ONLY ONE BRITISH SHIP, the HMS Endeavour, captained by a maritime prodigy, James Cook, had spent time on the distant coast of New South Wales, in 1770. Now, under the vulgar urgings of domestic politics, Prime Minister Pitt and Lord Sydney of the Home Office were sending a reputable but not glittering fellow in command of many vessels stocked not with naturalists and artists but with Britain's sinners.
In his little office at the Admiralty, Phillip worked with his clerk, the unkempt Harry Brewer, and as if to focus his mind, wrote a cultivated and informed document which represented his philosophy of convict transportation and penal settlement. Not as a visionary, but merely as someone acknowledging the state of British law, he wrote: “The laws of this country will, of course, be introduced in New South Wales, and there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment His Majesty's forces take possession of the country—that there can be no slavery in a free land and consequently no slaves.”
His determination that convicts not be seen as a slave caste would have important results for many of the felons marked down for his transports. For one thing, he had respect for their right to as safe and healthy a journey as he could provide. But he did not see their status as fully equal to that of the free. “As I would not wish convicts to lay the foundation of an Empire, I think they should ever remain separated from the garrison and other settlers that may come from Europe.”
Through secret caresses between free men and convict women, and other alliances forged on his ships, this would become a proposition already in doubt before the ships even sailed.
The Cabinet and the King made their decisions and signed off on them. The early sight of convict vessels disappearing down the Thames estuary with sails set was the chief point for the Home Office, not how they fared from the instant of disappearance onwards.
The successful tenderer for the overall contract for the fleet was William Richards Jr., a prominent ship-broker of south London. There is a legend that contractors dumped their worst produce on Phillip, knowing he could not very conveniently complain. But two reliable young officers of marines, Watkin Tench and David Collins, no strangers to salt rations, would both independently agree that the provisions on the First Fleet provided by Richards were “of a much superior quality to those usually supplied by contract.” We have no similar enthusiastic endorsement from any convict, though the low death rate during the flotilla's months of voyaging suggests that Phillip, when visiting the vessels down the Thames at Deptford, and Richards himself must have been careful during their inspections of barrels of salt beef and pork and flour.
He inspected and chartered five merchant vessels as transports—the Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, the newly built Lady Penrhyn and Scarborough—and three store ships: Borrowdale, Fishburn, and Golden Grove. His contracts with the ship-owners detailed the form of accommodation, rations, cooking equipment, bedding, fetters, ventilation equipment, and so on to be supplied for the convicts, and the medicines and medical preventives to be aboard. Ultimately, as the numbers loaded aboard grew, Richards would need to contract for a sixth convict transport, Prince of Wales. The transports were all relatively young vessels but not purpose-built prison ships, and they all needed to be specially fitted out by carpenters at the Deptford dockyard in order to receive prisoners on their normal cargo decks. All were three-masted and over 300 tons, except the Friendship, a two-masted vessel of 278 tons generally described as either a brig or a snow.
For Richards and the individual ship-owners the cream from this expedition would come after the ships finished the business of taking the convicts into the void. Some hoped to receive further charter from the East India Company, authorising them to journey to China to load tea. Richards depended on Lord Sydney to apply pressure to the East India Company directors, who exercised monopoly over east Asian trade, but ultimately they would take up only three ships, Charlotte, Scarborough, and Lady Penrhyn, to bring a cargo of tea home from China.
