AN ESTIMATED 2,000 EORA were perishing of the smallpox virus in Port Jackson. But amongst the white community, with their resistance to that infestation, hunger remained the issue: acute enough to undermine health and to corrupt and derange not only convicts, but some of the marines with the duty of guarding the food of Phillip's little penal commonwealth. By now the stores were held in two buildings of brick and stone designed and built behind Government House under the supervision of James Bloodworth. Of Mr. Commissary Miller, a shadowy and vulnerable figure who managed the supplies, Phillip would say that he fulfilled the task appointed him “with the strictest honour and no profit.” Indeed Phillip doubted whether Miller made 3 shillings out of his faithful dispensation of rations in Sydney—an exceptional claim to respect in the eighteenth-century bureaucracy. Miller, in charge of rations in a society where everyone's body and mind were enslaved to dreams of food and liquor, and in which no form of currency existed, lived off the standard ration himself, despite the impact that had on his health.
One morning in March 1789, Mr. Commissary Miller approached his storehouse and saw that the wards or shank of a key were still sitting in the padlock on the door. He had believed till that moment that all the keys were in his possession, and to a man of his disposition, the lock choked with an alien mechanism must have seemed a cosmic disorder. He was able to get the broken piece of key out of the lock, and opening the storehouse, he saw that a large cask had been opened and some provisions removed. He sent for the convict locksmith William Frazier. Earlier, Phillip had called Frazier to Government House and shown him some locks for use on a public building and asked his opinion. Frazier asked for a crooked nail to be provided and opened them within seconds. Tench had a low but fascinated opinion of this Yorkshireman, Frazier, who had been transported with his wife, Eleanor Redchester. “When too lazy to work at his trade, he had turned thief in fifty different shapes; was a traveller of stolen goods; a soldier, and a travelling conjurer. He once confessed to me that he had made a set of tools for a gang of coiners, every man of whom was hanged.”
The same thing was about to happen again, because Frazier told David Collins that he identified the wards, the business end of the key which had become stuck in the lock, as belonging to a key that had been brought to him by Private Joseph Hunt for alteration. Private Hunt had been in continuous trouble since the colony's beginning, but when the guards brought him before David Collins at the courthouse, he turned King's evidence, and he was able to name seven marines from various companies who were in the plot to loot the stores during their rotating sentry duties.
It turned out the key Hunt wanted altered in various ways came from a trunk belonging to the widow of Private Harmsworth, Alice. Private Harmsworth had died in the first few months of Sydney Cove's encampment; Alice had a daughter and son and had already buried another infant son in Sydney soil, as well as her husband, so that she could be described as a vulnerable woman, particularly in the presence of a powerful and dangerous figure like Hunt. Hunt had been sentenced to receive 700 lashes in the past month, was a brutal and brutalised soldier, and felt loyalty to little but his needs.
What had happened with the key was that a sentry-accomplice of Hunt's, doing duty at the door of the store, had inserted the key to the storehouse but had heard the night guard of marines approaching. He knew that the lock would be examined by the corporal of the night guard. In haste to remove the key from the lock, he broke it in two.
The plot involved men from each of the companies that made up the garrison. Some were established troublemakers, notably Privates Richard Dukes, James Baker, Richard Asky, and Luke Haynes. The previous December all four of them had been lucky to beat a murder charge of having caused the death of Private Thomas Bullmore in a long-ranging brawl in the women's camp over a particular convict girl.
A court-martial now found them all guilty of plundering the stores. Their execution, carried out on a scaffold erected between the two storehouses, not at the notorious convict hanging tree on the western side of the town, was an agony for the corps of marines. Private Easty, who found it sinister that the gallows had been erected before the sentence was passed upon them, was in the ranks of marines paraded to witness the hangings. By now his coat, like that of other marines, had faded and worn, and his shoes were falling apart. But the military rituals were still maintained, and he had his Brown Bess musket ready to present arms at the solemn moment. He noted that the marines to be executed told the assembled crowd that Hunt, who had escaped with his life, was the “occasion of all their deaths as he was the first that began the said robbery, but that he received a free pardon. There was hardly a marine present but what shed tears, officers and men.”
NOT LONG AFTER THE EXECUTIONS, Sirius relieved the hysteria over food by reappearing on the broad sweep of Port Jackson, or as it was commonly called, Sydney Harbour. Sent out the previous October to fetch supplies from the Cape of Good Hope, the vessel had survived a hard journey.
During the voyage the ship's company was afflicted with scurvy so badly that at one stage there were only thirteen sailors available to man the watch, along with the carpenter's crew. Maxwell, third lieutenant of the Sirius, displayed obvious insanity off Cape Horn, when he crowded on all sail before a gale. “The captain,” Nagle remembered, “got on deck in his shirt and began to take in sail as fast as possible, till she was under snug sail. He asked Mr. Maxwell what he was doing.” Maxwell told the captain he would “tip all nines”—sink the ship, that is—to see whether the vessel would re-emerge from the deep with the same set of damned rascals she was carrying. Hunter, “finding he was delirious, ordered another officer in his watch.” Maxwell, forcibly carried below three times in one night, would remain permanently deranged.
