Chapter Twenty-Three


WHEN LIEUTENANT BALL of the Supply had been in Batavia in 1790, gathering supplies and sending Lieutenant King on his way to Whitehall on a Dutch ship, he had chartered a snow, a small, squarerigged ship which carried an additional sprit-sail mast aft of the main-mast, to bring further supplies to Sydney. Sailing in Supply's wake, the snow Waaksamheyd (Wakefulness), of about 300 tons, under the Dutch master Detmer Smith, lost sixteen of her Malay crew along the way from fevers that had been incubating in them as they left Batavia. A young British midshipman who travelled on the snow as Ball's representative was in a shockingly skeletal and fever-ridden condition when landed from Waaksamheyd in Sydney in December 1790. No one was surprised, given Batavia's repute as an unhealthy place. The snow also brought the news that the sick crew members Lieutenant Ball had left at that port as too ill to safely sail back to Sydney Cove had all died except one. As Tench eloquently wrote, “Death, to a man who has resided in Batavia, is too familiar an object to excite either terror or regret.”

The snow brought with it a cargo of rice and some beef, pork, flour, and sugar as well. By an arrangement not uncommon in food distribution to this day, the British were willing to lose 5 pounds in 100 of the rice, but after that deduction was made there was a nearly 43,000-pound deficiency in the rice Detmer Smith landed. Smith had rice and flour aboard which he claimed was his own, and then proceeded to sell to the commissary in return for money or butter.

At some stage Phillip would decide that despite Detmer Smith's chicanery, this would be a good ship to contract for taking the officers and ship's company of the Sirius back to England for the pro forma courtmartial which always followed the loss of a British naval vessel. Stranded Captain Hunter, fetched back with his crew by the Supply from Norfolk Island in the new year of 1791, did not think the Dutch snow was suitable, “for, anxious as I was to reach England as soon as possible, I should with much patience rather awaited the arrival of an English ship, than to have embarked under the direction, or at the disposal, of the foreigner.” Phillip, too, found dealing with Detmer Smith very hard, believing him impertinent, perverse, and crass. “The frantic, extravagant behaviour of the master of her, for a long time frustrated the conclusion of a contract. He was so totally lost to a sense of reason and propriety, as to ask for £11 per ton, monthly, for her use.”

To pressure Phillip, Smith made as if to sail with Waaksamheyd, but merely dropped downharbour to bushy Camp Cove and waited. At last a contract was achieved, and Hunter and the crew of Sirius boarded the Dutch vessel. Not all the crew would travel—perhaps Bosun Brooks and Mrs. Deborah Brooks, who had earlier enchanted Captain Phillip, remained in Sydney, though there is no evidence either way. But it was above all upon the officers that the duty lay of presenting themselves to the Admiralty and facing courtmartial for the loss of Sirius.

Phillip wrote to the Home Secretary by way of the Dutch snow with a new request to match an earlier one he had sent, expressing a desire to return to England on account of “private affairs.” To the “matters of serious concern” he had already mentioned was added the statement that he found his health so much impaired that he was obliged “on that account” to request permission to leave the colony.

The private affairs were to do with his estranged wife, Margaret, particularly as to what his future might be in the light of any legacy she left him, or bills she expected him to meet after her death. When he left for New South Wales in 1787, he was aware she had been ill and unlikely to live many years, and he saw both benefits and horrific legal responsibilities potentially arising out of her death, if in her will she made him responsible for all the liabilities attached to the estate he had run for her at Lyndhurst. He wondered whether his future was to be one spent on halfpay, in cheese-paring gentility, or in affluence.

But in the request he gave Grenville, Secretary of State, was the added information that for the past two years, “I have never been a week free from a pain in my side, which undermines and wears me out, and though this colony is not exactly in the state in which I would have wished to have left it, another year may do much, and it is at present so fully established, that I think there cannot any longer be any doubt that it will, if settlers are sent out, answer in every respect the end proposed by government in making the settlement.”

That word “answer” had arisen again. By the same ship, Collins had told his father that “this colony, under the present system of supplying it, will never answer.” It was as if the place was being asked a question, and gave only a subtle response, which Phillip alone could hear.

