THERE WERE TWO YOUNG MEN aboard the Neptune who would find a large place in New South Wales history. One of these men had a new rank and was a touch bumptious about it. He was John Macarthur, a little over twenty years of age, and a lieutenant in the 102nd Regiment, the newly created New South Wales Corps. His father was a Scots draper who lived at the back of his business in Plymouth. He had been able to obtain, that is, buy, an ensign's commission for John for a regiment intended to be sent to fight the American colonists. When that war ended, it left young men at a loose end and John Macarthur did some farming, considered the law, returned to full pay in 1788 as an ensign, but then in June 1789, when the formation of the New South Wales Corps was announced, saw the chance of promotion and became a lieutenant.
He had married the previous year a robust-spirited and handsome girl named Elizabeth Veal, a Cornish woman who considered her ambitious and volatile husband “too proud and haughty for our humble fortune.” It was Macarthur and his fellow officers, not the convicts, who introduced turbulence into Captain Tom Gilbert's Neptune.
Captain Nicholas Nepean of the New South Wales Corps, brother of Evan Nepean, the Undersecretary at the Home Office, and Lieutenant John Macarthur were demanding young men. Macarthur and his young wife were billeted in a cramped space next to the women's convict deck and could hear their shouts and curses. These were not women of Elizabeth's gentility, and yet when Captain Nepean spoke to Gilbert about it in Macarthur's presence, Gilbert “flew into one of his passions,” saying that he did not understand people making mountains out of molehills, and threatening to write to the War Office to have Macarthur thrown off his ship. Macarthur called him an insolent fellow, but was pushed aside.
When the ship anchored in Plymouth in November 1789, Macarthur went up to the quarterdeck and upbraided the captain for his “ungentleman-like conduct,” and called him a “great scoundrel.” Gilbert responded by saying “he had settled many a greater man” than Macarthur. So the two agreed to meet at four o'clock in the afternoon for a pistol duel at the Fountain Tavern on Plymouth Dock. Accompanied by an Irish surgeon as second, Macarthur faced Gilbert on the stones of the Old Gun Wharf. The two duellists fired at each other. Macarthur's ball sizzled through Gilbert's greatcoat. Then Gilbert's missed altogether. Their seconds came running in and stopped the confrontation, and both men decided that their honour had been satisfied.
But enmity continued. The army officers, Captain Nepean on the Neptune and Captain Hill on the Surprize, insisted that they have command of the convicts. Captain Gilbert would not surrender the convict deck keys to them. Evan Nepean, Under Secretary of State, was drawn into the argument, declaring, “I trust that both sides, when out of the smell of land, will find it in their interests to live quietly together.”
In any case, a decision was reached between the Navy Board, the Home Office, and the contractors to remove Thomas Gilbert as master of Neptune. Macarthur and Nepean and the New South Wales Corps would eventually bring down bigger fish than Gilbert, but they were pleased with themselves for their first triumph.
The other fascinating passenger of Neptune was a young Irishman, D'Arcy Wentworth, aged about twenty-seven, a highwayman-cum-surgeon, a voluntary passenger in one sense, a virtual convict in others. He was tall and good-looking and spoke English with an Ulster brogue. He had acquired notoriety in Britain throughout the 1780s as “a gentleman of the road,” whom the public and even magistrates distinguished from “the lower and more depraved part of the fraternity of thieves.”
D'Arcy Wentworth was the son of an Ulster innkeeper, a relative of the noble Fitzwilliam clan of Portadown. He served as an officer in the Ulster volunteers, a militia unit, during the North American emergency. But the militia was not sent to America, and the end of the emergency left Wentworth careerless. He suffered from a not uncommon problem of Irish younger sons of the Protestant tradition: he had a strong sense of being a member of the Ascendency in Ireland, and an appetite for the wealth and station that should attend such a status, but in dismal Portadown he was not well connected enough to achieve it. Earl Fitzwilliam had no interest in supporting the youngest son of a distant kinsman, so Wentworth was left both with a sense of his own worth, confirmed in him by his seven doting older sisters, and no wealth to affirm it.
