Chapter Seventeen


WITH A SIGH OF RELIEF but some concern for his charges, in March 1790 Phillip consigned Ross from Parramatta to the command of Norfolk Island since Lieutenant King had been pleading for a return to England, and Phillip thought of King as the most reliable man he could send home to report to influential Britons on the parlous state of things in New South Wales.

For the inhabitants of Sydney Cove, the ration at the time provided daily about 1,800 calories and 56 grams of protein, a minimum for survival. Tench, passing the provision store, saw a man who emerged with “a wild haggard countenance having received his daily pittance to carry home. His faltering gait, and eager devouring eye, led me to watch him; and he had not proceeded ten steps before he fell. I ordered him to be carried to the hospital where, when he arrived, he was found dead…. On opening the body, the cause of death was pronounced to be inanition.” Both soldiers and convicts found they were not able to fulfil tasks. The clothing store was near empty and some convicts lived in tatters and rags. In their camp the women were resourceful with needles and yarn Phillip had distributed, but many a guard detachment was mounted in which the majority of soldiers lacked shoes. Thefts of clothing increased and intense depression bred a thousand desperate pilferings.

In this emergency, Phillip “from a motive that did him immortal honour,” released to the general stores the 300-weight of flour which was his personal store, “wishing that if a convict complained, he might see that want was not unfelt even at government house.”

In March 1790, the Sirius and Supply both set sail for Norfolk Island with about 350 people. Phillip was unloading some of Sydney Cove's hungry onto Norfolk's richer soil. Amongst those travelling to Norfolk were John Hudson, the child chimney-sweep, Major Robert Ross as new commandant, and Lieutenant Clark.

John Hunter and Sirius had not been to Norfolk before, and on arriving could not land at Sydney Bay on the south side of the island. At Cascade Bay on the north shore Hunter was able to land convicts and marines, 275 people in all. But his ship was blown out to sea by a gale before it could land any supplies for them. When the wind shifted Hunter tried again for Sydney Bay, and when the signal flags flying ashore indicated that the surf was calm enough to allow longboats to land, the unloading of stores began. After much had been landed, another wind shift caused the Supply to make sail and get away from a reef on the west side of the bay. Despite Hunter's best efforts, and a complicated series of manoeuvres with sails and helm, Sirius was blown stern-first howling and creaking onto the reef, where the surf began to batter her to pieces. Sailors cut away the masts and rigging and throwing them over the side in the hope that the loss of weight might refloat her: “In less than ten minutes the masts were all over the side, the ship an entire wreck,” wrote Midship-man Newton Fowell. Provisions were brought up from the hold and stacked on the gun deck. If necessary, some of them could be floated ashore. Sailors were tied to ropes and hauled ashore through the surf.

Male convicts already landed volunteered to swim to the wreck as the sea subsided, and liberate the livestock. Having done so, they also raided the ship's cellar. Ross would issue a proclamation against those who “in a most scandalous and infamous manner, robbed and plundered” items from the wreck. He declared martial law, fearing the pressure placed on resources not only by the newcomers but also by Sirius's crew, who would be stuck on Norfolk Island for ten months.

Little Supply survived and left with King, also carrying to Sydney his convict mistress, Ann Innett, and their two small sons, Norfolk and Sydney, whom King intended to rear as his own, as a gentleman should.

With his declaration of martial law, Ross decided it was not possible to administer a necessary oath of obedience one by one to convicts and private soldiers. He said that if they would pass under the King's colours at the flagstaff, and between the colours of the detachment, it would equal a voluntary oath. He himself led the procession, the rest of the population following with “chearfulness.”

In April 1790, a cheerful phenomenon indeed occurred which Hunter, stuck on the island in a small hut, considered an act of divine intervention. Thousands of birds of a species of ground-nesting petrels arrived on the hills of the island, and continued to land each night for four months. “A little before sunset the air was thick with them as gnats are on a fine summer's evening in England,” noted Ralph Clark in wonder. They were of the mutton-bird species, and nested in particular on Mount Pitt, where they dug their ground nests like rabbit warrens. Settlers, free and bond, would climb the hill at night with lit pine-knots to search for the birds, who returned each evening to their burrows. The parties would arrive soon after dusk, light small fires to attract the attention of the birds, “and they drop down out of the air as fast as the people can take them up and kill them.” Unfortunately for the species, the mutton-bird did not easily rise from flat ground and could not escape the slaughter. Their eggs in the burrows were also easily plundered. Throughout mid-1790, 170,000 birds were taken, and their feathers must have blown hither and thither on the island and coated the surrounding sea. “They had a strong, fishy taste,” said Hunter. “But our keen appetites relished them very well; the eggs were excellent.” As on the mainland, people also boiled and ate the head of the cabbage tree palm.

Ross seemed to feel freed from Phillip's influence and set up on Norfolk Island his own kind of commonwealth. He began to give allocations of land to groups of convicts, perhaps six people at a time, who were jointly responsible for growing what they needed on a particular, communally shared acreage. Thus the convicts would become their own motivators and regulators, and gang up on those who slacked off. As they produced their own food, the flour ration they got from the government would be successively reduced, it was initially proposed, but instead Ross decided to offer monetary and other prizes to those who put up for sale the most pork, fowls, and corn. In his “agrarian common wealth,” felons were exposed to the reforming impact of land of their own.

Captain Hunter, who observed the scheme at work, thought that in reality convicts were driven by it to steal from each other's gardens. Under the Ross system, the birth of every piglet was to be reported to the deputy commissary and the death of every sow was to be followed by an enquiry. If the cause of death was found to be an accident or a disease, the government would make up the loss, but if not, the convicts given the care of the pig as a group “were to be considered responsible and were to be punished as criminals.”

Ross did not seem to be personally a great punisher or flogger, and on Norfolk, his ideals, unsuspected in Sydney and Parramatta, emerged. He offered his charges the allurements of a far more intense cooperativism than Phillip had in Sydney.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!