The recurrent bouts of pain he sincerely complained of were due to calcium deposits in his urinary tract, a condition which was then one of the seaman's occupational hazards, because of the use of salt to preserve food. Earlier he described it as “a violent pain in my left kidney.”

Just as the Waaksamheyd had been about to depart, four officers, of whom the most senior was Captain Tench, who had been placed under arrest by Major Ross for bringing down an alternative sentence on Private Hunt in the colony's early days, sought to draw to Phillip's attention the fact that it was three years since the day they were placed under arrest, and that the Act of Parliament regulating the marines stipulated that no one should stand trial if on shore more than three years since the commission of the alleged offence. They still felt very heated about their arrest and about Ross's insistence that they revoke their sentence, and were “indignant at the novelty and disgrace of the situation unexampled in British military annals.” As it was possible that a promotion in the corps in which they served might have taken place since the date of the last dispatches from Britain, “there is but too much reason to dread that we may have been passed over as prisoners who had forfeited the common claim of service. Dear as promotion is to a soldier, we deem it but a secondary consideration when put in competition with the honour and preservation of our characters in the military profession.”

They asked Phillip to release them from their technical confinement, which he did, and transmit a copy of his letter doing so to the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty. They also begged Phillip to make it clear to their Lordships that “we have not by misconduct forfeited our pretensions to their favour.”

Phillip also sent off by Waaksamheyd a letter to Sir Joseph Banks which rings strangely to later ears. “I am sorry that I cannot send you a head. After the ravages made by the small pox, numbers were seen in every part, but the natives burned the bodies.”

Surgeon White, too, appealed to Grenville to allow him to go home to England because of “the failure of [an] agent, who had in his hands my whole patrimony.” Naval men employed agents to mind their affairs, chase up back pay and bounty money. But with White the issue must have been resolved, since he stayed on in New South Wales for years yet.

HUNTER WAS WELL RECONCILED to the Waaksamheyd by the time the Dutch ship departed. On the journey home, he undertook a policy of calling meetings of his officers and Detmer Smith—for example, to discuss their water situation, the water casks having been built from “old wormeaten staves, which had been lying exposed to the sun for more than a year.” They were to try to land on Norfolk Island on the way if they could, and were unable to because of weather, but on that short leg “we had lost by leakage full three weeks water.” Hunter and Smith veered northward, running into adverse winds again off New Caledonia, and hoped to reach Timor by a new route by sailing around the north of New Guinea, in order to avoid the fever port of Batavia on Java. It became necessary for them to go to Java, however, since contrary winds delayed them so long.

It would take Hunter and the other surviving sailors till the following year to reach Portsmouth. Their voyage was marked by Hunter's wisdom and inventiveness. He proved the exact location of the reef-girt Solomon Islands, and discovered a passage between Bougainville and Buka, a passage which would in a much later war in the twentieth century become a graveyard for Australian, American, and Japanese sailors. Twenty-two of Hunter's sailors had fever when they left Batavia, and three would die by Cape Town, where at Hunter's insistence the Waaksamheyd would wait sixteen weeks, until mid-January 1792, to allow recuperation.

In April that year, the snow reached Portsmouth. Hunter faced his courtmartial and was exonerated.

IN NEW SOUTH WALES in April 1791, with the Waaksamheyd seen off, another exploration of the hinterland was planned. The expedition's aim was to cross the Hawkesbury River near Richmond Hill and then push on to those same western mountains whose deep canyons and cliffs had earlier turned Dawes back. Phillip had named them the Carmarthens, but everyone called them the Blue Mountains.

Apart from Phillip, Watkin Tench was one of the expeditionary group that also intended to find out whether the Hawkesbury River to the north-west and the Nepean River to the west were one and the same watercourse. Dawes, Collins, White, Colby, the youth Ballooderry, two marine sergeants, eight soldiers, and three convicts who were assessed to be good shots made up the party. Dawes steered north-west by compass, an instrument to which Colby and Ballooderry gave the title naamora, to see the way.

The country immediately west of Rose Hill did not much scare Colby, who said that most of the people from there, the Bidjigals, had died of the galgalla, smallpox. Further west still was the Hawkesbury River clan called the Booroo Berongal, and encountering one of their encampments, Colby and Ballooderry felt at risk and wanted to burn down the few shelters. They said these inland people were not trustworthy, and native huts, easily rendered of bark and brush, were reproducible compared to hunting weapons or other laboured-over implements, the stealing of which would have constituted a serious insult.

