Chapter Twenty-Six


SPEAKING THEIR OWN LANGUAGE, and bound together in many cases by secret oaths and compacts, the Irish who had come into Port Jackson on Queen on 26 September 1791 presented particular problems. A later Irish genius would call Ireland John Bull's Other Island, and the officers in New South Wales would have nodded as ruefully as any Anglo-Irish magistrate on Irish soil at the Gaelic wrong-headedness of Irish convicts' refusal to behave like Englishmen, and to speak English. Irish was still the first language of over 80 percent of Irish hearths, and now it was heard, to the discomfort of the officers and officials, in the fringes of the bushland of New South Wales. What were they plotting, what was behind their frequent, secret laughter?

One thing about them was the ready—some would say gullible—comfort they took in millennial dreams. After all, a new century was nearing, and at its dawn the justice of Christ might reverse the order of the world, putting the first last, and the last first. In Sydney and Parramatta, there developed amongst them like a fever “the chimerical idea” of finding China from New South Wales, the idea that it was beyond the mountains to the north-west of Sydney Cove. In terms of the Enlightenment it was a preposterous idea. In terms of their extreme poverty and of religious belief and Irish psychology, it made perfect sense. Somewhere on earth there must exist a veil the Irish could penetrate, beyond which they would have their old powers and remembered spaciousness restored to them. Their ignorance of strict geography was something chosen for them by their masters—the schooling of Irish Catholics was contrary to the penal laws of Britain—and so they made up a geography of hope from fragments of information, namely that New South Wales was part of the same unknown zone as China. They drew their compasses on a piece of paper, with the arrow fixed on north, a practice which would be laughed at by their betters. Yet the Defenders and other secret societies were influenced by Freemasonry, to which the Irish nationalist Protestants such as Robert Emmet, Napper Tandy, and Wolfe Tone belonged, and in Freemasonry, and other secret societies too, there was an inherent importance and a power in the representation of the compass. The north was potent, even if invoked merely on paper, and the Irish convicts, eating bitter rations by the camp fires of Sydney and Parramatta, had caught the belief that not too many days walk northwards from the Parramatta River and Port Jackson, a habitable kingdom lay awaiting them.

One sight of the dense bush around Parramatta and Sydney was enough to make many delay their Chinese pilgrimage. The strangeness of the natives, matched by the strangeness of the forests, the tangles of ungodly acacias and melaleucas, the spiteful sharpness of narrow-leaved shrubs determined to survive fire and drought, and the feeling of godlessness and lack of familiar presences in the place, had been for three years sufficient to stop most convicts walking away, and promised to be effective well into the future. Yet on 1 November—All Saints' Day—twenty male Irish convicts and one pregnant female in Parramatta took a week's provisions, tomahawks, and knives, and set out into the bush to find China. Collins and others suspected that this was a cover story, and that their real purpose was to steal boats and get on board the transports after they had left Sydney waters. But he almost certainly misstated their ambitions.

A few days later, sailors in a boat belonging to the Albemarle met the pregnant Irish woman down-harbour. She had been separated from her group for three days. The woman's husband was also later found and gave the same “absurd account of their design” to the officials back in Sydney. Thus the proposition of Irish stupidity made its entry onto the Australian stage.

Other men were captured to the north near Broken Bay, and despite their suffering, attempted escape again a few days afterwards. Thirteen of those who first absconded “were brought in, in a state of deplorable wretchedness, naked, and nearly worn out with hunger.” They had tried to live by sucking flowering shrubs for their honey and by eating wild purple berries.

Phillip ordered the convicts at Parramatta to be assembled, and told them that he would send out parties looking for them with orders to fire on sight, and if they were recaptured he would land them on a part of the harbour whence they could not depart, or chain them together with only bread and water during the rest of their term of transportation. The declaration did not staunch the magnitude of their hopes.

Typically, Watkin Tench visited the Irish convicts who had made the dash for China—it was he who called them “the Chinese Travellers.” Four of them lay in hospital, variously wounded by the natives. Watkin's enquiries were not contemptuous, but grew from genuine human impulses of investigation. He asked them if they really supposed it possible to reach China, and they informed him that they had been told that at a considerable distance to the north lay a large river, “which separated this country from the back part of China.” When they crossed this Jordan, they would find themselves among a copper-coloured people who would treat them generously. On the third day of their wanderings towards this hoped-for place, one of their party died of fatigue, and another was butchered by the natives as they fled the scene. They had reached Broken Bay and the Hawkesbury River, where the wide entrance and estuary stopped them from going further.