Arthur Phillip could not be in Deptford all the time, but the navy had appointed an agent to represent him at the dock yards to see that the necessary carpentering was done, and that all arrangements were properly made for receiving prisoners. The convict prison on each ship was fitted out on the lowest cargo deck, where cradles—narrow sleeping bunks in sets of four or six—ran the length of the ship on either side of an aisle. Lieutenant Philip Gidley King, Phillip's protégé from Europe, was down at Deptford and described the security being put in place on the transports. He observed that the carpenters were barricading an area on deck with a wooden barrier about 5 feet high, and topping it with pointed iron prongs, “to prevent any connection between the marines and ship's company, with the convicts. Sentinels are placed at the different hatchways and a guard always under arms on the quarter deck of each transport in order to prevent any improper behaviour of the convicts, as well as to guard against any surprise.” Below, to contain the prison deck, thick bulkheads had to be positioned, “fitted with nails and run across from side to side [port to starboard] in the between decks above the main mast, with loop holes to fire … in case of irregularities.” Forward of the prison space was the prison hospital, and the equally dark areas aft of the prison were often reserved for the marines, privates, non-commissioned officers, and their families. The hatches which gave onto the deck were “well secured down by cross bars, bolts and locks and are likewise nailed down from deck to deck with oak stanchions.”
The barricaded section on the open deck gave the authorities an area where even the most unruly convicts could be exercised, but many knew that in such close quarters the barriers might break down, and that there would be contact of various kinds, including sexual contact. For the transports were all very intimate in their dimensions. The largest of them was Alexander, 114 feet in length and 31 feet in breadth, barely more than the width of a decent parlour, and a mere 450 tons burthen. The lower decks had limited head room—the prison deck of Scarborough, for example, was only 4 feet 5 inches high. That meant that in prison and in the seamen's and soldiers' quarters, no one but a child could stand upright.
Phillip's flag ship, a naval vessel part-victualler, part-frigate, Sirius, 540 ton, named after “the bright star in the southern constellation of the Great Dog,” and with a crew of 160 men, was also at the Deptford dockyards, where an inadequate job was being done of fitting her up with what some called the “refuse of the yards.” She would prove a bad sailer. Twenty guns were being hoisted aboard to give her the appurtenances and force of a warship. Her armed tender, the Supply, was a mere sloop of 170 tons.
Refusing to be hustled, Arthur Phillip would not budge from his small London office, unless it was to visit the expedition's ships in the Thames, until he was satisfied that the fleet was reasonably equipped in everything from scythes to undergarments. He had many requirements which he presented in letters to Nepean, Sydney, Sir George Rose, the Navy Board, and Richards, the contracted broker. Phillip typically wrote to Undersecretary Nepean on 4 January 1787: “I likewise beg leave to observe that the number of scythes (only 6), or razors (only 5 dozen), and the quantity of buck and small shot (only 200 pounds) now ordered is very insufficient.”
Already, in Whitehall in dismal winter, nameless clerks had begun work on the issue of who would be Botany Bay's first British inhabitants. Since there were no selection criteria for transportees based on health, suitability, trade, or sturdiness, a convict of whatever age, strength, and skill could go to Botany Bay. Time already served meant nothing, so convicts who had served five years of a seven-year sentence were included in the clerks' lists.
The first convicts were rowed down the river to the Alexander and Lady Penrhyn on 6 January 1787, by which time the basic fitting-out of the transports was finished. Many were sick and clothed in rags when received on board, and on the lower decks the cold and damp were intense. In the dimness of the prison decks, the convicts were often secured in place by chains which ran through an ankle shackle on each convict, and some masters wanted the prisoners wristleted as well. Sometimes groups of convicts were shackled thus in lots of four or six, though sometimes it was more. As yet the convict decks had empty spaces, but the allotted area per felon once a ship was fully loaded was eighteen inches in width by six feet in length. Questions of elbow room would create many unrecorded conflicts. So did the waste arrangements—a series of buckets aft, topped by a plank with holes cut in it.
