselves already did all mankind, but would offer up their prayers to a merciful Redeemer. Then they were both turned off by Freeman, the steps taken from beneath first one and then the other, “and in the agonising moments of the separation of the soul from the body,” dangling and jerking, they “seemed to embrace each other.” The execution of these two young men, said White, had a powerful impact on the convicts who watched. The big fig tree of Sydney Cove had become a regular Tyburn.

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