Though a great proportion of the Irish were of farming backgrounds or had agricultural experience, and though this was a hopeful aspect, Hunter would later describe them as “dissatisfied with their situation here,” and “extremely insolent, refractory, and turbulent.” For the Irish combined their dream of China with a keen sense of their small quota of rights. The convicts of Queen at Parramatta were the first to stage an organised public protest, outside Government House in Parramatta in the humidity of December 1791, demanding that the issue of rations be changed back from weekly to daily. There was a certain justice in this. A weak or sickly person might be deprived of a week's rations by a bully in one swoop, but if the ration was doled out daily, the weak could appeal to the strong to prevent any large-scale ration-snatching.

THERE WAS A PREGNANT IRISH girl named Catherine Devereaux aboard Queen who did not seek China but stuck close to camp for the sake of her unborn child, who would be christened James, taking the name of his father—the Queen's cook, Kelly. James Kelly would reach young manhood under the tutelage of two entrepreneurial former convicts, Henry Kable and James Underwood, and in Van Diemen's Land would become a whaling, sealing, and shipping tycoon of some renown before dying in 1859. But all that was in a future version of Australia, the mercantile one.

Despite a few nods towards mercantilism in the founding of Sydney, such as murderous Captain Trail setting up his general store with impunity in a tent at Sydney Cove, it was not a trading post, and Phillip did not want it yet to be one. But he was interested in how the three Third Fleet transports which had gone off to try the whale fishery on the coasts of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land fared. The Britannia returned with seven sperm whales in November, having hunted in company with William and Anne, which had caught only one whale on its own account. Thirteen barrels of oil were procured from the whales killed by Britannia, “and in the opinion of Mr. Melville [Britannia's captain], the oil, with its containing a greater proportion of that valuable part of the fish called by the whalers the head matter, was worth £10 more per ton than that of the fish of any other part of the world he had been in.”

William Richards Jr., who had dispatched the First Fleet, had commercial dreams for the faroff colony he had never seen, and remained in touch with New South Wales through his Botany Bay agent, Zachariah Clark, who was now the commissary of stores in New South Wales. Still a visionary eccentric, Richards hoped to take over the convict-handling business, and combine it with other forms of trade between the south-west Pacific and Britain. The whole idea was irksome to Campbell, the contractor for the Thames hulks. But if Francis Baring, chairman of the East India Company, would describe Sydney as “the serpent we are nursing at Botany Bay,” William Richards was prepared to be both father and midwife to that serpent. He was willing to receive a land grant and to live permanently in New South Wales as Sydney's shipping magnate. Outraged by stories of the Second Fleet, the devoutly Christian Richards had moved towards the twin beacons of utility: a settled, regular, low-yield market in the conscientious transportation of convicts, and on the other side, high-yield trading with India and China and what he may have been convinced would be an increasing traffic of whalers. His ideas, an accurate depiction of the future of New South Wales though they were, were not well received. Indeed, in a year or two he would become bankrupt due to other contracts gone bad, and some of his children would be left to consider New South Wales as an option for free settlement. But far more than anyone else in the penal equation, Richards had desired New South Wales. Not many did. Even Tench would write, “If only a receptacle for convicts be intended, this place stands unequalled … when viewed in a commercial light, I fear its insignificance will not appear very striking.”

In December 1791, as the Gorgon lay in Sydney Cove ready to return the marines to Britain, offers were made to the non-commissioned officers and privates to stay in the country as settlers or to enter into the New South Wales Corps. Such offers could only have derived from a British government with a sense of population pressure. Three corporals, a drummer, and 59 privates accepted grants of land on Norfolk Island or at Parramatta, as Rose Hill was by now officially named. The rest wanted to return—indeed, of those who stayed, Tench thought the behaviour of the majority of them could be ascribed to “infatuated affection to female convicts, whose characters and habits of life, I am sorry to say, promise from a connection neither honour nor tranquillity.” As for tranquillity, only the parties to the relationships could say anything, but it is a matter of record that many of the remaining soldiers and their women were founders of enduring Antipodean stock.