On the Alexander's prison deck, somehow, 195 male convicts would ultimately be placed, and elsewhere crew and marines, and marines' wives and children, and an extraordinary assortment of stores, beggaring modern belief that such modest space could accommodate so much human and maritime material. On Lady Penrhyn, reserved for women, the master kept the prisoners handcuffed and chained and below decks in those first days, purely out of fear. The poor country girl Sarah Bellamy, from Worcestershire, would most likely have found the cramped head room and narrow sleeping space claustrophobic. In the midst of her prison deck rose the great, groaning mainmast and the trunk of the foremast, like malign and barren trees. Security was uppermost in the masters' minds, and so ventilation was poor. On these lower decks oxygen could become so scarce that a candle would not light. Added to that was the noise of timbers and tide, and the raucousness and bullying of worldly, rebellious Newgate girls, their voices bouncing off the low head room. For young Bellamy the convict deck of the little Lady Penrhyn must have been a perfect hell, and when Joe Downey, a sweet-talking sailor soon to be appointed quartermaster, offered his attentions and protection, how grateful she must have been for what he could do to relieve the situation.
Phillip came aboard his ships on 11 January to see the recently loaded men and women, and what impressed him most was their marginal health and their need of clothing and blankets. Clothing would always be a problem and was not standardised in quality or quantity. The navy did not want sailors and transportees to wear heavy wool—wool was worn on the hulks and in Newgate and infallibly attracted lice and typhus. So while the male convicts were given woollen caps, the jackets issued on board were of blue cotton cloth or the light, compacted woollen cloth called kersey. Shirts were of linen, trousers of duck, and stockings were of yarn.
Phillip complained to Evan Nepean that the clothes the women were sent down to the ships in “stamp the magistrates with infamy.” He ordered that they be supplied with clothing from the naval stores of Sirius, and hoped the Navy Board would make up the loss. For “nothing but clothing them would have prevented them from perishing, and which could not be done in time to prevent a fever, which is still on board that ship, and where there are many venereal complaints, that must spread in spite of every precaution.”
Phillip asked the authorities that the ships be moved out of the Thames and down the English coast to Spithead off Portsmouth, where, in the lee of the Isle of Wight, they could anchor on the broad Motherbank. Because of its distance from shore, the inmates could be unchained there and allowed fresh air. Indeed, the fleet would begin assembling there from mid-March.
Phillip knew very well that the transports' masters wanted the convicts secured and immobilised for as long as possible, to keep the ships safe. But he also knew that for the sake of their health, the felons would need to be unchained once the transports were at sea if their elected mess orderlies were to come on deck to collect their rations, and that all of them should be freely exercised on deck in good weather. As it was, with seasickness and diarrhoea, with dampness and the stink of bilges, with waves sloshing below and streams of water penetrating between ill-sealed timbers onto the sleeping platforms during storms, it would be hard enough to maintain the health of the felons half as well as an enlightened man of conscience would wish.
Charlotte and Friendship headed off for Plymouth to collect prisoners from the hulks and gaols there. The two little vessels boarded between them 164 males and 41 females. One of the prisoners loaded from the hulk Dunkirk onto Friendship was a young, athletically built redheaded Norfolk man named Henry Kable. At the time of his sentencing to death in 1783 for burglary, he had been a lad of sixteen. Like his father and an accomplice, he was to be hanged on a gibbet outside Norwich Castle. At the scaffold, he was pardoned on condition of transportation, but saw his father and the accomplice executed.
In Norwich Castle prison, he had fallen in love with a slightly older woman, Susannah Holmes, guilty of burglary. Their prison child, Henry, born in the pen of Norwich Castle, had not been allowed to accompany his parents down to the dismal Dunkirk, and was being cared for by the Norwich gaoler, John Simpson. Now that Henry was on Friendship, and Susannah aboard Charlotte, the young family was utterly broken up. The efforts of Simpson to get Lord Sydney to reunite the baby with his mother captured the public's imagination, which extended itself to romantic tales of doomed young felons but which, unlike the Victorian imagination, did not require that the lovers be virginal or married. Indeed, during their wait at Norwich Castle, Henry and Susannah had requested they be married but were refused permission. Soon, Simpson came down to Plymouth by coach with the infant. Baby Henry was presented to Susannah, and she and the child were transferred to Friendship. The family would not be broken up again by circumstance until late in the voyage.