When they reached the bushy banks of the Hawkesbury River, the problems the Europeans had walking through the entangled undergrowth and their frequent falls caused amusement to Colby and his young friend. If the person who fell “shaken nigh to death” got angry with them, Üthey retorted in a moment, by calling him every opprobrious name which their language affords.” Their favourite term of insult was gonin patta, an eater of human excrement.

Again, Phillip was defeated by the country and was unable to scale the Blue Mountains. Meeting some Broken Bay, Hawkesbury River Aboriginals, Tench noticed that “they spoke different dialects of the same language.” One of those they met, Yarramundi, was a great carradhy and, on request, treated Colby for an old wound below the left breast caused by a short, two-pronged spear. Colby began the consultation by asking for some water, and Tench gave him a cupful which he presented “with great seriousness” to Yarramundi. Yarramundi took the cup and filled his mouth with the fluid, but instead of swallowing it, threw his head into Colby's chest, “spit the water upon him; and immediately after began to suck strongly at his breast, just below the nipple. The action was repeated with great seriousness and after a time, Yarramundi pretended to take something into his mouth which he had drawn out of Colby's chest. With this he retired a few paces, put his hand to his lips, and threw into the river a stone, which I had observed him to pick up slyly, and secrete.” Returning to the fireside, Colby assured everyone that he had “received signal benefit from this operation.” He gave Yarramundi for his services some of his supper and a knitted woollen nightcap.

Everyone was impressed by the tree-climbing capacity of the Hawkesbury River natives, and a young man gave his coastal brothers Colby and Ballooderry and the gentlemen an exhibition in climbing the smooth and slippery trunks of eucalpyts, looking for possums.

Phillip was excited to tell Sir Joseph Banks later in the year about the journey and to note the difference of the Hawkesbury language from that of the coastal people—indeed, he went so far as to see them as two separate languages. Collins, on the other hand, like Tench, noticed that “our companions conversed with the river natives without apparent difficulty, each understanding or comprehending the other.” By now Colby and Ballooderry had grown uneasy amongst the inland strangers and were keen to return to known parts. They kept up a chant of “Where's Rose Hill; where? ”

IT WAS TYPICAL OF THOSE early explorations that bush or water or steep terraces of sandstone would defeat the part-time explorers of Sydney and Parramatta. In fact the most astounding of the journeys of this era of heroic journeying was one plotted and undertaken by the convict couple William and Mary Bryant. They wanted nothing less than to reverse, by their own will, the policy that had found them here. Their hope was to become the first to rise from their pit and appear again on the shores of the known world.

In February 1789, Will Bryant had been sentenced to be flogged for trading in fish on his own behalf. After the flogging of 100 lashes, he had been kept on in the fishing service because, as Captain Collins said, “Notwithstanding his villainy, he was too useful a person to part with and send to a brick cart.” Bryant burned inwardly however. Like her husband, Mary also resented his punishment, and hated being cast out of her privileged position on the east side of the cove and made to live with her infant daughter, Charlotte, in the squalor of the convict camp in the Rocks (as the west side would become known).

There, in the general camp, not only did she need to listen to the mockery of fellow prisoners and references to her fallen status, but she and her family were exposed to the full hardship of the Sydney Cove diet. Into such deprivation was Mary's second child, Emmanuel, born, and baptised by the Reverend Richard Johnson on 4 April 1790. The dilemma of people like William and Mary Bryant was reflected more urbanely in a slightly overstated but valid letter Surgeon White wrote in April 1790 to a dealer in hams, tongues, and salt salmon in the Strand, London. “Much cannot now be done, limited in food and reduced as people are, who have not had one ounce of fresh animal food since first in the country; a country and place so forbidden and so hateful as only to merit execration and curses; for it has been a source of expense to the Mother Country, and of evil and misfortune to us, without there ever being the smallest likelihood of its repaying or recompensing either. From what we have already seen we may conclude there is not a single article in the whole country that in the nature of things could prove of the smallest use or advantage to the Mother Country or the commercial world. In the name of Heaven, what has the Ministry been about? Surely they have quite forgotten or neglected us? … This is so much out of the world and tract of commerce that it could never answer.”