Before packing to leave on Gorgon, in the summer of 1791–92, Tench made a reconnaissance around Prospect Hill and the ponds along the Parramatta River. Looking at the settlements with the eyes of a man about to depart forever, Tench gave a report of mixed skill and ineptitude on the part of convict and other farmers, and of New South Wales as something less than a bountiful garden. Its tough and plentiful flora might seem to promise a form of Eden, but here in the Sydney basin it all grew from an ancient, leached, and worn-down earth that demanded great skill and determination from those who would profit from it.

For its natural fertility, Tench admired the Parramatta farm of the former sailor and highway robber John Ramsay. Ramsay had settled there with his wife, Mary Leary, from the Second Fleet. Like Ruse's wife, Elizabeth Perry, Mary Leary might have been unjustly transported, and was a woman with an unresolved and burning grievance against her mistress, the wife of a London attorney. She claimed that the woman not only docked her pay but sold used garments to her for exorbitant prices. When the lawyer saw some of his wife's clothing on Leary, his wife swore under oath that she had never “sold her any one thing in my life.” On the farm in New South Wales, Leary probably enlisted her husband's belief in her innocence. No doubt, at their rough-hewn table, she reiterated the extremely credible tale to Captain Tench. Tench thought Ramsay “deserves a good spot, for he is a civil, sober, industrious man. Besides his corn land, he has a well-laid-out little garden, in which I found him and his wife busily at work. He praised her industry to me; and said he did not doubt of succeeding.”

By contrast Tench found Joseph Bishop, former fisherman and convict, had planted a little maize “in so slovenly a style, as to promise a very poor crop.” To survive here as a farmer, thought Tench, a man “must exert more than ordinary activity. The attorney's clerk, Matthew Evering-ham, I also thought out of his province, and likely to return, like Bishop, when victualling from the stores ceased, to drag a timber or brick cart for his maintenance…. I dare believe he finds cultivating his own land not half so heavy a task, as he formerly found that of stringing together volumes of tautology to encumber, or convey away that of his neighbour.”

It would turn out that Everingham, son of an earl, whose crime was to have acquired legal textbooks under false pretences, and his wife, Elizabeth Rymes, Spitalfields bed-linen thief from the Second Fleet, would succeed, however touch-and-go it might have seemed in that early summer of 1791, and would give birth and habitation to nine small “cornstalks” or Currency children, as native-born New South Welshmen came to be called.

Later in his last New South Wales summer, Tench would visit Phillip Schaeffer's farm on the Parramatta River. Schaeffer had served as a lieutenant in the Hesse-Hanau Regiment in the American War, and he and Tench had the bond of having been fellows in arms. Herr Schaeffer had proved ineffective as a superintendent of convict farm work, but Phillip liked him as a fellow German-speaker, and had given him a land grant and five convicts to work for him. Although his maize was “mean” and his wheat “thin and poor,” he had 900 vines planted—the only other vines in the country being in the garden of Phillip's second Government House in Parramatta. He told Tench that his father had owned a small estate on the banks of the Rhine, and that he himself had loved from an early age working in the vineyard. Tench found that Schaeffer spoke very realistically about his prospects. Sometimes he nearly despaired and had often weighed up whether to relinquish the farm.

Directly across the river from Schaeffer's 140 acres lay the more modest but “very eligible” farm of Christopher Magee, a neighbour of the initial farmer, James Ruse. Magee—alias Charles Williams—had been a farm labourer in England for eight years and had worked in America, and although sentenced in 1784 at the Old Bailey, had soon after his landing been made a convict overseer on the government farm. Though he entertained some revolutionary ideas, he was described by David Collins as having “extraordinary propriety of conduct.” His wife, a former hawker and—if some of the evidence at her trial can be believed—prostitute, worked with him on the farm. “I asked by what means he had been able to accomplish so much? He answered, ‘By industry and by hiring all the convicts I could get to work in their leisure hours.’” His greatest problem was that he needed to bear all the water he used half a mile from the river, for having sunk a well he found the water from it brackish.