Also boarded on the two ships were British marines from the Plymouth division. For the garrison in New South Wales, only eighty marines from Plymouth were wanted, though 130 had voluntarily offered their services under the incentive that a stint in the penal colony, should the fleet survive, would entail the option of honourable discharge and a land grant in New South Wales.
At the same time the Sirius, its tender the Supply, Prince of Wales, Scarborough, and the remainder of the ships were anchored on the robust tide of the Motherbank. Here further convicts and marines were rowed out to the transports from Portsmouth. Scarborough would receive over 200 male convicts, and cramped little Prince of Wales (318 tons) some forty-nine females and one male. A marine garrison of eighty-nine men came from the Portsmouth division, and about the same number from the Chatham division had already boarded Lady Penrhyn and Alexander in the Thames.
Phillip was concerned to hear, however, that some of his marines were going ashore sick, and some were even dying there. Part of the problem was that the marines were frequently quartered underneath the seamen's accommodation in the forecastle or aft of the prison, and were “excluded from all air.” Their quarters on the transports were appropriate, Phillip wrote, only for stowing away provisions, and he began to look into ways of better accommodating them.
Officers had better quarters but, for reasons unspecified but which everyone seemed to take for granted, were not permitted to bring their families on the fleet, though some wives of private soldiers, about ten per company, were allowed to travel. A total of 246 marine personnel have been positively identified as having sailed in the First Fleet, and thirty-two wives and fifteen children sailed with their marine husbands and fathers. Ten further children would be born to the families of marines at sea.
Movements of convicts from London to Portsmouth continued. One report of a gentleman's visit to Newgate showed convicts delighted to be slated for the fleet. Their merriment had a hint of the graveyard about it, of the vacancy yawning before them. One party left Newgate on the morning of 27 February, and a large contingent was moved in six heavily guarded wagons from a Woolwich hulk via Guildford. Following a night stop at Godalming, they reached Portsmouth in bitter weather. As the large body of felons was moved through the town, the windows and doors of houses and shops were closed, and the streets lined with troops “while the wagons, I think thirty in number, passed to Point Beach, where the boats were ready to receive them; as soon as they were embarked, they gave three tremendous cheers, and were rowed off to the transport ready for their reception at Spithead.” By the end of the loading process at Portsmouth and Plymouth, some 1,500 people were spread amongst the eleven vessels, including 759 convicts, 191 of whom were women.
Jolting around in the lee of the Isle of Wight, the convicts who had never sailed before became accustomed to the noises and motion of a ship and the claustrophobia of their low-beamed, cramped deck. The enterprising chief surgeon, John White, a veteran at thirty-one of a decade of surgical practice on naval vessels in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, approached Captain Hunter, the Scots skipper of Sirius, and told him, “I thought whitewashing with quicklime the parts of the ships where the
convicts were confined would be the means of correcting and preventing the unwholesome dampness which usually appeared on the beams and sides of the ships, and was occasioned by the breath of the people.” By late March some of the vessels were ordered back into dock at Portsmouth for the prison and soldiers' decks to be fumigated. The convicts were let up on the open deck, a mixed blessing in March weather, while the convict prison was whitewashed and gunpowder was exploded in small heaps to disperse the vapours associated with disease.
Early in May two late wagon loads arrived from Newgate, the prison decks were filled up, and the six months of the fleet's being in preparation were nearly over. But there was now trouble with the sailors of Sirius. Lieutenant Bradley, the first mate, who was going with the convict fleet chiefly for the chance to survey harbours in New South Wales, said that when he came aboard in early spring, the seamen of the Sirius had been in employment upwards of seven months, during which time they had received no compensation “except their river pay and one month's advance.” Now they refused to work. Lieutenant King, no radical by nature, thought that in striking, “the seamen had a little reason on their side.” A similar strike by some of the sailors in the Alexander transport led to able seamen from HMS Hyena, the naval vessel assigned to escort Phillip's fleet down-Channel, volunteering to take their place. For pay or a willingness to gamble with life, these men put up their hands on short notice to swap a Channel escort excursion for a voyage exponentially different.