The Bryants were by no means the only ones who desired escape in those months. In Rose Hill in September 1790, newly arrived John Terwood (or Tarwood) proposed an escape to Tahiti to five others. Terwood was a former sailor and a highway robber and stock thief in the London area. Collins thought him “a daring, desperate character, and the principal in the scheme.” Terwood's accomplice in a theft of bullocks from marshlands at Poplar, on the edge of the city of London, and three others as well, were willing to go along with him.

One night, the group led by Terwood came down the Parramatta River from Rose Hill and into the harbour, and then stole “a wretched weak boat” from the lookout station at South Head, and got away. They were not heard from again for years, and were presumed to have died at sea. Five years later, four of them would be found at Port Stephens some way up the New South Wales coast, very scrawny, praising the kindness of the natives but anxious for return to their own kind. The fifth and oldest man of the group, Sutton, had by then died.

Bryant knew that in his turn, he would go much better equipped than Terwood and company, and that his boat wouldn't be “a wretched weak” one.

When towards the year's end, the Waaksamheyd arrived in the wake of the Supply, Captain Smith and William Bryant made repeated contact with each other. If the English thought little of Smith, Smith was willing to return the favour and at some stage, in secrecy, sold Will Bryant a compass, a quadrant, and a chart covering the route to Batavia via the eastern coast of New South Wales and Torres Strait. Then, towards the end of February 1791, Bryant called a meeting with five other convicts in his hut proposing the stealing of the boat in which he was employed. A passer-by overheard the discussion, and it was reported to the Governor, who ordered that a watch be kept on Bryant. It was the next day, however, that an accident—the near overturning and swamping of the fishing boat—put the likelihood of an escape out of everyone's mind but Bryant's.

It was an event whose main point at the time was that it helped heal the relationship between Phillip and Bennelong. Bennelong's sister, Karangarang, was fishing in the government cutter with William Bryant, his crew members, and two native children when it was hit by an unexpected and typically violent Port Jackson southerly storm. The boat was over-burdened with a fish catch, and was swamped with water. Karangarang took the two children on her shoulders in a moment and swam ashore with them. Several natives ashore, including Bennelong, seeing that the boat was being driven onto rocks, gave every possible assistance, “without which, in all probability, one of the crew would have been drowned … in these friendly offices Bennelong was very assiduous: this behaviour gave Governor Phillip an opportunity of receiving him in a more kindly manner than he had done since his bad behaviour.”

Everyone thought that the accident to the boat had put an end to Bryant's plans, since it had demonstrated the unsuitability of the cutter for what he had in mind. But he had been enthused, as the officers had been, by the news that had come to Sydney by Supply and Waaksamheyd of the mutiny on Bounty, and of Captain Bligh's journey in an open launch from the mid-Pacific site of the mutiny to Timor. What Bligh could do, Bryant believed he could reproduce. And because of the recent overturn of the boat, it had been refitted at government expense with new sails, mast, and oars.

An additional motive for him was that though he knew his term of transportation had expired—he had been sentenced in 1784—he must have doubted that the papers proving his time had been served would ever turn up. In 1790, Phillip had written to Nepean, asking for further information about how to deal with the people whose time had expired. “We have now near thirty under the circumstances, and their number will increase as well as their discontents.” In his discontent, Bryant had by now acquired two muskets and various supplies. His and Mary's accumulated secret cache for their proposed escape included 100 pounds of flour, 100 pounds of rice, 14 pounds of pork, about 8 gallons of water, a new net, two tents, carpenter's tools, and fishing gear. Mary Bryant had also collected a little pharmaceutical kit, included amongst it the triple-veined leaves of the native sarsaparilla. (Some of her Smilax leaves would end up, as souvenirs of her escape, all over the world. )

Seven other convicts accompanied them, and while not all of them had seamanship, Samuel Bird and the former seaman William Morton both did. Four of Bryant's escapees had come in the Second Fleet. Amongst them, James Cox, a colonial cabinet-maker, had been one of those who had skipped ship as a result of the mutiny on the Mercury in 1782. The wood of New South Wales did not suit his craft. He had a life sentence, and was ready to flee. Before he left, Cox left a letter to his lover, Sarah Young, in the hut where he pursued his cabinet-making. The letter called on her “to give over the pursuits of the vices” which, he told her, prevailed in the settlement. He left her whatever property of his remained, and explained that it was the hopelessness of his situation, “being transported for life, without the prospect of any mitigation, or hope of ever quitting the country,” which drove him to take part in Bryant's plans.

