Chapter Eighteen


PHILLIP, IF SOMETIMES SEEN even by the convicts as well as by later imaginations of Australians as more an iconic than fully human figure, was reduced by gritty daily life by now, and fearing for the future; a man who may or may not have still loved his housekeeper, Deborah Brooks; who made jokes in French with his servant Maliez, patted his greyhounds whom he was reduced to feeding with kangaroo gristle and the inedible sections of the weekly rations; and who fed rice by the grain to his pet Sydney Cove fruit bat.

This was the man who now summoned King and made him an emissary. It was as well that at the time, Phillip did not yet know what had happened to the store ship the British government had sent, the HMS Guardian. By 24 November 1789, the Guardian had been at Cape Town and its young captain, Lieutenant Riou, began the business of purchasing livestock for Sydney as fast as he could. He was an active and intelligent young man, and knew what joy and deliverance his cargo would bring to the population of New South Wales. He even carried a curate, the Reverend John Crowther, for the Reverend Johnson, although he wrote to his mother and sister, “Protect me from such parsons. He has never hinted at giving us a sermon, and if he did, I have too great a respect for the credit of the clergy and more for the forms of our religion than to suffer him.” Riou also had aboard seven free superintendents of convict labour, recruited in London, and the young daughter of one of them.

The Dutch at Cape Town told Riou when he arrived that Captain John Hunter had been there earlier fetching supplies aboard the Sirius, issuing Admiralty bills of credit, and speaking of the harsh conditions of Sydney Cove, and that news increased Riou's determination to make all proper speed.

By 11 December, Guardian was ready to reach south-east to pick up the roaring forties which would take it to Van Diemen's Land and the turn northwards for Sydney. Guardian and its captain would be Botany Bay's saviours, an attractive idea to an intelligent and motivated young officer.

In this same December, the leisurely Lady Juliana was lying in Rio, and Mrs. Barnsley was accompanied ashore by officers to do her shopping. The voyage thus far gave some indication of the entrepreneurial spirit of some of the women. In Teneriffe in the Canarys, Mrs. Barnsley had treated her clique and followers to a cask of canary wine. At Santa Cruz, the capital of Teneriffe, the enterprising Sarah Sabola, alias Sarah Lyons, a young Jewish convict from the East End of London, having acquired lengths of black cloth, progressed with other convict women through the city barefoot and wan, bearing Catholic symbols such as crucifixes and rosaries, and attracted gifts of cash and goods from generous citizens.

Neither Lieutenant Edgar nor Captain Aitken seemed to have punished such enterprises. Nor did they cast judgment on the convict girls who accommodated Spanish gentlemen aboard, as had not been permitted in the First Fleet. The former London madam Elizabeth Sully, who had run a lodging house at 45 Cable Street, East London, had been sentenced with three of her girls for robbing clients. (The watch of a client was found secreted in Sully's bed.) They and other former prostitutes welcomed visitors aboard, and after leaving St. Jago in the Cape Verde islands, the Lady Juliana was accompanied for some distance by two Yankee slavers making for the Gambia. The two ships stuck close for the sake of “the ladies,” sailors being rowed over to the Lady Juliana from the slavers for evening recreation. Naturally, not all convict women were involved in the prostitution, but the former prostitutes who serviced the visitors from the whalers seemed to have been happy to build up their resources for the uncertainty of what was coming. One historian of the Lady Juliana believes that Nicol, Surgeon Alley, Captain Aitken, and Lieutenant Edgar must have been in some way facilitators and profiteers of the flesh trade on the Lady Juliana, and it is hard to see how they could have been opposed to it. They certainly approached it all with a Georgian pragmatism unclouded by too much piety.

As some of the Lady Juliana women disported themselves in Rio, a city decked for an exuberant Christmas, the Guardian had left Cape Town and was at 42 degrees 15 minutes, a latitude generally too far north for icebergs. Nonetheless, the sailor of the masthead sighted ice. On Christmas Eve an extended ice pack stretched ahead. Riou brought the Guardian close in to one outcrop and two boats were hauled off to allow sailors to chop off lumps of ice to serve as water for the cattle. By the time the boats got back to the ship with their ice blocks, visibility had diminished. Guardiancrept along, its captain looking for a safe passage, but a semisubmerged ice spur raked open the ship's keel. She tore free, but her rudder was left stuck in the ice. Water flooded into her hull.