Captain Hunter and the surgeon set to work in Cape Town to address the scurvy amongst the crew. Nagle said that the disease was so prevalent that when men bit into an apple, pear, or peach, blood from their gums would run down their chins. The best cure, he thought, was fresh mutton and vegetables, “and the captain allowed us to send for as much wine as we thought fit to make use of, the ship's company recovering daily, till we were well and hearty.”
While the Sirius was anchored at Robben Island off Cape Town, an incident occurred which showed the strange tension between discipline and the personal pride of veteran seamen, a tension wise commanders like Hunter could handle well. A midshipman presumed to beat the whole ship's company with his rattan cane, “and being a stripling not more than fifteen years of age, I told him we would not be treated in such a manner by a boy. When we got on shore, five of us out of six left the boat, not intending to return any more. The other four never did return.”
This act of revolution showed that the men were aware Hunter needed them. How could he replace experienced men for a cruise whose only attraction was a return to a hungry penal nether-earth? Hunter had the wit to know it, and sent officers ashore looking for the lost men with the orders that their demeanour towards such veterans as Nagle was to be amenable. He told his officers to stress to Nagle that his mess-mate Terence Burn missed him and hoped his friend would not abandon him for the journey back to Sydney. Accordingly, Nagle returned to the ship and approached Captain Hunter. Hunter remarked to his first mate, Bradley, in Nagle's hearing, “No wonder, Mr. Bradley, losing our men, when our young officer gives them such abuse against my orders!” He next confined the boy midshipman to his cabin for three weeks, and told Nagle to go to his hammock and get some rest.
They left Cape Town with twelve months' supplies for the ship's company, and about four to six months of flour at full ration for the entire settlement, as well as various other stores, including six tons of barley, sundry private items and stores for officers in Sydney, and medical items ordered by Surgeon White. “A most tremendous and mountainous sea” kept them laying to for twenty-one days. Surprisingly, then, they had good weather until they got off the South Cape of Van Diemen's Land. In the darkness of a storm they found the luminescence of surf breaking higher than their mastheads on huge rocks ahead, and had to wear ship and stand to the westward. Even so, they found themselves with barely enough steerage room, “embayed” as the term goes, with a heavy sea rolling in upon them and nothing but high cliffs under their lee and the gale to windward blowing them towards the rocks. The captain ordered close-reefed top-sails and the mainsail to be set. Nagle heard Hunter cry out above the noise of sea and gale. “He said she must carry it, or capsize, or carry away the masts, or go on the rocks…. I don't suppose there was a living soul on board that expected to see daylight.”
This was not the result of any grievous fault of navigation by Hunter or Bradley. It was what happened amidst improperly charted perils with uncertain reliability of chronometers and in bad-luck weather. Hunter would later think it not improper to observe that to that point three days had elapsed without the weather allowing a sun reading, and three nights without a visible star. But suddenly the wind, to use Hunter's phrase, “favoured us two points,” and half-buried in the sea by the press of sail they had on, Sirius was able to round the rocky columns of the Tasman Peninsula and continue well eastwards before turning northerly towards Sydney. So the vessel survived one of the planet's most dangerous coasts. Had Sirius foundered then, not even Phillip might have been able to control the chaos which hunger would have brought to New South Wales.
On arrival through the heads of Port Jackson and then, to the great joy of all, at Sydney Cove, the Sirius looked beaten-about: she was missing the upper sections of her masts (the fore-topgallant masts), had split the upper part of her stem, and lost the figurehead of the Duke of Berwick. Lieutenant Maxwell was brought ashore raving to the hospital, and would never recover his sanity. His family sent him a draft of 70 guineas from England, and in his fits he got hold of a hoe and buried the heavy coins singly all over the hospital garden, declaring he'd have a good crop of guineas the next year. If an appropriate ship ever arrived, he would be sent home on it.
Hunter, landing, went straight to report to a grateful Phillip, finding him in the company of “a native man of this country, who was decently clothed, and seemed to be as much at his ease at the tea table as any person there.” But the smallpox was already at work in Arabanoo, and when Hunter remarked to His Excellency that the foreshores of Port Jackson seemed empty of natives, Phillip could tell him why.
How sincerely must Phillip have nonetheless wrung Hunter's hand. He had nonchalantly circumnavigated the southern globe so that the earth's unredeemed might live another span of time. It had been a splendid and fraught journey in harsh waters, and he had been prompt about it. What in the northern hemisphere would have gained him renown gained him here an invitation to the governor's dinner table, with the proviso that applied to all officers so honoured, that they bring with them their own bread roll.
Phillip could tell himself that his forthright decisions had saved the experiment in Sydney Cove, on Norfolk Island, and in Parramatta. But he would as promptly have acknowledged Hunter's execution of policy.