Between nine and midnight on the evening of the day the Waaksamheyd departed Sydney, the Bryant party, some of whom were rostered on for fishing that night, stole the government boat and crept downharbour past the light at the lookout station where Sergeant Scott and his men were obliviously posted. They met with gratitude and exhilaration the pulse of the Pacific racing in through the Heads. The laughter, the curses, the cries of triumph which must have characterised that sturdy cutter as the Bryants and their friends went to meet the moonless night of the Pacific would in coming weeks be imagined and sucked on by those without the skill or endurance to match these escapees. This boatload should have been self-doomed, but it worked with an exemplary degree of cooperation. It was not so just that night, but in days to come as well. Mary had delivered her swaddled children, lying in the stern, from bondage.

The day after the escape, Bryant's hut was searched and “cavities under the boards were found.” The authorities knew he had talked about escape, but the search showed that his plans were well thought out and more capable than the authorities had expected. Most of the escapees “were connected with women” and Collins declared, “if these women knew anything, they were too faithful to those they lived with to reveal it.”

The governor would enforce an edict that hereafter only smaller boats be built—in fact, he had already decided on that before the escape, and now he reiterated it with force.

Though great intensity of feeling went into this escape, it was not lightly embarked on. Private Easty declared sympathetically, “It's a very desperate attempt to go in an open boat for a run of about sixteen or seventeen hundred leagues and in particular for a woman and two small children, the oldest not above three years of age, but the thought of liberty from such a place as this is enough to induce any convict to try all schemes to obtain it as they are the same as slaves all the time they are in this country.” Like Easty, Captain Tench expressed something close to sympathy and good wishes “to this little band of adventurers.” There was little doubt, said Tench, “that a scheme so admirably planned, would be adequately executed.”

The Bryants were escaping a colony in which, despite what the Supply and the Dutch snow had brought in from Batavia, the ration was reduced again shortly after their departure, this time to 3 pounds of rice, 3 pounds of flour and 3 pounds of pork per week. Hunger would again have the effect of driving people to raid gardens, and to make small thefts. In another sense the absent Bryant had a lasting effect on the scrawny, misbegotten society of New South Wales. It was reported to Phillip that he had frequently been heard expressing what was a common sentiment on the subject amongst convicts—that he did not consider his marriage in this country as binding. It was a marriage for the sake of the alternative world in which fortune had placed him, but he asserted to other convicts that it would not bind him should he return to reality, the established and accustomed earth. Phillip, hearing of Bryant's attitudes after his escape, saw how dangerous this concept was to his community, to all the business of inheritance and ordered life of which monogamy was the keystone. Men who were proven to serve their time and had the means, if former sailors, to sign on with visiting ships and return to the outside world might share that belief and leave behind destitute wives and children who would become a burden on the settlement. Phillip issued an order that no timeserved convict could leave behind in the colony any wife or children who could not support themselves.

“This order was designed as a check on the erroneous opinion which was formed of the efficacy of Mr. Johnson's nuptial benediction.” Here was another instance of Arthur Phillip declaring that New South Wales was not virtual reality; it was their world, and the contracts made here bound people to the same pieties as contracts made anywhere. Thus, he intended to centre their lives in the colony. In so doing, he was making the first families of a non-Aboriginal Australia.

Meanwhile, David Collins thought, with some injustice towards Mary, that Will took her along only as a means of preventing her from betraying his great scheme. Certainly, she saw her connection with Bryant as the chief hope for her children, but in all other aspects of her life that we know of, she was no mere token of fallen womanhood, but a vigorous and equal participant. Like many a male, Bryant might have had fantasies of flight, but he was not likely to get away without Mary as fellow-spirit and conspirator. Indeed Captain Tench would later declare that he admired both of them, and he obviously saw Mary as something more than the convict's token, southwest Pacific wife. The journey they were about to make, to this day one of the two longest open-boat excursions in maritime history, could not have been made without a united, refined, and mature sense of purpose.

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