Two days of frenzied endeavour began. Riou fothered his ship, that is, wrapped up the hull in a bandage of two layers of sail. After hours at the pump, some men found the liquor store and drank themselves stupid as a means of facing death. The day after Christmas, Riou gave those who chose, including the specialist artisan convicts, permission to give up the ship and take to the sea in the boats. Most of the seamen left, but the convict artificers stayed. It would turn out that theirs was the right choice. Only fifteen of those who took to the boats would survive.

Seven weeks later, covered in dirt and rags and with long beards, the group who stayed on Guardian sighted some whalers who led them back to the Cape of Good Hope. The Lady Juliana, fifty days from Rio, came into Cape Town to find the ruin of the Guardian low in the water and its masts and rigging in disarray. Most of the livestock Riou had bought on his first visit to Cape Town had been drowned or trampled in the ship's wreckage. Riou and Lieutenant Edgar of the Lady Juliana went ashore to search out an old friend also unexpectedly in Cape Town: Captain Bligh and the part of his crew of Bounty who had stuck with him following the mutiny led by Fletcher Christian. Bligh and his loyalists had sailed a cutter all the way from where the mutiny had occurred in the Pacific to Dutch Timor, and then had been conveyed to Batavia and Cape Town.

The Lady Juliana suffered its own emergency in port. “While we lay at the Cape,” said Nicol, “we had a narrow escape from destruction by fire. The carpenter allowed the pitch-pot to boil over upon the deck, and the flames rose in an amazing manner. The shrieks of the women were dreadful, and the confusion they made running about drove everyone stupid. I ran to my berth, seized a pair of blankets to keep it down till the others drowned it with water. Captain Aitken gave me a handsome present for my exertions.”

Riou had the sad duty of beaching the Guardian for careening, and ultimately of abandoning it. He had saved a flock of sheep and two Cape stallions, and these were transshipped to the Lady Juliana with wine, a small number of barrels of flour, and some Admiralty dispatches. Five agricultural work superintendents were also put on the Lady Juliana.

All twenty-five of the convict artificers of Guardian would need eventually to be delivered to Sydney Cove too. Riou had to find quarters for them ashore, and intended to petition the authorities to pardon them for their brave work in the saving of the Guardian. It would indeed happen after they reached Sydney, but not before Phillip first emancipated his brickmaker, Bloodworth.

Had the Guardian been able to continue to Sydney, it would have arrived in March 1790 and saved Phillip from the further reductions to the rations made in April 1790. By that time, weekly, 21/2 pounds of flour, 2 pounds of pork, and 2 of rice were the limit for each British soul in New South Wales. Because of the energy needed to fish and hunt, an extra measure of rations was set aside for gamekeepers and fishermen. At the cooking fires in the men's and women's camps, prisoners looked covetously at each other's shares, and in the marines' huts wives asked their husbands how they were expected to keep children healthy on a few flapjacks a week, insect-infected rice, and pork that shrunk to half its weight as the brine cooked out. In late April it became apparent that the pork in the storehouse would last only until 26 August at the current low rate of consumption, and the beef similarly.

BACK IN THE THAMES, in a squally autumn and cold early winter of 1789, following the departure of the Lady Juliana and the Guardian, pris-oners from Newgate were gradually accommodated aboard the newly contracted vessels at Deptford—Surprize, Scarborough, and NeptuneNeptunewas the largest, 809 tons with a crew of eighty-three. It was first commanded by Thomas Gilbert, who had captained the Charlotte in the First Fleet and whose book, Journal of a Voyage from Port Jackson, New South Wales to Canton in 1788 Through an Unexplored Passage, was about to be published in London to considerable interest. The Scarborough, which had already made the journey once, was half the size of the Neptune. The 400-ton Surprize was the smallest of the three and a very poor sailer. It was captained by Donald Trail, a former master to Bligh, who had recently commanded one of Camden, Calvert and King's slave ships.

On 15 October 1789 the ships were ordered to move out of the Dept-ford docks on the south bank of the Thames and embark soldiers and convicts in the river. One hundred soldiers of the New South Wales Corps were on board, at least in theory, from early November. They were accommodated in the gun rooms, forecastles, and steerage areas of the ships, around the convict decks. The rumour was that some of these fellows were less than prime soldiery, and it was said by the press that some were ruffians recruited from the Savoy military prison. Many of this new regiment, particularly some of the young officers, tolerated the inconvenience of being sent so far abroad because they hoped for power, influence, and riches from New South Wales.