Other personnel, such as a competent surgeon for the Lady Penrhyn, Arthur Bowes Smyth, did not join the fleet until late March 1787, coming to Portsmouth by mail coach. Bowes Smyth gives us a picture of the perils and shocks of being a journeyer in a changeable season. “A corpse sewed up in a hammock floated alongside our ship. The cabin, lately occupied by the third mate Jenkinson, who died of a putrid fever the night before I came on board, and was buried at Ryde, was fresh painted and fumigated for me to sleep in.” When in a storm at the end of April the Lady Penrhyndragged her anchors, Bowes Smyth noted: “the women very sick with the motion of the ship.” He filled in his time waiting for the fleet to sail by landing and taking hikes, a luxury the convicts did not have. But at the insistence of Phillip and the surgeons, they were regularly permitted on deck to exercise, and officers and men, seamen and soldiers spied on the pretty convict women, and developed plans to associate with them.
Indeed, despite the guarded companionways and gates to the prison decks, and the lack of privacy, prostitution was a reality on Lady Penrhyn, Friendship, and Prince of Wales. An unexpected roll-call on the night of 19 April revealed five of the Penrhyn's women were in the crew's quarters. The women were put in heavy irons for it; three members of the crew were flogged.
On Alexander, eleven convict men, sick on loading, had worsened and died, and as April progressed morale was low even amongst officers of the fleet. Lieutenant Ralph Clark, a rather prim, neurotic officer who had volunteered in hope of promotion, said, “I am exceedingly sorry to say that the detachment on board here, and more so on board the other transports, do not go out with the spirit that was expected they would when they turned and volunteered for this service.” Private Easty, a Thames River marine attached to the Scarborough, who had watched the convicts come aboard, be inspected by a surgeon, go below, and be chained up, had time to record such small things as the convict who was punished with a dozen lashes for secreting a knife in his shoe, the surgeon who “left the ship for drunk,” his own confinement to the brig in March for dropping his cutlass, and that of his fellow marine Luke Haines for disobedience.
The fleet was expected to leave in April but was still delayed both by contrary winds and Phillip's refusal to leave London until satisfied his ships were adequately provisioned. A Portsmouth local newspaper complained that the longer the sailing was delayed the more the port was thronged with thieves and robbers. By now the idea of the departing fleet no longer attracted universal applause from Londoners. One citizen complained, “Botany Bay has made the shoplifters and pickpockets more daring than ever. To be rewarded with the settlement in so fertile a country cannot fail of inducing every idle person to commit some depredation that may amount to a crime sufficient to send him there at the expense of the public.” A Tory declared, “I beg leave to ask the advocates of colonisation whether the consequences of sending people to America were not eventually ruinous? And whether we have any rational prospect of more gratitude from the posterity of the transports we are about to settle in Botany Bay?” Moralists still liked to remind the criminal classes, however, that in Botany Bay, “no ale houses, no gin shops are to be found there. To work or starve will be the only alternative.”
During the long wait rumours arose that the Dutch had sent squadrons to Botany Bay to resist the landing of the British. Though named New South Wales by Cook, the country was still widely known as New Holland. The French had also made a gesture at claiming it; Captain Kerguelen, after whom the sub-Antarctic island is named, inscribed the French coat of arms on a piece of paper, put it in a bottle, and then cast it in the sea off the western Australian coast in the early 1770s, hoping it would wash ashore and create a title in law. A journey to the Pacific had also been undertaken by a French nobleman, the Comte de La Pérouse. There were rumours that a race was on to claim the region, though no surmise about ownership of the place by its indigenous people broke the surface of this discourse.
The decks of Phillip's fleet were by now crowded with water casks and shacks and pens for animals. Phillip himself would bring pet greyhounds aboard Sirius to add to the noise and clutter. On the crew deck the new Brodie stoves, big brick affairs, kept alight and guarded twenty-four hours a day, produced cooked food for sailors and marines, and if there were time or bad weather, for convicts as well. Often the prisoners' breakfast of gruel or pease porridge and their main midday meal—stews of bread and biscuit, pease and beef—were less satisfactorily cooked in coppers in a shack-galley on deck.