Before serving in the militia, he had completed an apprenticeship with an Irish surgeon and in 1785 he left for London, where the Court of Examiners of the Company of Surgeons certified him an assistant surgeon. Now he set himself to “walk the hospitals,” but the impoverished Irish medical student in London's great world did not have the temperament to live quietly and carefully. In criminal society at the Dog and Duck Tavern in St. George's Field south of the river, he could pass as a real toff, live fairly cheaply, encounter raffish society, and attract women with his tall frame and his vigorous Irish banter. By November that year, however, Wentworth had been arrested. He had held up a man on Hounslow Heath. The victim described the perpetrator as a large, lusty man who wore a black silk mask and a drab-coloured great coat. The next day Wentworth's mistress, Mary Wilkinson, sold a silver watch to a pawnbroker in Soho. Four days later still, a gentleman, his wife, and a female friend were held up on Hounslow Heath by a solitary highwayman on a chestnut horse with a white blaze. Two Bow Street Runners intercepted Wentworth as he returned to the city and brought him before a magistrate. During his examination by the magistrate Wentworth declared with apparent sincerity that if Miss Wilkinson were “brought into trouble upon his account, he would destroy himself.” Wentworth stood trial in the Old Bailey in December 1787. Though he inveighed against the press for swinging the jury against him, his victims seemed reluctant to identify him.
Behind Greenwich and south-east of the Dog and Duck lay the plateau called Blackheath, with Shooters' Hill rising from it. In January 1788, Wentworth was the so-called masked gentleman highwayman who rode out of the roadside heath and held up two travellers. In the same month on Shooters' Hill, three highwaymen held up Alderman William Curtis (who owned ships in the First Fleet) and two other gentlemen. These two hold-ups netted goods valued at over £50. One of Wentworth's accomplices, William Manning, was captured in Lewisham, and an address in his pocketbook led Bow Street Runners to Wentworth's London lodgings, where they arrested him again.
Before the magistrates and later in Newgate, Wentworth pleaded his family's good name and said that he had become degraded by the evil influence of the clientele of the Dog and Duck. Not only did he have to face a number of charges of highway robbery, but the trial was moved to Maid-stone, Kent, where the Lent assizes met, in the hope of finding a jury who would convict without fear or favour.
That was the month the eleven ships of the First Fleet had gathered on the Motherbank, preparatory for departure. One commentator said he saw Wentworth on board the Charlotte, and that he had the job of ship's surgeon, but if it was so, the authorities did not in the end allow Wentworth's friends to intervene in this way and get him out of the country to save his noble relatives' embarrassment.
Acquitted in Maidstone, because of uncertainty of identification, Wentworth met Earl Fitzwilliam, his young kinsman, in London for a solemn talk. But by the end of November 1788, Wentworth had been arrested again for holding up a post-chaise carrying two barristers of Lincoln's Inn across Finchley Common north of Hampstead Heath. Two masked highwaymen carried out the exploit. Stripping the gentlemen of the bar of their valuables, one of the highwaymen whispered, “Good morrow.” One of the lawyers said to his companion, “If I was not sure that D'Arcy Wentworth was out of the kingdom, I should be sure it was him.” It must have been believed by these worthy gentlemen that D'Arcy had been got out of the country to New South Wales by influential supporters.
The following year, 1789, someone identified as Wentworth asked a surgeon to come and operate on a friend of his, “Jack Day,” suffering from a pistol wound. Wentworth's associate had to be taken to hospital, was grilled by Bow Street officers, and the result was Wentworth's own arrest and interrogation in November.
This time his trial at the Old Bailey was such a cause célèbre that it was attended by members of the Royal Family, including the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland. On 9 December, when the Surprize, Neptune, and Scarborough were assembled on the Motherbank, Wentworth appeared before a lenient judge and his lawyer victims did not prosecute, having known him socially. The jury came back with a verdict of not guilty, and the prosecuting parties were pleased to announce that Mr. Wentworth “has taken a passage to go in the fleet to Botany Bay; and has obtained an appointment in it, as assistant surgeon, and desires to be discharged immediately.” Lord Fitzwilliam had agreed to fit his kinsman out and pay his fare to New South Wales on the Neptune.
In fact, D'Arcy Wentworth had no official position aboard the ship. The quality of Great Britain often got rid of their wild relatives by de facto, above-decks transportation, and Wentworth would be an early well-documented instance of what would become a habitual recourse for embarrassed British families. Now he was alone in a little hutch aboard, bouncing on the swell of the Motherbank, amongst pungent odours and people he did not know, and at twenty-seven was still without a post.