Almost all the convicts taken aboard in the river had been confined for some years, having traded the death sentence for a period of transportation to New South Wales, generally for life. Some came directly from Newgate, but the Neptune prisoners came as well from the Justitia and Censor in the Thames. They were a sullen and angry cargo, but cowed and already weakening.

The ships would sail around the south-east coast to collect prisoners from the Lion and Fortune hulks in Portsmouth, as well as from the notorious Dunkirk hulk at Plymouth. The Dunkirk topped up the prison deck population of the transports by sending 290 convicts on board. Among those who came onto the huge Neptune at that time was a lusty young man in his mid-twenties, Robert Towers, who had stolen silver tankards and pint-pots from an inn in north Lancashire and then tried to sell them to a silversmith in Preston. His health had gone down a little on the damp lower decks of Dunkirk, but on the crowded prison deck of Neptune, where he wore slaver shackles around his ankles and wrists and got insufficient exercise, he began to feel really poorly. The Neptune, at anchor and at sea, would ultimately finish him, though it would take seven months until they brought his corpse up to deck and committed him to a distant ocean.

In late November when the Neptune was lying in Plymouth, the Secretary of State found that there was room for forty more women—at 18 inches of bed width per person. The Surprize had earlier embarked ninety-eight convicts from the hulks at Gravesend and then took on 130 male convicts from the Ceres hulk in Portsmouth and a few from the Fortune. Thus there was a heavy admixture of West Country and East End accents on the prison decks. By raw mid-December all three ships were anchored on the Motherbank off Portsmouth, making final preparations.

There had been a rough criterion this time for selecting those who went aboard—the idea was to remove the convicts who had been in the hulks the longest time. But, as with the First Fleet, that meant there were prisoners being transported who had already served years of their sentences. In committing them to deep space, more than one or two clerks and officials must have understood that it would also ensure that those prisoners sentenced to seven- or fourteen-year terms were unlikely to return from New South Wales. New South Wales was to be the great oubliette, in which convicts could be deposited and forgotten by British society at large.

On Neptune, even between Plymouth and Portsmouth, where the men were racked by catarrh and congestive disorders, a number of the convicts had already died, but there was general and unquestioned agreement that it was a consequence of the physical condition in which they had arrived from the hulks and prisons. There were other signs of indifference to convict welfare, however, early on. Either Trail or Shapcote, the naval agent, ordered many of the convicts' chests thrown overboard with their possessions in them. Women who had thought to dress better and more warmly while at sea were now reduced to the basic convict dress—striped jacket and petticoat, navy shoes, inadequate blankets.

By early December 1789, while the healthy women of Lady Juliana were in Rio, Under Secretary Evan Nepean had become anxious about reports of the conditions on board the Second Fleet, and told the naval agent that he was to “examine minutely into the manner of confining the convicts, as it has been represented that they are ironed in such a manner as must ultimately tend to their destruction.” Secretary of State Grenville sent Governor Phillip an ominous dispatch urging him to disembark the prisoners as early as possible when they arrived, “as from the length of the passage from hence and the nature of their food, there is every reason to expect that many of them will be reduced to so debilitated a state that immediate relief will be found expedient.” It is a letter which reflects some culpability on the Home Secretary.

Male convicts were suddenly told that they could bring their wives on the voyage, if they chose, but only three women and three children turned up in Portsmouth by 21 December. Three or four other free women embarked in the following days, interesting volunteers, lovers of various convicts willing to take the step, on the eve of Christmas, into the void.

Amongst them was Harriet Hodgetts, wife of a twenty-four-year-old blacksmith-cum-burglar from Staffordshire, Thomas Hodgetts. She had followed her husband down from Staffordshire to London, where she lived with their three small children in acute squalor in Whitechapel. It seems that the churchwardens and overseers of the parish of St. Mary's Whitechapel took an interest in her case and were anxious to get Harriet aboard, since she had no other prospects at all.

That made her fit for New South Wales. Her revenge was to live till 1850 and to give birth to nine colonial children.

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