Magee's idyll on the Parramatta River was fragile, for after Tench had left the colony, Magee's young wife, Eleanor McCabe, drowned in the river, and Collins would record that Magee subsequently gave himself over “to idleness and dissipation.”

Tench's reconnaissance before departure showed that the Parramatta River area did not speak well for the fertility of eastern Australia. It was in Australian terms a short river which did not descend from any great elevation. North and south along the coast lay mighty and often turbulent rivers which created fertile floodplains, but these went unvisited for now, and the merely middling fertility of the land around Sydney and Parramatta made success fragile.

Before leaving Parramatta for the last time, Watkin went to visit Barrington. The tall Irishman approached six feet, was slender, and his gait and manner bespoke “liveliness and activity. Of that elegance and fashion, with which my imagination had decked him … I could distinguish no trace. Great allowance should, however, be made for depression and unavoidable deficiency of dress.” Tench admired his strong cast of character, his penetrating eye, his prominent forehead. “His whole demeanour is humble, not servile…. Since his arrival here, his conduct has been irreproachable … his knowledge of men, particularly that part of them into whose morals, manners and behaviour, he is ordered especially to inspect, eminently fitting him for the office.” And here Tench went on to a refined reflection. “I cannot quit him without bearing my testimony that his talents promise to be directed, in future, to make reparation to society for the offences he has heretofore committed against it.” This was a mirror of what Barrington had promised at his trial, that his colonial reformation would be held up as an example of an internationally famous criminal being reduced to good order by the convict transportation system.

Sydney, where Tench had spent the bulk of his time in New South Wales, was by the turn of 1791–92, as Tench said good-bye, the lesser village to Parramatta. In Sydney lived 1,259 persons, with 1,625 in Parramatta and its farming areas, and 1,172 at Norfolk Island. He concluded there were just in excess of 4,000 European people perilously surviving the Sydney experiment. He would leave the colony with fond remembrance, but no desire to return.

The always composed Phillip did not record his feelings in losing both such friends as Watkin and such enemies as Major Ross and Captain Campbell. But Major Ross was delighted to march the marines aboard the Gorgon on 13 December. His now pre-adolescent son, Lieutenant John Ross, was in their ranks. Ross had only the week before found reason to fight a duel with Captain Hill of the New South Wales Corps, from which though both fired two shots, both came away unhurt. Back home, Ross would be made a recruiting officer and then get plenty of action about His Majesty's warships during the long war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and would be last heard of serving in the East Indies aboard the Sceptre about 1808.

Gorgon dropped down the harbour three days after the marines marched aboard, and vanished back to the known world the next day. Sergeant Scott and his family were returning to England on Gorgon, but a company of marines remained behind waiting for the arrival of the remainder of the New South Wales Corps.

The Gorgon on departure carried not only returning soldiers, but was to an extent an Australian ark: “our barque was now crowded with kangaroos, opossums, and every curiosity which that country produced,” including plants and birds and the other antediluvian mysteries of New South Wales.

BY THE TIME THE Gorgon left Sydney, the twenty-month-old voyager Emmanuel Bryant had died in the Dutch East India Company prison ship moored off Batavia, where Mary Bryant and her two infants were kept prisoner. Will had already been moved ashore into the Dutch East India Company's hospital, where he too died, no doubt raving about the British excise men and their vileness. Captain Edwards, avenger of Bligh, was in the meantime in good lodgings in the elegant Dutch quarter of Batavia, organising passages for himself, his prisoners, and the Pandora's company on three Dutch ships to go home by way of the Cape.

When the arrangements were concluded, Mary and her daughter, Charlotte, were put aboard the Horssen with two of the Bryant group. The others went aboard a ship called the Hoornwey. As they traversed Sunda Strait, James Cox either fell or jumped overboard from the Horssen. He had been Will Bryant's closest conspirator outside Mary. John Simms and William Martin, two members of the party, were sickening and would die before the Cape. It did not appear that Captain Edwards, on his way home for the pro forma courtmartial for the loss of Pandora, considered the death rate of the Bryant party abnormal, or that it was untoward that they should pay so heavily for their skilled escape.

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