After Captain Gilbert was removed from Neptune, Captain Trail, the forty-four-year-old Orkney Island Scot and one-time master to Captain Bligh, took over command. He had sailed on Camden, Calvert and King's Recovery as master, along the African coast “recruiting” slaves. Now he came over with his wife from the Surprize to take over the fleet's biggest ship, Neptune, and it would prove a dismal day for Neptune's convicts.
The Neptune alone now held over 500—428 male and 78 female—of the 1,000 convicts to be shipped. Most of them were housed on the orlop deck, the third deck down, 75 feet by 35, with standing room below the beams of the ceiling only 5 feet 7 inches. The convicts slept in four rows of sleeping trays, one row on either side of the ship and two down the middle. Lanterns burned on the convict deck till eight o'clock at night, and each ship had to carry the latest ventilating equipment in the hope that air would reach the convict deck even in the tropics. In port, and for much of the journey, each convict was chained by the wrist or by the ankles, in many cases on Neptune two and two together, and indefinitely so. Trail must have known the impact this would have on individual cleanliness and health.
As usual, each group of six men or women chose their mess steward, and the food these mess orderlies collected morning and evening was cooked in communal coppers above deck. In bad weather the food had to be cooked below deck in the oven and coppers that were used first for the rations of the crew and soldiers, with the result that many of the convicts went without cooked food during wild weather.
The sanitary arrangements were very primitive—on the orlop deck large tubs were provided to “ease nature.” These would be knocked over by accident or carelessness or rough seas. Some of the smells reached the Macarthurs in their little cabin by the women's prison area on a higher deck. Mrs. Macarthur found the malodour hard to bear: “together with the stench arising from the breath of such a number of persons confined in so small a spot, the smell of their provisions and other unwholesome things, made it almost unbearable.”
The seventy-eight female convicts of Neptune were housed in a section of the upper deck and were not chained. They were allowed the range of the poop and quarterdeck during considerable parts of the day while at sea. It was an age when women were considered to have different dietary needs from men, and so they received smaller portions of meat and a larger proportion of bread. But they also got a ration of tea and brown sugar, as the Lady Juliana women had. The agent and captain of the Lady Juliana had allowed seamen considerable sexual freedom with the women, and in that spirit, a few days after the Second Fleet left England, the crew of the Neptune sent a petition to the captain regarding a promise they believed he had made in port to let them have access to the female convicts. Trail denied having made any promise to allow them sea-wives, and he punished men who had any unauthorised contact with the women. But still sailors got to women, and vice versa—in some cases through a break in the bulkhead between the carpenters' shop and the women's prison.
As for D'Arcy Wentworth, he fell passionately in love with a pretty Irish convict of seventeen years named Catherine Crowley. She had been sentenced in Staffordshire for one of the usual offences, stealing clothing—although in her case it was a considerable amount of clothing. Catherine was sent down from Stafford gaol to London on the outside of a coach with three other girls, and boarded the Neptune. Wentworth had at first taken this young woman on as his servant, and she would have welcomed the relative freedom inherent in that situation. With Captain Donald Trail's at least tacit consent, D'Arcy made her his mistress soon after he joined the ship.
Without reflecting on Crowley's individual and demonstrably loyal motives, Wentworth, despite his status as the Second Fleet's only paying passenger, was a gentleman with accompanying entitlements—and a vigorous lover. In reality, Wentworth may have been a more lonely figure aboard Neptune than Crowley was. And he remained so, not interfering, not being invited to interfere as a physician in what befell Catherine Crowley's convict brethren.
So, in close quarters on Neptune could be found two furiously ambitious young men: one a reclusive, prickly officer, John Macarthur, with his wife, Elizabeth, pregnant; and the other the founding social outcast of penal New South Wales, D'Arcy Wentworth, with his lover, Catherine Crowley, pregnant. Elizabeth Veal Macarthur would be a more kindly, more loyal, and more enduring Becky Sharp, to the extent that she broke that mean mould and became her own woman, clear-eyed even amongst the miasmas of Neptune. Her as yet callow husband would be harder to admire so unconditionally.
Catherine Crowley would have been as surprised as the politer Macarthurs to find out that the child she carried on Neptune would one day become Australia's first great constitutional statesman. But all that future was mired in shipboard squalor, stench, and dimness, and they sailed towards a place whose future was un-guaranteed in any case.