When on 7 May Arthur Phillip at last was able to reach Portsmouth from London with his servants, Henry Dodd and the Frenchman Bernard de Maliez, and his clerk, Harry Brewer, he brought with him the Kendall timekeeper which would be used on board Sirius to calculate longitude.
During a final inspection of his fleet, Phillip looked into the availability of caps, porter, women's clothing, and sauerkraut (which the convicts and sailors called “sour grout” and were not keen on eating). Despite his earlier letters, not enough ammunition had arrived on board, so Phillip would need to buy from the Portuguese authorities some 10,000 rounds when the fleet reached Rio.
On board Sirius, Phillip met a marine officer who would become a staunch friend of his, Captain David Collins, a stalwart fellow of not much more than thirty who was assigned to be the new colony's judge-advocate. In an age when boy officers sometimes commanded grown men, Collins had been a fifteen-year-old officer in command of the marines aboard HMS Southampton when in 1772 it was sent to rescue Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark. Collins had also served on land, climbing the slope against defended American positions at the fierce battle at Bunker Hill, at which American sharpshooters caused great casualties amongst British officers. In Nova Scotia in 1777, he married Maria Proctor, the daughter of a marine captain. At the end of the American War, he was placed on half-pay and settled uneasily at Rochester in Kent, for he hated being in reserve as much as Phillip had in his half-pay days. He was pleased to go back on full wages in December 1786, and willing for the sake of employment to be separated from Maria, who filled his absence by writing romances to enlarge their income. He would never put on record the same naked longing for Maria which Lieutenant Clark would express for his wife ashore in Portsmouth.
Collins's military superior, the leader of all the fleet's marines and Arthur Phillip's lieutenant-governor, was Major Robert Ross, a Scot who to his credit did not seem too shocked, mustering London convicts on board the transports at the Motherbank in March 1787, when some of them gave their names as “Major,” “Dash Bone,” and “Blackjack.” Yet he was a prickly fellow, jealous of his dignity and not liked by most of his officers. He quickly grew aggrieved that Phillip did not discuss the project with him or discuss policy with him. Anxious for promotion, he wondered why, apart from extra pay, he got himself into this expedition. On Sirius, in his tiny closet of a cabin, which he shared with his eight-year-old son, John, he fretted and fumed. Of him, Lieutenant Ralph Clark would express a commonly held opinion that Ross was “without exception the most disagreeable commanding officer I ever knew.” Ross was feverishly worried about the family he was leaving behind, whom he described as “very small, tho' numerous.”
And so the dispatch of the convict fleet was imminent. A Portsmouth verse expressed the compendium of anxieties and hopes which attended the event.
Old England farewell, since our tears are in vain,
The seas shall divide us and hear us complain;
… Our forfeited lives we accept at your hands,
And bless the condition, to till distant lands;
With a wish for our country we banish all sorrow,
For the wretched today may be happy tomorrow.
The sentiment in the last lines was a common one. At Botany Bay in the southern hemisphere, where south, not north, pointed to the polar region, reversal of destinies was possible.
A London broadside would more earthily proclaim:
Let us drink a good health to our schemers above,
Who at length have contrived from this land to remove
Thieves, robbers and villains, they'll send 'em away
To become a new people at Botany Bay.
… The hulks and the jails had some thousands in store,
But out of the jails are then thousand times more,
Who live by fraud, cheating, vile tricks, and foul play,
Should all be sent over to Botany Bay.
For such an exemplary officer, Arthur Phillip would sometimes hanker for tokens of respect, even for vanities. This tendency to press for distinction would remain into his old age. Before he left England, he tried to persuade the Admiralty to give him a specially designed pennant to fly from his ship. He was not permitted one.